Tagged: dartmouth

Guest blogger Claude Skelton on typography

Designer Claude Skelton has been casting his eye on type. Casting . . . type . . . typecasting . . . all right, look, it has been a tough week trying to get a winter issue out the door and on press, so cut me some slack. Better yet, let me turn this space over to Claude while I look for the martini shaker:

Thanks to all the UMag editors who have kindly included me on their mailing lists. A corner of my office is piling up with your publications—I hope they are fairly representative of what’s out there. In previous posts, I’ve talked about the quality of photography, and I can’t overstate the importance of great images on editorial impact. However, there’s another aspect of good magazine design that is just as important and too often overlooked: typography. Using type well is a skill that can be learned through observation and experience; using type creatively is an art form.

Legibility is not a problem in most university magazines these days. Vast expanses of unbroken nine-point text is becoming a thing of the past as editors and designers understand the importance of “entry points” for readers (subheads, callouts, quotes, captions, sidebars, etc). Font choices for body text are, for the most part, just fine. Maybe it’s a matter of taste, but for my money, classic serif fonts like Garamond, Caslon, and Baskerville (and their derivatives such as Hoefler and Mrs. Eaves) are hard to beat. Speaking as someone who’s been working with type for more than 30 years, these classics are still more attractive and easier to read than most “modern” serif families (actually, there are legibility studies, but I won’t get into that). As a rule of thumb, sans serif text is best used in small amounts or for contrast and, with few exceptions these magazines seem to understand that.

Similarly, many UMags are doing a good job with typography that’s used to organize and distinguish departments. News sections are the most difficult pages to design, requiring juggling of multiple stories, images, sidebars and graphics. Dartmouth, for one, maintains a distinctive look in their “Notebook” and “Alumni News” sections largely due to an appealingly chunky display font that’s also used in the cover nameplate. Along with a carefully balanced mix of contrasting serif and sans-serif text fonts, the overall effect is smart and professional. Auburn Magazine’s news sections and departments are masterfully designed with contrasting fonts, consistent type treatments, and varied column widths—not easy to achieve. Kenyon does some fun things up front—a “hot sheet” of short “things we love about Kenyon,” a box of “in & out” trends, a page of quotes, a few student profiles—all handled with typographic flair that remains faithful to the overall graphic brand of the magazine.

The main problem I’m having with many of the magazines I’m seeing is that too many designers are throwing the magazine’s typographic identity out the window when it comes to feature stories. The prevailing rule seems to be “anything goes” for display type in features. Many designers are attempting to use type to “interpret” the story. Once in a while this approach works (Denison manages to pull it off pretty consistently). Most of the time it doesn’t. Massimo Vignelli said it best: “I can write the word ‘dog’ with any typeface and it doesn’t have to look like a dog. But there are people that [think that] when they write ‘dog’ it should bark.” True, some consumer magazines use typography as art, and when it’s done well it can restore your faith in print all over again—but those publications have world-class creative staffs and budgets to match. There are just as many consumer magazines that have a strong, consistent typographic identity and they manage to use it creatively throughout, even in features. My suggestion to alumni magazine designers is simply to use what you’ve got, but use it creatively. Play with scale, experiment with color, pair type with images, turn it sideways, but don’t stray too far from the integrity and spirit of your magazine’s visual identity. For inspiration, take a look at Cambridge Alumni Magazine (this year’s CASE Sibley Magazine of the Year), Bostonia, LMU Magazine, and Auburn—all produce dynamic, original feature design without sacrificing the brand.

Eight questions for Sean Plottner

The editor of Dartmouth Alumni Magazine steps up and faces the UMagazinology questionnaire.

How long have you been in your job?

Eleven years.

What has proven to be the most significant thing you had to learn to do that job?

Learning the lexicon of academia. My prior magazine experience in New York did little to provide me with an understanding of what a provost is, what deans do, and how a development office operates.

What has been your best experience at the magazine?

Winning the Sibley Award as best alumni magazine in 2008.

What has proven to be your biggest frustration?

Getting the magazine online. It’s a long and not uncommon story. We’re finally up and running, but we’re still not close to meeting our electronic potential.

What part of your magazine never quite satisfies you, despite everybody’s best effort?

Our front-of-the-book news section. I think we’re strong when it comes to features, design, profiles, pacing, display copy, etc. But campus news? Not so strong.

What story are you proudest to have published?

Our July/August 2007 cover story about the warring alumni factions battling over representation on the board of trustees, a battle that has led to ongoing lawsuits that pit alums against their alma mater and trustee against trustee. As the fur was flying we got Washington Post political reporter Matt Mosk to investigate and sift through all the controversy and the soundbites. He did an excellent job of reporting and cut through a lot of pro- and anti-administration propaganda to give readers a balanced look at the players, issues and allegations involved. It was juicy stuff for a little alumni magazine.

If you could commission a story from any writer in the world, who would it be?

I can’t decide between Frank Deford, still the best sportswriter of our time (his 2002 Sports Illustrated remembrance of Johnny “YOU-ni-tass,” is but one example), or Chris Jones, who’s rightfully won a few National Magazine Awards for feature writing. His 2008 Esquire story, “The Things That Carried Him,” is the best piece of magazine feature writing I’ve ever encountered.

