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Posted on Jan 17, 2023

How Creative Poetry Book Layouts Can Elevate Your Verse

✍️ This post was written by Kleopatra Olympiou, a writer from Cyprus and holder of an MA in Creative Writing from Durham University.

Poetry books pose a unique design challenge: to present a collection of poems in a visually interesting way that embodies their tone, mood, and atmosphere without distracting from the content of the work. 

The Reedsy marketplace has some of the most experienced poetry book layout designers in the industry — and we’ve gathered a few of their designs and insights to inspire and educate anyone seeking inspiration for their poetry book layouts.

Every design element reinforces the poetry’s intent

A successful poetry book's layout involves a simple and effective title page, introduction, and table of contents, images and illustrations arranged around poems, solutions to page breaks (when poems must be divided into multiple pages), a typeface that suits the spirit of the work, and visual playfulness if appropriate.

Typesetting poetry is often a collaborative process where the poet leads the designer toward a common artistic vision. It begins with establishing facts — Sebastián Cudicio, a Reedsy designer and illustrator with over 20 years of experience in the industry, always starts by asking the poet about three fundamental issues:

  • whether the collection consists of text only
  • whether it requires a specific graphic solution or treatment, and 
  • whether the book will include illustrations or images.

From there on, the layout designer is tasked with considering the mood and subject matter of the poems, ensuring that their visual choices are guided by these, or at the very least aligned in attitude.

Cover for Thomas Henry's book 'Embers on a Pyre', and a two-page spread showing a poem and illustration.
Thomas Henry's Embers on a Pyre. Design by Sebastián Cudicio.

In the example above, taken from a poetry collection that deals with dark thoughts during times of struggle, Sebastián's layout is simple and serious, in line with the themes of the work.

The right layout design will only take liberties afforded to it by the text. "There is a potential for expanded creativity when designing the interior of a poetry book," says David Provolo, one of Reedsy’s most in-demand book designers. "But ultimately, the aesthetic and composition are directed by the nature of the poems (alignment, line lengths, and meter) and the poet’s vision."

In other words, the design can be a graphic re-interpretation of the poetry collection, a reflection of its essence through a different artistic medium. 

A double page spread with a short poem on the left page, and a minimalist drawing of a closed eye on the right.
Cheronne Bellifantie's There is Nothing Between These Atoms. Design by David Provolo.

In the example above, the poem refers to 'the space before me,' suggesting an unfilled expanse which the design emulates by almost pushing the entire poem to the top left-hand corner of a double-page spread. The layout, in this case, reflects the imagery and haunting tone conjured in the poem.

Typefaces reflect the poetry's tone

Those new to book design often marvel at the seriousness required when laying out a book, unable to understand how conscious and intentional every minor decision has to be. To illustrate how this works in the context of poetry books, we spoke with Theo Inglis, a graphic designer and typesetter.

When choosing a typeface for a poetry book, Theo first looks for something that suits the poet's tone and voice, whether that's based on weight or style. “Some poets like to work formally and build on the traditions of the craft, which tends to suit a more classical approach to typesetting and font choice. Others are more experimental, which suggests something more contemporary. The goal is always to find a typeface which feels suitable, inevitable even, rather than distracting.”

Title page designed by Theo Inglis, showing a blocky sans serif font taking up almost the entire page.
Edward Doegar's For Now. Design by Theo Inglis

The above title page, designed by Theo, uses a bold, sans serif font to reflect the simple and sparse language of the chapbook, and to signal modernity.

When it comes to typesetting the poems themselves, the size of the text and width of the page provide Theo with one of his biggest hurdles. “Poets usually have set line breaks, which I have to replicate, which in some cases require lots of words per line – so a typeface that works at a smaller size and is a bit more narrow is a good choice." 

Poetry book layout example, showing a poem laid out in sans serif, modern type, narrow enough to contain various complex indentations.
Issue 3 of PROTOTYPE, edited by Jess Chandler. Design by Theo Inglis

In the PROTOTYPE example above, the poem contains unorthodox gaps and indenting. A particularly wide typeface may have distorted the poet's intended visual effect, encouraging Theo to choose a narrower font.

“The challenge with any poetry book is finding a format, style, and size that works well for every poem set exactly as the author intended."

The devil, as always, is in the details — and with a medium that hinges on attention to minutiae, you can see why poetry books require such experienced and dedicated designers.

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Simple layouts create space for the poet’s ideas 

Though they take a long time to put together, poetry book designs should ideally look like the most natural, obvious solution, essentially effortless. In poetry, "what the reader will experience is the power of words, rhythm, and sometimes the space between words and intentions," says Nuno Moreira. This attention to detail is why he often advises authors to err on the side of simplicity, insisting that simplicity is the key.

“To meet the challenge of allowing the words to shine on their own and be the main element of the experience, we should leave space for them to exist without constraints. For this reason, I find that interior layouts for poetry books should be clean, minimal, and have very little in the way.” 

A sleek, black double page spread with minimal white typeface, allowing the poem to stand out among all the empty black space.
Anthony J. Alexandre's More Than That. Design by Nuno Moreira

In the example above, the sleek, stark, white-on-black design for More Than That creates a powerful visual impact while allowing the poem to stand out.

Publishing conventions can be questioned

The design can often dispense with standard typesetting elements in pursuit of simplicity. Nuno offers an example, drawing from his 15+ years of experience: headings, though they make sense in fiction books, can be distracting in the context of poetry pages, and can easily be omitted.

The two double-page spreads below were designed by Natalia Junqueira, Reedsy designer and illustrator, and show how potent simplicity can be — notice the lack of headings, as well.

