When you ask yourself what makes a book look like a book, try to picture a page detailing the architecture that’s built into the design of books.
The biggest element in the architectural design of your book pages is probably the chapter opening pages. On these pages you’re able to allude to the design of the book cover, to use decorative elements or fancy typefaces and generally to create pages that give the reader a visual break from the more staid text pages that make up the bulk of your book.
But the most common element on those text pages, and the one that you have a lot of leeway with in creating an attractive and readable design, is the text notations usually found at the top of each page. These are called running heads. If you take the running heads off of your book pages, the pages are likely to look quite bare, like they went out and forgot to put their clothes on. Running heads create a finished look to book pages, but they do more than that, too.
The Role of Running Heads in Your Book
Running heads play an important role in orienting the reader within the book. Any material that takes up more than one page should have a running head. In books with long chapter titles, it’s common to shorten the title to fit on one line along with a page number. In some cases, running heads reflect the content of specific pages by using subheads or another editorial scheme as copy.
Some pages will have more than one subhead on them. If subheads are used as running heads, use the last subhead on the page as the running head if the page is a right-hand page, and use the first subhead on the page if the page is a left-hand page.
Running heads are often omitted in novels, unless they are used specifically as a design element. They can be eliminated if they serve no particular purpose. When they are placed at the bottom of the page, they are called running feet.
When Not to Use Running Heads
Running heads are never used on display pages such as the title, half title, chapter- and part-opening pages. They aren’t used on “matter” opening pages, like the first page of the Preface or the first page of the Table of Contents.
Running heads are also omitted on pages that have only an illustration or a table on them. On the other hand, if there is any text at all, even one line, then running heads should appear on the page. If an entire section or run of pages contains only illustrations, running heads can be used to help orient the reader.
Front Matter and Back Matter
Like all other parts of the book, any particular element that is longer than one page should have running heads if they are used in the main body of the text. Ordinarily, running heads in front matter use identical copy for both right- and left-hand pages.
Running heads in the back matter, however, are quite the opposite. For instance, in a book with several Appendices, use the Appendix number as the left-hand running head and the Appendix title on the right-hand. Likewise, if the book has more than one Index, use the Index name in the running heads of that Index.
In Notes sections, use the same method you used in the text with running heads. If notes are organized by page number, then the relevant page numbers should be cited in the running heads. On the other hand, if the notes are organized by chapter, use the chapter titles in the running heads.
In all cases, running heads act as guideposts for the reader, and the reader’s ability to orient herself to part, chapter, page and topic is what’s so important about using running heads.
Different Types of Running Heads
There are many ways to use running heads, depending on the type of book and the organization of the material within it. Novels, for instance, usually have the book’s title and author incorporated in the running heads unless there’s a very complex narrative that requires further navigational aids.
For standard layouts in the majority of nonfiction titles any of these combinations can be used:
Left-hand page | Right-hand page
Part title | Chapter title
Chapter title | Chapter subtitle
Chapter title | Page subhead
Page subhead | Page subhead
Author name | Chapter title
Book title | Chapter title
To see some of these in action, take a look at these examples (click the images to get an enlarged view):
This one uses the book title on the left and the chapter title on the right. This arrangement works for a wide variety of books and is a good style to rely on.
Here, the author’s name is on the left, the book title on the right. This is common for novels.
In this example, the author’s name is on the left and the book title is on the right, as before, but now they are flush to the outside edges of the page and combined with the page number. This design, which creates asymmetrical pages within a symmetrical two-page layout, can give your print books a distinctive look.
In another variant with the author’s name on the left and the book title on the right, this time the elements are centered, but the page numbers remain at the margin. Experimenting with variations like this will help you get your pages exactly the way you want them.
Now let’s move on to some samples of more elaborate running heads. These are all from recent book design projects.
More Varieties of Running Heads
There are lots of other situations where we use the design of running heads and page numbers to enhance the reader’s experience. Here’s a look at some variations, but as long as you don’t distract the reader, your own creativity should be your guide.
Some books are arranged alphabetically or chronologically. In these, you may want to use running heads similar to those found in dictionaries or encyclopedias. The layout software automatically puts the first term in the left-hand running head, and the last term in the right-hand running head, as in the example above, taken from Utah’s Canyon Country Place Names. (Click to enlarge.)
I included the author name and book title, pushed into the “gutter area” along with page numbers and a rule to create a complete navigation system for the book, one the reader can rely on finding at the top of every one of this work’s 1,100 pages.
In this example from the Smart Guide to Bachlorette Parties, parts and chapters are explicitly named, which makes sense in a how-to book, and the rule under the running heads helps to unite pages with many odd shaped-rectangles. (Click to enlarge.)
In this spread from the new Ultimate Guide to Singing, the clients provided small drawings for each section of the book, and these, used on part and chapter openers as well as in the running heads, provide a visual clue to where you are in the book. (Click to enlarge.)
These pages, from the new 2nd edition of Payments Systems in the U.S., show the use of running feet (placed at the bottom of the page) rather than running heads. All the same information is conveyed, regardless of their location on the page. (Click to enlarge.)
The next two samples show how the font you choose can have a significant impact on the overall design of the pages, since the running heads will appear on almost every page of the book. The first is from Leaving Story Avenue, and uses a typewriter-style font for this memoir of a newspaper reporter. (Click to enlarge.)
The next is from a family travel memoir and guidebook, Courage and Croissants. You can see that the chapter opening font is a casual script, in keeping with the charming little illustration used at the chapter heads. By also using this font in the running heads, a bit of that fun and energetic energy carries through to the rest of the book. (Click to enlarge.)
This last example shows what kind of atmosphere you can create with running heads. Here a bit of lace texture has been softened and graduated, creating a kind of gentle, suggestive frame around these pages. I’ve also used line drawings, logos, and other graphic elements to dress up running heads like these. (Click to enlarge.)
That really sums up what we can expect from running heads and shows that it’s your readers’ needs that should be decisive in the kind of running heads you use in your own book.
But keep in mind that as long as you’re helping the reader, not distracting her from the content, feel free to experiment with these useful, but flexible, parts of your book page.