How to Design Running Heads for Your Book

by | Mar 31, 2014

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.

book design

Here, the author’s name is on the left, the book title on the right. This is common for novels.

book design

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.

book design

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.

book design

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.

book design

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.)

book design

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.)

book design

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.)

book design

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.)

book design

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.)

book design

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.


Click over to Book Design Templates to download a free copy of my 33-page Book Construction Blueprint, which will guide you throughout the design and construction of your book.

.Lace texture photo credit: {AndreaRenee} via photopin cc. All Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

book design

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  2. Brianna

    this was very helpful Joel i am working on 3 or 4 reading acts and one normal late book called ¨Valentines Date¨ i just got to the point where i needed a heading of the next page but got lost im brainstorming on one

    • Joel Friedlander

      Glad it helped Brianna, they are a fun part of designing books.

  3. Lorna

    Hi Joel,
    Those are some lovely examples, but I’m curious about the last example image, the one with the lacy top. Can you just insert an image in the header, or do you have to play about with the bleed, since it goes all the way to the edge. Will Createspace still print that lacy image for example, or would they cut it off?


    • Joel Friedlander

      Lorna, you can print a bleed at CreateSpace or Ingram, but you do have to know how to prepare the file so the bleed isn’t cut off before it gets to them. I do this in InDesign with a bleed setting of 9 points, and make sure the option to show the bleed and crop marks when I output the file.

  4. Shannon

    Thanks Sharon. That’s what I my gut was telling me as well!


  5. Shannon

    Hi Joel,

    I am designing a layout for a client right now and I was wondering if it would be improper to put a running head on a page that contains just an image with a caption. Does a caption count as “any text at all, even one line”?

    Thank you!


    • Sharon Goldinger

      Great question, Shannon. We have run across this issue in several books we’ve edited. The most recent one had a photo only (with a caption), and we chose not to have a running head on that page. We follow the Chicago Manual of Style (paragraph 1.15), which is what Joel was referring to when he said to use a running head as long as there is “any text at all, even one line.” That’s what we’d recommend in your situation as well–no running head.

  6. Bayanna Getteboina

    Dear Joel,

    Thank you very much for your e-mail.

    I now understood that the layout software for running heads design rendering differently between the Adobe InDesign and the software we use.

    Anyway, I thank you once again for your valuable time for explaining me the software you used.


  7. Bayanna Getteboina

    Hi Joel,

    Thank you for your feedback.

    I meant to say that the running head rendering for final PDF is, use the first term for both the Verso and Recto pages. I have attempted to attach the screen-grab but could not see any option how to attach while posting the issue.

    Following statement is from your website:

    The layout software automatically puts the first term in the left-hand running head, and the last term in the right-hand running head.

    When I tried to design the running heads following your instruction, Prince xml software automatically puts the FIRST TERM ON LEFT-HAND and FIRST TERM ON RIGHT-HAND PAGES.

    Would be great if you could pass me the xml structure and css what you had used.

    And again thank you for your valuable time in taking a look for me.


    • Joel Friedlander

      Bayanna, sorry for the confusion. This statement was specific to the layout software I use, Adobe InDesign.

  8. Bayanna

    Hi Joel,

    I have one question here, that you have explained above about ‘More Varieties of Running Heads’; and this is not working the way you stated.


    I have used sub-header(H2) on both pages as a running header. But in the both pages(Verso and Recto) every time the first term is running as a header, when those particular pages contains H2’s more than one on the page.


    • Joel Friedlander

      Bayanna, I would try to help, but find your comment incomprehensible. These are design samples, and every program used for layout operates differently, but the illustrations are meant to show the intended final result.

  9. Jennifer at WriteKidsBooks

    Thank you SO much for a fascinating post that demystifies all aspects of running heads and feet.
    I bought your self-publishing book as well, and this is all very, very helpful – highly recommended for anyone looking to publish ANYTHING. Thanks again!

  10. john idris

    Great tips sir, thanks. But am having difficulty removing the running head and page number from the chapter pages. Am using MSWord 2010. Pls I need help. Thanks.

  11. Doug Gibson

    Thanks so much for all those examples. That’s a lot of inspiration for an element that often gets too little thought and attention.

