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Flow, Flow, Flow

Posted on Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at 2:15 PM

How content and form must work together in the multi-page production process.

By Jan V. White

Editors honestly have no idea that such a thing as flow even exists. I know whereof I speak, because I've worked with literally thousands of editors in all these too-many years of consulting. Ostensibly, my specialty was designing multipage products (mostly magazines), but that was just labeling to merchandise my living. The real subject was not publication designing but publication making, because it is impossible to separate the intellectual content from its presentation if you hope to make those publications better. What it says and how it says -- content and form -- must work together because they are the sides of the same coin. No, wrong! They are an amalgam of the metals and appear identical in both sides of that same cliché coin.

If you find designers (of whom there are, alas, many) who think page design is in and of itself a valid artform, they may well be great page-designers. The lucky ones who find a job that pays well become advertising art directors who come up with stunning pages or spreads. Prizewinning images appear in annuals. The better such single-impression-makers they are, the lousier magazine-makers they are because multi-page product-making is a whole different animal. It is also far more difficult because it is so much more complicated. Lest you assume that this is only valid in print, I assure you that identical thinking applies for all the moveable -- i.e., multi-impression -- presentation in electronic formats. The key difference between "page-design" and "multi-page design" is that little word "multi-". ("Multi-page" is anything from a four-page newsletter to the Encyclopedia Britannica, rest its printed soul).

So why do you, sophisticated wordperson, care about that multi-page production process? Isn't that just "art" that you buy as a service? ("Too damn expensive waste of space better filled up with the valuable stuff: your words!") The answer is simple: that amalgam the coin is made of.

What follows is as concise a set of eye-opening principles, verities, realizations (call 'em what you will) as I can assemble so you get the idea. It is condensed, but each bit can be expanded into how-to chapters to explore. (Convenient and cheap way of doing that is ordering Editing by Design, 3rd ed., ISBN 1-58115-302-3 by guess who?)

Don't think of pages as static, standalone units.

Instead, see your multi-page medium the way readers do when they flip pages. Each fresh impression is a link in a chain, and the entire chain is the publication. Back to front, front to back. To enrich the product and make it successful, you must exploit its processional capabilities by understanding three interdependent techniques:

1. Realize how printed pieces are physical objects with built-in assets

a. The "thing" must be held and handled to be examined.
--Its size, weight, smell, amount, color, texture, feel is a reality.

b. We think of it as flat, but in the hand it is curved and floppy.
--On-screen the page is flat, but that is cheating. Remember reality.

c. It is glanced at fleetingly to assuage curiosity, then studied slowly.
--Watch yourself approaching a new product. You always examine it twice.

d. Only the outer halves of the pages are seen first.
--You hold it by the spine, so you can't see the inside 'til you open it up.

e. Everybody looks at page-tops, few notice page-bottoms.
--The head is where the interesting stuff goes, footnotes hide down below.

f. Space flows from left to right, across the gutter and overleaf.
--Just a habit in western cultures. Enough said?

g. Place signage where it will be noticed: left/top-left or right/top-right. Isn't it ridiculous to hide your symbols and signs in the gutter?

2. Exploit the third dimension

a. Excitement is maximally effective in a quiet context.
--A first startling element is reinforced by the next one.

b. Exploit flow to create variety, pacing, contrast, surprise.
--Sequence stories deliberately as if you were directing a movie.

c. Use horizontal instead of vertical shapes for continuity.
--Spreads are wider, larger, more impressive than boring little singles.

d. Think and plan in multi-spread patterns.
--If one is good, two is better, three is much better, four is great, five is pow!

e. Apply space-and-time series to tell the story.
--Think how effectively the "anime" word-and-picture flow works.

f. Align edges of things from page to page.
--Recognizable, repetitive placement builds valuable continuity.

g. Be precisely accurate when patterning from page to page.
--Craftsmanship bespeaks care and value. Sloppiness destroys quality.

3. Use disciplined repetition to create personality

a. Consistency builds recognition, but variety disintegrates it.
--The simpler the better because the more familiar.

b. Controlled sequence of impressions accumulates into "muchness."
--The more repetitive, the more recognizable, and thus a richer total.

c. Repetition creates recognizable rhythms.
--People are comfortable with what is familiar, expected.

d. The type is the visual glue that holds the piece together.
--Use one font (face) throughout; vary only its sizes and arrangements.

e. A grid is the structural underpinning for visual rhythms.
--Repeated relationships like alignment organize, unify, strengthen.

Jan White lectures worldwide on the relationship of editing to design. He tries to persuade word people to think visually and visual people to think verbally. He is the author of Editing by Design, 3rd Ed, and a dozen books on publishing techniques. Contact him at janvw2@aol.com.

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