Magazine designers walk a fine line between expressing their own artistic vision and adhering to a prescribed set of design elements based on editorial themes and reader preference. Wander too far in either direction and the magazine will suffer from being too abstract or too derivative. Rookie designers, fresh into the magazine field, often fall victim to these temptations. They may be fluent in Quark, InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop, but illiterate in the basic underlying structure and flow of a magazine. A young designer can have an unlimited source of creativity but might not know how to properly merge that with editorial content, and how a reader prefers to make his or her way through the departments. Here’s what to look for from your staff and how to point your own design compass in the right direction.
Find Your Own Influences
"One of the worst things is being too caught up in what’s considered fashionable," says Phil Bicker, creative director at New York-based music magazine The Fader. "You have to find things you are genuinely interested in as references. I recently spent two weeks at the New York reference library doing research. I don’t think too many young designers bother to go back to something and try to reinterpret it."
Bicker cites the influence David Carson created when alternative music title Ray Gun, with its unconventional and abstract design, debuted in 1992. "Everyone came out of design school copying his work," he says.
Likewise, Joan Ferrell, art director for American Lawyer Media, counsels designers young and old to remember the reader;and the classics. "So many designers look to other magazines for inspiration when it’s so much better to look at art for inspiration," she says. "A designer should have a solid background in design and fine art. Ultimately, a designer is a communicator. They should pay attention to the content and the audience. And drawing from primary sources like fine art, sculpture and culture is important."
Once a designer has that inspiration, however, it’s best to use it appropriately. "A designer might have an idea and they get a project and they use it whether it’s right or wrong," says Bicker. "They’re desperate to get it out of the way and it just doesn’t work. So often, if you give somebody three ideas they won’t choose the one you like. And when you’re younger, you fight and fight for that idea, and then you realize they were right."
Typography is one area Ferrell finds particularly distressing among rookie designers. "There are so many fonts, it’s tempting to use 20 in the same document just for the fun of it," she says. "I don’t think a lot of designers are being trained in typography. It’s so easy to change fonts and stretch them and throw in six other faces. That’s a huge mistake, and it’s like fingernails on the blackboard to the trained eye."
Ferrell adds that many designers fall into the habit of viewing their work only on the screen. "A lot of designers don’t view their work printed. If you’re not printing out your work and checking it, it can come as quite a shock when you print it and everything is too big. It’s especially important with typography."
Pacing and Architecture
Remember that the design is part of the storytelling process. "People tend to be design literate but not literate making sense of a piece of text," says Bicker. "Young designers don’t have a sense of pace or hierarchy of how a magazine is put together." He adds that this is where designers will most likely need to work with the edit team to properly lay out an article or department. "There are ways of stopping people as they go through the issue," he says. "Designers need to collaborate with the editors. If designers are thinking too purely in design terms, it doesn’t translate to legibility in the magazine. Make sure you’ve given the right weight to a picture or typography and then piece it all together in terms of where one starts and one ends and how they break up the stories."
Losing Old-School Values
Bad trends can take on a life of their own. "Sometimes there hasn’t been any color correction on things," says Kyle Hoepner, art director, New England Home. "And the more you see it, the more acceptable it becomes."
Hoepner sees changes in design school curriculam as one possible culprit, as well as premature advancement of inexperienced designers. "I have run into people who had been through a design program and only worked in inches and not points and picas. It makes me wonder if there’s a whole generation creating publications that doesn’t actually use the old measurements anymore," he says.
Yet in these days of fast-paced production and lean staffs, apprenticeships have gone by the wayside, and, it seems, so has attention to detail. "That all happened in an earlier time because things took longer to make and people tended to serve apprenticeships, and their supervisors would insist on certain types of standards," says Hoepner. "Changes in technology arrived concurrently in the eighties and nineties with the business moving toward slashing costs and leaner models. Anybody with any seniority got booted and a much younger generation that hadn’t finished apprenticeships got moved up the ladder. The knowledge chain got broken."
A magazine’s ultimate success is based on a team effort. At the end of the day, designers and editors need to collaborate on how a story is represented graphically and structurally. The push and pull during this stage can be productive, but rookie designers may not yet have the patience to see all angles. "Dealing with editors and corporate, that’s a real skill that takes a lot of experience," says Ferrell. "You have to be a strong advocate of your own work and understand it’s a team. Even though editors are not trained, they want to think they are. It’s always good to listen and not get into an adversarial relationship. Go to that well seldom, and chances are you’ll win when it comes down to it."
Design for Beginners
If you see your staff committing these errors, you’ve got a rookie on your hands;or a poorly trained veteran.
The designer relies too heavily on other magazines for design tips. Advise people to mix in a healthy dose of fine art or other cultural elements for inspiration.
Square Peg, Round Hole
The designer insists on using a design even if it clashes with the content. Urge patience and a willingness to listen to feedback.
The designer can’t control font usage;he loads a page with a vulgar mix of fonts just because he can. Counsel restraint and precision.
The designer is unable to recognize the underlying structure of the page. Elements just hang there. Similarly, the pacing of a story is nonexistent;all the elements blend into one another without allowing the reader to start and stop at appropriate moments. Train the designer on how a magazine is put together.