“I Dare You to Read This”—Why Editors Have to Control the Look of the Publication

By Jack Limpert

I love the comment that came in today from journalist Bob Kelleter about an earlier post titled, “An Editor Tries to Make Sense of Editorial Design: What Are They Thinking at SI and the Atlantic?”

“Too many designers,” Kelleter says, “would prefer working in cyrillic, in which case readability is irrelevant. The page is just a blank palette on which they may arrange beautiful shapes and colors. I’ve seen too many pages with 7 point red type on a black background.”

The readability problem that Kelleter raises is easily fixed: Editors have to control the design of their publications. At too many magazines editors either don’t have the power or lack the confidence to do it.

When I started as a magazine editor, I handled the words and let the designers design. I didn’t know much about design and figured they were the experts.

What became clear is that most designers design for other designers, not the readers. And what gets applause from other designers is being cutting edge, being different, or, as Kelleter says, arranging beautiful shapes and colors on a blank palette.

It also became clear that lots of designers aren’t readers. When I’d raise a clarity question, too often it became obvious that the designer hadn’t read enough of the story to understand it.

It’s the editor’s job to make designers come up with designs that help the reader understand what stories are about, that help lure the reader into reading the story.

My strategy as an editor was to first have the power to make them think that way. After about a year of watching designers design for other designers, not for the readers, I went to the publisher and asked that he let me control the art department budget as well as the editorial budget. I made the case that I could make things work more efficiently, and maybe save money, if I could control both budgets.

When you control the design budget—their salaries—the debates between art and editorial take on a different tone. And when you do the hiring and firing, that makes it clear who has the last word.

The edit-art relationship wasn’t hostile. I didn’t tell the designers how to design. I just insisted on clarity for the reader: What’s the story about? And do the headline, the pictures, and the picture captions help lure the reader into the story?

And is the type readable?

I recently was asked by another editor if I had any suggestions for how she could improve the magazine she was editing. Almost every suggestion was design-related. Too many pictures either didn’t have captions or the captions were so short and uninteresting that they didn’t encourage the reader to read the story.

And the reversed type! It can be a nice change of pace if it’s legible and not overdone. But as Kelleter says in his comment, “too many pages with 7 point red type on a black background.”

I’d guess that about half the reversed type in magazines is a designer’s message to the reader: I dare you to read this.

Do you want readers to read your magazine, to buy another copy? Work with the designers in a cooperative, friendly way. Let the designers be creative, don’t tell them how to design. But always put the reader first. If what’s on the page is not clear to the reader, if it doesn’t encourage the reader to read the story, it’s the editor’s job to say no, let’s try again.

 

 

 

 

 

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