Game Design Occupations Explained: Layout and Print Design

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Game Design Occupations Explained

This week we have a guest post from Ruben Smith-Zempel. Ruben is a print designer with a lot of experience doing layout, cartography, and graphic design. See his “About the Author” section if you’d like to contact him.

Introduction

So your game is all written and you’ve collected all of your illustrations. Now you need to turn your raw elements into a finished product. It’s time for you to hire a print designer (or layout artist). This article will give you a brief overview of what the job entails and what questions you should ask when hiring a print designer.

 What to Expect

Print designers are responsible for combining your game text, illustrations, and other materials into the final product that is then sent to the printer. This is accomplished with the use of desktop publishing software, such as Adobe InDesign. The resulting file is then exported as a PDF (though other file formats may be used on rare occasion) and sent to the printer, who then turns the files into a finished product.

It sounds like a simple process, but the print designer has a lot of work to do before the final product is ready. First of all, the publisher and the print designer need to decide on an overall look and feel for the book. Once you have an overall theme, the print designer will create several templates that determine how the book will look once it’s printed.

This first step of the process is often the most critical. You will have to work closely with the print designer to ensure that the borders and typefaces are suitable for the tone of the work. During this process you can expect your print designer to send you multiple proofs of example layouts and typefaces.

Once the look and typefaces have all been decided upon, the print designer will then create several master pages and text styles using the selected materials. Usually the print designer will create one master page per chapter, though exceptions certainly exist. Once the masters have been created the process of layout can begin.

The print designer will import your text into the desktop publishing software and the long process of applying styles and inserting images begins. You can expect this to take from between two to four weeks, depending upon the complexity and length of the book. This is largely a solitary process undertaken by the print designer alone.

Once the layout process is over, the print designer should send you a proof of the layout that has been created. Usually the publisher and editor will both read through this proof to check for any errors. It’s very common to spot a few typos in addition to any layout errors. Corrections are then sent back to the print designer, who then corrects these problems.

Once all of the errors have been corrected, the print designer will export a pdf for the printer. This pdf will often contain a bleed and other printers marks. This file, along with the cover file, are then uploaded to the printer, who does the rest of the work.

If you are producing a digital copy of the book, the print designer will often also perform a few final changes to the document. This can include adding layers, bookmarks, and ensuring that the file meets the various standards for digital file distribution.

In short, your print designer should be able to turn your raw data into a finished product suitable for digital distribution and any number of print on demand services.

 What Will it Cost?

Print design is a creative profession, and as such there isn’t really a standard rate among various independent and freelance designers. Even so, there are at least a few things that most (but not all) print designers share in common.

Most print designers usually work for a flat fee, be it one lump sum or a price per page. In general you can expect to pay any competent designer a wage starting at $5 a page and up to $10 a page. Some designers will also charge an additional fee for design work on the borders. This is usually anywhere between $250 to $1,000 a page. That might sound like a lot of money for one page, but this one page is often used throughout the entire book.

As a ballpark figure, you should usually budget about $5-$10 per page of the finished product. Using this formula, a 256 page book should run you somewhere around $1,200 to $2,500. Where the price falls on this scale is usually determined by book complexity, book size, experience, and the amount of time the print designer has to work.

In most cases, these fees will often include the cost of laying out a table of contents, an index, and creating layered digital copies of the book. Note that this does not include creating an index: that usually costs extra, if the designer will do it at all. Most designers will, however, provide a raw export of all subject headers and their page numbers. This is often enough to create a decent index with a bit of time and effort.

 What Do I Say?

First and foremost, the need for clear and helpful feedback is critical during the print design process. When you start receiving proofs from your print designer, you need to tell them what you like and what you dislike. If at all possible, tell the designer why you don’t like something and offer clear advice on what you would like.

If you’re struggling to convey what your book should look like, don’t be afraid to use examples. You can point to other products and say “I like the color of the background” or “I want to use that font.” At no time should you expect the designer to copy anything, but starting with an existing product can be a useful way for the non-artistic to explain what sort of look they’re going for.

