Monday, January 02, 2006

Meeting recap: Making the editor-designer marriage work

Keep the union blissful by communicating more effectively.
By Jessica Harper, KC Chapter Secretary and Managing Editor, Veterinary Economics

The all-too-familiar conversation:

“I just don’t like the layout. It’s not working,” the editor said.

The art director shifts, annoyed at this vague critique of a spread she’s just spent two hours perfecting. “What don’t you like about it?”

“I’m not sure,” the editor said.

Sound familiar? You aren’t alone. Many business press editors aren’t experienced at critiquing layouts, but they need to provide feedback on the magazine’s artistic direction. The problem: Such a conversation doesn’t provide helpful feedback, and it can damage your relationship with your designer. And the relationship between editor and art director can make or break a magazine, said Carol Holstead, associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, speaking at the Kansas City Chapter’s May meeting. “Good relationships require communication.”

Five Communication Tips
1. Learn about each other’s trades. “Art directors need to know something about words, and editors need to know design language,” Holstead said. The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams, Peachpit Press, is good basic start for editors, she says.

Exercises that spur communication about design can also be helpful. For example, gather several business publications and spend a couple hours looking through them. Point out what you both like, what you don’t like, and what might work for your magazine.

2. Hold an art meeting. “Talk about articles that are going to be in the issue,” Holstead said. “If nothing else, talk about the cover story.” Holstead recommended holding these meetings early in the process, so you have time to work on some things in house using Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator and, if budgets allow, freelance out a few pieces. Local schools are great places to tap for hungry artists looking to get published, she said.

3. Keep an open mind. “Don’t shoot down an idea right away,” Holstead said. “Try to trust your designers, and let them do what they’re good at. It also encourages them to stay if they have input. Why couldn’t a designer suggest headlines? Sometimes a designer will be roughing in an article and will put in the best headline.”

Jan White, magazine consultant and author of Editing by Design, agrees that making the art director feel a part of the editorial team is a positive. “The more the art director feels [like] a journalist, the better the art director will become,” said White in a presentation at the National Editorial Conference in Philadelphia in June. To help facilitate communication, he suggested editors and designers be situated as closely together as possible in the office environment and outside, too. “You want [them] to have lunch together,” he said.

4. Don’t be territorial about the work. “The editor has the final say, but open the discussion by asking the art director’s opinion,” Holstead said. “Keep files of designs that you like. These can help stir up the pot when trying to come up with ideas.”

5. Hire right. If you have the opportunity as an editor to weigh in during the hiring of an art director, take advantage of it. Things to look for include versatility in design pieces, a sense of style, and a sense of humor, Holstead said.

Parting Thoughts
In today’s frantic competition for reader’s attention, you can’t fall into the trick of thinking that because your magazine’s No. 1 people will gravitate to it, White said. “People are lazy,” he said. “We have to make it as easy for them. You have to blend content with form: writing with design. It is absolutely essential that word people (editors) know that design is not added, it is an integral part [of the package].”

“Above all, you should feel proud of the package you’re delivering to your readers,” Holstead said. “It’s easy to underestimate the value of design in business-to-business magazines. [But remember], the visual part gets these busy people into the magazine.”

Becoming an Old Pro at Critiquing Layouts
After the designer has created rough layouts, you need to provide feedback. This may be a challenge if you aren’t experienced at it, but it gets easier with practice, according to Carol Holstead, associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas. Here are some questions she suggested asking to get yourself started:
  • Does the design communicate the story clearly and effectively?
  • Will it entice readers into the story?
  • Will readers see the most important element first (headline or art)?
  • Does the layout flow logically? Pay particular attention to stories with lots of entry points such as photos, sidebars, graphics, and pull quotes.
  • Does the design tie all the pages of the story together?
  • Does the design express the magazine’s personality? Does it provide continuity?

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