Thursday, September 27, 2018

Design Study, Rescuing The Phoblographer's "Emulsion"

I'm going to try to put this together in the form of a purely hypothetical plan to "rescue" this mess, to produce something good.

While it may sound as if I am dictating things I know well, things I find obvious, I assure you that what you are watching is me learning in real time. Well, some things I knew, but some things I did not. As usual, I am attempting to synthesize a whole out of things I knew, things I have learned, and maybe some things I don't even know yet.

Let me back up and talk about the process of design a little. When I was doing coursework on boat design (long story) we used what is called the "design spiral." In rough terms a boat is a container (the hull) of roughly fixed size, which contains a number of objects (beds, toilets, fuel tanks, lockers, etc) which have more or less roughly determined sizes and shapes and which have to fit together in certain relationships inside the container.

The design spiral works thus: You go around and visit each aspect of design. Cost, size, the fitting of things into it, and so on. You fit things very roughly together into the whole. Objects are somewhat amorphous blobs at this point, requirements are amorphous ideas. Once you have your amorphous blobs roughly fitted, you go around again, visiting every aspect again and refining them. Sizes of berths must be no less than 72 inches long, but there's a bit of wiggle room in all the other dimensions. The details are refined. Sometimes you have to go backwards, there's simply no way to get the berth over 70 inches long, even if we use the smallest acceptable engine, damn it.

You may end up making the hull bigger, or deeper, which will change its sailing characteristics, which will necessitate... arrrrg.

The idea is that you uncover errors relatively early. You have a chance to figure out the berth size issue fairly early, before you've done detailed drafting on the fuel tanks and the keel bolts.

The graphic is a spiral, you go around and around, visiting each element over and over, refining and correcting, spiraling in closer and closer to a final design.

The parallels with printed matter should be obvious. Your container is of more or less fixed size, and you have a lot of elements of somewhat but not entirely variable size and shape which you must jam in there, in suitable relationships.

Something I learned recently. Real book designers do not simply jam the text into InDesign to see what happens. They have a font and font size in mind. Using the average letters-per-inch metric for the font, they estimate how many inches (or meters) of text they have. Once you have column sizes and line spacing sorted out, you know how many column inches you have.

They know, before they even start, roughly how much paper they'll need for the text. Of course, you can always go back and choose a slightly bigger font, increase or decrease line spacing a little, make the columns a touch wider. But, in general, before a designer even really gets going the material that goes in is broken down into a bunch of rectangles, with various degrees of wiggle room in them.

So the job really is to fit design elements and somewhat squishy rectangles togther, within (usually) a container of so and so many pages, and such and such a trim size.

If you're developing a periodical, as Chris has hinted he'd like to, your job is actually a little more complex.

You can't just develop A Design, you really need to develop A Design Language. You need a set of design elements which will repeat across the multiple issues of the magazine, and you need a set of principles which will inform the way you solve the inevitable problems that arise issue to issue. Consistency matters, if you can't be consistent than you're not doing a periodical, you're just doing a bunch of one off zines.

I have some mild ambitions to make a series of zines, and I have already fucked it up entirely by ignoring what little I knew about design. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa and I will try to do better.

One trip around the design spiral should illustrate the point.

Design Language:

To salvage "Emulsion" I would first attempt a design language. Something simple and spare, modern looking but with nods to classical design. You could do things like make the running text a serif font, but use a drop caps in a related sans serif font. You could use colored serif (or even a typewriter) font for headings.

Anyways. I'd write down a bunch of styling notes like that, specifying how to do everything I could think of that I might want to do. I'd throw down some graphical elements on a master page, tinkering with them to get the right general look.

Modern, with nods to classical is the basic design principle.


The target is an 8.5 x 11 premium blurb magazine, 100 pages. This worked out to 96 pages of actual material, which is 8 pages per artist. This is a little tight, normally you have more front-matter, but since the thing is supposed to be artist-forward, let's try that out and see what happens.


Now I would digest all the text sent in by the artists. It's repetitive and much of it is boring. Everyone is influenced by Gregory Crewdson and Annie Leibowitz [sic], and Eugene W Smith [sic] and Avedon, it turns out. As a side note, Ren Hang is name dropped twice. Fun fact, he committed suicide within hours of "Emulsion's" kickstarter finishing (I find no evidence of a connection) so everyone knew his name for 15 minutes.

