What Do You Want From Me?


It’s a story as old as time. People who should be friends and partners are out to kill each other — Cain and Abel, dogs and cats, Dr. Frankenstein and the Village. The clichéd battle between editors and art directors is near the top of the list. But why? Is it one-upmanship, jealousy, possessiveness or simply a misunderstanding about how peckish one should be in the pecking order? Did Meryl Streep really have to screw over poor Stanley Tucci to keep her job?

When editor-designer interaction becomes all about keeping score of who wins and who gets credit, it produces anxiety and resentment. Not exactly high retention qualities for a job. The creative process is more enjoyable, more exciting and more fruitful when everyone is open and focused on the same goal.

Designing layouts that seduce readers into the stories and leave them satisfied is everyone’s goal. And one that requires the skills and collaboration of both a wordsmith and a visual artist.

Editors need to prepare their copy to inspire design creativity, and designers need to be articulate and objective in defending their concepts. In short — as Betty Ford so famously noted about marriage — the relationship works best when both sides give 60% and expect 40%.

So, what should make up that 60% from an editor and a designer? Simple things, like clear communication, unbiased collaboration and mutual respect.

Here are 10 things you can do to make your magazine a whole lot better.

1. Prepare the Story

A great start on a story design begins with a great hand-off. The designer should know as much as the editor does about why the story is running and how big it should play.

A Creative Brief puts everyone on the same page. A short conversation between editor and designer is good, but a creative brief is better. This short document — the editor should craft one for each story — synopsizes the goals of the writer, the importance of the story in the magazine and possible design approaches. It can also include descriptions of supplied art and images, proposed and alternate headlines and decks, references to source material available online, and examples of tone associated with the story.

Annotate the manuscript to highlight critical phrases, keystone concepts and personal preferences. Point out where charts, figures or illustrations are referred to in the text. This is invaluable in helping the designer stay focused on the intent of the story and work through technical layout decisions.

2. Define the Three S’s: Setting, Subtext, Structure

Editors can help the designer nail the concept by explaining what the story is all about. Setting, subtext and structure each approach content from a different angle; together, they create a foundation for building a creative and pertinent layout.

Why the article is being run and how it’s aimed at your readers provide the SETTING for the piece. The setting is what determines the appropriate presentation. In enthusiast and hobby publications, for example, settings for how-to articles might be distinguished by skill level. The same idea exists for almost any kind of magazine. For a 10,000-word essay, a setting with little illustration might be appropriate for The New York Times Magazine, but totally inappropriate for Maxim.

Every story has an underlying agenda — a SUBTEXT — with an emotional component. This agenda, or subtext, is the way the editorial is intended to make readers feel about the content, and by connection, about the magazine.

Nailing the emotional context of a story in the opener can do more to engage the reader than any other element in the design. The process of creating a dramatic visual concept is more effective when the designer knows how the reader is intended to react to the story. But that’s not always obvious from the manuscript. With input from the editor, the designer is better able to give readers a great design concept to "get" the story.

For example, if Ms. Magazine publishes a major feature on abortion, the emotional context is based on the approach to the story — moral outrage, fear of conservative inroads and a commitment to the magazine’s position. The subtext follows the magazine’s mission to advance women’s rights.

Even neutrality has an emotional component. Dispassion, rational argument and lowering the invective are just as important as turning the emotional screws. A good design can communicate all of these emotional elements.

Implying through the design that the magazine shares important values with readers is the glue that builds community. A story that exposes government waste or mismanagement in The Nation has an emotional tenor of disgust or disappointment or exasperation that reflects the magazine’s values. Even something as basic as a product overview story in Macworld contains elements that build community — enthusiasm for innovation, excitement at new capabilities or satisfaction for great value.

While setting and subtext are more conceptual, STRUCTURE is a practical recognition of the way the story is constructed for maximum comprehension. Using graphic or type techniques to define the structure of the article makes the story more reader-friendly — and comprehensible.

It helps if the author has given some thought to creating an engaging structure while writing the story; if so, it’s easy for the designer to accentuate the structure through visual cues. While old-school editors might sneer at "list" journalism, it’s simple to see the graphic potential of the design. Sometimes structure isn’t apparent, though, so finding something in the story — a continuity break, a change of viewpoint, a new argument — that can be emphasized by the designer will help the layout.

