Designers: Restrain yourself

Growing up, my mom always told me to KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. And although I should have been slightly offended at my mother calling me stupid, I took her advice to heart. Listening to Julie Elman share her secrets behind a well-designed photo spread, I’m glad I had listened to my mom; turns out, she was right. 

Julie — a photographer-turned designer-turned professor at Ohio University — urges designers everywhere to simply BACK OFF. The photos, be strong or weak, should stand be the lead on their stage, with type and copy supporting their story. 

Julie’s secrets are as follows:
1. Editing. Editing. Editing. 
2. Read the story. Know the story. 
3. Find the Focal Point
4. Go with the flow
and finally: 
5. Back off. 

1. Editing. Editing. Editing. 
Ok, so we hear this word over and over and over again living and working in a newsroom, but does that mean we actually know what it means to edit work? Julie pointed out that the definition of editing contains many words about removing “stuff.” Designers are the ones who are ultimately in charge of putting “stuff” on a page and need to understand when less is more. Julie pointed out that every mark must have a meaning, and if a mark doesn’t have meaning, the reader will attempt to assign it meaning. Therefore, avoid using photos as filler. Maybe use one photo very large rather than many photos containing the same subject repeatedly. Redunancy should be removed during this editing process. Each image should add something, if it doesn’t, then it takes away from the whole. KISS. 

2. Read the story. Feel the story. 
Ever hear a photo is worth a thousand words? Well that’s probably because a photo can capture emotion in an easily accessible way. So, when laying out photo spreads, remember to allow the emotion — the content — to drive the page. This is when white space can be used around photos to set a silent stage. The “quiet impact” as Julie calls it allows readers to enter into the photos prepared for the emotion contained within. Understanding the feelig of the photos and knowing where the photographer is taking you allows you as the designer to guide the reader through the emotions the photographer captured. Words accompanying these photos should not scream and compete for attention. They should complement the photos and the emotions without tryig to mirror them. KISS. 

3. Find the focal point. 
A successful photo spread should have visual dominance, heiarchy and committment. If you’re going to go big, go big. If you’re going to go small, go small. But don’t hover in the middle ground. Photos should either be the same size and set together or very different sizes set apart. The supporting images and elements should support the lead visual, both in content matter and in size and proximity. As a designer, you need to help the reader navigate the page. Avoid an unruly kindergarten classroom with screaming and chaos. If the subject matter is unruly and chaotic, allow that to come through by setting a visual stage for the reader. KISS. 

4. Go with the flow. 
There are many visual cues a designer can use to help instead of confuse a reader. Size = importance. If somethig is big, it reads as more important than something smaller. The content should drive the flow of the photos. Look at your photo spread as you would a story. Even if it isn’t a linear story there should be some sort of beginning (entrance), middle (details), and end (exit) to the page overall. But know that this isn’t necessarily shown in a linear or literal path. Sometimes you can enter in the middle of the page, or at the bottom, the sizing will help the reader navigate your story you’re providing them. There’s strength in the unique, but don’t go overboard. Things are only unique when they’re the only ones. If you let every piece be unique and cry out for attention, none will. KISS. 

5. Back off. 
When you go to a play, you should never think “Wow, the lighting is awesome, and I like the props and costumes too.” If the lighting, props and costume directors are successful in their job, the audience should merely accept these elements as fact and they should fade into the overall fabric of the play, an unnoticed stitch in the overall pattern. The same goes for layout on a page. Never let a design be noticed over the content ofthe photos. Bad photos? Leave them alone, don’t make it worse, Julie said. The best way is to just KISS. 

Still lost? Here’s Julie’s quick advice when approaching that daunting task of filling up a blank page with multiple photos:
– Examine all the photos you have to work with from a distance to get the big picture. 
– After understanding the subject and content, start planning out the big words that will complement the photos. 
– Map it out so you have a clear idea of where you’re heading. Sketching out a page can make the big blank one on your screen a little less intimidating. 
– Freak out. But just for a moment. Then collect your cool and dive in fearlessly. 
– Get settled on a grid. And this is one of those times where more is more. The more columns you have, the more options you have for placement and sizing. So take that 6-col page to 12. 
– Figure out your focal point and allow it to drive the rest of the layout. This would also be a great time to consult with your photographer or photo editor. 
– And finally, KISS.

About Colleen Kirsten

Less than a year ago, I was busy applying to grad schools to further my education in American Indian studies. I loved newspaper design but so many people were telling me there was no way I was going to be able to get into a "dying career." Now, I am employed doIng what I love because I refused to believe those people. This is definitely a scary time to be choosing newspapers as a career, but it is also very exciting to be a par of this changing time in visual journalism, helping to shape it's future.

Leave a Reply