06 Mar Katti Krause: An Argument against Pure Aesthetics in Editorial Design (Or: Read the Text, for God’s Sake!)
About a year ago, I had a conversation with an editorial designer with whom I was working on a particularly demanding book. We were having a hard time with it. I wanted to adopt a different design approach for each page, she was having trouble visually differentiating between a headline and the main text body. It was a bit of a mess.
When she mentioned a well-respected design blog, I seized the opportunity to mention to her that, in a recent entry, the author had recommended that editorial designers engage with the content they’re dealing with—in other words, read the text. “Really?” she asked, eyes wide as MacBook screen. “Wow. That’s… he’s just amazing.”
The morale of that anecdote? That I shouldn’t be writing this text. Its conclusion—as many of you will doubtlessly agree—is far too obvious. Of course you think about what it is you’re working on before you do it. Yet, to some editorial designers, the idea seems incredible. And I think that Spain has been particularly hard hit by that plague.
So, it is my belief that editorial design in Spain has moved in a direction diametrically opposed to that of its cousin twice removed, architecture. While many Spanish architects have adopted an über-utilitarianist, no-nonsense approach, some editorial designers are acting as if the words “form follows function” had never been uttered. The consequences?
1. Counterproductivity. Editorial design’s purpose is to give form to content, not to bury content under two pounds of whipped cream, put a cherry on top and pretend it had never been there. When text isn’t legible or hierarchies are unclear, editorial design has failed. When the reader doesn’t know where to look when turning a page, or takes 45 seconds to figure out what exactly it is they’re looking at, editorial design has failed. No matter how pretty that little pile of whipped cream looks.
2. Fashion victims. Editorial designers have become English Top Shop girls: they change half their wardrobe according to trend each season, with no regard whether it suits them or not. And at first glance they might look hip. Dare a closer look and they look fake and just like everybody else. Of course a lack of engagement with content is not the only reason that suddenly every third indie mag looks like Monocle or Fantastic Man. But if the best way to make an impact is by being different, the best way to be different is by looking at what it is you want to say, and deciding on the best way to say it. As a bonus, that’s also the kind of design that doesn’t have to be thrown out next season.
3. Cold war. A passive-aggressive “design v. editorial” mentality has invaded many a magazine office, with both sides entrenched in their staunch support of form and content, respectively. Ironically, they also can’t live without each other: it is design that gives form to content, and content that gives a raison d’être to design. And if form and content go hand in hand, then so should designer and editor. Design does content, and should be included in its making. That means a creative and constructive design presence from the early stages of content planning and production.
What I’m arguing is, editorial design should be functional. This doesn’t mean that there’s no space for aesthetics, on the contrary. It means the editorial designer should be able to say why they chose a certain page layout, font or headline colour—and “because it’s pretty” doesn’t count. That, of course, means more work. But also more fun. And much better books and magazines. More at Hiatus.