Double page spread. The left page shows a blue illustration of paper cranes, the right page is a short poem without a heading, in blue font.
Teresa Bendini's Amor em Azul. Design by Natalia Junqueira.
Poetry book layout example from the same book, also by Natalia Junqueira. The blue theme continues, with a darker blue palette used here.
Teresa Bendini's Amor em Azul. Design by Natalia Junqueira.

Natalia tells us that the color blue was integral to the author’s concept, as she associated it with her childhood, and the same applies to the paper cranes. For Natalia, it’s incredibly helpful when an author can express the feeling they hope to create with their poetry collection: “Is it happiness, sadness, a feeling of being lost, found, or non-belonging? This helps immensely to design the right mood from the start, so not only do the poems tell us a story, but the layout helps this story to be told.”

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Visually complex poetry takes center stage

Poetry takes countless shapes: from traditional forms like odes, villanelles, sonnets, and sestinas, to experimental and unconventional free verse or prose poems, there is limitless variety in the shape a poem can take on the page. To make things even more interesting, some poetry incorporates visual elements: take blackout and collage poetry, for example.

💡For a breakdown of 15 different poetic forms, check out our post on the many types of poetry.

When it comes to visually experimental poems or busy illustrations, the design's aim is often to simplify whatever can be simplified so that those other, louder elements can occupy the forefront.  

Poetry book layout example of experimental poetry, where blocks of poetry are rotated and overlapping.
Lance Olsen's My Red Heaven. Design by Matthew Revert

In the Lance Olsen example above, the poet forces the reader to work to read the poem, rotating parts of the text. In response, Matthew Revert keeps additional design elements to an absolute minimum, even omitting the page number on the right — when a poet makes you turn the book upside down, the design has to interfere as little as possible.

Double page spread where a striking illustration takes up all of the right page, partially spilling also into the left, where the poem is.
Gris Muñoz's Coatlicue Girl. Design by Matthew Revert

The two designs above and below, by Matthew Revert and Natalia Junqueira respectively, employ a similar strategy of simply creating space for strong visual elements to unfold, in this case illustrations. Generally, when a poet has chosen to accompany their work with photographs or illustrations, layout design tends to err on the side of minimalism, which these two examples reflect.

Two page spread, with a line illustration on the left page, and a longer poem taking up all of the right page.
Rose McCeldry's In the Flames. Design by Natalia Junqueira.

Children's picture books keep typography simple

The same is true of children’s rhyming books, of course. Given the age range that picture books address (typically 0-6 years old), it’s likely that the words are being read out to them by an adult, while the children marvel at the gorgeous illustrations. For that reason, picture books don’t typically feature ornate letterwork or calligraphy: typography tends to remain as simple as possible, so that kids can be immersed in the sweeping landscapes of a double-page spread. 

Double page spread illustration of a group of animals in a forest at night.
Carlos Nuno Granja's A Raposinha Matreira Tornou-Se Cantadeira. Design by Susana Lima.
Double page illustration from a children's book, showing a scene in the forest. Behind the foliage are a fox, a peacock, an owl, and a few butterflies.
Carlos Nuno Granja's A Raposinha Matreira Tornou-Se Cantadeira. Design by Susana Lima.

Front matter can get a creative twist

A poetry book's front matter can also get creative: that applies to title pages, introductions, and copyrights pages. Section breaks occuring throughout the book aren't exempt, either, as you can see below.

Section title page, double page spread. Left side is a photograph of the clouds above, and the right is simply 'Part 1, Emotion'. The rest of the right page is blank.
Section title page from Danielle Pitter's Reality Check. Design by Margherita Buzzi

Simple and thoughtful, the design above echoes the poetry's thoughtfulness by replicating the perspective of someone lying down staring at the clouds.

Classic design choices still have an impact

Laying out contents pages may seem like a practical matter, but it's very much affected by the mood of the poetry, too. The two contents pages below don't try to do anything crazy, respecting the mood and tone of the work.

Contents pages from two of Margherita Buzzi's designs. One slightly less conventional than the other.
Contents pages from Susan Sale's Sing A New Song (left) and Petra Mourany's To My Second Love (right). Designs by Margherita Buzzi

The example on the left comes from a book of religious poetry where poems are accompanied by extracts of scripture. Reedsy's Margherita Buzzi has opted for a clean, serious, and classic layout design.

Meanwhile, the design on the right balances creative freedom (page numbers on the left, poem titles centre-justified) and conventionality. This is a serious collection, dealing with trauma and heartbreak, but the design is gesturing toward peace and healing.

Though they still look fairly traditional, both of these have the right impact and fit in contextually.

Unusual choices introduce fun and make a point

The more playful and experimental the written work, the more wacky the typesetting ‘gets’ to be.

Creative contents page layout where the titles aren't listed along a vertical line, but a diagonal axis.
Contents page from Noelle Kocot's Sonnets. Design by Theo Inglis.

Noelle Kocot's Sonnets, above, works within the sonnet form to subvert and violate conventions, and the contents' page's design mirrors this willingness to play the game while breaking the rules. Fun, right?

Contents page where the poem titles go round and round in a playful abstract shape.
Contents page from Wayne Holloway-Smith's I CAN'T WAIT FOR THE WENDING. Design by Theo Inglis.

This final example comes from a chapbook of non-linear poetry, where pages aren't numbered, poems are printed in a variety of colors, and the poet experiments freely. The wacky design of this contents page embraces the spirit of the poems.

Poetry books can be incredibly fun, yet also challenging, to design and publish — which is why we always advise authors to put their work in the hands of professional book layout designers with experience in poetry books. We hope reading this post has helped you understand why!

Kleopatra Olympiou is a writer from Cyprus, and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Durham University. Her writing has appeared in HAD, Electric Literature and LitReactor. She lives in London.

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