Visual Book Process Documentation

Task: Explore visual and verbal interaction by creating a visual book

My Ideas and Inspiration

My idea was inspired by Humans of New York, a blog by Brandon Stanton consisting of photographs and interview quotes from people he met on the streets of New York City.

Humans of New York blog

My initial idea was to interview several employees working on campus to hopefully get some of their background stories and encourage students to interact with campus employees more. However, I ditched this idea because I realized it was pretty difficult to get interviews with employees in the middle of the day while they’re busy doing their job and also awkward enough that I would probably need to interview quite a few to get any substantial content.

I watched an interview with Brandon Stanton, the HONY blogger, where he explains how he usually goes about conducting his own interviews with strangers. He mentioned that he has a handful of go-to questions that he usually asks people to try to get them to tell their stories, and one of these questions really interested me. It was “If you had to give one piece of advice to a big group of people, what would it be?” His purpose, he said, was not to hear their advice or opinions, but to hear the life stories that prompted them to give the advice that they did. The dynamic for my project would be a little different, since of course, I’m not as experienced an interviewer, and the people I‘d be interviewing aren’t just strangers on the street who will never see me again. To take some pressure off, I decided it would be okay for my purposes if I just received the interviewees’ inputs and/or advice, even if they didn’t really open up about their life stories.

the final concept for my book

As a result, I had to adjust the idea for my book after I started it. I had completed one interview with an Au Bon Pain employee who I had already knew, so it was easy to just arrange a time after he got off from work. For my new idea, I thought it would be interesting to get interviews with people at different positions around campus and compare the answers I received from them. I wanted to see how their roles on campus would influence the advice that they had for CMU students (or just people in general). After I decided upon this idea for my book, I emailed one of my professors in the Information Systems department, and also the president of the university.

the design of my book

The design of my book was inspired by Chatbooks, a company that allows you to create your own custom photo books. I really liked their minimalistic design, their use of white space, and the square layout. I thought that adopting similar features would keep my book simple and fit the content well. It would allow readers to focus on the people’s faces and (hopefully inspirational) quotes without much distraction.


the cover of my book

The cover of my book was inspired by this picture I found on Dribbble. I thought the amount of white space used in this square cover would complement a Chatbooks inspired theme very well. I also thought the “cutouts” on the cover were very eye-catching, especially in contrast with the white background.

Image from

The Interviews

I interviewed three different people: Qjuan Tyler (employee at Au Bon Pain), Raja Sooriamurthi (professor of my Database Design and Development class), and Subra Suresh (president of Carnegie Mellon University). For each person, I recorded the interview on my phone and later transcribed them onto a text document. Then I picked out the paragraphs that I thought were most relevant to my project and incorporated them into my book.

the questions

When I conducted my first interview, I didn’t really have a solid plan, besides knowing that at some point I’d ask Qjuan what advice he had to offer. But after I solidified my book idea, I used Qjuan’s responses to formulate the questions that I would ask the next two people I interviewed, so that I would get responses that I could more or less compare. These are the three questions that I ended up asking in my interviews in order:

  1. What is your role on campus and how did you get to where you are now?
  2. If you had to give one piece of advice to a big group of people, what would it be and why?
  3. What is your dream?

I know some of these questions are kind of broad but I left them that way to see how they would interpret them as well.

the photographs

Since this was a book focusing on the stories and advice behind different people at different positions on campus, I asked each person for one photograph of him/her at his/her job and one photograph that showed a bit more of their personality. However, I’m not very experienced at all with photography and only know how to use the camera on my phone, so these pictures were not the greatest in quality or composition. I did get some feedback during the first critique to take more candid pictures of the subjects but it’s a bit awkward to just start taking pictures of them on my phone while they’re across the table talking to me. Also, for my last interview with Subra Suresh, I wasn’t able to take pictures of him so his assistant sent me a couple photos of him that I was allowed to use for my book.


Here are some initial sketches of how I thought the pages in my book could look like. This was before I changed my book idea, but I knew I wanted to do a square 5 in by 5 in book with lots of white space around the content. I also wanted to separate the photos from the text so that I could have the photographs be square and on their own page (like Chatbooks), but I was worried that the grid would be too simple and identical across all pages. So I included some sketches mixing text and pictures on the same page to see what other kinds of grids I might like. My favorite one was still photograph as a square on its own page, and text on its own page, so I went with that.

Digital Iterations

After conducting my first interview, I did some digital iterations of a few of my layout sketches using the content from this interview.

