Books and magazines are continuing to flourish in the digital age by adapting to EPUB and eMagazine formats. This exciting new medium presents both new opportunities and new challenges for designers.
In this article, I’ll share with you some professional tips for creating digital publications, and let you in on some of the secrets to making the most of the exciting world of digital design.
Ready? Great! Let’s get started...
1. Know Your Digital Formats
You may be more used to print design for books and magazines, or you might be completely new to digital publication design. Either way, you need to know what different digital formats are, and what they are suitable for.
Let’s talk about the EPUB (Electronic Publication Format), a big over-arching term which can be applied to lots of different digital publications, but of which the most commonly known version is the eBook.
The structure of an EPUB is based on HTML, just like a web page, and it’s viewable on a range of digital devices, including tablets, laptops, desktop computers and specialist eReader devices.
Now here comes the tricky bit. EPUBs come in two different formats—Reflowable and Fixed Layout.
A reflowable EPUB contains ‘live text’, which you can select, highlight and search.
You can also change the size of the text and even the typeface in a reflowable EPUB. This will force the lines of text to expand and break onto other lines; to ‘reflow’.
Most text-heavy publications, like novels and textbooks, will be set in a reflowable EPUB format.
Fixed Layout EPUBs
A fixed layout EPUB is just that—the layout is fixed and doesn’t behave responsively when the reader views it.
This actually works really well for more complex eBooks and eMagazines, that perhaps contain a lot of images and have intricate layouts that would suffer if they had a reflowable digital format. The final result may appear a bit more like a PDF (though take note that a PDF is different to an EPUB).
OK... So What Does This Mean for You?
Both reflowable and fixed layout EPUBs are in line with the most recent specification for EPUBs, which is 3.0.1. This means if you export your EPUB to one of the above formats, you’re good to go ahead and sell your eBook on a commercial eBook or eMagazine site.
So what does this reflowable/fixed layout thing actually mean for you as a designer?
Well, you need to make a decision as to how best to export your EPUB at the end of the design process. If you’re typesetting a novel, a reflowable format is probably going to be best; readers will be able to blow up the size of text to aid reading, as well as being able to search the book to find passages or chapters.
Designing something more visual, like a magazine or photo book? You might want to consider exporting your work as a fixed layout EPUB, which is going to keep your layout arrangements and effects, such as transparencies and gradients, intact.
2. Know Which Software to Use
Because digital publishing is a relatively young field in design, there is currently no single market leader in digital publishing software. That’s great for designers, as this gives you lots of choice, and depending on your budget and skillset you can pick a software that’s going to suit your needs just fine.
Here are just some of the popular options for creating EPUBs and eMagazines, some of which are paid-for and some free:
Adobe InDesign (Paid for—subscription)
The print publishing favorite has been adapted for designing EPUBs (look up the most recent CC incarnation for the best EPUB adaptation), and you can export existing designs to both Reflowable and Fixed Layout formats.
Adobe Digital Publishing Solution (Paid for—subscription)
Adobe has also put together a software offering aimed directly at digital publishers. Ideally suited for creating apps and EPUBs, the software allows you to create complex layouts for digital devices without the need for coding.
Apple iBooks Author (Free—App download)
Aimed at designers wanting to produce EPUBs for iPads and Macs, iBooks Author is an easy-to-use, accessible (and did we mention free!) app for creating EPUBs.
Sigil is a free, open-source EPUB creation software package for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Sigil is great if you’re looking to create less interactive EPUB content, and it also gives you direct control over the code, which you can see as a pro or a con depending on what kind of designer you are.
BlueGriffon (Paid for—Licence)
BlueGriffon is another great software choice for creating EPUBs, and is probably best suited to more traditional, text-heavy publications. It’s a WYSIWYG editor, like Sigil, and works for Windows, Mac, and Linux.
OK, so now you know what an EPUB is, the kinds of EPUBs that there are, and the software you can use to create your EPUB. So that’s great and all, but once you have the blank page up in front of you, how do you even get started?
In the rest of this article, I’m going to take you through some great little tips for creating digital layouts that are going to get your creative juices flowing...
3. Get Your EPUB Organized
As with any print book or magazine, an EPUB needs to have a structure. This will make it easier for the reader to navigate, and also helps to organize the content of your publication.
A contents page is a great first place to start with designing any EPUB. All books, whether novels or academic textbooks, and magazines will need a contents page.
But contents pages don’t need to be dreary lists. Take a look at this flat-design magazine template, which uses icons, color coding and a simple grid layout to create a contents page that’s visually interesting and immediately clear.
If you’re designing a more visual eBook or eMagazine, consider integrating graphics and color into your contents layout, and try to break away from the conventional list format. Your readers will love it!
