« Editing Foreign Authors | Home | The Fog Index »

Reader-Tailored Design

Posted on Friday, November 13, 2009 at 3:40 PM

Should your magazine design take into account outside factors, such as readers' current state of mind and the economy, into account?

By Jan V. White

Saville Row, located in London, is where you go to order a suit made to measure and come out in sartorial splendor with a considerably lighter bank account. These world-famous tailors make "bespoke," i.e., custom-ordered clothing. Should magazines be bespoke to their audience?

When times are tough, should the publication's look be mournful, with somber colors, larger type size, lots of slumping italics? Or should it pretend to be brave in the face of adversity, all cheerful in pink and sunny yellow? Or is dignified, neutral, quiet best? Does prettiness trigger first-glance attraction? Should a business-to-business pub ape consumer-style in order to engage readers more?

No, no, and no. Well, maybe just a little bit, except for the b-to-b aping consumer-style, which is absurd. But these are all the wrong questions, because they ascribe too much power to "the look," whatever that look may be.

True, we are a service industry and to succeed we must present our products beguilingly. We have the same problem as a fine restaurant, where you don't just expect fresh ingredients deliciously spiced, but they must also be artfully presented on the plate. Presentation isn't a cosmetic luxury, but an integral ingredient of a good dish or a good magazine. However, it can never be more than a supportive ingredient.

The fundamental cause for the magazine's existence is to deliver a message. Therefore, it must be read. Everything else is secondary to that main purpose. Reading anything presupposes a decision on the reader's part that has little to do with design. It has to do with content. Does this subject interest me enough to bother with it? (It also assumes that the material has been handled proficiently enough not to make it repulsively illegible, but let's take that for granted.) "What matters is the message, the means is unimportant. Choose the means that'll mean the most to the audience," said the poet Steve McCaffery.

Why do they read?

I've spent half a lifetime deconstructing magazine design to make it less artistic and more functional, cogently based on sensible analysis rather than on personal taste (though that remains a component, of course). I've been stashing useful quotes for my pontifications, and the following -- from Karen Gold in New Scientist (United Kingdom), June 1992 -- is infinitely the most valuable of them all:

"How readers approach reading depends on their aims. They may need to retain every detail ... or they may simply want to know if they can safely skip a bit. To achieve these goals they may use different reading styles: browsing, searching, skimming, scanning, close study, or dipping for occasional help. ...

"Readers prefer a 'cookbook' approach to information. They want it broken down into quantities ... that they can visualize and manage. ...

"When reading technical information, people have a mental accounting system that calculates ... the effort required to gain knowledge. If they feel additional information will put too much of a load on their memory or understanding, they simply ignore it. ...

"People appear to trade a fall in understanding against the cost of doing something about it. If they feel at the top of a page that this isn't going to contain anything they need to know, then the cost component of bothering to read it in case they do isn't worth the effort."

How do they read?

To help potential readers take in your message, you have to understand them and their interests as intimately as possible. If you want your text to be read accurately, you have to ask three questions:

1. What do your readers know before encountering the information you are giving them here? What is their level of sophistication?
2. What happens during the encounter between what you are presenting to them and how they cotton to it? What is the extent of their comprehension, and what can help or hinder it?
3. What happens after they have read the piece? How can they implement their new-found knowledge?

You may not know the answers, but these questions will help direct the piece into being useful to your readers.

What will help?

We have to understand the complexity of the communication process, and simplify the message to make it easy to absorb. Since our readers are normally searching only for limited information at any one time, we must fulfill three critical criteria:

1. Expose the reason why they should bother, which results from our displaying the "what's in it for me" value in the places they look first: the captions, headlines, pull quotes. Unless those are loaded with gobbets of irresistible bait, the potential readers won't bite.
2. Organize the stuff for immediate findability and overall typographic clarity, and use signage that pops off the page.
3. Write and design for immediate comprehension.

This blends content with form, editing with design. Our products are a mosaic, synthesizing the meaning of words with the shapes we present them in. What we give our readers and how we show it affects how they interpret and understand it, and later on retain it.

In any conversation, people are readers/listeners/viewers simultaneously and participate in an exchange. Reading is only a one-way conversation, to be sure, but it is a conversation nonetheless. It shouldn't be a lecture. Be aware of how you are "speaking" visually.

The attention must not be on the visual, but rather on the message. Its graphic component should be transparent. Choose the data that are significant to the viewer, focus on them, make them clear and accessible. Do not focus on the containers of the data.

If you manage to do that, does it matter whether in lousy business times the magazine's look is mournful or brave in the face of adversity, somber brown or cheerful pink? Does prettiness trigger first-glance attraction? Not really. Substance does, and our most important task is to make that substance jump off the page and bite the reader on the nose by every technique available.

Success in persuading people to read depends on a blending of writing excellence with the visual logic of its presentation. That design, in turn, operates on two levels. On the higher intellectual level, it has everything to do with journalism and the functional expression of substance. On the lower level, it is really industrial design: styling a product that is right for its audience in its market niche.

Only there does this business of depressed or cheerful colors and their atmospherics come in. Clearly it ought to be considered, but it is by no means the universal panacea. If you manage to get the content to sparkle, then the atmospherics such as happy or sad colors matter less and less.

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. He is a frequent contributor to Publishing Executive magazine, where the original version of this article appeared (3-07) and is reprinted here with permission of the magazine.

Add your comment.

« Editing Foreign Authors | Top | The Fog Index »