While a book’s content is almost always more important than its appearance, cookbooks come the closest to tipping that balance. Because cookbooks are typically used more than they’re read, their designers must take extra care to consider the end user, and function must always take precedence over form. In our previous post, we explored the editorial ins and outs of producing your own cookbook. Here are the most important things to consider when taking your completed manuscript to layout.
A cookbook’s first responsibility is to teach its readers how to cook. The best cookbooks, however, inspire their readers to cook. Unless you’ve got a life story fit for a bestselling memoir, your best chance of inciting spontaneous sous-viding is with mouthwatering photography. Yes, the sort of photography that has readers sprinting for their spice drawer usually costs a lot of money—there’s a reason even the most expensive cookbooks feature far more recipes than photos. But if you’re hoping for a cookbook that invites slow Sunday-morning perusal, budget for a talented photographer and pay attention to the food styling.
There are exceptions. Perhaps you’re the next Mark Bittman, prepared to teach a generation how to chiffonade or care for cast iron. If technique or volume are your selling points, photography may not be necessary. Or maybe you’re catering to that growing portion of the population who’s allergic to eggs, soy, gluten, rice, and root vegetables. In this case, curating these niche recipes may be all the inspiration your readers need. Finally, if you simply don’t have the money, don’t sweat it. Go photo-free. Just be sure you know your way around a font library.
At Girl Friday, we believe that the primary purpose of a book’s interior is to convey information. Good design will also delight a reader, but that delight can’t come at the expense of clarity. Cookbook design is no exception—the stakes are just higher. The visuals cannot merely delight; they must inspire. But because usability is of utmost importance in a cookbook, that inspiration must always be ready to step back and let content reign.
How to convey this information? Above all else, establish a consistent hierarchy. The rules are yours to set, but once set they must be strictly observed. Your recipe titles are likely of primary importance, and so they should be the first to catch the reader’s eye. They should also appear in the same typeface, size, and color throughout—whether they’re two words or two lines long. Ditto your headnotes, your ingredients, and everything else. When readers flip through your book, they should be able to distinguish immediately—i.e., subconsciously—between a process step, an Advanced Alternative, and a Tip for Vegans. Try attacking a fourteen-step vanilla meringue while also attempting to discern whether that Madagascar versus Tahiti bit is important right now or just an informative sidebar to divulge at the dinner table and you’ll understand the importance of clear hierarchy.
Most high-end cookbooks for would-be Wolfgangs use straightforward typography that stays out of the way of the recipes. While a staid set of fonts may not get anyone super fired up to smoke some friggin ribs right about now, personality-free typefaces, clear hierarchy, and plenty of white space create the best user experience regardless of cooking style. In other words, your superb recipes and breathtaking photography should not need any design fireworks to inspire. Of course, a Swiss minimalist approach may not be the most appropriate for Burning in Hell: Mouth-Slavering Meat Recipes from Satan’s Own Man Cave, but restraint is invaluable even in the most extreme cases.
Know your audience so that you can avoid pandering to them, and always avoid cliché. When laying out On the Road: A Trucker’s Cross-Country Cookbook, think twice before adorning your pages with tire treads, street signs, and vintage license plate clip art. Even the hardest of grease-seasoned dudes will appreciate an uncluttered layout when it comes time to pan sear that road-killed opossum.
Perhaps even more important than photography in the production of a really good cookbook—and also more costly—is the printing. The vast majority of self-published cookbook authors will use on-demand digital printing, and while the technology in this field is rapidly approaching its forebear in terms of quality, it still ain’t cheap. A modest print run of several hundred to several thousand books is now fairly affordable . . . assuming the book in question is all words. But most cookbooks want color, which increases printing costs about fourfold, blowing most indie budgets out of the water.
So what to do? First, set aside those dreams of a gold-foil, multi-level-debossed cover with three-piece cloth wrap and a six-color interior. That’s not going to happen. Remember, the aim of a good cookbook is simply to pass on time-tested, multigenerational, groundbreaking, story-telling, diet-accommodating, delicious recipes—and to inspire in your readers the same love for preparing food that warms your own heart and kitchen. If your book simply needs full-color photographs to get those mouths watering, turn to Kickstarter. But don’t be bullish—if you truly believe in your recipes, you may find that they stand on their own, without any accompanying visuals. Just don’t try and have it both ways; nary an appetite is whetted by a bunch of bargain-bin black-and-white snapshots.