You will also need to think about other organizational elements of your EPUB, such as page numbering and running headers (apply to master layouts for consistency), and whether you’d like to include extra reference tools at the back of the book, such as an Index and/or Bibliography. Would you also like to include extra pages such as a Dedication page and/or Introduction/Preface to help orientate the reader at the start of the book?
Once you have the basic organizational structure of your EPUB in place, you’ll feel much better equipped to start with the more fun design elements of the creation process.
4. Make the EPUB Look Consistent
Once you’ve designed a contents page for your EPUB, you can also lift ‘branded’ elements from the layout to transfer across to other parts of the EPUB.
Used four colors on your contents page? Use those four colors across the EPUB, on headers or graphics, to indicate that same section referenced on your contents page.
Used a particular typeface and range of type sizes on the contents page? Apply those same fonts and text sizes when you design articles or chapters in the EPUB.
Keeping elements like these consistent across your EPUB will help the whole publication to feel more unified and professional.
This colorful corporate EPUB is a great example—a similar color palette and related graphics keep the EPUB looking really slick.
5. Remember That eBooks and eMagazines Are Different
Readers engage with eBooks and eMagazines in very different ways.
A reader might purchase an eBook on the basis of the visual impact of the cover, but once that reader starts using the eBook, it’s really the written content that matters above anything else. If you think about it, a reader might blow up the size of the text or change the typeface, if they’re accessing a reflowable EPUB. This is going to make your layout design irrelevant and no longer the main focus of the reader’s attention as they use the EPUB.
An eMagazine is different—a reader wants to be stimulated by images, attractive colors, interesting layouts and punchy headers. The visual layout is absolutely the main focus for eMagazines.
So, in some ways, the success of an eBook in holding a reader’s attention is ultimately going to be down to the quality of the written content, while an eMagazine can hope to hold the reader’s attention for longer by employing attractive visuals and stylish layouts.
With this in mind, if you’re designing an eMagazine, you’re going to need to get much more creative with the visual design of the publication.
Consider also the attention span of a reader who is accessing an eMagazine on, say, their Kindle or laptop. While a reader might be committed to reading a chosen book, a magazine is more likely to be flicked through, without thorough commitment.
To hold your reader’s attention, focus on making your layouts easily digestible and stimulating. Take a look at this stylish magazine template.
The pages aren’t loaded down with excessive text; the content is concise and breezy, perfect for flicking through on your eReader.
The lesson to take away? When designing eMagazines, keep the layouts visually interesting and strip out excessive text. Keep it simple and striking!
6. For eBook Covers, Think High Impact at Small Scale
Imagine you are browsing an eBook website, looking for your next eBook purchase. You might apply a filter, looking for a particular genre or author, but you might simply be open to something new. What’s going to catch your eye?
When you browse eBooks online, the cover artwork is set at very small-scale, perhaps only about 90 x 140 pixels in diameter. Yup, that’s super-small.
Your cover artwork needs to accommodate this. A cover designed for a print copy simply won’t cut the mustard for the eBook market.
For one thing, typography needs to be enlarged; the title should be clearly visible and take up a large portion of the cover. Graphics should be dramatic and simple. Sometimes, an atmospheric background texture or color is enough to attract the eye, just like in this dramatic eBook cover example.
Still stuck for where to get started with designing your cover? Take a look at this tutorial on adapting print covers for eBook format.
While you’re designing your cover, it’s a great idea to frequently zoom right out of your artwork and view the design at small scale. You’ll be amazed at how much you need to adjust the sizing of type or increase the contrast of colors to improve visibility.
On a technical level, you also need to think about the dimensions and proportions of your eBook cover. EBook covers come in a variety of sizes (both in terms of dimensions and file size), and sizing can vary widely depending on the eBook publishing site, whether that’s Amazon (Kindle), Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Apple iBooks, Lulu or Smashwords (among others!). What’s not particularly helpful is that these sites regularly revise their recommended sizing, as new eReaders are released or publishing technology evolves.
With this in mind, you should routinely check the sizing recommendations of the publishing sites you are hoping to sell your eBook through, and revise the dimensions of your cover appropriately. Otherwise, you may get a nasty shock when your cover appears blurry or stretched on your eReader.
Check out this eBook tutorial on producing a cover that complies with Amazon’s sizing standards.
7. Fill eMagazine Covers With Teasers and Headers
EMagazine covers are a little different to eBook covers. Sure, they still need to be legible and have high impact at small scale for browsing purposes, but you can also get a bit more experimental with the design.