    I want to mention, though, that I’ve seen a few non-amateur exceptions to the rule that you should always have running heads. For some reason quite a few books for kids, in the chapter book/middle grade category, omit heads altogether, perhaps in order to simplify the pages for the audience, or because the audience is unlikely to use them to navigate the book. I’ve seen that done in books from mainstream publishing houses like Dell and Atheneum.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Good point about children’s books, Doug, they frequently don’t need running heads, and there are also many novels that simply do away with them and use only folios. It’s really up to the designer and the publisher to craft a book that will suit readers’ needs.

  12. Paul Salvette

    Thanks, Joel. Your expertise on this matter is much appreciated. A lot of great tips in this post!

  13. Michael W. Perry

    Thanks, as always, for excellent, detailed advice. Because running heads appear on almost every page, they can make the difference between a so-so book and one’s that’s appealing to would-be buyers.

    My own preference is for running feet. I feel they make a page look more symmetric. Text always starts at a fixed position at the top of a page, but the break at the bottom can vary a couple of lines or more. Having that footer establishes a fixed visual bottom for the page. And yes, I know I’m an outlier on that.

    Running feet also provide a useful, although unconscious, clue for readers. They signal “OK, time for moving to the next page.” Running heads do the opposite. Having flipped to the next page, a reader has to unconsciously skip past the running head to begin reading. They becomes a tiny speed bump.

    You know a feature that I’d love to see applications such as InDesign add? An equivalent to the handy progress bar in many ereaders. Alongside the book title on the left-hand page, for instance, would be a progress bar showing how far a reader is within the book (a dark bar would change to dots). On the right-hand page with the chapter title would be a similar progress bar for that chapter. In general, I like to break my reading off at chapters.

    There another feature that plays a similar role to running heads that isn’t common but should be. That’s printed side tabs in the outer margins, particularly tabs that bleed to the page edge to provide a clue to readers looking for something without even opening it up. You can find examples here:

    Chesterton on War and Peace is a collection of the best articles that G. K. Chesterton wrote for the Illustrated London News on topics related to war from 1905 until the end of 1922. Recall Time magazine in the 1950s and 1960s to grasp how important the ILN was in that era.

    Obviously, if someone’s writing about war, WHEN they’re writing matters. European war was a much-fretted about abstraction in 1913. It was a grim but still new reality at the end of 1914. By 1918, it was something that almost everyone groaned and hoped would end soon and some wanted to end at any cost, even the added risk of another war. Those side tabs let a reader jump quickly to say 1917, after which they can use the running heads to go to a particular date during that year.

    Note too that to handle the complexity of this book, I used both heads and feet. At the foot are the book and chapter titles (chapters being a year or a period of years). At the head are beginning (left-hand) or closing (right-hand) article titles with their dates. And in this case, since the ILN didn’t title Chesterton’s editorials, I came up with my own. Note too that I close the book with appendices that are what other people were saying at the time, including H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell (very chilling), and Gandhi.

    Notice too how I used various techniques (indents, different fonts, etc) to distinguish my opening commentary from what Chesterton wrote. I’ve found that without strong visual clues, some readers confuse the two. That’s not good.

    Fortunately, for print those side tabs weren’t that hard to do with InDesign. I simply created a page template with tab attached for each time period. Applying that template took only a second.

    I only wish epub offered similar abilities without complicated CSS coding. Getting the same results in primitive digital has been one of my chief frustrations. I’d be absolutely delighted, for instance, if there’d be an easy way to shade a range of text (my commentary) with a light-grey background. The same would be true of creating side tabs.

    For what it’s worth, I sent a copy of that book to Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill’s official biographer. In his kind reply, he mentioned how useful those side tabs were.

    I might add that side tabs don’t have to be restricted to serious history. They’d be great for complex novels and the side tab could be used for purposes other than dates. It might, for instance, contain the location of the current action. A complex novel (think of Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings) might benefit from side tab clues about date and place either or every page or where the plot shifts.

    Let your imagination be your guide.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books, Auburn, AL

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for your input, Michael. I rarely use side tabs, but they do have their place.



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