Tuesday, 4 November 2014

How To Design A Rulebook – Design #1

With the templates done, we're moving to the visual look of your page and you need to keep in mind a couple of things – who your audience is and how they're going to use your book.

If your rulebook is going out as a Word doc or PDF file and you expect your audience to print it out then have mercy on their toner cartridges. In this instance you don't want to use lots of full colour images, or have important stuff within 10-15mm of any page edge. However, this doesn't mean your rulebook has to look boring – we'll cover this option later.

If your rulebook is meant to be viewed purely onscreen – ebook or PDF on an iPad for instance – then you don't want to have anything too subtle in the background that will become washed out on a screen. Also screens are much brighter than paper, so consideration will need to be made when choosing colour. Screens only require low resolution images and can display incredible detail, so take advantage of that too, especially if the viewer can zoom into diagrams, etc.

If you want your document to be printed commercially (or print on demand via the internet) and high impact then you have an opportunity to go for it (without going over the top). Let's look at this option a bit closer.

Taking our template spread from our hypothetical rulebook, I have commandeered some imagery from the XCom game (which is essentially humans vs aliens) for the purposes of demonstrating how easy it can be to create high impact visuals.

Our example double-page spread – click to zoom, it's a big image!

First of all I've changed the fonts to something more appropriate to the subject matter. Choosing fonts is a minefield and there's something to be said for "less is more". I chosen a rather fancy (but not over the top) display font from dafont.com for my Section Heading, navigation to the top-right and page numbers. They're still very legible, but have a more sci-fi edge to them which helps with creating a feel for the game. For the rest of the text I've gone with Titillium, which is a very strong sans-serif typeface yet has a technical vibe. I've purposefully kept the main body text clean and very easy to read – do not be using fancy typefaces in here! I've plucked out a couple of colours from my background image to add some complimentary colour and made the bulk of the text 90% black instead of 100% black to take the harshness out of it.

For my background image, I took a large, landscape (horizontal) pic and dropped it into the background. This frames the page and adds some atmosphere. However, text is not going to be legible sitting on it so I dropped a white box on top of it big enough to cover my text area (and a little more). I made the opacity of this box 95% to allow a tiny bit of the background image to show through, without interfering with the text.

Similarly, I dropped white circles behind the page numbers to help them stand out. We want the reader to easily find and identify them, without having the page numbers dominate or distract from the main text. The top-right navigation got the same treatment, with a thin white keyline to draw people's eye across the top of the page, to make it easier to find. The box 'bleeds' off the edge of the page so that it can be seen easily as you flick though the book.

A quick lesson in typography…
You will notice that the columns of text sit on the same baseline grid. The baseline is the 'line' upon which most letters sit, and which descenders (such as those found on lowercase 'p' 'y' and 'j') drop below.

Similarly, text in an adjacent column to a Main Title share the same baseline as the Main Title text rather than aligning with the top of the Main Title.  Conversely, the text opposite the Section Header align with the top of the Section Header rather than the baseline – aligning with the baseline would leave a rather large gap at the top of the page. Does that make sense?

That explanation is a bit on the heavy side, but it just means that everything looks more aligned and considered, rather than just letting text fall where it may.

The spread with guidelines – Note the text on the same baseline

You will notice we have some other visual additions to the spread.

In the far left column we have an example diagram (in this instance a screenshot from the computer game but you get the idea). It's accompanied by our example text in italics as per the template. You will notice that I dropped it into a box with a blue keyline. This was to pick it out further from the bodycopy so that it stands out. I could have gone to town on the box itself with metallic effects, or make it look like a computer panel but given how much else is going on it makes more sense to be reserved to maintain legibility – less is more.

As much as I've been going on a lot about grids and templates, it does make sense to break out of these grids now and again, else you page starts to look very rigid. As our copy in the far right column has fallen short of the bottom of the page (a change from the template for demonstration purposes), I have taken the opportunity to introduce a cut-out pic of a Muton alien, breaking in from the edge of the page. I have forced the text to flow around his shape to help his integration into the page. His presence introduces new shapes and angles into our grid and your eye starts to flow more around the pages.

Similarly, I have taken the opportunity to add a cut-out of the flying bot (hilariously named Floaters) to the middle of column two. He breaks out of our column grid and your eye flows around the page as you follow the angle of his body. Obviously, I've cherry-picked my images from a wealthy resource in the XCom games, but what this shows is that if you have images don't simply drop them in a rectangular box – having cut-outs can create interesting shapes on the page. But again, don't over do it.

So that pretty much describes the thinking behind this layout. It is very heavy on the visuals – too much for some no doubt – but we've managed to keep things reasonably restrained. As a piece of communication it works and has plenty of eye candy.

Next time I'll look at something a little more subtle, then look at a pure black and white layout.

Got questions? Leave a comment and I'll try and answer!

To be continued…


  1. Very cool series of articles here mate. Also cool that you have linked them backwards ( and mostly forwards ) to allow those jumping in mid-way a chance to play catch up. Looking forward to more of this!

    1. Haha, you beat me to the punch – I was updating the various links when you commented. All should be correct now :)

    2. Shows that my background in testing comes naturally ;) But great series here.. :D

  2. Its been a great series so far Mike. I have learned quite a bit so far. As such I don't really have any questions...yet. Some of what you are talking about I learned by trial and error in working with the local convention program books so its nice to learn more about the theory than depending just on the Mk 1 Eyeball to decide if something looks good or not.

    1. I'm glad you've picked up a thing or two. Your eye will be your greatest tool in the process but it helps to have some technical shortcuts.

  3. You are a talented chap! Seeing that x-com imagery makes we want to grab the iPad and have another round or two!

    1. I know… I still have to buy the expansion game!… or the board game!



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