Print design has several specific terms that are useful to learn when speaking with your print designer. Some of the most important are listed below:

  • Bleed: This is the area outside of the trim size on a book. Think of it as your “safety margin.” Elements in the bleed area should be non-critical. Ideally the entire bleed area will be trimmed away, but more usually the trim is offset by a tiny amount. Your print designer will need to know if your printer requires a bleed, and if so the size of the bleed.
  • Column: The number of vertical rows of text on a page. Most letter sized RPGs are produced using two columns of text.
  • CMYK: The standard color printing process. Stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black. Most color books are printed in CMYK, and thus your artwork and pdfs should use this color format or color shifting my occur. Your print designer will need to know if the book is color or black and white.
  • DPI: Stands for dots per inch. Almost all printers will need a final product that is at least 300 dpi. Both your artist and print designer will need to know the minimum DPI.
  • Kerning: The spacing between letters in a proportional font. Your print designer should know what kerning is, but most of the time you probably won’t notice unless it’s very out of whack. This is what you adjust to make things like A’s and V’s line up nice beside one another.
  • Leading: The space between baselines (the bottom part of text) of different lines of text. This may be helpful to know if you want a light and airy looking text. Increasing the leading will add pages to the book, while decreasing it may save slightly on page count. Your print designer may ask about this, though don’t go too far in either direction.
  • Margins: The space between your text and the edge of the page. Most RPGs have at least a half inch margin (if not more). Your print designer will need to know what margins you prefer. Most printers will also require a safety margin, which is a small margin where no printed text should appear.
  • Master Page: A template created in most desktop publishing programs. A master page is used to set the page background and other elements that are repeated throughout the book.
  • Printers Marks: A collective term for the marks printed outside the bleed of the book. These include registration marks, which are used to help align the pages for trimming. Your printer will tell you if you need any printers marks. Let your print designer know if they need to be included.
  • Signature: A block of pages printed together. Most offset presses require 8, 16, or 32 page signatures. Your print designer will need to know what signature your printer requires. The safest bet is to shoot for page counts that are a multiple of 16. Most print on demand places will take signatures of 4 (and sometimes 2).
  • Tracking: The uniform spacing between all letters. Some print designers may make minute adjustments to free up just a tiny bit of space so that a hanging line jumps back to the previous page. You likely won’t notice this unless it’s well out of whack.
  • Trim Size: This is the final size of your book, after the bleed has been trimmed away. Most RPGs are generally either 8.5” x 11” (letter) or 6” x 9” (trade paperback). Your print designer needs to know the trim size.
  • Typeface: The fancy word some designers use for a font. Note that not all typefaces are free and those that you find on the free font websites might not be available for commercial use. This is an important thing to consider. A good print designer should be able to advise you on typefaces and font choices.

When advertising for a print designer, you should include some basic information. At bare minimum you should include the page count, trime size, and whether or not the book is in color or black and white. You should also state if you will be using an existing template or if a new template will need to be created. Other things that are nice to know are the project deadline, final formats needed (digital or print?), and the theme of the product.

 How Do I Prepare?

When you get ready to hire a print designer you should ideally have everything else finished. The manuscript should be completely edited and ready to go. You should have all artwork in hand or at least close to being finished. You should also know what printer you’ll be using and what specifications they require for the final finished product.

Most desktop publishing programs are picky about the file formats they will import. For real safety you should either send a .doc, .rtf, or .txt file. I, personally, far prefer a simple .txt document that has been formatted using my style guide. Other print designers may have different preferences and need. This is something you absolutely need to check with the designer about and follow any guides as closely as you can.

If you want an example of a style guide, you can check mine out here:

http://www.3d6design.com/style-guide/

If your printer has a pre-flight checklist, it’s often very helpful to send that to the print designer. These checklists often have a handy list of everything the print designer needs to know. If they don’t have a list, try to compile the necessary information together in one place. Your print designer will appreciate it.

Finally, if you have any specific requirements such as font, justification, or even just color preferences, let the print designer know right away. That way you don’t waste time on the first proof. But if your print designer makes an alternate suggestion, hear them out: we all want to create a superior product and most designers have a wider breadth of knowledge about the process.

 Final Thoughts

I hope that this article has been helpful to both my colleagues and anyone thinking about creating a book. While layout and print design might not seem glamorous, it is the print designer that is ultimately responsible for turning your words and art into a finished product. A good print designer can be an invaluable ally during the last steps of the game creation process. And we all know that the more ally’s you have, the easier the job becomes.

 About the Author

Ruben Smith-Zempel is a full time freelance cartographer and print designer. He has happily turned dozens of raw documents into fully fledged RPGs, including Champions Complete by HERO games, the Codex Arcanis by Paradigm Concepts, and Psi-Punk by Accessible Games. He is more than happy to talk shop with any aspiring game creator and currently hosts two weekly gaming sessions. You can contact him at ruben@3d6design.com or visit his website at www.3d6design.com.

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About Jacob Wood

Jacob founded Accessible Games because he wants to spread the joy of gaming to everyone, including people with disabilities. He is visually impaired and knows what it's like to need to adapt, and he brings two decades of gaming experience to the table.
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