Category: Guest Post

Guest post: Jeff Lott

Yr. Faithful Blogger has been a little overcommitted of late: feature stories, a section to edit, a thesis to write. Plus a visit to Ohio, to take my 90-year-old father out to visit his 82-year-old brother and 87-year-old sister-in-law. My colleague Michael Anft called it Geezerpalooza 2011.

So an unseemly amount of time between posts has elapsed. Which makes me all the more grateful for what landed in my inbox this morning: a guest post from Jeff Lott, editor of the esteemed Swarthmore College Bulletin. Thank you, Mr. Lott. You have the floor. Actually, the bathroom floor.

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One of the great things about magazines is that you can take them anywhere. Throw a magazine in your backpack, read one in bed, even take it to the loo with you. Its battery won’t run out and it has far fewer distractions than your smartphone. It won’t ping or beep or bring you a depressing message from your boss. You can roll it up to discipline the dog or exterminate a stinkbug. And, when its useful life has ended, it can be recycled into something even more useful—like toilet paper.

At Swarthmore, the Bulletin staff bathroom—what a realtor would call a “half bath”—is where the best college and university magazines go to hang out together in the dark. There they stand atop the TP dispenser, cradled snugly by the grab-bar, their covers touching tenderly, with sensual scents of UV and ink mingling discreetly as they await the random reader who turns on the light and takes a seat.

University magazines find it glamorous and desirable to be in Swarthmore Bulletin bathroom, which sports a Van Gogh print, a blue vinyl floor, and a month’s supply of five-gallon carboys of water for the office cooler. The hottest magazines come and go, depending on their frequency and, frankly, on their covers. How a magazine dresses is a big factor at the rope line, and the doorman clearly has an eye for striking, sexy covers.

(Our doorman actually should be called “the bouncer,” for that’s what truly happens when the mail arrives—a lot of it bounces straight into the blue bin of oblivion. “From pulp they come and to pulp they will return, their ink scrubbed off unread,” the bouncer philosophizes as denies them a chance at bathroom fame.)

Some magazines, like Notre Dame and Duke and Portland, return to the TP dispenser time and again, like addicts for attention. They can’t get enough of the random reader’s eyes and hands, of having their pages riffled over and over, sometimes for weeks. Iowa and Carleton stop by, flaunting their white space; then haughty Sarah Lawrence shows up all smart and sophisticated. “Sarah’s got a lot of nerve,” Dartmouth whispers to Brown.

Occasionally the doorman takes pity on a new book that makes a show of itself. But after one turn in the bathroom, they usually disappear back into the crowd, painfully aware that their flashy covers can’t deliver the goods inside. There are lots of snappy dressers with designer pages who haven’t a word to say beyond “Look at me—I’m slick.” And ego-boosting books that remind the doorman of Donald Trump, all hair and attitude but cold, with no heart, no story to tell.

Steady customers have their own seats at the grab-bar. Oregon Quarterly, who enters quietly, sits in the corner reading Ken Kesey, talking modestly in delicious sentences about things that matter.  The doorman has learned that a smart and literate magazine is always worth having at the party.

(What is it about Oregon?  The doorman thinks Oregon Quarterly must have secretly dated Portland on and off for years. They’re both so smart and well read that a hookup might seem to be in order, but it could be that religious differences have kept them apart. Yet, the doorman speculates, perhaps when the light is off and their covers are touching. Could they be the ones who put up the handmade sign under the light switch: “Hey carbon bigfoot, turn out the light!”)

The crowd on the TP dispenser sometimes departs en masse, replaced by a whole new posse of pages approaching perfection. At times, one or two seem to slip away, perhaps in a reader’s backpack for a private tete-à-tete at home. This month, just as parkas are giving way to tank tops and sandals on campus, the late winter issues are being replaced by spring ones. The chatter in the bathroom is as lively as ever, undeterred by the arrival of a new issue of serious and studious Swarthmore, which must have slipped the doorman a twenty.

Mise en Place arrives with a bevy of beautiful food photos and Middlebury makes the random reader nostalgic for Vermont. Johns Hopkins sails in once again. Johns (what’s with the “s,” man?) isn’t much of a dancer and sticks close to the bar—but he’s got really great features that attract both Sarah and Carleton. Say, isn’t Carleton a guy? Does this mean Johnny goes both ways? We’ll have to leave the light on to find out, but Portland keeps switching it off, especially when that other magazine’s around.

Author’s note: If your magazine was not mentioned here, too bad. After all, it’s the bathroom. Get over it.

Claude Skelton on verbal/visual literacy

Designer Claude Skelton has proven to be the most popular guest star on UMagazinology, and he’s back:

Verbally literate designers + visually literate editors: A match made in heaven

Here’s what I think: Too many magazine designers don’t read before they begin turning words into layout, and too many editors (self-described “word people”) are largely unequipped to judge art and design.

Designers, for the most part, are not trained to read text but simply to make it look pretty. I recently taught a class of undergraduate graphic design students, most of whom were clueless about how to take even a few paragraphs of text and turn them into meaningful graphic communication. Astoundingly, they hadn’t been taught to read for meaning, to extract and emphasize the important bits, and to edit or minimize extraneous material. And I’m talking about designing a simple postcard, not a complex publication. These are editing skills, and they can be learned.

