Picture Book Basics - Graphic Design

After the artwork is created the next stage to consider is the text and the design layout. For a commissioned title this might all be handled by your publisher. Nevertheless, it's important to know some of the processes involved. This essay in Book Basics has been entirely put together by book creator and independent publisher Gillian McClure in consultation with her graphic designer Lisa Kirkham, experts in the process of designing and laying out books for publication. 


When you start work on the images for a picture book you will need to have grids to work from in order to make sure your layouts fit precisely the dimension of the page. A book/typographic designer can create these using a page layout program such as Indesign. The type then needs to be added to the layouts on the grid and adjusted to fit the area allocated to it. For this you will benefit from having a good knowledge of typographic design and fonts, or working with a typographic designer. Here is a grid of the front and back cover for a picture book 220x 270 with flaps allowing for an extra 1mm width and 6mm height. 


Font. Traditionally speaking, a font refers to a type of one particular face and size. More commonly now it is used to mean any type. 

Typeface refers to a family of fonts: the roman, italic and bold of a particular design. When choosing a typeface you must consider the bolds and italics as well as the roman. It may be that while the roman is perfect for you, the italic looks wrong, or the bold may be too heavy. 

Serif font. Put simply, a serif font is one that has a small line attached to the end of a stroke of a letterform. For example, Times.

Sans serif is a font that does not have such a line, for example, Helvetica.


Here are examples of fonts used in some of my books: 

Stone Informal in Prickly Pig 1976. This typeface has been very popular for use in children’s books because it had an ‘infant’ (or single-story) ‘a’ which is often believed to be easier for children to read.

Nara – Lisa Kirkham’s own typeface. It is delicate and fits the gentle style of illustration and story of The Little White Sprite

and also the text frames at 70% opacity in Zoe’s Boat

Compendio used in We’re Going to Build a Dam. This was chosen because of its irregular line, which blends with the strong black ink line of the illustrations and the messy work of damming a stream 

Sabon is more traditional – good for a fable like Flood but still with a modern feel. It has a relatively high ‘x’ and therefore looks open and easy to read. Some fonts have a small ‘x’ height in relation to the whole letter.

Bully Girl was used for the title of Flood


Sara Fanelli was one of the first illustrators to create her own lettering, making type an integral part of the illustration.
Mythological Monsters. © Copyright Walker Books
Illustrators like Emily Gravett have followed in that tradition and had a lot of fun making the lettering part of the narrative as in Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears.
© Copyright Macmillan.

If possible, work closely with a typographic designer at the earliest planning stages of a picture book. Then, if the word count of your story is not big, the typeface, text and illustrations can become integral to the narrative.

 Rabbityness by Jo Empson. © Copyright Child’s Play.

It might not always be possible to do this when working for a traditional publisher with in-house designers but it can be really helpful if you are going down the self publishing route. Look for a typographic designer who specialises in picture book design and has an awareness of the reading eye movement so you can place the text correctly in your layouts without any confusion over the flow of the words. If possible, choose a typographic designer whose work seems compatible with your own and who you find inspiring to work with. Ideally you will be passing roughs and layouts to and fro until the typography and images all harmonise and feed seamlessly into the narrative. What you are trying to avoid is a typeface that is just for effect, gimmicky, or in-your-face. Here is a good example of typographic design that fits in well with the narrative and page design. 

Harry and the Jaggedy Daggers by Jan Fearnley. Copyright Egmont Press


Once the artwork is completed, it will need to be scanned. This will all be done by the publisher’s designer. If you are self publishing your picture book, you will have to get it scanned yourself at a resolution of no lower than 300 dpi CMYK. You will need an A3 scanner or pay to have it done professionally. If you do your own scanning, you will also have to know how to do colour correction in photoshop to match up the colours of the scanned image with the original artwork. This can be tricky as RGB colours on the screen do not necessarily look the same as CMYK printed colours. So if your book is going to be printed overseas (which is much cheaper than in the UK) it’s advisable to ask a local printer to do some colour proofs to match with the artwork before the press-ready file is sent off as couriering back proof copies will be an extra cost and any changes made at proof stage, expensive. A sample of three different coloured spreads is usually sufficient to see if the colours of the book are true. 

Once you are happy with the colour balance of the scanned spreads, the typographic designer will drop in the typeface (according to the original grid design). Because you can create separate files at this stage – with or without type – there is the opportunity to be creatively free with type colour and design without causing too much added cost or problems with translation into other languages. 



Here you will need: Copyright details, date, where the book is printed, Publisher’s logo and details, ISBN – bought and registered with Nielsens via Pub Web.  Hopefully there will be reprints of your books. You can add a way of telling which print run a book belongs to by adding a sequence of numbers that can easily be altered before each reprint. For example, 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. For your second print run, you just remove the number 1, and so on. 


You will need to buy a barcode. You can add a ‘shout’ sentence on the back cover – a review if you can get one at this stage  

Also reference to other books on the front and back cover flaps if your book has flaps. 


 It is vital to get a proof reader to check all the text before your book goes to print. If there’s a missed typo, there’s nothing you can do until a new edition is printed! 


Once you have the press-ready file completed, it will be sent electronically to the printer according to a previously arranged schedule. Here is an example of one from a Chinese printer: 
PO with us ----- Feb 27

Payment in full with us ----- Mar 13

All files with us ----- Mar 13

Plotter out ----- Mar 20

All okay to print ----- Mar 27

Complete shipping instruction with us ----- Apr 7 

Bulk ex-works ----- Apr 24

ETA UK around ----- June 5 


Finally, it’s worth remembering that if you want to self publish an out-of-print picture book where the rights have reverted to you, this does not include the typographic design rights. Your original publisher still holds these. So you will have to get your story re-typeset. This happened with Selkie. We used the same typeface Garamond but made changes to the line length; shortening it on this page to make it easier for a child’s eye to read. We were also able to improve on the colour making it closer to the original. 

 Doubleday edition 

Plaister Press edition

 Gillian McClure is the creator of dozens of picture books for children, and former member of the Society of Authors CWIG committee. See her website here, and blog here


  1. Gillian this is a fantastic piece on design, very enlightening!

    1. Thank you, John, for encouraging us to do it and all your hard work putting this blog together

  2. Thanks Gillian for this clear survey of a rarely discussed topic. It's much like a good or bad framing of a painting I reckon. As an illustrator working for traditional publishers I've not often had a say in the choice of typefaces let alone the designer - sometimes it works, sometimes not, sadly! Exciting that now we can make our own handwritten fonts quite easily and at very little cost online thanks to sites like www.yourfonts.com.

    1. I agree, Bridget, there's a growing interest in what an illustrator can do with fonts. Thank you for telling us about www.yourfonts.com

  3. This is another in a brilliant series - thank you very much Gillian and Lisa. I love how the text is so much part of the picture and how the style of the text helps to tell the story too.

  4. Thank you for this informative and interesting post, it opened a whole new world for me. I have bookmarked it for future reference.

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  7. I missed this first time around Gillian, its excellent. I was just searching for child friendly fonts for a book I'm designing and W&P came up on the search hits. Invaluable thanks and I've now downloaded Stone Informal.thanks

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