Visual Book Documentation

CDF Final Project

I wanted to take this opportunity to convert an “AskReddit” thread into an illustrated book. “AskReddit” is a segment on the discussion board Reddit where someone asks a question, and users can comment an answer. Users can also vote on an answer they like, and with over 14 million subscribers, the top answers are usually pretty interesting.

The thread has 24.7k “upvotes”, meaning at least 24.7k people went out of their way to commend the thread. This was one of the highest rated threads of all time.

I collected a ton of answers to the question “What is NOT a fun fact?” and I narrowed the list down to the ones I could realistically draw something from.

For the full list of the ideas, check out:

Because these were all supposedly facts, they dealt with the truths of the natural world, albeit morbid truths. I looked towards National Geographic for layout inspiration because they often work with breathtaking photographs of the natural world.

I generated a couple of my own iterations inspired by the professional layouts. The fact I used for the following sketches goes as follows:

There is a whale called 52 Blue that only sings at their frequency meaning it can’t communicate with other whales. It is nicknamed the loneliest whale on the planet.

I looked on Flickr for creative-common photographs of underwater.

The photograph to the left caught my eye because my initial thought was that a school of fish would make a lone whale stand out more.

However it was too busy of a photograph so I settled on the middle photo, a dark, depressing shot of barren water.

The image on the right shows a quick initial iteration of the whale spread. The whale was lacking in detail and it didn’t look lonely enough for a whale with no friends. Easy fix:

Also added fins

I thought the original National Geographic layout had a great balance of image size, text, and white space, so I borrowed it for the next iteration:

I was happy with the layout so I began working on the second spread in time for the first in-class critique. The fact I was working with here was:

Many small adorable furry creatures (e.g. guinea pigs, hamsters, etc.) will happily eat their own young if stressed.

Drawing a whale on the computer is one thing, but drawing a hamster eating another is something that needs to be done by hand first and then digitalized:

I found the perfect background image of guinea pictures looking worried from a distant, ideal for this fact. Here it everything in the same layout as the whale spread:

I wanted to have a cover ready by the critique as well. Nothing too complicated, just the whale as a placeholder graphic, and a fake book award to tie everything up in the ironic theme:

Time for the critique:

From the feedback of my peers, I had an idea of

What was working well:

  1. The illustration style.
  2. Short textual content.
  3. The juxtaposition of the photographs and the illustrations really fit the ironic theme.

What was not working too well:

  1. The white space.
  2. The picture and content relationship was weak.
  3. The right-aligned text was difficult to read.
  4. Citation is distracting and does not need to be on each page.

Before I could continue working on other spreads, I explored a variety of different layouts to with these four points in mind:

These iterations explored different ways to solve the aforementioned issues.

I found that the following layout was the most effective out of the bunch. It did not have whitespace so the photograph felt expansive and the text is on the photograph so the relationship between the two is inherently strong. Finally the box border is the cherry on top, adding structure to the otherwise formless layout.

Unfortunately, I realized that this layout could not possibly work for the hamster spread. The background photo with the guinea pigs is way too busy to put text onto.

I compromised by choosing the best layout with white space dedicated to text, and adding the border box:

Tried the next layout with the hamster spread and it was satisfactory. However, I felt that much of the value of that spread was in the width of the photograph, so I iterated by making the photo stretch both pages of the spread. To tie things with the other layout, I kept the border box:

Now with a solid layout chosen, it was time to brainstorm the remaining spreads using some of the other facts:

The Turkey Vulture spread was the immediate next choice for being funny, yet morbid.

Turkey vultures nostrils are the same size as their talons so they can pick dead flesh out of their nose.

I quickly illustrated the vulture using the pen tool. I thought it’d be a fun tidbit to have the remaining animal facts feature the real animals in the background, and I found the perfect photograph…

Except that there was a bird who had its wings fully spread right behind my desired illustration placement. Too distracting! Had to remove it with Photoshop.

At this point its a repeat of the same process.

Next fact:

Elephants, typically, do not die of old age. On average, the first part of an elephant’s body to give out naturally is its teeth, which eventually grind down to nothing. At this point, unable to eat, the otherwise healthy elephant starves to death.

Inspiration, Sketch, Digitalization (from left to right):

In my illustration, I looked to unmistakably portray the horrible status of hunger in the elephant’s emotion.

Best background photograph I found was one that was particularly busy. The illustrated elephant felt a bit lost in the midst of all the greenery so I added a tilt shift to blur the background and darkened the strokes of the illustration to match with the others.

With one spread left, I had to choose my fact wisely:

One day our sun will swell to a red giant and in the very least turn the earth into a giant charred cinder. It will most likely just consume the earth entirely, it depends on how big it gets.

This was a great way to end the book — on an existential crisis.

Illustration wise, no other way to draw a red giant than a giant, angry red ball.

I originally had the background as all black to emphasize the emptiness of a lifeless universe, however, the stroke of the sun blended in. A white stroke would stand out too much so I compromised with a starry background:

With all the content spreads complete, the next step was the front and back covers. I choose the vulture illustration to be the face of my book because it was eye-catching and humorous, contrasting with the described “morbid” facts as described in the title.

The back cover is simply if the front cover was viewed from behind in 3D space. It’s playful and makes the book captivating from either cover:

So I had the legal disclaimer page early in the book, and I’m required a reference page at the end of the book for the photographs used …meaning theres one free page in the front of the book and one free page in the back. What a great opportunity to create an experience that ties up the entire book.

At the front I placed an introductory title page, preparing the readers to have their day brightened. At the end I placed a conclusory page, reminding the readers that I promised to brighten their day.

Now the book is complete! Sort of.

Now the nightmare of printing.

Printing took a lot of trial and error. The first few print tests ending up having every other page flipped upside down. Found the binding option and switched it to short-edge binding. Then the next few print tests did not print the centers on each side of a double-sided page at the same locations — meaning the pages did not line up when folded. Nothing I could do about that, it seemed to be the way the printer handled duplex printing.

I brought it to FedEx to be professionally printed, and the guy couldn’t work with InDesign spreads, so I had to bring him a PDF of the separate individual pages. Multiple trials later, he managed to impose the pages into the correct order, and have it printed. Just my luck, the printers could not align the centers on each side of a double sided page either.

I decided to go with a stapled binding instead of a hand saddle-stitch one because I felt that the handmade aesthetics did no favors for the theme of my book.

And now bounded, the book is finally complete!


Overall the process of creating this visual book was satisfying and rewarding. My biggest hurdle with this project was figuring out the layout of the spreads. It was interesting to see during the first critique that the reactions to the original National Geographic style layout did not line up with my own expectations. I thought the NatGeo layout was clean and appealing and if I had followed it, my spreads would be clean and appealing as well. However, in retrospect, the NatGeo spread was a title spread and I tried to apply that layout to content. The finalized layout seemed to be successful because it was not brought up as an issue during the final critique. I’d like to officially label the biggest hurdle an issue of the past!