Writers and editors, most of whom are products of an education system that is systematically eliminating any semblance of arts education (don’t get me started . . .), are rarely well versed in how to look at art—whether it’s photography, illustration, or design. As a result, they seem uncomfortable commenting on visuals and graphics. Or worse, they respond with knee-jerk criteria such as political bias (“the boss hates cropped head shots”) or personal preference (“yellow makes me nervous”). Visual sophistication, too, can be learned with experience.

Let’s all work together, one happy editorial family, communicating effectively with mutual trust and intelligent give-and-take. And let’s do it from the start of every new project. Fat chance, right? But wait, I see evidence that this ideal exists. How else can the most successful magazines, university and otherwise, regularly publish the most compelling and unexpected stories, made better and more compelling with intelligent and often surprising graphic design? Problem is, this ideal is rare and is usually considered “aspirational” but ultimately unattainable.

Yes, it’s hard work generating all those words, then polishing, editing, refining, proofing, fact-checking, organizing, and prioritizing. It’s equally hard to take all those finely polished words and arrange them into a coherent, legible, organized, and finite series of pages that make up a magazine. Designers: Before giving a thought to how these words will look on the page, it’s helpful to actually read the story. Only after reading and discussing a story with an editor are you equipped to decide what parts get emphasized, what is expendable, and what needs to be added for clarity (subheads, callouts, photo captions, and the like). That’s when intelligent design happens. Editors: don’t just turn over a finished manuscript and expect a designer to come back with magic. Of course it helps to work with a designer you trust, one with the ability to translate words into visual poetry. But in any case, talk to each other–preferably often and up front, before there’s a word written or a pre-conceived concept stuck in your head. Talk about story ideas that have visual potential; visual ideas that will amplify a story’s meaning. Only then can you confidently go off to your respective corners and get to work.

OK, now that all your internal communication issues are solved, you say: “Sure my staff works great together if we’re left alone. But what do we do about administrators and bosses who squelch every creative idea we come up with? And what if we can’t afford to pay for great photography, original illustration, top-notch design?” Establishing a good working relationship with your VPs and/or directors is essential; access and communication are key. Once there is agreement on your publication’s overall mission, the specifics of the project at hand will logically be defined. Productive internal discussion–between editors, writers, art directors, designers–can only lead to a clear definition of goals, creative conceptual thinking, and a sense of real excitement about the job which can then be passed on to higher-ups. What it comes down to is effective communication of ideas, with a little selling thrown in–and that, too, can be learned.

Guest blogger Michael Todd

Michael Todd, managing editor of YorkU from York University in Toronto, recently sent me a note discussing something he’d noticed about The New Yorker. I suggested he turn it into a short guest post, which he did:

If you caught Dale Keiger’s wrap-up talk at the 2011 CASE Editors Forum, you might have heard a tinge of doubt in his voice. He said—I paraphrase—our university alumni mags have never been in better shape but, somehow, it’s not enough.

He’s saying what a lot of us have privately thought: “Nicely written, but I’m a bit bored.” Most university magazines follow the same formula. Small stuff up front, features in the editorial well, class notes ’n stuff in the back. Post-forum, I was thinking about what a different kind of magazine might look like as I flipped through a recent copy of The New Yorker. All of a sudden, I realized The New Yorker turns the usual approach to editorial content on its head. No other magazine I know does this. It puts back-of-the-book material (events listings, mini reviews, what’s on now, what’s upcoming, what’s weird in New York this week) at the front.

I’m not saying we should run out and put 80 pages of class notes right after the table of contents next issue (apologies Amherst), but if a hugely successful, mainstream publication like The New Yorker can disregard the accepted editorial canon, and do it well, why can’t we? And if we do, what might it look like?

Guest post: designer Claude Skelton on covers

What is that elusive thing that makes a magazine cover both memorable and beautiful? For university magazines, covers can be especially difficult to pull off because the subject matter varies widely—from timely and profound to soft and nostalgic. These challenges make for a uniquely creative opportunity, yet many alumni magazines miss the chance to be unique and suffer from bland sameness. Magazine covers are usually a combination of three elements: headline, image, and nameplate. What makes it so hard to find that magic balance necessary for a great cover? Here are some ideas, with examples. [Click on the thumbnail images and watch them grow.]

The Headline

Provocative stories and great writing lead to great covers. Seems obvious (and I know I’m preaching to the choir) but how often does that happen?

Headline writing is an art in itself. Short is usually best, and clever wordplay is better—and a good headline can generate great visual ideas. The best covers promise a good read inside by using smart headlines paired with original visuals. Some great examples of short, clever headline writing show up on two covers for Bostonia from Boston University (of course it doesn’t hurt that the design of these covers, by Ronn Campisi, is also top notch).

