How to Make a Great Page Layout—Q&A with Dan Milnor

Blurb Creative Evangelist Dan Milnor fields questions from book-makers about exactly how to take your photos from screen to page—putting them in layouts. Walking book-makers through the decisions involved in building a coherent story, he gives a place to start and tips for feeling confident in their finished product. 

What is a layout?
Let’s just start at the beginning with what I will call a layman’s definition of layout. A layout is the blend of elements you need to include on a given page or spread. This could include photographs, copy, illustration, artwork, etc. A layout is how you blend these elements.

What is the purpose of a great layout?
There are several key aspects of any good layout. The first being the layout ties together your required elements, meaning images and text, but more importantly a good layout helps the viewer look at the elements in the order in which you want them to look. A good layout is a visual roadmap so to speak.

Are there any basic rules for making a great layout?
Yes, there are, but all of these rules can be broken. Having said that, think about keeping things simple with your photo book. Try to introduce one concept, or idea, per page. Also keep in mind things like shapes, colors, fonts, and try to keep those simple and concise. Too much of anything isn’t a good thing and often times ends up confusing the reader.

How do I make sure I use the right photographs in my layout?
Great question. Editing is an art form, so if editing isn’t your strong suit, get help from someone who can look at your work objectively. To start, think about whether or not your images are cohesive, and that the color and tone are related. Four images of a Southwest landscape might be perfect, but the fifth image from a foggy Northwest might not work. I also think the lens choice, or framing choice has an impact on what images work well together. Imagine having four tight portraits but the fifth image is a landscape. They might all be important to the story but they might not all work on the same spread.

What about finding balance with the photography?
This goes back to editing. What is the single best photograph? What is the single most important photograph in regard to conveying the message you need to convey? These might be two different images, and their size will reflect their importance. Another thing to look for is symmetry. Does the layout feel balanced when I take step back and look at the overall spread? Sometimes things just feel right, other times not so much.

How many images per page should I use?
There is no right answer here, but what I will say is less is more. Yes, a cliché, for sure but still true. Another answer is use just enough, and no more. Sometimes a spread might require four or five images. Let’s say you were photographing an action sequence and want to show the progression of a moment. Other situations might only require a single large photograph that is strong enough to stand on its own. A great designer once told me, ‘If your images are strong, you don’t need to over design.”

How do I know when I have a strong layout?
You know your layout works when the message you are trying to convey is easily consumed by the reader. The reader will flow from element to element, just as you hoped they would. This becomes especially poignant when you are able to blend your true style and vision with the elements required and the viewer is still able to easily navigate your layout. Another trick is to hand your friends a publication and watch how they consume it. I’ve learned a lot about design (and failure) by doing this exact thing.

Are there any key things to avoid?
Sure. Doing too much on one spread or layout is a common mistake. Too many colors, fonts, images, etc. Remember, what you are after is undivided attention, which isn’t easy accomplished when the reader doesn’t know what to do next.

What about typography?
Try to keep to one font for the entire layout, book, etc. And use this one font at the same size if possible. At the most, you could use a second font for a subtitle or captions, but try to keep your font choices as simple as the layout itself.

What if I don’t even know where to begin?
Believe me, I’ve been there and will probably be there again at some point. Staring at a blank spread can be intimidating, which is why   are a great place to start if you are new to designing layouts. Templates are not set in stone either, so just because you used a template as a starting point doesn’t mean you can’t tweak it and make it your own. Even if you end up discarding the templates, using these premade options is a great exercise at the very least.

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