The do’s and dont’s of Guide Book design

{title}I thought it would be good to conduct a bit of research for an upcoming article i’m writing.  Guidebooks are a kind of book I just can’t do without when going to a different country or, especially, on a city break.

On a city break, if you’re doing the whole cultural thing, you generally need overviews on what’s available, but then more information if you want it. You also need maps, and good ones.

For someone who had relied on Guide Books pretty heavily travelling throughout South East Asia, Europe and Australasia i’ve become very attuned to the design of guide books and specifically how a badly designed book can have a seriously detrimental effect on your travel experience. Like I said, I was thinking about this the other day whilst researching this article i’m writing and was thinking about a couple of things - 1. The design, 2. The access structure and 3. The information architure.

Sound familiar? A lot of the user/reader requirements mirror website requirements. A guide book, like most reference material, is constructed in a non linear fashion, categorised by location and meets the users task.

An author who understood this is Richard Saul Wurman, the father of Information Architecture, and his Access guidebook series.


I’ve seen a few of these books, but have yet to own or use one in the way it was intended (note to self, buy Access guides). I know the design and access structure of these books is by and large incredibly well considered, from maps and clever ways of orienting yourself, to well structured typography.

If like me you’ve had the unfortunate experience of going to a city with a bad guide book, you’ll relate to what i’m about to say.

A few years ago I took my girlfriend (now wife) to Barcelona for a surprise birthday trip. I borrowed a Time Out guide to Barcelona to make sure we made the best time of the couple of days we had there. As my father is an Architect I should have known all about Gaudi and his beautiful buildings. However, if you’ve grown up with a father as an architect you learn not to listen at an early age when he rambles on about crumbling buildings all over the world. Therefore I didn’t know anything about Gaudi. The guide book should have informed though. It didn’t, and we missed it.

I think the Time Out guides are great if you plan to spend more than a few days in a place, or you live there, but for a trip of a day or so I really don’t think they cut it.

So, back to the reason for this now rambling post.

What do you look for in a guide book? Does design inform your decision? Are loyal to a particular brand of book, eg Lonely Planet?

It’d be interesting to see some of your thoughts.

Previously : I’m back!