The Nameplate

The nameplate is a given, and it’s often one of the weakest elements of university magazine covers. It carries the identity of the magazine as well as that of the school. The nameplate design—its position, size, color, and typographic treatment—can make the difference between ho-hum and exciting covers. A favorite example of the creative use of a nameplate is on UCLA’s covers. Each cover moves the nameplate to a new position according to the design of the cover image, carefully juxtaposing content blurbs, nameplate, and image. Too often the nameplate appears in the “newsstand” position—as large as possible across the top of the page—contributing to the familiar sameness of so many covers.

The Image

Whether using photography, illustration, or typography, how do you create maximum impact with a single image in a relatively small space? There’s no scientific formula or foolproof solution. You can blow your budget on a fabulous photo shot by a great photographer,but unless your designer has the eye for sizing and cropping the image for maximum effect and balancing it with the other visual elements (headline and nameplate), it can fall flat. When planning a cover, think about the most surprising, original way to illustrate the cover story—and, if possible, develop the headline first. Often a good headline can lead directly to the perfect visual approach.

Since people and profiles are often subjects for umag covers, think creatively about how to make a portrait distinctive and meaningful. There are photographers with a special gift for shooting portraits. Hire one. If the subject happens to have a wonderful, expressive face, take advantage of it (see Kenyon’s fall cover showing the face of a Cold War survivor shot in black & white by John Noltner). Shoot on location if the environment has an important supporting role in the story (The Pennsylvania Gazette’s May/June 2009 cover is a good example). I recently designed a cover for Fairfield University Magazine featuring a student production of Romeo and Juliet. Art directing long-distance, the photographer, Bob Handelman, and I came up with a dramatic close-up of the two leads, Romeo in profile, Juliet facing the camera.

A portrait doesn’t always have to be a photograph. For the past ten years, St. John’s College has hired illustrator David Johnson to render a different classic author on the cover of every issue of The College, in keeping with St. John’s unique Great Books curriculum.

Conceptual illustration can make a powerful cover but it can be one of the most difficult solutions to implement successfully. Start by identifying an illustrator with a style that makes sense with the subject. There are lots of illustrators who can render objects or people in various styles. There are fewer illustrators who can take an abstract concept and translate it visually. The best ones can take a story, even a rough draft or synopsis, and come up with sketched ideas with very little art direction. Then it’s a matter of fine-tuning and finalizing finished art. From Loyola LMU’s fall issue featured a conceptual illustration (by Heads of State) for its cover story on teacher performance scores, “Bitter Fruit.” Simple iconic images—a segment of a standardized test form superimposed on a worm-infested apple—told the story in a more graphically interesting, and less literal, way than a photo ever could.

Display typography can also be an effective form of illustration. Some outstanding examples: Bostonia on HIV in Kenya; Drew’s “How to Do Everything Better” issue; NJIT (out of the New Jersey Institute of Technology) on “synchrotron light” research.

Finally, these are some of my favorite recent UMag covers. They are hard to categorize, but all are wonderful in their own way:

Denison’s “When the War Comes Home,” features Magnum-quality black & white photojournalism by Erin Trieb. The cover shot perfectly sets the stage for an emotionally wrenching essay on returning soldiers.

Auburn’s “Teaching Them to Fish,” about a plan to save Haiti, shows a simple but powerful photo of a man holding a fish against an unbelievably blue sky.

• University of Cambridge (CAM) ran a portrait of a student looking straight at the camera, beautifully composed in front of a Florentine Renaissance painting. It just works.

Bucknell’s “The Lure of the Beast,” about Bucknellians who work with animals, illustrates the “call of the wild” with a striking and dramatic portrait of a baboon shot in black & white.

Guest blogger John Rosenberg: “Unknown Soldiers”

John Rosenberg edits the magazine at Harvard, a small but rapidly rising northeastern university. (I’ve been hearing good things about it.) Harvard Magazine consistently publishes smartly written, intellectually challenging material, some of it, as you will read below, from unexpected sources. This is the longest UMagazinology post to date, but I strongly recommend that you read below the jump. You will be rewarded for the effort. Mr. Rosenberg, the stage is yours:

In the wonderful “Eight Questions for . . .” interviews with alumni magazine editors, Umagazinology majordomo Dale Keiger asks, “If you could commission a story from any writer in the world, who would it be?”

It’s an excellent question. It prompts editors to think big about our publications and our service to readers, and it often elicits, at least in this reader, a response of “But of course . . .” Were I asked, I even know who I would put forth for my own publication.

But I also have reservations about the question, and the aspiration it implies. I have commissioned articles from name-brand alumni writers, and have found the results more disappointing than not. One discovers that despite their professional accomplishments, such writers’ published work often must have been heavily, even severely edited—and that they take to such editing, even when painfully needed, with less grace than lesser known writers. Sometimes, it is clear that such writers mail it in—for whatever reason, they put on their lounging clothes, not their professional garb, and treat alumni magazine assignments as an occasion for slumming. Finally, they are already well known—so pursuing them means trying to enhance our own publications by basking in the glow of others’ reflections.

So let me suggest another strategy—one that is practicable, potentially enormously satisfying as you practice the editor’s craft, and of real value to readers. That is, finding and developing unknown or not-yet-mature talent on your campus—principally in the form of student and faculty writers. Nothing is quite as rewarding as helping someone refine her or his voice and expression, to say something fresh.

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