Designed for Success: Disguising Cutbacks
Nothing is more important than useful content. If you have that, then design can only help to get people to notice it and thence to read it. If your content is mediocre, no visual fireworks will improve it. They may enchant for a while, but in the long run, “Form without substance casts no shadow” (T.S. Eliot). But what if you simply have to cut costs with measures such as switching to saddle-stitching instead of perfect binding, or eliminating UV coating from your covers, or opting for a lower paper grade or cover stock? Can design camouflage the loss? Yes, but not the way you might expect. This is emphatically not the opportunity to deceive with phony, cosmetic, visual “excitement.”
On the contrary. It is an opportunity to establish your presence as a force ever more clearly. You achieve that by emphasizing your product’s special character with consistency from cover to cover. Honestly, the paradox about less being more works.
Here are 10 more techniques to strengthen your publication’s visual appeal, despite any visual cost-cutting measures:
1. Make the most of it by doing the least.
The immediate temptation is to shout louder, distract the reader from the cutbacks. More of everything. But variety DISintegrates. It breaks up the whole into little bits, and it becomes less significant. You want the opposite: to make all individual bits look exactly like what they are—components of an integrated whole. That way, the “whole” looks like more, even if it is, indeed, smaller! Each element adds its own significance to the obviously valuable package the subscriber invests in.
2. Resist the urge to squoosh more on the smaller page.
Don’t overcompensate. Crowding by making type smaller and tighter, and reducing interline spacing are exactly the wrong tactics. It isn’t the number of words the subscriber is impressed by. Nothing turns off potential readers more effectively than too much small type. Fewer words that are better displayed is what readers appreciate. Tiny type draws attention to its own annoying smallness. Bigger-than-expected type is an unexpected pleasure, accepted with gratitude, if it carries valuable content. Will anybody even notice—or care—that the page is a bit smaller and the stock a bit lighter when it carries such marvelous information? Quality trumps volume.
3. Attract attention by display type.
Make headlines longer, so the reader senses the promised benefits in the story below. Make the content’s value irresistible at that first glance, so more words are needed. Who said headlines must be short? The fewer the stories, the more important it is to sell the utility of those you have.
4. Create recognizable character.
Use a single typeface for all your display (headlines, subheads, decks and captions). That’s the easiest way to create a product that has consistency and unity, and therefore looks bigger and richer, despite reductions. The smaller you are, the better it is to simplify, simplify, simplify.
5. Exploiting visual/verbal sound bites.
Write enthusiasm-generating captions because they don’t just describe the subject of the picture, but bring out its inherent fascination. Make them as long as they need to be, and set them in larger type so they can’t be missed. If possible, avoid dropping out or surprinting on the picture itself.
6. Invest in infographics.
Not only are infographics a fast means of transmitting information, but they are also noticeable if you run them large enough and enrich the appearance of your product. Don’t just use them as primitive pie-chart illustrations of statistics, but use them to transmit what the implications of the facts are (just like longer headlines transmit the benefits within the story).
7. Expose abundance by numbering.
I preach this all the time, but for a good reason. People love lists, especially numbered ones. Showing off all the good stuff with great, big, pretty numerals focuses attention on the service you are providing. When you announce on your cover the 10 new ways to beat cancer, readers won’t even notice that you are no longer shiny or perfect-bound.
8. Overcome show-through.
Thinner paper cries poverty more obviously than anything else. Reduce the ugly curse of transparency by careful manipulation of the edges of pictures: Align them precisely wherever one picture backs up to another on the other side of the page. Make them deliberately equal in size, shape and placement. (Yes, that demands extra thinking.) Stick carefully to your grid, if you have one, but if all you work with is standard columns and the gutters between them, then stick to them. If columns back up accurately, then there is no show-through to worry about—and your bonus is a neater product.
9. Avoid gaudiness.
The essence of effective branding is elegant simplicity. The less of you there is, the more vital branding becomes. What there is must be special and important. You want to show off its valuable content and control its unique visual character. Color (or, rather, its picked elite) is your best weapon. The fewer colors besides black you use, the better. One is best, because its singularity adds a trademark value to your brand, and it is not black (thus an ideal means of signaling emphasis). Colors are like typefaces: If you use a whole bunch indiscriminately because you “like them,” you deserve the mess you get.
10. Be "with-it."
That’s just a question of fashion, style, contemporary taste. “The look” is what is usually meant by the word “design.” Every publication needs to have its own look that creates its recognizable personality. It is a vital advantage in persuading the viewer to pick it up as an old, trusted friend. Depending on who it is and whom it is for, it can look as up-to-fashionable-date as the most fashionable magazines. But let’s confidently return to what really matters: content. “Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow,” said Aesop, who wrote around 550 B.C. and whose content is still in print in various page sizes, faces, stock and bindings.
Jan V. White is a magazine design guru and author of “Editing by Design” (www.Allworth.com).