Maximizing negative space
Most simple grid
Pictures side by side for contrast
Emphasizing certain phrases using scale and making pictures smaller
Experimenting with block quotes but I don’t think I did this one very well
Emphasizing phrases using scale and line spacing
(Attempted to) edit photos to highlight cooler tones

I liked the simplicity of the picture text page sequence but the grid did feel pretty boring. I tried to do different things to mix it up, as shown above. One thing I tried was emphasizing certain lines of text, either using scale or line spacing or block quotes. However, I felt a little unjustified in doing this, since I was picking and choosing what sentences to emphasize, which didn’t seem to be very fair to the speaker. I also tried mixing up photos and text, but I didn’t like that either because it felt more cluttered and complicated.

the interim critique

Interim critique drafts and feedback

Feedback I received from the interim critique included:

  • People liked the simplicity and “minimal vibe” of my book. There was clear hierarchy. People liked the layout where I separated photos and text more because it provided a clean and simple layout that was easier to read.
  • Some people were bothered by the amount of differing type sizes and styles.
  • Pulling out certain quotes generated mixed feelings.
  • People suggested breaking the grid occasionally.

Some ideas suggested and/or generated from the feedback included:

  • Have a cover “profile page” for each person and have it be more different than the body page. For example, use a full bleed picture.
  • Show more personality in the pages- for example, by collecting some hand drawn drawings from the people or collecting their signatures

more digital iterations

The biggest change I decided to make after the interim critique was including little pictures on the text pages. After the interim critique especially, I wanted to include more visual elements that showed what the personalities and roles of the people. These pictures also helped to break the grid more and keep the book interesting from page to page.

Including illustration on text page

At first, I considered illustrating these pictures but received feedback that having cartoonish illustrations didn’t fit my book theme very well. So I decided to use photographs instead. To do this, I looked up Creative Common licensed photographs on Pexel and pen tooled clipping masks for each photograph using Adobe Illustrator.

Including photograph on text page

the final layout sketch

Below are the sketches I drew after deciding to use these small photographs on the text pages. I also didn’t realize that the first page should go on a spread and the cover/back cover goes in the InDesign file as well, so I mixed up the numbering on these spreads.

One other piece of feedback I received after this was to include a page where I explained what I was trying to accomplish through this book. So I added a page before my current first page to explain that and to include my CC license photo credits.

even more digital iterations

I thought it was okay for some of these smaller photographs to cut across the page border since it made things look more interesting and the pages would still be touching even after binding. For example, this was one of my drafts below:

I also had a hard time with how text should wrap around these pictures. I had received some feedback that have the left side of the text wrap around an irregularly shaped object made it really hard to read and also didn’t fit very well in the simple, clean feel I was going for. But having all the text not wrap at all also made the smaller pictures feel very awkwardly placed, which was the biggest criticism by far I received during the final critique. I chose not to have most of the text wrap because I thought readability was more important for my book, but I realized after a lot of the pages looked very awkward as a result.

The remainder of my digital iterations were mostly just playing around with where to place these smaller pictures and how to make the text wrap around them, if at all.

Cover and Back Cover

From my inspiration, I knew I wanted to do rectangular cutouts from a white background, with the underlying picture on the cover as the Walking to the Sky sculpture. I chose it because it is one of the most iconic objects you can find around campus and it has people on it, which is the focus of my book. Here are some iterations in screenshots:

Final front cover

For the back cover, I just decided to extend the rectangle cutouts by a little bit and include a picture of a CMU building.

Final Product

For the physical book, I printed the cover on 80 lb cardstock and the inside pages on 32 lb paper. The book was 5 in by 5 in and I bound the book using staples.

Final Critique

Some feedback I received during the final critique included:

  • Almost everyone liked the use of the smaller pictures to accent each person’s quote pages.
  • However, many people didn’t like how the smaller pictures were placed and said it felt “messy”. I think this problem could’ve been solved by wrapping the text around the objects in these pictures.
  • Most people liked my layout. It was clean, simple and had good hierarchy.
  • A few people didn’t like the type I had used for the name and description. They suggested that I try different typefaces and/or leading.

my afterthoughts

I think I did achieve what I had hoped to accomplish. It was really interesting to see the varying responses I received to these questions. Although I didn’t get any extremely emotional life-changing stories, I think their advice for CMU students really revealed each person’s role and priorities in life. For example, Qjuan is very focused on being true to himself and achieving his dreams of becoming an actor or singer. My professor’s advice was focused on working efficiently, which is advice he would probably give to his students. But he also gave advice from the point of view of a father, since he said he often gives the same advice to his kids at home. On the contrary, my interview with Subra Suresh was much more rushed and formal than the other two, which is understandable, since his schedule is probably packed everyday. His advice for students was very university-oriented and very general.

Some things I wish I had done differently now after the final critique feedback is wrap the text around objects, and play around with more text styles for the description of the people.