3. Pay Attention to the Opening

The opening spread is the money shot of magazines. The reader needs to be convinced that the article is worth the time to read, and the opening needs to make that case. Heads, subheads, decks, eyebrows, abstracts, leaders, quotes and blurbs are all ways of throwing content on to the page to find something that will resonate with readers. It’s difficult to gauge the effectiveness of the opening copy without seeing how it’s presented in the design.

Text and image should be synergistic. The interplay between visual and text elements in an opening layout is enhanced when both supply interesting and non-repetitive elements to the whole. If a picture is worth a thousand words, it doesn’t need a thousand actual words in the story that only repeat what readers glean from the image. The juxtaposition of text and graphic elements provides emotional nuance, projects the tone of the article and conveys a snapshot of a story that demands to be read.

Think of the opening material as somewhat separate from the story itself. Used as a jumping-off point, the opening gives the designer raw material for developing an effective layout — one that yields more insight than a design that merely ornaments what has been written.

Designers are sometimes effective editors as well. Allowing a designer to present additional comps with alternate heads, decks and even opening lines in pursuit of an interesting opening spread or cover might seem heresy to some editors, but a separation of church and state here stifles creativity. Editorial design is a search for complementary text and illustration; the designer should be encouraged to rethink both image and text in search of a dramatic presentation that best serves an article.

4. Build in Brainstorm Time

Designers used to have their own ivory tower, far removed from concerns of production, page composition and prepress. Type specimen book in one hand, DesignMarker in the other, the art director’s role was to imagine concepts, then let others make them work.

The pace of older technology and a certain workplace class order kept the editor and designer apart from the production process and engaged in the creative task. Not so much these days. The editorial hand-off is often equivalent to a kiss-off. As the designer begins a long fluid sprint to the finish line at the printer, creativity may come in second to meeting deadlines.

Time needs to be deliberately built into the workflow for revision and even retrying ideas from scratch. Few people work well with their back against the wall. When there’s time only for approval, designers will try only safe and surefire approaches.

Trust and respect make brainstorming more effective. Brainstorming — whether during the initial art meeting or at comp presentation — needs to be conducted in a positive, non-hierarchal environment. The focus should stay on the merit of the ideas, not on the agenda of the person who champions them. Evaluation or criticism shouldn’t be avoided, just focused on issues.

5. Bring Examples

Every issue of a magazine is an exercise in theme and variation. The more information supplied to engage the designer, the better the result. As a starting point, examples from previous issues, other magazines and even other media can provide a lot of information for the designer to start something fresh.

Be certain examples are just that — examples. It’s pretty insulting to bring a printed piece to a designer, then ask for the idea or layout to be ripped-off. It does make sense to use it to help demonstrate an approach that might work for a particular story.

Because magazines are periodical, they can exploit cultural currency. Fads, meta-concepts, slang and celebrity define the time period in which the magazine is produced and read. Rather than avoid currency, use it sparingly to make stories more poignant and approachable. Contemporary metaphors and colorful comparisons can enhance a story; interesting source material that can be applied ironically or imitated can jump-start a fresh approach to a story.

6. Respect

Collaboration is a two-way street, and the traffic needs to flow in both directions. Many publishing environments, including some at the highest level, suffer from masthead-itis. It’s where the extreme need to maintain one’s position on the list is proven through constant displays of unilateral decision-making.

All the advantages of having a truly talented staff are lost when they aren’t allowed to express a better idea. One manifestation of this is the rigid delineation of roles in the creative process: The word people are the word people and the art people are the art people — and nobody gets to express an idea out of their job description.

Everyone has a right to be heard. Editors, assistants, designers, production people — even, occasionally, the publisher — should be invited to join the discussion, make contributions and evaluate comps. This in no way invalidates the chain of command; rather, it improves it, by giving the decision-makers access to more information. Simultaneously, it empowers and energizes the entire staff by granting them shared responsibility and credit for the process and the product.

7. Read, Parse, Restructure

An old canard in the magazine world is that designers don’t bother to read the copy. Fundamental to the designer’s job is an obligation to make the content easier to understand and more engaging to absorb, as well as to emphasize important ideas in each story. That’s hard to do without reading the text.

Readers don’t read magazines; they browse through them. Whereas writers think in linear prose, readers tend to scan stories — reading parallel content, sidebars and captions indiscriminately while diving into and out of the main text.

The designer is the first non-writer to look at the material and is, in effect, the proxy for the reader. The designer can improve reader comprehension of the story by creating more entry points to engage readers and by crafting a visual rhythm that enhances understanding.

