Sunday, September 23, 2018

Design Study, Concept/Editorial Voice

Consider the concept of Chris's "Emulsion". He's a film booster, and so wanted to do a premium zine of film photography. As usual, he trusted to his enthusiasm for the medium to carry him through. He kickstarted it, pre-selling something like 140 copies based on nothing but a couple of names he'd gotten some sort of commitment from, and his concept of "100 pages, film photography, several artists."

He then put out a call for submissions, which requested a bio, some pictures, and answers to a handful of questions. Conceptually, Chris structured this thing as a collection of small portfolios, with some supporting text about the artist, biographical info, stuff about process and whatnot. By structuring the submission guidelines he did, he set himself up for two major problems.

1. The textual material is all over the place. Some people chose to write out the questions, and then write answers underneath in an interview-style format. Others simply wrote an essay that touched on all or most of the questions. The length, quality, and voice of the textual material varies wildly. Chris elected to include the supplied text more or less as-is.

2. By simply asking for a small portfolio of pictures, with the only stricture being that they be shot on film, Chris made the graphical material a mess. Some artists sent in greatest hits, some artists probably sent in current favorites, and a couple seemed to try for a coherent portfolio of material. By design, there is no flow from one artist to the next, and often there's no structure within the individual portfolios.

In short, there are no real levers the editor can use to create some sort of structure to the whole thing, it is -- by design -- incoherent. There is no space in here for the work of an editor, except to check spelling and do some layout. This general incoherence will, unfortunately, form a theme that runs throughout, which I found interesting in its own way. Side note: Chris did not check spelling.

When I did a not-dissimilar collaborative project, I requested more material than I would need with the explicit statement that I would be picking and choosing. My design, my concept, allowed me to jumble the pictures up, to seek patterns and relationships across artists. Since I included myself as a contributor, I had permission to shoot connecting material. Mine is much better for it. Mine is also a radically different book.

A regularly issued magazine is another example to ponder. These are also collaborative efforts. The writers, though, work against a style guide and usually to-order. Lengths, topics, and overall style are set before pen touches paper. The editing staff then cut, paste, re-arrange and re-write to suit. Pictures and graphics are similarly controlled and managed. While the many collaborators do contribute, usually in something like their own voice, it is the editorial staff that dictates the final shape of any element that goes into the magazine.

There is a pre-existing design language, which will inform the content. Pictures to be printed small need to be made differently than pictures to be printed large. If you use ridiculously narrow column widths, you have to avoid long words. Etcetera.

Not uncommonly, an issue is built around a theme, which informs the authors and artists, as well as the editorial decisions, and which adds another thread tying the thing together into a coherent whole.

Working even by yourself, your artistic concept, your vision, needs to have enough flex to support the editorial voice. I love this picture will, if you are wearing your editor hat properly, sometimes run up against but it does not work.

Chris would have done well to re-write all of the text. As supplied it is frankly boring. One artist may have an interesting answer to "which photographers inspired you" but most will just name drop a few people they have heard of. One artist may have an interesting process, another may not. The text should have been read, digested by the editor, and re-written into a common format, giving each artist roughly the same word count and sticking to the interesting parts. This would have made the text much smaller, tighter, and all around better. It also would have left more space for the pictures.

In addition, Chris should have specified what he wanted to see in submissions, and given himself room to edit and to create coherence. Send in more pictures than I will be using or pick your strongest theme/style and send in only pictures from that or something else.

I will say that within the extremely small envelope he built for himself, Chris did some good things. The picture layouts are sometimes pretty good, and I think it is safe to say that he never creates a jarring or particularly foolish juxtaposition. His worst crimes in placing photos are that he sometimes makes them very small (about which more later), and occasionally he falls into a sort of Snapfish autolayout style with small photos diagonally wandering down the page like an overly chill mom placing pictures in an album. These are infrequent, and in the grand scheme of this mess, mere peccadillos.

Whether he abdicated his responsibility as an editor, or whether he designed the product to have no editorial input on purpose I cannot say, but the result is the same. Long dreary text, incoherent material simply smashed onto pages one after the other.

Your project needs an editor, even if it's just you again. Your editor needs elbow room.

Give your editor some elbow room.

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