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Setting up, Types and Description of Page Margins

| May 16, 2013 | 9 Comments

Margins are very important part of any publication design. To set up a type and leading sizes you have to set up columns, and to set up the columns you have to start with proper margins. Margins contribute to the effect of the overall design and the white space surrounding them creates a sense of comfort and belonging.

Your margins have to have a particular purpose in mind. You must determine the margins which will give elements on the page desired appearance according to the message you want to convey to your readership.

Margins give the pages a necessary dose of the white space which is very important in design. Margins can convey a specific tone which you can see in the examples at the bottom.


The function of margins

Margins have several functions. First one is the visual, since they provide a buffer zone keeping the text and graphics from “falling off the page”. As mentioned above, with its white space they give an eye break for the reader, even if the text is densely laid out.

Margins have practical functions also. They leave the space for the reader to hold the publication without obscuring the text with their fingers. If you are working on some manuals, textbooks or workbooks you can leave extra space in the foot margin so that the user can make notes if necessary. If your publication is going to be bound with staples or with ring binders you will have to leave more space for the inner margin.


Setting up the margins

You have to set up your margins in a mathematical relationship to the page. Most famous relationship is the “golden section” in which the page proportions are 34:21 and the print area is as deep as the full-page is wide, with the margins in the proportions 2:3:4:6.

If this is a bit complicated, let me clarify. Height of your type area must be equal to the width of the page. This is 2:3 ratio. This results in margin proportions 2:3:4:6. Inner margin should be 2 units, top one 3, outer margin should be 4 units and bottom one 6. Take a look at the image and you will know what I mean.


Margins - golden section

Golden section with 2:3 ratio.


This kind of margins setup is very elegant and very few magazines can afford it. Today’s modern magazine design is swapping the size of top and bottom margins. Quite differently than the “golden section” which is more common in book layouts. On the other side of this very elegant setup lies dull one. The dullest margin setup is when you have all four margins of a same size. Although dullest this setup can be seen very often in contemporary magazine design.


Margins - magazine margins

Contemporary magazine margins. Notice how each margin is of the same size.


This kind of margins is also found in newspapers and other publications where you want to get as much information as possible on the page.

When you are setting up your margins use points as measure. This is because your margins have to be related to the grid you set up. Since your grid is set up in points it is easier to set up margins in points also.


Margins - grid setup

Setting up the margins according to the grid.


Margins - grid setup

Baseline grid setup.


For example, if your grid is set up in 5 point inclination then you should set your top and bottom margins in a number that can be divided by 5 (such as, 50pt, 55pt, 60pt). In this way your top margin and bottom margin will sit on the grid. Then you can adjust inner and outer margins.

I always set up my grid relative to the top of the page instead to the top of the margin. In this way I can align running heads on the grid.


Margins - description

Description of the margins.


Inside, gutter or back margin

Inside margin is in big way affected by the way the publication is bound and by the thickness of the publication. To make it easier for the reader to read the text you should prevent the type from hiding in the gutter. If your publication is very thick you should make inner margin wider than usual.


Outside or for-edge margin

These are the parts of the publications that are most visible. You should place your best content in these parts. Outside margins should be wider than the inside ones. This creates a more elegant look in your publication and this type of margin setup is called “scholar’s margin”. In this space you can place mugshot, byline, footnotes, kicker copy, etc.


Top or head margin

This margin can and should be the largest one. White space above the main block of text is acting like an introduction into the page, it is like safe zone and counterparts the gray block of text beneath it. This is not a waste of space. The higher up the page the text goes, the page will look more aggressive. Generous top margin, also called “deep sinkage” creates light and relaxed feeling. It is also better background for section headings or also called running heads, which are useful navigation devices.


Bottom, tail or foot margin

The size of this margin should be at least half the size of top one. Bottom margin is the least important one because you will not place any important material in there. Except pagination. In books and in some other special publications this margin is bigger than the head margin.


Margins - Book margins

Book margins


Book margins

In book layer traditional margins setup starts with the top margin. When you choose size for top margin you double that size for the bottom margin. Inner margin should be 0,75 of the top margin and outer margin should be set at twice the size of inner margin.

Another way to determine book margins is to draw a diagonal line across the page, then set the outside margin where you want them to be. Where the outside margin hits the diagonal line, that is the place for bottom margin. Inner margin should be half the size of the outer margin and where the diagonal line hits the inner margin there should be top one.

In book design inner margins must be adjusted to allow for curvature when the book is open.

In general the more space you devote to the margins compared to the text the more formal the design is. This kind of layout conveys elegance and simplicity.


Here are some more examples of margin setups that are not traditional.


Margins - tense margins

Tense margins

Margins - informal margins

Informal margins

Margins - formal margins

Formal margins

Margins - Elegant centered margins

Elegant centered margins


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Category: Design

Comments (9)

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  1. Ignacio Quirós says:

    thanks for a very good post, What do you think of aligning text to the baseline grid?

    • Nikola says:

      What do you mean “What do you think of aligning text to the baseline grid?”
      I always do it. I like when elements are neat and organized. Can you explain your question a bit in detail please.

      • Ignacio Quirós says:

        Sorry for not making myself clear, It’s just that I discovered the “align to baseline grid” feature just recently and I wanted to know how fundamental you think it is. thanks.

        • Nikola says:

          It is very fundamental. I will do an article about it, since it is one of the most important aspects of consistent layout.
          I always set up my baseline grid but I do not make it the same as my leading. For example if my body text leading is 12pt I set up my baseline grid on 6pt. In this way I can adjust other text elements, like intros, pull quotes, image captions, to align on grid in 6pt increments. I can make leading for intro 18pt or 24 pt, for pull quotes I can set my leading on 30 or 36 points.
          In this way every element is aligned on grid and I have more maneuvering space. If I would set everything on 12pt grid then I would have to place other elements on 12pt increments. 12, 24, 36. This is two times less then with 6pt grid. 12, 18, 24, 30, 36 and so on. Some people even make 3pt grid, but that is too small in my opinion.
          If you set your body text on 10pt leading then you can set up your grid on 5pt increments.
          I will write detailed article about it, but I hope it is a bit clear now.

          • Ignacio Quirós says:

            Much more clearer, thanks.

          • Nikola says:

            Glad to help. There will be a lot more articles about grids, margins, columns and their relationship to typesetting so stay tuned.

  2. Rafael S. says:

    Hello, Nikola

    First of all I want to thank you for all your effort on putting this great content in your site. I’ve been working with magazine layout for more than 5 years, but I’m still learning a lot from your texts.

    I have one question, do you also set a vertical grid for your documents? I’ve seen some designers saying that they set their vertical grid to increase in the same amount as the baseline grid. But I can’t make that work properly because it never fits right in the page and with the columns, especially using a layout with many columns (12, for exemple).

    So, what’s your approach on vertical grids?


    • Nikola says:

      Hi Rafael

      Thank you for your kind words about our site.
      Regarding the vertical grids. Well, I almost never use them. Yes, lots of designers use them but I think they are unnecessary. Some designers like to divide the page into 12 vertical columns and 12 horizontal columns which results in a complex 12×12 grid. And this is just fine.
      But I don’t use such complex grids. I use 10, 11 or 12 column layouts and I divide page vertically into half, thirds and quarters. I set up guide lines in different colors so that I can see page divided horizontally. Using half page divider, thirds and quarters gives you opportunity to balance elements on a page. For example image can spread across 2/3 of a page and text on remaining 1/3 of a page…
      There is an area that I haven’t covered yet and it is about baseline grids and grids in general. This is one of the posts I will have to publish in future, probably the most important and most useful one..

      Regards and thank you

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