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What Design Can Do for the Editor

Posted on Wednesday, July 27, 2011 at 10:50 PM

Putting design to work for your editorial content.

By Jan V. White

Is print dying? Yes: lousy print is, because it deserves to. It is being displaced by something better. But good print is flourishing and will continue to do so. The difference between "lousy" and "good" is design, not in terms of its prettiness but its function.

Function has little to do with art. Design is not cake decorating. It is not cosmetic. It is not like gift-wrapping, which camouflages what it contains. Good design, like shrink-wrapping, fits what it contains, exposes it to view, and makes it look shiny and new. You know what you are getting in a blister package. Good design expresses, reflects, and exposes inner meaning. Helping inner meaning jump off the page is the true value of "design." It transmits writers' words, their inherent ideas, and their significance to the reader vividly, strikingly, memorably. If it looks startling and trendy but is essentially meaningless, it is nothing more than phony window-dressing.

Formats, templates, and style sheets

Functional design cannot be based on these elements. It has to be custom-molded to the substance it contains. It is organic. It grows out of the needs of the specific material. Every problem bears within itself the seeds of its own solution, and every problem is different from all other problems. Accomplishing this custom molding is an intellectual judgment anyone can make -- yes, even editors who profess ignorance of "design." Design is an objective, intellectual, logical set of editorial decisions. It is not prettification, which is a subjective method based on "liking." Nobody argues for ugliness, but prettiness added for the sake of prettiness is not the point. Communicating ideas is what design exists to do. If it works and gets the point across, it is "good" design -- even if it looks ugly.

There is no such thing as an aesthetic standard, nothing that is "right" or "wrong". There's only effective or ineffective. There are no black-and-white rules about anything in our editorial and design professions.

Traditions, rules, and nostrums

There are thousands of contradictory design shortcuts and substitutes that get you into trouble, because they are so easy to misunderstand. You encountered these shortcuts on the job when you were first being trained and probably continue to take them. They are in how-to books, seminars by self-appointed gurus, and magazine makeover articles. They are confusing, and it is no wonder that the untrained non-specialist (who gave up art in high school and can't draw a straight line) is confused.

Hired designers and the decision vacuum

Editors buy the "art part" from official specialists with sheepskin that certifies them as experts. Experts in what? In "arting." They have taste! They are blessed with psychic powers and inspiration that can fill the vacuum of indecision in the writer's mind.

How can they possibly know better than the writer about what the writer is trying to say? the answer: they don't. Yet the word people put them on a pedestal, so they must pretend that they do know. They are admired for their "creativity" in coming up with something that hasn't been done before. I submit that there may be damn good reasons why something hasn't been done before.

Furthermore, writers let the designers bully them into using their muse-kissed solutions. They are the visual experts who have to work in a vacuum. That vacuum is the writers' own fault; they have not thought deeply enough about the significance or utility of their story. Once they decide on is values, they know what is worth emphasizing. The "design," (i.e. type size, boldness, page layout, arrangement) all become easy decisions because they grow naturally from the understanding of what needs emphasis. Once the writers know what they want to say, they can then easily figure out how to say it, because they can shape the form to accommodate the content. They must communicate this understanding to their designers and then be in control of whatever form the designer may suggest. (That is why designers must be brought into the editing team, coached, and made enthusiastic about the content by the editors from step one. Only true teamwork can possibly produce the excellence demanded. Without overcoming that gap between editorial and design departments, only lousy print can be the result.)

Design is integral to the editing process

Design can not be a standalone step added as an afterthought, when everything else is finished. Like it or not, "editing" now embraces all aspects of communicating a message, and successful transmission of content demands control not just of the what but also the how. Unfortunately, many word people aren't even slightly competent at translating their words and ideas into transmittable visual form. These blinkered word people are now handling these arcane secrets -- doing it themselves or overseeing others who do it for them.

