Design via Style Guide

By following instructions in style guides, writers can give readers consistent visual clues to the place, values and identity of works.

I recently saw T. J.  Tucker, the art director of Texas Monthly Magazine speak during two different sessions at MagNet in Toronto. Tucker explained how the award-winning redesign at his magazine began with a bigger idea.

We’re all inundated with bad stuff, so I like to remind people about better times,” he told us. “I like to strip things down. Mythic iconic stuff does really good for us.”

But how do you express a mythic stripped-down positive vibe in visual terms? That’s Tucker’s genius. While he was speaking, I realized that he does the same thing with visual markers that I work hard to do with text.

As members of Canada’s magazine publishing industry, Tucker, I, and likely everyone else in the audience share a strong respect for consistency and structure as crucial values. As Tucker spoke about the need for a cohesive visual identity to provide readers with consistent visual clues to the place, values and identity of my work, I thought about their need for a consistent textual identity too. It was fascinating thinking about the different ways that visual and literary people approach the same end goals.

I’d never even heard of Texas Monthly prior to the conference, but after hearing Tucker describing his attempts to visually emphasize the content of a magazine he clearly loves, I’m now a big fan. Check it out for yourself at http://www.texasmonthly.com/.

Structural Design Values

Readers who question format or style as they read won’t be able to fall into the story itself. Material that’s well-organized and obviously geared to its intended purpose gets used over and over again. Good guide books compel people forward on a journey; novels carry them into compelling stories about imaginary circumstances; non-fiction works provide them with information in whatever form it can be best-used, depending on whether the goal is sharing of information, practical instruction or story-telling.

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A respect for a strong structural design is so pervasive in the world of writers, it shows up somewhere in all the best design guides.

It takes a starring role as the first “elementary principle of composition” in the  best of these. Originally self-published by William Strunk Jr. to be later revised by E. B. White and published in 1959, 1972 and 1979, “The Elements of Style” is short. With a total length of only 92-pages including index, every comment is concise, including the one about design. It says:

Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur. This calls for a scheme of procedure. In some cases the best design is no design, as with a love letter, which is simply an outpouring, or with a casual essay, which is a ramble. But in most cases planning must be a deliberate prelude to writing. The first principle of composition, therefore, is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape.”

Check out the online version of The Elements of Style for yourself at http://www.bartleby.com/141/.

Tucker reflected similar ideas about the importance of consistency and planning in the visual world too.

Thoughts on Logos

To Tucker, the visual appearance of the words “Texas Magazine” were the first place to provide readers with a hint that things were changing. To preserve Texas Magazine’s heritage while moving forward, Tucker and his team began with a logo from the magazine’s beginnings in 1979. They then modernized it to reflect cleaner lines with extra decorative touches. If you look at the magazine, notice the large circles at the bottom of the “a” and “y” in the logo. Tucker told us that insiders like to joke that he gave the logo back its balls.

This part of his talk reminded me of my efforts to come up with “Arial View” as a title for my blog. I didn’t think much about the look of the title, except that I wanted it to stand out from everything else.

For me, it was the sense of the words that counted. I wanted something short and catchy that would clearly show readers they’re reading my opinion about how the world works, but I also wanted to indicate that I’d be exploring things from a wider perspective. Given that I’m afraid of heights, it also reflects my greatest fears. Looking at it now, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t change the look of my logo to match its sense.

Heading Decisions

At Texas Monthly, Tucker and his team developed five different fonts to ensure that content looks like the kinds of stories they like to tell. They had the regular body font, the bold body font and three fonts for different kinds of headings.

In my case, using Arial non-serif fonts for headings was straightforward, as was using the serif font Georgia for text.

I questioned whether to capitalize each word, use sentence case or come up with some other standard for headings. After analyzing various works, I decided to use the Chicago Manual of Style’s recommendation.I have the 15th Edition hard copy, and its notes on “Headline style” run for a full page but are nicely summarized in the last sentence:

If you are not sure what grammatical function a word is performing (or even if you are), try reading the title aloud; if you would stress the word, capitalize it; if not, lowercase it.”

For the most part, their standard uses traditional headline style, in which every word is capitalized. That forces me to shorten titles as much as possible, something I don’t do naturally. It also allows me to use small letters for prepositions.

If you’re curious, The Chicago Manual of Style has a great online guide at http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html.

Creating Themes to Attract Followers

Tucker also talked about revising typical article templates so that they were cleaner and more obviously reflected the personality of his state to show through. They also assigned people with strong personalities to do iconic artwork for regular columns. My favourite is the red and white speech bubbles with a star in the middle for Paul Burka’s blog about politics. The Texas State with a bite out of it visual that accompanies Patricia Sharpe’s “Eat My Words” stories also works well.

This is another concept that applies equally-well to visual and literal people. I wrote about the importance of using themes to carry readers through a story in my http://traceyarial.com/blog/why-themes/ article. To reflect a theme visually in a textual sense, you’d also have to vary the sentences and the paragraphs, and I don’t often think of doing this in this way. I usually listen to the words as though they’re poetry or music without thinking about the picture.

As a literary person, I focus on words, but publishing this blog forced me to begin considering visual clues too. Thanks to Tuckers’ presentation, I see that our values are much the same, even if the way we get there differs.

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