The student cookery book: a design case study

The student cookery book: a design case study

Cookery books can be excellent examples of information design. They make good use of space and images, set out complex instructions intuitively and can be engaging to read. A good cookbook will sit in a kitchen for years, pages naturally falling open at favourite recipes and smudged with memories of meals gone by.

I have a large collection of recipes accumulated over decades of cooking. Most are “meals in minutes”, dishes prepared in about half an hour with limited ingredients. I like to eat a freshly prepared meal each day, but like many I rarely have the time for a banquet.

The “Student Survival Guide” emerged as a concept from these and my daughters heading off to university. Like most students, it was the first time they lived away from home and had to fend for themselves for more than a few days. The concept was for a practical housework and cooking book they’d keep nearby for 3 years of study.

This case study walks through the creation of a signature recipe in the book. 

Elements of a recipe

All recipes have three essential elements:

  • A name of the dish
  • A list of ingredients
  • The method

Sometimes other elements are added, such as photography, preambles, tips and hints. These are used in ways that still preserve the trinity of name, ingredients and method.

For the signature dish (a chorizo, pepper and pasta meal) I decided a preamble and full-page photograph would help it stand out.

The target book

The cookbook was small. I focused on the US Trade 6 x 9 inch size (15.2cm x 22.7cm) paperback, using as my guide.

Lulu Page Specifications for a print on demand paper back book
Lulu’s page specifications for the target paperback

My expectation was the cookbook would be used in a small kitchen and probably held open by placing a rolling pin or similar weight on it. I assumed this would hide the top third of the page and whoever was cooking would need text in a reasonable font size with clear separation between steps.

The book would include both “signature” and regular dishes. The former would feature hero photography, the latter would not. It was likely only a handful of recipes would have a photograph to keep printing costs down.

Grid design

I settled on a grid using the top third of the page for title and preamble, with the ingredients and method set side-by-side beneath. A review of my other recipes suggested this format would work well with a little light editing.

I constructed my page layout around this design and a grid set out on the master. I used notes to guide and remind me of key points in the design. During proofing and final versioning, I remove the grid.

The grid layout adopted for a recipe spread
The grid layout adopted for a recipe spread

Choosing the right fonts

I selected fonts that work well when printed. They had to be clear as they would likely be read from a distance in a busy kitchen. Gill Sans Light 12pt at 115% line height worked well for the ingredients and method. I adopted a slightly larger 14pt for pre-ambles, while the page title was a clear Helvetica Neue 32pt at 90% line height. This latter choice gave the page title a hint of tension, which worked to the “survival guide” theme running through the concept.

The Gill Sans font is mature, which minimised the need for kerning (adjusting the space between characters). However, the number 1 stands alone from those characters around it, which affected clarity. I made some minor adjustments to correct this.

Photography (could do better)

The facing page was taken up by a single image. It was shot somewhat hastily, although as an illustration of what could be done in a concept it does a reasonable job. I would limit the number of photographs in the book to keep production costs down and hold it out of a higher price bracket.

Cookery book signature dish concept
The final spread concept

Adding more recipes

The recipe grid was designed to work on either left or right-hand pages. I would expect most recipes to face one another. I experimented with some basic recipes such as boiling and frying eggs, which worked well when placed side-by-side.

Testing the page layout with different styles of recipes
Testing the layout with different styles of recipe


As a simple layout for a student’s cookery book the concept works well. It presents the key elements of a recipe in a way that’s easy to use and read.

The final page layout as it would appear in the book
The final page layout as it would appear in the book

About Ross A Hall

A business researcher and writer, I help companies find new markets, form strategies and build successful businesses.

Find out more about my work.

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