EMagazine covers tend to be very similar to their print counterparts—they have a strong central image, a prominent header, and tons of article teasers and subheadings, just like this Photo Magazine cover.
This cover would work just as well for EPUB as it would for print. This is because even though it’s covered in tons of text, the text has a strong hierarchy. The cover story header and magazine title are the most prominent elements, with other subheadings set at a smaller size. Badges and ribbons are also used to draw the eye and make the whole cover feel exciting and full of interesting content.
The contrast of white type against a darker background also helps the text to stay visible even when set at small size.
eMagazine covers should be seen as an opportunity to advertise all the exciting content there is inside the magazine. So get experimental, and feel free to get creative with your typographic designs. Just remember these two simple rules—hierarchy and color contrast—and you can’t go wrong!
8. Fill the Screen With Strong Graphics
Once somebody has chosen and downloaded your EPUB, how can you make sure that the publication feels immersive, even when the reader is viewing it on a small screen?
A print magazine or book might have a couple of smaller images to one page, and this works fine, but for EPUBs it’s usually more effective to blow up the size of images to fill the screen. This makes the whole experience of reading the eMagazine or eBook more immersive.
As in this eMagazine example, filling a page entirely with one image is going to look really effective and powerful, and might prove to be more effective than pairing images and text together on one page, as you might do in a print publication.
This is just one specific example of how you might improve the immersive qualities of your EPUB, but this should always be at the forefront of your mind while you design.
If you were reading your EPUB on a small tablet or eReader, what would make the design more effective and absorbing? Perhaps one full page for an image, then a page for text, and so on, might work better for something being read on a small screen. Nothing is more off-putting than squinting to read masses of tiny text on an inflexible layout.
9. Don’t Compromise on Layout Quality With Text-Heavy EPUBs
That’s not to say that you will never need to set masses of text on your EPUB, particularly if you’re designing a report or textbook.
If you’re designing something like a report, for example, you might need to create mostly text-based layouts, and laying them out in conventional, endless flowing paragraphs might be a bit draining for the casual reader.
If you’re dealing with a lot of text, think about how you can break up your layout to make reading the text more manageable. Just like in this text-heavy eBook template, consider dividing your text into columns, and adjust the size of headings and subheadings to make it more hierarchical.
Set sections of text in boxes, and use bullet points and numbers to split larger sections of text up into digestible chunks.
Your reader will thank you for it!
10. Add Some Interactivity
EPUB design is becoming increasingly advanced as time goes on, and there are now more ways to integrate more interactive content into your designs.
Particularly for eMagazines, interactivity can improve a reader’s engagement with the publication and add to the overall immersive experience (see Tip 7, above).
Once you have your basic EPUB layout in place you can add things like animations (try out Adobe Edge Animate), interactive engagement and eLearning content (look up Adobe Captivate for putting these together) and videos.
Even simple effects like touch-sensitive page-turning can make your designs more immersive and interactive.
Effects like these will keep your reader stimulated, and encourage them to review your EPUB favorably online or to purchase further issues of your eMagazine.
Creating interactive content can be tricky at first, but it’s also loads of fun and really satisfying to see your final work in practice.
Conclusion: 10 Steps to Awesome EPUBs
In this article, we’ve looked at a number of factors to take into consideration when designing digital publications (EPUBs).
Follow this checklist and you can’t go wrong with creating amazing eBooks or eMagazines; the only limit is your creativity!
- Get to know your digital formats. EPUB is an all-encompassing term for all kinds of digital publications, such as eBooks and eMagazines. EPUBs can be designed in two main formats: as Reflowable or Fixed Layout. Pick the right format to match your desired end result.
- Get to know your EPUB software choices. There are loads of free and paid-for software programs you can use for creating EPUBs, such as Adobe InDesign, iBooks Author, and Sigil.
- Organize your EPUB. Imposing a structure on your EPUB, which might include a contents page, index and bibliography, is a wise first step when setting out on the design process.
- Make your EPUB look consistent. Apply a brand ‘look’ to your EPUB, with consistently applied colors, typefaces and type styles.
- Remember that eBooks and eMagazines are different, and require different design approaches.
- Make eBook covers high impact at small scale to improve the EPUB’s chances of standing out when the reader browses the online store.
- Fill your eMagazine cover with teasers and headers, to advertise the content of the EPUB to a potential reader.
- Improve the immersive experience of eMagazines and image-heavy eBooks by blowing up graphics to a larger scale than you would normally apply for a print copy.
- Improve the layout quality of text-heavy EPUBs by arranging the type in interesting, grid-based ways.
- Add some interactivity. Make your EPUB more interactive by adding animations, videos and other interactive content that will improve the reader’s immersive experience.