The Art of Making Fine Art Books

 This article originally appeared in InDesign Magazine Issue 71. Subscribe now for the best InDesign content on the planet!

The digital revolution may be in full swing, but a visit to any museum store provides ample evidence that for fine art catalogues, print is alive and well. How does working on fine art books differ from other print documents? What makes a great art book stand out?

One of a Kind

Unlike a digital file, a book has a physical presence. No matter how many millions are printed, the second it is touched by humans, each copy becomes unique (as the Seinfeld character, George, found out when he couldn’t return a book because, somehow, everyone could tell that “this book has been in the bathroom, hasn’t it?”). Book signings turn mass-produced objects into one-of-a-kind collectibles. For better or worse, a printed book will always be more than the content it conveys. It can become anything from a doorstop to an objet d’art.

It Takes a Team

Fine art catalogues are made to be kept. Forever. Like miniature museums, they seek to preserve and illuminate the highest forms of expression in a given medium, so it’s critical that everything about the book, from the design to the print quality to the paper stock and binding, be of sufficient quality to honor its content.

Creating a work of such quality requires a partnership of experts. There may be a Leonardo or two out there who could master every aspect of the process, but for the rest of us, assembling a top-notch team is essential.

This article covers only the design through printing phases of a book’s creation, but all of the other aspects of the process, including writing, editing, marketing, etc., need to be up to the same level. The books absolutely must arrive in the museum store—often from overseas—before the exhibit opens. It only takes one aspect of the job done poorly—whether it’s bad photography, the wrong typeface, or poor scheduling—to ruin a fine art book.


The book designer has to consider every aspect of the book and how it will work with the content. If the book is part of a series, the size and format may be predetermined; conversely, some projects may cry out for the invention of a wholly unique format.

I asked book designer Susan Marsh, with whom I have worked on several books, how her approach to the fine art catalogue compares to designing other print work. As Susan puts it, “For most art books, the designer must create a design that is elegant without calling attention to itself; it has to provide a framework for the art and the scholarship of the text without upstaging them (Figures 1–4).


Figure 1: This book, Picasso Looks at Degas, appeared simultaneously in three editions: English, Spanish, and Catalan. The art is in the same place in each edition, but the bottom text margin is variable because the text runs different lengths in each language, and the text discussion must appear on the same page as the art. This way, all three editions could be printed with only a black plate change on press. ©2010 Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute. Design: Susan Marsh.


Figure 2: The justified serif type, with its centered swash headlines, evokes the typography of the 1700s. Adobe Cason Pro is based on the same Caslon types that were so popular with Benjamin Franklin when he was a printer in Philadelphia. The ornamental drop cap is Monotype Castellar. The spread is from Knowing Nature: Art and Science in Philadephia, 1740–1840. ©2011 Yale University Press. Design: Susan Marsh.


Figure 3: Title page from Dove/O’Keeffe: Circles of Influence. The designer chose Neutraface Light and Bold for the title because the letterforms are both beautiful and eccentric, as are the artists, Arthur Dove and Georgia O’Keeffe. The extreme weight diffference implies the differences between the two artists, while the circular shape of the letter O echoes the subtitle. ©2009 Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Design: Susan Marsh.


Figure 4: Most of the photographs in this book show tall, thin fashion models, so it made sense to use a more vertical trim size than usual—8 × 11.5 inches—and a narrow text width and vertical display type. The display is Linotype Didot, the text is Fournier, and the captions are Meta. Pages from Fashion Show: Paris Style. ©2006 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Design: Susan Marsh. 

But in certain cases, the graphic design can be freer and more inventive, grabbing the reader’s attention and becoming part of the content (Figure 5).


Figure 5: Some books call for a more attention-grabbing graphic design. Spread from Global Village: The 1960s, ©2003 Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Design: Susan Marsh.

Posted on: November 2, 2015

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