On Beauty in Textbooks

On Beauty in Textbooks

Classical educators know that the human mind and spirit need beauty. Classical schools are often willing to pay a premium to build facilities consistent with the literature and music studied in class. We readily understand that harmony of form contributes to harmony of mind, and this applies to the whole campus environment—furniture, window treatments, storage areas, landscaping, and even textbooks.

Perhaps I should say especially textbooks. After all, most students spend as much time in their textbooks as in their school’s physical environments. Expecting students to read from an ugly book is akin to asking them to listen to a lecture in an empty warehouse or while sitting in the dirt. If we must use textbooks rather than primary documents, those textbooks ought to observe the principles of classical design.

Creating a beautiful text begins with the overall design. The page layout should be apposite to the topic under study. The pages should be pleasing in appearance and easy to look at, free of repeated large fields of dark color or extreme. Bleeds (where colors are carried right to the cut-edge of the page) are overused, and can result in a cluttered or saturated layout. The design elements in a text (boxes, colors, shapes, and so on) should be consistent and tasteful. Careful attention should be given to the number of discrete design elements visible on a single spread. If there are too many design bells and whistles (it is not uncommon to see pages with as many as 20), the experience is suffocating. Classic design strikes a pleasing balance between cluttered overdesign and barren, lifeless minimalism.

The graphics used in a text are of obvious importance. It is common today for publishers to design textbooks to resemble websites, with aggressive and distracting graphics scattered on nearly every page. Books are not websites. The ads on a website are designed to distract, but the design of a book ought to make it easier to fix one’s attention on the text, and the graphics in a text should contribute to the book’s readability, not detract from it.

Much more can be written about graphics—entire books, in fact. But a crucial factor, particularly for students in their teens, is whether the graphics are silly, demeaning, or undignified. Students know when they are being patronized and they resent it. Rather than stooping to childishness, the design philosophy of texts should draw students upward toward the adult world they are approaching. This principle also bears on the fonts used in the textbook. Just as it is inappropriate for the graphics to shout at students, it is equally inappropriate for the fonts to do so, which implies a hard limit on the size of the fonts used in a heading or banner. Block letters that are one or two inches tall, no matter how cleverly arranged, make students feel shouted at.

Finally, it would seem obvious that the colors in a text should be pleasing, but this too seems lost on, publishers and curriculum committees alike. It is one thing for a novel to be printed in black and white, but a black-and-white science text is like a feast consisting of nothing but plain, white rice—it will keep you alive, but that’s about it. A text should make use of a specific color palette, consisting of an assortment of light and dark colors that fit together in a pleasing fashion, neither strident like dissonant chords nor feeble like under-spiced food. Instead, the colors should generate in the student a desire to stay, sit, and read attentively.

Just as the health of our bodies depends upon our diet, the health of our minds depends the good order of our attention. Our minds and bodies both can be fed either a well-balanced, well prepared diet, or junk. We understand this intuitively when it comes to the content of books and movies, but they apply to everything the mind encounters. There is a lot of ugliness in our environment today, but since we have a choice about what books we compel our students to read, the least we can do for them is select texts that are salutary in both content and form.


John D. Mays’ degrees include a BS in Electrical Engineering from Texas A&M University, a Master of Education degree in Secondary Education from the University of Houston, and a Master of Liberal Arts degree from St. Edwards University. He also has completed 36 hours of graduate study in the field of Physics. John entered the field of education in 1985 teaching math in the public school system. John is the author of Novare Science textbooks, published by Classical Academic Press. He has three adult children and lives with his wife in Seguin, Texas.

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