One of the most popular posts in Words & Pictures, Illustration Editor John Shelley revisits pushing the rules in picture books.

We’ve considered a variety of methods and tools for you to think about when planning out your picture book. In this past post in the series, here is some advice on when to be careful and when to push boundaries.

Rules are Made to be Broken! 

Well, some of them perhaps. It's not necessary to mix image sizes in a book - regularity works well if the story has a strong rhythm. Full bleed images don't have to be panoramic. Within these basic patterns, all kinds of fun can be had by breaking up these types and inventing ways to combine/contrast layouts. In fact, this is what makes picture books so interesting. Go wild, be clever, be crazy! But remember, however mad the page layout, the narrative has to move forward, it has to be understandable as a book. 

The key thing is to follow instincts suggested by the text, do what the story conjures.

Challenging design and typography from Sarah Fanelli (© Phaidon Press)

Things to be careful of

Remember the gutter (the book's hinge)! - Avoid putting busy elements in the part of the book closest to the spine, they'll be lost in the final product. Be especially careful not to place key characters in the gutter! 

Consider the text - where will it lie? How much space will it require? Will it run over the illustration or be separate on the page? Likewise, leave a good gap between text and the gutter and page trim. 

Page design is a big topic with myriad aspects. It's a good idea to peruse a lot of picture books and examine how other artists solve the challenges of page layout. There's also a lot of inspiring stuff on the Web if you dig around - for example, Design of the Picture Book is a useful resource. 


We started this series by looking at dummies. Personally, I sketch all my dummies in pencil on loose sheets, scan into Photoshop, adjust, then lay out using InDesign, adding the text. 

I might spend a long time tweaking, changing around and so on before I'm happy with the result. Finally, I'll save as a lightweight .pdf which I can then either email to my agent/art director or print out, clip into a plastic file and show as a physical dummy.

I hope you've enjoyed our revisit to picture books basics!

All images ©John Shelley


John Shelley is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures and the illustrator of over 50 books for children, most recently A Purse Full of Tales, a book of Korean folk stories, for Hesperus Press. He's twice been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, first in 2018, and again in 2019.


Eleanor Pender is Knowhow Editor. If there's something you'd like to know how to do, send your suggestions to

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