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Jan V. White: d. December 30, 2014

Posted on Friday, January 30, 2015 at 12:55 PM

Legendary magazine designer and frequent Editors Only contributor deceased.

By William Dunkerley

Jan White was not just a magazine designer. He was a passionate evangelist for good design. An underlying message in his commentaries was to encourage us all to make design and text function supportively together.

I met Jan many years ago when he was an impassioned luncheon speaker at a Society of National Association Publications event. I bought his now classic book, Editing by Design. But quickly I found that it was hard to keep it on my office bookshelf. Staff members kept swiping it. The stealth borrowers were from both the editorial and design departments. So when I went to look for the missing book, I never knew where to start looking. Ultimately, the solution I found was to buy my own copy and to keep it at home!

Since 2009, Jan White has been a frequent contributor to Editors Only. As a tribute to his work, we now present a somewhat random collection of his sage advice:

--"Chill out on technological trickery. Return to useful ideas, clearly expressed and presented. Everything else is eyewash."

--"All the techniques of geometrical alignments and spacings make sense by clarifying the elements. Why is that useful? Because people like short bits and resent big ones."

--"First-glance curiosity is vital, because your effort is wasted unless potential readers are interested. So we must use visual salesmanship to play up elements, make them noticeable, and thus user-friendly."

--"Publication-making is a creative cultural boon. It is about doing things that are worth doing for their own sake -- all to increase the sum of human knowledge and understanding. Making flowers bloom."

--"Excellence of content is identical whether it is on slow, boring paper, or in flashy digitized format. The intellectual process we call 'thinking' that works so well on paper is absolutely appropriate when it is converted into electronic formats. It is all the same process."

--"Is our 'dying' profession dying? I submit that it is more alive than ever, because it is as valid and vibrant as ever, because what we do continues to be as useful and important as ever. It is needed."

--"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."

--"We have to understand the complexity of the communication process, and simplify the message to make it easy to absorb. Our readers are normally searching only for limited information at any one time."

--"Once you know the point of the message, you can start searching for its cogent image. Forget being 'creative.' You are not looking for a florid visual with which to make a splash -- there are too many meaningless visual splashes all around as it is, and who is swayed by such efflorescence? Instead, you are searching for something that will make the point of the message startling, understandable, memorable, persuasive."

--"Is white space wasted space? Not if we make it work for its living. We must use it as a tool to improve the capacity of the visible page to tell our story both clearer and faster. Used to practical purpose, we don't need to invest vast swaths of emptiness for dramatic contrast. Forget conspicuous consumption. We can hardly afford the luxury of 'a place for the eye to rest.' Probably never will again. Instead, concentrate on servicing the readers. Use deliberately controlled bits of white space as raw material to lead them to what matters and expose the information in clear, fast, and bite-size chunks."

--"One of the myths of publishing is that 'readers' are readers. They start out as viewers. Searchers who flip, scan, hunt and peck, looking for the nuggets they want. In a hurry, saturated with 'information,' and perhaps a bit lazy, they need to be lured into reading. 'Persuaded' might be a better word, because luring implies bamboozling, and duplicity has no place in publishing. The least trace of trickery is self-defeating, because it destroys the potential reader's trust. Persuasion that is credible exposes the valuable content. Making value accessible makes the publication useful and liked. Combining accessibility (i.e., making things easy to find) with speed (i.e., at first glance) makes the publication a useful, dependable tool."

--"Editors honestly have no idea that such a thing as flow even exists. I know whereof I speak, because I've worked with literally thousands of editors in all these too-many years of consulting. Ostensibly, my specialty was designing multipage products (mostly magazines), but that was just labeling to merchandise my living. The real subject was not publication designing but publication making, because it is impossible to separate the intellectual content from its presentation if you hope to make those publications better. What it says and how it says -- content and form -- must work together because they are the sides of the same coin. No, wrong! They are an amalgam of the metals and appear identical in both sides of that same cliché coin."

--"Don't think of pages as static, standalone units. Instead, see your multipage medium the way readers do when they flip pages. Each fresh impression is a link in a chain, and the entire chain is the publication. Back to front, front to back."

--"Good design expresses, reflects, and exposes inner meaning. Helping inner meaning jump off the page is the true value of 'design.' It transmits writers' words, their inherent ideas, and their significance to the reader vividly, strikingly, memorably. If it looks startling and trendy but is essentially meaningless, it is nothing more than phony window-dressing."

--"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)."

And we close with Jan's own description of what his work has been about, and which now serves as his own self-authored epitaph: "He [tried] to persuade word people to think visually and visual people to think verbally."

Jan V. White, 1928–2014.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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