If you weren’t an editor, what would your dream job be?

Defensive back, Cleveland Browns.

Guest blogger: Claude Skelton

I have known designer Claude Skelton for nearly 20 years. My first job upon moving to Baltimore was with a local business magazine, and Claude was the art director. He has his own firm, Skelton Design, that has done work for many colleges and universities, including Colgate, Ball State, and Dickinson. (He designed an earlier incarnation of Johns Hopkins Magazine.) I invited Claude to examine a carton of university magazines and write a post about what he saw, as a designer. Mr. Skelton, you have the stage:

Over the weekend I perused a stack of 36 alumni magazines, hoping to end up with some kind of useful design critique. Needless to say, the quality of design and writing varied immensely as did the size and nature of the represented institutions. I started to wonder if there’s a correlation between good design and good content. It’s true, some of the best-looking magazines—from Drew, Kenyon, Dartmouth—are also well-written, but it’s also true that there are some good, compelling stories hidden in bland packaging. Some of this can be blamed on poor or mediocre graphic design, but there also seems to be reluctance—budget driven?—to allow stories or sections to breathe, as if white space or big images are a waste of precious space. If a designer, no matter how talented, is told to squeeze every word of a feature story into six pages when it deserves eight or 10 for maximum legibility and contrast with (also packed) news and notes sections, it’s tough to make an impact. After paging through issue after issue of wall-to-wall text, I came across NDSU Magazine (from North Dakota State) and it was a breath of fresh air. True, they don’t deal with ads or, for that matter, news sections or class notes. But the stories are well written, the photography and illustration is professional and well printed on dull-coated stock, design is understated and clean, and there’s an abundance of white space. It’s not perfect but it stands out in a crowd of alumni publications that are tending toward sameness.

The majority of university magazines are designed using the tried-and-true layout conventions of consumer magazines. Some of those design practices are useful, some are unnecessary since most alumni magazines are not sold on newsstands. There is evidence, however, that a hybrid style is evolving that better suits the unique nature and audiences of alumni magazines. None of the magazines I reviewed have achieved the perfect balance for what I’d consider the prototypical university or college magazine, but the one that comes closest may be Kenyon’s Alumni Bulletin. Although Kenyon borrows some useful devices from consumer publications—lots of “entry points” (callouts, short sidebars, punchy subheads, etc.) and feature story treatments that don’t always work with the magazine’s overall look—it still can’t be confused with a glossy commercial publication (it’s beautifully printed on heavy uncoated stock). I’ve noted below some things I’d like to see changed—in the interest of good design and the continuing evolution of alumni magazines.

Covers—Consumer magazines require the nameplate to be as large as possible and always placed at the top edge across the cover for maximum visibility on newsstands. With few exceptions (like UCLA, NDSU, Dartmouth) alumni magazines still adhere to this rule. I’d like to see more covers break the rules—maybe showcasing story titles or great art without having to compete for attention with the nameplate.

Features—Lots of consumer magazines spend big budgets on great photography and illustration and use bold, innovative typography-as-illustration to get maximum attention and compete with full page ads and departments. Lots of university magazines try to mimic this style, but are unsuccessful either because the editorial content simply isn’t appropriate for glitzy design or because designers are trying too hard with limited resources. The most successful magazines (at least in this batch) tend to have a consistent house style and stick to it—clean simplicity rather than over-designed, over-decorated clutter.

Photography—Sure, universities can’t afford to hire Annie Leibovitz, but there are lots of great photographers out there who, when they aren’t busy, will sometimes work within a limited editorial budget. It takes planning, and can even lead to an affordable contractual arrangement, and it’s always worth the investment. Too many alumni magazines are obviously making photography and illustration the lowest budget priority and assigning everything to staff photographers who specialize in event coverage, not creativity. Great images make just as much, if not more, impact as great writing. If the aim is to attract readers, visuals should be a bigger priority. And an important note—there are way too many smiling head shots in most of these magazines, usually a default solution to lack of artwork. It’s almost always better to find another way to illustrate the topic—spot illustration, object photography, even iStock. Keep those head shots to a minimum—and when they’re absolutely necessary make them small. I’m talking postage-stamp size.

Overall, it looks as if tight budgets are driving a lot of design decisions (understandably), but with a little creativity and planning—and possibly a slight reallocation of dollars—there’s room for improvement. It’s hard work to produce every one of these issues, and it takes a very specific kind of talent and discipline to pull it off successfully. Maybe an outsider’s perspective can help push some of these babies to the next level. Here’s to the next generation of UMags!

