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Design Matters (19): Craig Mod on margins and attention to detail

These extracts are from Craig Mod’s excellent essay Let’s Talk about Margins, one of the many things worth reading at


I saw a film recently on an airplane that made me cry. The film was a love story but the love part of the story didn’t make me cry. No, the scene that made me cry was about paper.

The movie focuses on a Japanese publishing company’s small dictionary unit. There are only four or five people in it. They are working on a dictionary that will take fifteen years to complete. Fifteen years. The scene that got me was towards the end. The head of the dictionary project meets with the paper maker. They are testing paper.

Hmmm, it doesn’t stick to the fingers enough, says the Dictionary Man as he thumbs the dummy book the Paper Man brought with him.

Oh, is that so? asks the Paper Man.

Yes, look here — perfect dictionary paper sticks to the fingers but doesn’t stick to the other pages. This paper doesn’t adhere properly to my fingers.

The Dictionary Man reaches behind him, grabs another dictionary, and shows the Paper Man a specimen of perfect dictionary usability. It’s exactly the sort of thing you’d never notice unless you lived and breathed dictionaries.

Here, you try turning these pages, says the Dictionary Man.

The Paper Man does so and responds with an, Oooooooooooooohhh, as if part of the matrix has been unzipped before him.

He then apologizes and yells, WE WILL TRY HARDER while bowing deeply.

[Mod goes on to talk about the importance of margins in page design:]

A book with proper margins says a number of things. It says, we care about the page. It says, we care about the words. We care so much that we’re going to ensure the words and the page fall into harmony. We’re not going to squish the text to save money. Oh, no, we will not rush and tuck words too far into the gutter.

A book with proper margins says, We respect you, Dear Reader, and also you, Dear Author, and you, too, Dear Book.

Text printed on the best paper with no margins or unbalanced margins is vile. Or, if we’re being empathetic, sad. (For no book begins life aspiring to bad margins.) I know that sounds harsh. But a book with poorly set margins is as useful as a hammer with a one inch handle. Sure, you can pound nails, but it ain’t fun. A book with crass margins will never make a reader comfortable. Such a book feels cramped, claustrophobic. It doesn’t draw you in, certainly doesn’t make you want to spend time with the text.

Hmmm, it doesn’t stick to the fingers enough.

On the other hand, cheap, rough paper with a beautifully set textblock hanging just so on the page makes those in the know, smile (and those who don’t, feel welcome). It says: We may not have had the money to print on better paper, but man, we give a shit. Giving a shit does not require capital, simply attention and humility and diligence. Giving a shit is the best feeling you can imbue craft with. Giving a shit in book design manifests in many ways, but it manifests perhaps most in the margins.

Craig Mod – Let’s Talk About Margins

See also:

Design Matters (17): Elevator Control Panel Nightmares
Design Matters (16): Singapore MRT maps
Design Singapore: Changi airport (1)
Design Matters (15): Bucket Bath Edition (Kiramas 0318 vs Trixy GN311)
Design matters (14): stackable 6 litre water bottle by Singha
Design Matters (13): Dark Patterns
Design Matters (12): IKEA Detergent Bottle
Design Matters (11): PowerPoint Wizardry
Design Matters (10): Your iPhone Moment
Design Matters (9): Bruce Tognazzini’s First Principles of Interaction Design [Radio Edit]
Design Matters (8): Where’s that file?
Design matters (7): Death by PowerPoint
Design matters (6): Bosch hand-blender attachment
Design Matters (5): the information architecture of a water dispenser
Design Matters (4): a recipe for trouble
Design Matters (3): Ingenious board game tile holder and embodied memory
Design Matters (2): badly designed Android Bluetooth menu
Design matters: refrigerator control dial
A well designed paper bag from Waitrose
Postbox: good info

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...