My design process of the “Digital Adaptation” book illustrations & layout

28 May 2014
  • posted by Veerle Pieters

Apart from the cover design for "Digital Adaptation", one of Smashing Magazine's new books written by Paul Boag, I also designed the layout of the book, together with the chapter cover illustrations and a few others. As promised before, here is my story behind the design process of this part of the project.

Chapter cover illustrations

It was my idea from the start to use the book cover design for the chapter cover illustrations. My initial idea was to simply crop the cover into 6 parts, one for each cover illustration. After trying it out I soon came to realise that it wasn't going to work exactly the way I saw it. Not every part worked as an illustration in its entirety. I was able to extract 2 illustrations that worked really well after some small tweaking. So only chapter 2 and 3 use an actual part of the cover design, the other illustrations use parts of the cover illustration combined with elements from other illustrations created for the book.

No sketching involved

These illustrations were created directly in Illustrator were I played around with the composition the different elements of the illustrations. When I created the cover illustration I used a grid for the tubes and lines. This grid was also used for these cover illustrations, but scaled up a little.

Keep things organised

First I copy pasted the cover illustration in my document. Then I started to remove the items that I thought I wasn't going to use. In case I wasn't sure yet I just hide the layer. I also made sure everything was nicely ordered in different layers, so I could easily edit or work with the illustration. Keeping your layers organised by giving each layer a name is seriously underestimated. You save a tremendous lot of time, not to mention avoiding frustration.

Other illustrations

At first I wasn't sure these illustrations would be easy, but of course I always love challenges like these. I was given a list of the captions together with a short description for each illustration. For example for chapter 5 there was this description: A business person trying to juggle multiple balls or managing a complex machine (see the illustration further below). Here are almost all of the illustrations I created for the book:

Illustration in chapter 1 presenting a website divided up between multiple departments, with the caption: "Organisational structure often means websites are managed across multiple departments and lack a central vision."

Illustration in chapter 3 which accompanies this caption: "Companies that were born in the digital era or who have fully embraced digital seem to consistently exhibit five cultural characteristics."

Again, I didn't do much upfront sketching as I was comfortable to start in Adobe Illustrator right away as soon as I had the basic idea in my head. The illustrations lend themselves to get started like this as the 2D flat style is very simple and straightforward. It makes experimenting with shapes, colors and compositions so much easy, which is a very big aspect in the creation of these illustrations. When sketching on paper I often make the mistake of trying too hard to draw something perfect, and so I often loose too much time.

However don't get me wrong here, if your idea is to create this loose, spontaneous illustration style, then I'm convinced you need to spend time with pencil and paper, probably most of your time. Then tracing the illustration in Illustrator will take less time. In my case however, using perfectly straight lines, circles, squares etc. it's not really necessary, if you have the basic picture in your head. Just some doodles to illustrate the basic idea or concept will do. Being able to work like this often saves me a lot of time.

Illustration in chapter 4 introducing the different approaches of 2 teams.

Illustration in chapter 4 representing 2 leaders, each with a different approach. The first team consists of two women and a man all sitting around a table chatting as equals, while the second team shows all men with one of the men obviously in control.

One of the things I also often do is entering a keyword in Google and see which image results pop up. It's just something I try, and maybe more than often, I end up with a bunch of ugliness. But for me this is only important to spark an idea or concept of how to translate something visually. This has led me to "aha" moments more than once.

A fragment of another illustration in chapter 4 showing 2 different teams: one small team of individuals fulfilling multiple roles and a big team of specialists. View the entire illustration

Illustration in chapter 5 representing a business person trying to juggle multiple balls or managing a complex machine. This is the caption of this illustration: "For an iterative, collaborative approach to digital, staff need to be dedicated to the team and put expected to juggle multiple responsibilities".

Illustration in chapter 6 with this caption: "Saying no to requests damages your reputation internally and drives people towards using outside contractors."

Another illustration in chapter 6 showing an illustration of a SWOT analysis, with this as caption: "A SWOT analysis is a powerful tool for communicating with management."

The layout


For the layout I'm using a baseline grid of 15 pt. This value is also used as multiplier for the margins. The margins are wider on the outside than the inside, and I also made sure there is enough space at the top and bottom of each page. The pagination numbers in the footer are placed into the white area, with the left one right-aligned to the content and the right one left-aligned to the content. Title of the book and the chapter title are mentioned in the page footer with the book title on the left page and the chapter title on the right page, both respectively right-aligned and left-aligned.

Screenshot of a spread in Adobe InDesign showing the basic layout of a page with baseline grid and margin lines

Talking about grid, here is an interesting video I stumbled upon showing some of the powerful things you can do in the Grid Mode with Live Distribute in InDesign that I didn't know:

Paragraph styling

We also compared different versions of paragraph styling as we weren't sure whether to use an indentation on the first line, in combination with a space between each paragraph. So we tried with space between each paragraph, but without indentation, and also with indentation and without vertical space in between, but decided to go for our first choice in the end. It's good to do this exercise and experiment a little so you can compare and choose what you feel is best. Same for the typography. Here we tried a couple of variations too.

Photo of the book open, showing the last page of chapter 2 on the left page, and chapter 3 cover illustration on the right.


Even though I have a general preference of using sans serifs over serif, I do like to combine both. Overall I feel a serif reads better than a sans serif. Bold sans serif titles in combination with a serif as body copy can work really well, combined with a big light typeface for the chapter title. So I decided to use Raleway (the same typeface I used for the title of the book cover) for the chapter titles, and other titles & elements, such as captions. For the body copy we went for Roble Alt. There was a little doubt at first, and we tried a few other options, but in the end we came back to our first choice and decided to stick with this combination. The only problem we bumped into was the fact that the numbers in Raleway aren't all aligned on the baseline, and we didn't really want this for the pagination and chapter numbers. So only for these items we decided to use Proxima Nova. This is normally against my own rule of applying typefaces, as I always try to avoid combining typefaces that are too similar, but in this case it felt like an OK solution. We decided to use Proxima Nova in caps for the page footer, and also for the chapter numbers in the table of contents, the chapter cover page titles at the bottom, plus the page headers above each chapter title.

detailed fragments of the layout and typography

View some of the pages in detail at full size (don't forget to click the image).


Since the book is already pretty colorful, I decided to use just one accent color, orange, in combination with dark and lighter greys. I tried out a couple of combinations, but decided to use a very dark grey for the body copy and only lighter greys for the very big titles, or text that is of less importance such as the page footer. The orange is used for captions, pull quotes and the big chapter titles which gives a nice accent on the pages without overloading them.

Another photo of the book open, somewhere in the middle of chapter 4, showing an illustration on the left page.

The challenge

My job was to deliver a set of InDesign pages that they could work with to complete the rest of the book. Making sure the pages were filled nicely, and so there isn't any extra empty space at the top or bottom of a page was sometimes a bit of challenge. For instance when an image needed to be placed near the end or at top you sometimes had to move things around to make it all work. Same challenge is to avoid orphaned text on a new page. It sometimes meant tweaking the tracking and kerning of some text a little bit, but more than often this trick doesn't work. You can only do this very subtly so it's not visible for the eye. Most often you need to come up with a more creative solution. Like with many design jobs this feels a bit like completing a puzzle to have all the pieces perfectly in place the way you want it. I left my set of template pages in the capable hands of Markus Seyfferth who did a great job. Just like before, this was one of the projects I had most fun with, not only because of the creative aspect, but also because I could work with a cool bunch of people again.