UMag inbox

The forthcoming issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine went to press Monday, which means The Dale is back in business as UMag Supreme Blogger. Some of what’s come in the last few weeks:

I usually have an allergic reaction to life-affirming stories about plucky individuals who overcome obstacles to do great things, because they are almost always badly written. So when I came to Jason Ryan’s story “Life’s Rich Pageant” in College of Charleston Magazine, I nearly paged right past it, and would have were it not for Diana Deaver’s striking photography. I mean, not only is the story life affirming, it’s about a beauty pageant winner, for God’s sake—to my amazement, Charleston has a “Miss College of Charleston” pageant. Anyway, I started the piece, and kept reading, and kept reading, and damn if I didn’t read the whole thing. Beauty queen Meagan Orton is, indeed, a beautiful young woman, but she’s also tough as a boot. She’s been a medical disaster ever since her premature birth, enduring injuries and illnesses and serious allergic reactions, the last of which, at the end of her sophomore year, left her deaf. Deaf but undaunted—her pageant performance was as a dancer. For the story, she gamely pulled her hair up so Deaver could photograph the hearing device implanted in her skull behind one ear. The story has some treacly bits, at least to my grumpy taste, but it held me to the end. Mark Berry edits the magazine, which is worthy of attention for its photography throughout.

Reach, from the University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts, notes that Poets & Writers has ranked the school’s creative writing program 14th out of 140 nationwide. Poets & Writers ranks writing MFA programs? Apparently this ranking nonsense has been proliferating. Can’t wait for Saveur‘s ranking of dormitory cafeterias, Turkey World‘s list of the best ag school poultry programs, and from Turf the nation’s 100 top quadrangles. Remind me . . . what does this have to do with education? My favorite item was that the Minnesota program ranked “10th for placement of grads in highly regarded post-MFA programs.” That’s one more way of saying creative writers still can’t make any money as creative writers. Meanwhile, Reach scored Garrison Keillor for its cover and seven pages inside; Keillor conversed with six undergraduates about “academic happiness.” There’s not much Keillor here; he wrote the intro and a postscript, but the story is all quotes pulled from the student interviews. Must be said, though, the Lake Wobegon man is spiffy in red retro Adidas runners. Editor is Mary Pattock.

I’ve come to expect fine stories from David Brittan’s Tufts Magazine. The summer 2010 issue contains two. One is Hugh Howard’s discussion of slavery in Boston; Howard notes that Massachusetts was the first of the original U.S. colonies to legalize human bondage. The other, by Al Gore’s former speechwriter Robert A. Lehrman, is an informative and entertaining explication of what makes a good political speech. In a sidebar, I learned that not only did Patrick Henry not write his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, he didn’t deliver it, either. Accept for that one notable line, the whole thing was made up 40 years after the fact by an inventive biographer.

The summer issue of Dartmouth Medicine has a great lead sentence: “My first case at Saint Francis Designated District Hospital in Ifakara, Tanzania, was to close a hippo bite.” That from a story by Meredith J. Sorenen. Dana Cook Grossman edits.

UMag inbox

Consistently one of the best-designed university periodicals, 2010 CASE gold medalist Drew Magazine, from Drew University in New Jersey, does well again with its spring issue. Art director Margaret M. Kiernan has mastered the ability to throw a slew of graphic elements onto a spread yet keep it clean, coherent, and attractive. Particularly nice (and clever) is “The Drewid’s Guide to How to Do Everything Better.” The idea of collecting snippets of expert advice from faculty and alumni is not new—Dartmouth Alumni Magazine did it in the January/February 2009 issue, as just one example—but the various how-to’s are fun and the layout, featuring Leigh Wells’ illustrations, is exemplary. (Try to grab a copy of the magazine; the web version does not do the graphics justice.) Renée Olson edits the magazine.

I am an inveterate reader of notes on contributors. The July 2010 UCLA Magazine has five, including, “Jan Sonnenmair, who hit the road to photograph our tour of Bruin wineries . . .” Man, there’s a job I want someday. Deeper in the magazine, where they keep the long stories, Alison Hewitt asks around campus if digital technology is ruining human minds. From the answers I learned that UCLA students fight over a certain corner of a lecture hall because it has the strongest WiFi signal, UCLA professors have come across undergraduates who have never hunted down a book on a library shelf, students these days seem unable to focus on a single topic, and computers appear to stunt frontal-lobe development. OK, that’s it, stop reading this and go read a book. That you found at the library. Wendy Soderburg is managing editor.

The latest edition of The Penn Stater (c’mon, guys, get a magazine website, it looks like this whole Internet thing might catch on) is most notable for its photography. For the cover story . . . cover spread, it’s not really a story . . . editor Tina Hay and undergraduate photographer  Andy Colwell ascended in a helicopter to snap some striking aerial photos of campus. I’m sure Hay, who is a shutterbug on the side, has a cogent editorial rationale, but she’s not fooling anybody. She just wanted to grab her Nikon and get airborne in a chopper. The second set of featured pictures are stunners from the recent eruption of Eyjafjallajökul in Iceland. (Yeah, I can pronounce it, I just don’t feel like it right now.) The writer of the accompanying text, Penn State alum Nancy Marie Brown, recounts riding in a jeep over a glacier to a spot west of the volcano’s crater for look at the initial, comparatively mild eruption. What Brown did not know was that her driver had parked directly over the underground lava pool. Ten days later, reports Brown, “the spot I’d been standing on was blasted 35,000 feet in the air.”