Unconventional Book Design with Jon Chad

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Unconventional Book Design with Jon Chad

Why do books have to be opened right to left and read left to right, top to bottom? Sure, it’s how we’ve been trained to read, but since most of us conquered books some time ago, it’s good to try something challenging. I like to challenge my readers and myself when it comes to creating books.

A term that I like to throw around when talking about book design and book theory (if that’s even a thing) is “creative real estate”.  I know this might sound overly romantic, but imagine in your quest to construct/design a book, you are a homesteader arriving at your claim, your untamed tract of wilderness.  There are a number of plots that you can cultivate, or allow to lay fallow.  Similarly, there are a vast amount of design decisions that are made when designing a book.  Some of them are obvious, and some of them aren’t.

During a winter break from attending college at the Savannah College of Art and Design, I visited the University of Vermont Rare Books Collection.  The hospitality of the UVM librarians was incredible; I was allowed to handle, read, and photograph a wide variety of truly innovative books.  Artists like Barbara Tennanbaum, Margaret Kaufman, Damara Kaminecki, Julie Chen, and many more.  What they do with the book as a form, and as an idea, is innovative and challenging; incorporating elements like folds, containers, interactive narrative building, and sculptural forms.  I left the UVM Collection irrecoverably changed, and committed to the idea of innovative and challenging book design.

Julie Chen

A collection of Julie Chen’s work. Photo: Siblia Savage.

My favorite book artist, without question, is Julie Chen.  Her books have been a great influence on me, and her quotes on book design and construction have been a guiding light for my own views.  Here is an example:

“I view reading as an intimate act in which the reader must be in close physical proximity to the book, can control the pace of reading through the self-directed turning of pages, or equivalent action, and must interact with the book through the manipulation of the book’s physical structure.”

This is a great example of what I mentioned at the start about creative real estate.  Many people even take the idea of turning a page for granted and assume that it is a given when designing a book.  What is important to note is that the notion of creative real estate is out there and it can be built upon.  When I design books, I try to make the object as original as the narrative within.

In my 2008 minicomic, Whaletowne, I made a one-sheet unfolding comic about a sailor who creates an ever-growing city inside of a whale.  As the comic unfolds, the image area gets bigger and bigger.  This echoes the theme of expansion.  In the above image, you can also see that the comic comes in an envelope that resembles the whale.  To read the book, you have to go INTO the whale which subtly ties into the narrative.

In 2007 I drew a book called Leo Geo.  The catalyst for this story was that I wanted to have a comic, unbound by panels, in a continuous visual narrative.  When I was designing the book, I really put the most effort into designing how the reader would interact with the book.

Let’s start with the orientation: Leo Geo is bound at the top so that it opens vertically.  This creates a tall, skinny shape, resembling a hole.  Naturally, there wouldn’t be as much of an impact if it were a square book.  Additionally, the book reads top to bottom in the first half and bottom to top for the second half (when he has to climb OUT from the center of the Earth. There IS a method to the madness).  This is more effective than reading left to right because of the nature of the story.  Also, when people hold the book open in front of them and start turning pages, they actually start to mirror the physical actions of someone climbing down a ladder!  It’s a really subtle interaction, but now I’m able to use more than just illustrations and words to get the reader into my story!

Leo Geo

This is the 2012 published version of Leo Geo.  The book has a horizontal cover, but reorients the reader vertically on the cover page.  Book making and designing for interaction are some of the most exciting things I get to do as an illustrator, and getting to see readers interact with my book and have that “wow” look on their face is beyond rewarding.

If you’re interested in creating your own books, unconventional or otherwise, I recommend you start simple. Take a piece of paper and fold it a few times and see where it takes you. Then start drawing.

Or for a short cut, you can download a free handout (see below) that will take you through the steps to make a Whaletowne-style book.  Try it out and make your own handmade book!  Think of how you can use the idea of an expanding canvas to help tell your story.  Maybe you have a character trying to blow the biggest bubble!  Maybe you have a ninja school that keeps adding new wings!  Be creative, and have fun!

Download folding pages (PDF)

Download folding pages (2 jpegs) on Flickr

Purchase Leo Geo


Jon ChadJon Chad graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2008.  Shortly after, he moved to WRJ (White River Junction, VT) where he currently teaches at the Center for Cartoon Studies.  Jon’s newest book, Leo Geo was just released from Roaring Brook Press, and he has also done work for Stern Pinball, the FBI, and Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time.


Read more about Leo Geo on Wired.com

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