How to Assesses Your Publication Design
Why do editors and art directors fight over design? Because each views it his own way. Management sees design another way still, and often underestimates its impact on a magazine’s success.
Obviously, everyone wants the product—whether on paper or in electronic form—to look attractive and unique. It’s good for building loyalty, sales and recognition in ad agencies. The readers, however, don’t really give a darn about what it looks like, so long as it delivers what they need. Substance is what they pay for. If the design brings that substance to the casual viewer’s attention, it is fulfilling its highest function. If it helps explain the substance by organizing it into logical components to guide the viewer through faster, blessings on it! If it manages to do all that attractively, well, so much the better. But attractiveness, in and of itself, is not design’s primary purpose, and if it is, then fights become inevitable.
Case in point. There’s a fourth member of the publishing team who regards the design in his own special way: the author. He wants to be made to look important, wise. So when the April issue of Publishing Executive came, I admit I first looked for my column on “Curb Appeal.” When I found it, I thought, “Hey! What happened to the other two drawings I had included? It takes more effort to come up with telling illustrations than words, and I am convinced that pictures pull you in. Yet they’re gone! In their stead, two ugly boxes with shadows that out-shout the dignity of my gentle, simple, instructive piece. And here, instead, is the intrusion of those commercial-looking boxes that look like ads!”
And then I actually began thinking about those boxes. What is their value to the reader? What do they say? Why did the editor pull those thoughts out and ask the art director to display them in such a highly visible way?
That’s when I realized that they are precisely and exactly what should have been done, in order to make that column more useful to you, our beloved reader. That’s what we exist for! To be useful, concise, fast.
Compare the “before” with the “after” images (below). Look how the key points pop out so they bite you on the nose. Then look at the headline in the box at lower left: They took the word “readers” and struck it out, and wrote the word “viewers” above it in red—the essence of the whole piece! Right on!
Sure, the spread would have been nicer-looking with my two brilliant drawings making their points, and without the boxes. But who cares? And that is the essence of this piece: Who, in fact, cares?
Our only duty is to our investors who start out as viewers and become readers when they sense it is worth their while.
The “5 Tips for Making the Reader Care” sidebar below highlights ways to improve your magazine’s reader-appeal.
How Management Should Judge the Design
Anything that may inhibit readability should be re-thought. This has nothing to do with personal taste or aesthetics. It is a coldly analytical calculation of the reaction recipients are likely to have to your product—both in its individual components and in its entirety in the marketplace.
Writers and editors may object to such interference, and designers may be frustrated because they are being denied freedom to do what they believe they were hired to do. However, if the arguments can be kept to a professional and analytical level and away from personal preference, a better product that fulfills the recipient’s needs will ensue. That’s the only significant factor in today’s competitive environment.
Jan White, author of the book "Editing by Design," lectures worldwide on the relationship of graphic design to editing. After 13 years with architectural magazines at Time Inc., he established his own publication-design firm in 1964. He has written dozens of books on editing and design techniques.
Related story: 5 Tips for Making the Reader Care