Beautiful Books: an interview with designer Marty Ittner

Untamed: the Wild Life of Jane GoodallFor young writ­ers who aspire to write infor­ma­tion books of their own, or read­ers who will enjoy the expe­ri­ence of read­ing more, we’d like to help them under­stand how a book design­er works.

Mar­ty Ittner designed Untamed: the Wild Life of Jane Goodall and gra­cious­ly agreed to answer bookol­o­gist Vic­ki Palmquist’s questions.Flourish

When you start the process of designing a book, what provides your inspiration?

The design process actually begins in the middle of a book’s life. The project has already been conceived, researched and approved by the author and publisher to make sure it is a story worth the investment. So when the designer first receives the text and photos, it is important to honor the life of the book and the author’s vision. Therefore most of the inspiration comes from coming to know the story, and how to tell it visually. Simply put, inspiration comes from within the book itself.

How do you physically organize your ideas for the book layout?

At first I will do some rough pencil sketches in my Moleskine notebook, alongside the notes taken from initial discussions with the book team. But by and large the ideas are collected digitally in InDesign (a page layout program) and Photoshop, a program which enables adjustments to photographs such as adding color to an old black and white photo.

Do you start by knowing the book will be a certain size and number of pages or do you decide the size and number of pages after you’ve examined the content and created a rough design?

National Geographic’s marketing and distribution teams determine the size and number of pages before it reaches the designer. These specifications are based on a long history of publishing and reviewing similar books and products.


There’s a lot of space on many pages where there is no printing and no photographs: white space. Why is this important to you?

That’s funny, because to me this book is brimming with color and images, compared with books that are designed for adults, which have much more white space. I wouldn’t fill an entire room with furniture or survive without sleep. Space is simply the absence that allows us to see what is present.

You’ve used a graphic, screened back to 15% or 20% of a solid hue to lay behind the primary elements on many pages. What does this do for the reader?

On the first sketches for the book, I included some exotic vines and leaves that were meant to set the stage for Jane’s time in the jungle. The book team liked the idea and decided to take it further by hiring an illustrator (Susan Crawford) to draw the specific plants found in Gombe National Park, where Jane was studying the chimps. At first the reader may only see them as a background, but eventually may develop a curiosity to find out more, much like Ms. Goodall’s own work and notebooks. We went so far as to include a page describing each plant, some of which provide food and shelter for the chimps. In this way, the reader can discover more about life in the jungle, and the interdependence of all species.


On some pages a photo covers the entire page. On other pages, a photo may take 1/12th or ¼ of the page. How do you make decisions about how big the photos will be?

In children’s books, we use what’s called “tracking”, which is that a photo must be on the same spread as its mention. For example, the photo of Jane with her stuffed toy Jubilee would run next to the text “her father bought her a large stuffed chimpanzee”. This can sometimes be tricky, but fortunately I love solving puzzles. The other factor is the quality of the image. We will highlight good images by running them large and minimize photographs that don’t have the best quality.


Do you work on a grid?

Absolutely! Structure and form are the underpinnings that make a book cohesive—creating a rhythm that is inherently felt. The regularity of the grid creates an ease of entry for the reader, as their eyes are not jumping around.

What computer program do you use to lay out the book?

Adobe InDesign.

ph_knifeDo you do any of your work by hand?

I love the feel of a book as an object. So when designing, I always print and trim out the pages with an xacto knife to see how they will look in the final book.

When a reader picks up Untamed, how do you hope the book’s design will affect them?

It was a great honor to work with National Geographic and Anita Silvey to tell the important story of Jane Goodall and her beloved chimps. It touches on compassion, the environment, animal rights and the strength of a remarkable woman. My hope is that the design delights and carries the reader through the whole story. In this way, we can hope to inspire a new wave of compassionate conservationists.

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8 years ago

Vic­ki, thanks for the great oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk about my work. It was a plea­sure. Marty

Vicki Palmquist
Reply to  martyittner
8 years ago

We were pleased to fea­ture your work. We’re also pleased that Untamed is receiv­ing so much recog­ni­tion. It’s a beau­ti­ful, infor­ma­tive book.