Alas, there are no formulas because every message, every audience, every purpose varies. You alone must judge the appropriateness of any technique:

--Two columns or three? Who knows? If I said three columns are better than two (which they sometimes are), you'd have another half-baked truism to confuse you. If I said two columns are better than three (which they sometimes are), it might not make sense for your needs. I personally prefer working in a single column because it is fastest to scan, especially in complex documents. Does that mean I tell my client always to use it? Obviously not. As with all editorial and design decisions, you get there by analysis and logic.

--Is serif type better than sans-serif? Usually, but sometimes not.

--Is ragged right better than justified setting. Yes, but it depends.

--Are all-caps hard to read? Yes, except in special situations.

--Are italics harder to read than roman? Yes, normally.

--Is Up-and-Down Style Bad in Headlines? Yes, invariably. Always.

Design isn't an arcane skill but a common-sense tool

--Typography is just speech made visible. Consider type that way, and you can begin to control it and make decisions about it that will help the reader understand your verbal message.

--Pictures are a parallel language. Think of them as such and you will start to edit them more actively, so that what they say becomes as significant as what they show. Besides, they are a visual, emotional shorthand that creates curiosity. Every picture is an opportunity for both catching and informing the viewer. Realize that images are the first thing to be looked at on the page, so use them as doorways into the text. They make viewers curious for meaning -- i.e., content. --Design is a lubricant for ideas. The ideas are more important than the shape or pattern in which they are displayed. Stop making artistic compositions for artistic reasons. Instead, manipulate your material so the viewer follows what you want them to see in the sequence you want them to, bit by bit. (Short bits are popular; long-looking ones put people off).

--First-glance value is key. Bust up big things into clusters of smaller ones. That way, you ask for less commitment from the hurried scanner. Separate stories from each other with moats of white space so that each item is recognizable.

--Strategy makes your word-and-picture message desirable. Face it: very few people actually want your publication. What they need is the information it carries. Fifteen million drillbits were sold last year and nobody wanted them. What they wanted was holes. Find out what holes your readers want, and provide them the drillbits with which to make them. Prove the usefulness of your product by giving service -- i.e., content, not glossy surface pretense. Display the content with strong, meaty headlines.

--Judge everything you do from the recipients' point of view. Not yours, theirs. You know what you are trying to say, but they don't. Inform them in such a way that they will understand it now. They want their information fast, concise, and easy to access and follow. And it had better look dramatic, or they will fail to notice it. (Yes, this is certainly one function of design.) It had better be written and edited with them in mind, with the what's-in-it-for-me value right on top, or they will not bother.

Design is salesmanship

Catapulting content off the page requires a strategy of attraction and persuasion. Good salesmanship does not tell lies. It never pretends. It explains the quality of the goods and the benefit of using them. Overdone design skews the viewer's attention and is essentially a form of lying. When the viewer looks at a page and says, "Oh, what a gorgeous page," then the design is bad, because it has drawn attention to itself and away from the message. It is usually the exciting-looking design -- which is what editors often ask for and mistakenly think is so great -- that results in this paradox. Make the design bring the message out clearly, succinctly, forthrightly. That way the function of design is fulfilled, and it has nothing to do with whether you understand "art" or not. You do understand your message, don't you? The investors (optimistically called "readers," whose assumed number determines your print run) don't give two hoots about the way the publication looks. Few get displayed on coffee tables for æsthetic admiration. They bought your product and take time to read it for its content. The way you show that content off so they get it clearly and fast is the function of the way you present it to them. That is where "design" adds value.

Jan White lectures worldwide on the relationship of graphics to editing, persuading word people to think visually and visual people to think verbally. He has worked for 50 years in magazine design. He is the author of Editing by Design and a dozen other books on publishing techniques. Contact him at janvw2@aol.com..

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"Bravo, Jan! This article should be printed out, framed, and hung up in the office of every publication and of every designer, writer, and editor. Thank you!" --Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, WriterRuth.com. 07-31-2011

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