That’s where this three-step approach works so well. Read the article, parse the meaning, then imagine possible approaches to restructure the content to improve the presentation as a magazine layout.

Ancillary material, such as sidebars, parallel content or secondary stories, provides a lively mix of content that engages the reader with multiple entry points and stronger graphic power. Often, material can be extracted from the body of the story to use in this way.
At some magazines, designers aren’t encouraged to suggest story changes because they aren’t considered "editorial” enough. But that’s precisely why they should collaborate. If the designer doesn’t understand the article, with the editor and writer available to explain it, it’s time to collaborate and reconstruct the article into something more approachable.

8. Get High

xxDesigners and editors need common ground to objectively evaluate how well a concept works. Drama, hyperbole, metaphor, cultural reference and ironic juxtaposition are all powerful creative tools for enhancing a story — if they accurately depict the content. But like any powerful tool, they can be misused, so an objective evaluation tool can help.

One way of critiquing a comp is to graph the value of the concept on two axes: Impact and Complexity. The Impact axis shows how powerful or appealing the comprehensive is, and the Complexity axis indicates how completely the ideas in the article are represented. Obviously, Low Impact and Low Complexity are least interesting on this scale. But while the best concepts should have high indices of both Impact and Complexity, sometimes High Impact with Low Complexity works better than High Complexity with Low Impact. It depends on the magazine.

Part of the tone of the magazine is how Impact and Complexity are used on a regular basis. The front page of the New York Times and the New York Post are both reserved for important news, but each has a very different definition of what that is. On our scale, it’s easy to see that the Times goes for Lower Impact and Higher Complexity, while the Post chooses Maximum Impact and Low Complexity. Each publication has a distinct style, and too much variation in that style confuses the reader. When editor and designer agree where on the chart stories should fall, it’s much easier to arrive at successful designs.

9. Enhance Branding, Theme & Variation

The designer is more than an editorial interpreter. A designer is also the defender of the magazine’s template and responsible for maintaining a distinct rhythm throughout each issue. The issue map of the magazine shows the structure of the feature well and the priority and placement of articles. But it’s the designer’s mission to create visual elements that help the reader see the relative importance of stories and to “brand” stories using similar design motifs that define their connection.

Designers have a responsibility to check their self-aggrandizing tendencies and adhere to designs that fit their magazine’s template. Some layouts — driven by visions of contest awards and portfolio pieces — are more representative of the ego of the designer than the needs of readers. The price of professionalism is to place what’s best for the magazine above individual likes and dislikes.

The Art Director should be the champion of what’s graphically best for the magazine, and charged with defending the visual integrity of the template, even in the face of a higher name on the masthead. For defending capricious alterations that violate the look-and-feel of your title, an roi defense (“it’s more profitable for the magazine”) always works better than an aesthetic argument (“it’s more professional”). Finding a solution that satisfies everyone earns a designer respect — and more ready authority in the future.

10. Sweat the Small Stuff (and it’s ALL Small Stuff)

As an issue begins to take shape, concepts are approved, final edits are made and art is assigned. That’s when the designer takes on the last and most thankless role — guardian of legibility and protector of style.

Legibility decisions belong to the designer. If things look dicey on the proof, odds are they will only look worse on the printed page. Even a close call is too close. The emotional fallout from unreadable type is pervasive. Editorial loses confidence in the designer’s respect for the printed word and suspects that the design is all that matters — as if there has to be a choice.

Inattention to detail is costly. A mispositioned photo caption or poor alignment of text across a gutter is way more noticeable than a misplaced modifier or a dangling participle, even though they’re all errors. Sure, it may be all small stuff, but it adds up. In the modern production workflow, a designer’s professional credibility is built on fastidious craftsmanship. Mistakes send a message that she doesn’t care as much about the magazine as she should. While sweating the small stuff seems like the least of the issues that designers face, by proving their competence and focus, it could be the most critical in expanding their collaboration with editorial.

When editors and designers work toward the same goals, and those goals are focused on producing the best publication possible, mutual respect and inspiration become part of the normal working environment. We’re all after the same thing — helping our readers see the big picture. Our mandates are simple: Play well with others, share the effort and reward of a job well done, communicate with each other, and focus on what works best on the page. Together, they make life more interesting and fun — and your magazine better.


