I started working in editorial design a few months shortly after I graduated in 2011. Back then I was convinced I wanted to be a packaging designer and so I got a job doing just that. Very soon I realised I was absolutely miserable in that field so, I left my packaging job and entered the unemployed black hole of freakout and stress. It lasted three eternal weeks (I swear time slowed down considerably and I became a blob of uselessness). I was so scared, (I was on OPT at the time so every week counted), that I literally took the first job I was offered, I had no idea I would fall in love with it.
I was hired as a designer for a small magazine in Soho. I had no experience whatsoever in editorial design. As a fresh graduate I was eager to learn from the art director. The magazine had big personalities as cover stories, it was intimidating and exciting. After about three months or so though, the AD left the magazine, and good old me was left in charge of…well the whole damn thing. Let me tell you, this sped up my learning curve by about a thousand.
At first, I was being a good soldier and I followed in the art director’s footsteps. I was neither innovative nor bold. I realised I had no one to guide me and that I had to guide myself. I slowly started to redesign the magazine. No more Dafont fonts, cheesy layouts and overly complicated pages. I liked clean and thought out designs and was determined to make this magazine great. I experimented, at first a little, and then a lot. I was given the gift of freedom and when you realise you can do what you want, nothing can stop you! Oh wait… yep except the millions of mistakes you make because you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.
There are some basics you NEED to know and do as an editorial designer. If you have never worked for a big publication these won’t seem obvious (at least for some of us…). So here are a few things I had to learn the hard way…
#1 ALWAYS print
Always print the layout you designed when you think you’re finished. I cannot stress this enough. I could have avoided a lot of hiccups had I done that. Wrong copy, same photo used twice (easy to overlook when you are laying out a page with 30 pictures on it…). Print, revise, REPRINT. I had to act like my own art director so I designed layouts, printed them out, and tried to become a second me to analyse the pages and correct the mistakes I saw, (there were/are always mistakes). Obviously it’s easier if you have an art director to do it for you BUT this will make you evolve at the speed of light. The more you print and reprint, the better your work will become. You will be able to reach a great level of self criticism and grow so much more as a designer. More importantly, you will begin to make less and less mistakes and work faster and better.
#2 Look at the big picture
Printing an entire copy of the magazine is a crucial step. Remember THE book in the Devil wears Prada? yep. THAT book. Crucial. That is how you end up with a better final product and avoid mistakes. Making sure the articles that are close to each other don’t have too many similarities layout or content wise. You don’t want to have two cover stories about two actresses followed by three stories featuring guys. You need to keep your readers interested and their reading experience diverse. This will also help pick up any overlooked little mistakes you might have missed previously and avoid a) Spending extra money to call the printer and replace the page(s). b) Going to print with ridiculous errors that could have easily been avoided.
#3 Always push yourself
My direct superior after the art director left was the editor of the magazine. He was in charge of photoshoots, bookings, styling, editing…pretty much everything, even writing a few articles. The number of times he walked by me and said he loved the final layout I was working on (when I was just in fact starting a page), made me beware. If I had listened to him, I wouldn’t have pushed my layouts nearly enough. This is how you end up with a poorly thought out article. You can’t possibly explore only one way of designing a page and just going with the first thing that pops in your head. There are always millions of directions to explore, some are terrible, some are ok and usually there’s the one better solution. That’s the one you’re looking for. You won’t be able to find it unless you explore a good amount of options. The previous art director had gotten so comfortable that he wasn’t exploring anymore. He wasn’t trying to push the magazine’s boundaries, or his own for that matter. That is how you end up in a rut, bored, and start hating your job. Now there aren’t always a billion possibilities of course, sometimes there is indeed just one or two ways of laying out a certain article, but hey, don’t let it stop you from exploring anyways. It’s important to keep things fresh and have fun trying new ideas. Be bold not to get bored.
#4 Beware of non designers
Sometimes journalists(for example), see your layout and think they have a better solution than you because well…they wrote the article, they’ve got to know better. Sometimes they do and have awesome ideas. But often, a lot of bad recommendations are given so be careful not to lose yourself into suggestions. Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed. Tweaking one of two things is one thing but when you make 15 tweaks to a page that worked well in the beginning, you usually end up with something messy. Trust yourself and your Art or design director, they (almost) always know best and will stand up to defend your layout if it’s the best option possible.
#5 Be a diplomat
If a superior (journalist, photographer or editor) asks you to try a layout you know won’t work, don’t be a baby. Always say yes, even if you know they might be wrong. Try their idea and then, explain to them exactly why your idea is better (if it is), and why it makes their work shine more. Don’t be stubborn. I’m speaking from experience here, I had a very hard time learning this and it takes a lot of self control. Everyone is not an idiot, they just don’t see things the way designers do. This is also a great way to explore different concepts you would have never thought of and in the end might even give you a better layout than what you had in mind. A different perspective is always a good thing.
#6 Don’t be hasty
If you have spent hours laying out a page, odds are you will feel extremely persecuted if someone points out that it doesn’t work. Don’t panic. Usually, you will be getting upset because you know they’re right, and it sucks. That’s the part where you become defensive, angry, think everyone is a moron and almost impulsively quit your job right then and there. I get it, it’s very upsetting. That’s why before you spend a million hours working on the tiniest details of a page you need to make sure the layout works as a whole. Heard of concept before diving into a project? Same here. You can avoid this headache by simply making sure the layout you created works, before diving into refining it. Never be too hasty. In the case where you didn’t do that (we’ve all been there), don’t panic. Deep breaths and start thinking. Put that layout aside and start from a blank page. Chances are you restricted yourself because you really really wanted that page to work. You can’t turn poop into rainbows. If it sucked in the first stages, you can decorate it all you want it’s still going to suck with a million sprinkles on top. You’ll be glad you started over because you’ll end up with a way better layout.