Case Studies

Make a Turn-Off a Turn-On

xxA few years ago, a freelance writer sent us a piece about some of the stamps he’d collected over the years. We were blown away by how fascinating the history and stories behind these stamps were, and we knew our readers would be, too. Of course, we also knew the topic of stamp collecting was considered dull to an almost cliché degree, so the task of figuring out how to draw readers into the article seemed almost impossible. In fact, we weren’t even going to run the piece unless we could figure out a great way to sell the story.

We have an incredibly small staff at mental_floss, with just two full-time editors and one designer, but that also makes it easy for the three of us to get together and openly toss around ideas. Our art director, Winslow Taft, is always very open to our thoughts and ideas about design, and we welcome his thoughts on editorial angles, as well.

For the title, we decided to go with a self-aware, almost self-deprecating approach — an open admission that we knew stamp collecting seemed like a boring topic. "The 'I Can’t Believe We’re Doing an Article about Stamps' Article" struck all of us as the perfect way to get people smiling and warm them up to the idea of reading on. On the design side, Winslow pointed out that using actual scans of postage stamps on the opening spread would convey some of the dull and stale stereotype associated with the hobby. Instead, he offered a modern, graphic approach to the imagery and iconography of stamps that would give it a fresh look. With the editorial and design concepts both in place, Winslow pretty much just ran with it, and I think we were sold on the first mock-up he showed us after that.

Basically, we worked together to take everything that could be considered a turn-off about the topic and turned it into a turn-on. The design and the editorial on this opening spread are both fun and appealing, and together, they make the article approachable. Years later, we still have people telling us how much they enjoyed the story.

— Neely Harris, Editor, mental_floss

Milieu Mix Master

xxParking lot security may be important, but it isn’t exactly a sexy topic. So, how do you make a cover subject with impact? That was the challenge faced by the art director (me) and the editor-in-chief of Security Management (Sherry Harowitz).

Our idea was to create emotional empathy by putting the reader in the frame of mind of someone alone in a dark lot — when security really matters.

With that broad concept in mind, the editor came up with the headline "Parking Lot Perils," which, of course, brought "Perils of Pauline" to my mind. I thought a modern interpretation of the damsel in distress would make an interesting visual.

Many illustrators would be perfectly able to paint a picture of a woman in a dark and scary parking garage. However, one particular artist came to mind — James Jean, cover artist for the Fables comic books from Vertigo. The series deals with various characters from childhood fables and folklore.

Jean is a tremendously talented illustrator. I knew he would deliver a great illustration. But would the editor of a professional trade magazine share my enthusiasm in trusting our cover to a comic book artist?

It is at times like this that the level of trust between the art director and the editor matters most.

Sherry was skeptical, but I brought several Fables comic books with James Jean covers from my personal collection into the office to show her that Jean could handle any subject and bring to life any scenario. She was not totally convinced but she trusted my judgment and gave me the green light to contact the artist.

Jean ultimately produced the wonderful noir-inspired illustration that you see here — beautifully rendered, with dramatic lighting. The image of a single female in a dark parking garage with car keys in hand and an ominous shadow falling over her back captured the feeling of danger and suspense we had hoped for.

— Roy Comisky, Art Director, Security Management

Less Isn’t More, But It’s Better

xxWe recently were about to run a five-page well story on an undeveloped piece of land and how various experts — an architect, builder, landscaper and wildlife biologist — would plan the property for a country home. The story had been in the works for several months, and we had it pretty well planned. Or so we thought. We knew otherwise when we saw the layout.

It all made sense to us in previous discussions — the story line, how it would be written, the graphics we would use.
Now, it was obvious that nothing here would make sense to the reader. All the pieces were here, but they were just jumbled.

It’s never easy to tear a story apart. In this case, the writer, the designer and the editor all had to stand back, look at the finished story, and argue (just a little) before we could start over.

We took the story and, with the graphics in front of us, reorganized it into a sequential piece. Instead of one long story, we broke up the story into before, step-by-step, and finished project. We reorganized the graphics to go with the new flow of the stories, and to a large degree edited the story to fit with the flow of the graphics and the layout. We also threw out a couple of nice photos because they didn’t say anything, and added a couple that weren’t that great but illustrated what we wanted to show.

The end result won’t win any awards, but we all agreed it was far superior to what we started with.

— Joe Link, Editor, Progressive Farmer

This article originally ran in the Winter, 2008 issue of FPO.