The text reworks fairly naturally into two pieces. First, a introductory essay which pulls together all the common material. "I shoot film because nothing looks like film and also the process" is what everyone says. Second, a shorter essay written in the third person with inserted quotes (and maybe a pull quote on the side?) per artist, which summarizes what was unique and interesting about that artist.

Size the essays to fit on one page each, with whatever layout/styling elements have been roughed in. Just outline the essays, and maybe do a first draft of one to get a sense of how many words you might need to do it properly. But just a sense.


Next, throw away several pictures from each portfolio. By my count, about 50 of the 140-odd pictures are just pictures of shit. A crowd of people, a dent in a car, a storefront. Pictures of nothing. They might become something in another context, but here they're just crap. So, there's some room to edit. Do a rough edit by tossing 2-3 pictures from each.

It happens that a full bleed two page spread in an 8.5 x 11 inch magazine is almost exactly in the ratio of 3:2, so fits a 35mm frame almost exactly. I'd use that, and try to give every artist one of those, a number of single pages, and a couple pages of no more than 2 pictures. Mixing it up will help with that modern flavor.
  • 1 page essay/bio page with the artist name emphasized
  • 2 page full bleed spread
  • 2-3 pages of 1 photo per page, monograph style
  • 2-3 pages of 2 photos per page, looser layout, with generous margins

That gives between 8 and 9 photos per artist across 8 pages of paper.


Let's look at some other magazines and size some margins inside this 8.5 x 11 container that blurb gives us. We'll want 2 column text, because a 10 point condensed font is going to come up around 70-90 characters per column that way, which is about right. Here's a master spread, sketched out roughly.

This just shows us the margins and text columns. These are sized normally, but on the gracious, generous side since we're aiming for a premium flavor. More white space is more luxury. An inch at the bottom, page numbers down in there on the outside edge. 3/4 of an inch at the top and gutter, and 1/2 an inch on the outside. For book, those would be quite narrow, but for a magazine they're normal-to-wide-ish.

Note the nod to a design element to decorate the top of the page. This is somewhat arbitrary, but LENSWORK does it, so it's obviously cool enough. Let's sketch some ideas. Modern yet analog. Analog, yet modern. We've got a pretty specific space for it to go in. Ok, Lame-O, but it's the first time around, there are no dumb ideas, only dumb people, right?

Let's sketch a portfolio-opener page into this:

On the left we have an opening photo (note: this will cause transition problems from the previous artist), On the right we have the artist's name, an optional portfolio name, and a two column space for about 300 words of bio/essay together with a pull quote (note: what if 300 words isn't going to work?)

If you've been following along, you will see that I've simply lifted a bunch of ideas from stuff I have been looking at. Every element in here should be familiar.

Here is a mockup of the layout. There is at least one layout error, spot it if you can:

Fonts are American Typewriter for running text (because I love it, and it's also a nod to old skool 'zines, and it's a pretty readable serif font) at 10 points, condensed. Pretty much everything else is Euphemia UCAS in a variety of sizes and weights. The drop cap in the text is Euphemia UCAS, the pull quote, the heading-sized things, the magazine name in the footer, and the page numbers.

The fact that the drop cap is roughly the same color as the picture opposite is 100% an accident, but it's a good idea. Consider keeping it.

The big quotation mark setting off the pull quote is Helvetica.

So notice that even though I'm not as complicated as LENSWORK, I still have defined these roles for text:
  • Running text
  • Artist name
  • Portfolio name
  • Drop capital letter
  • Quotation mark for pull quotes
  • Name of magazine for footer
  • Page numbers

I am making my two fonts do all the work, with combinations of size, weight, and italics. American Typewriter's failing is that it's not very good looking (and frankly feels weird) at heading sizes, so it will only be used in running text (note: maybe photo captions as well?)

A couple more page/spread mockups are necessary. We'd like a table of contents, an introduction page, an introductory essay, and some ways to lay photos out on the page.

And now it's time to return to the top, revisit the design language and go through it all again. We know more about the material and how it might fit together, we can refine or re-do things as needed. We can go back to the beginning and start thinking about essays to write, how big they need to be, and whether they will fit. If they work at the sizes we can fit them in to, great. But we've already seen some potential problems, right? We need to solve those before we really start digging in to further details of this thing. We can re-evaluate the pictures in the face of our tentative layout ideas, check the trim size and page count to see if that's still working, and so on.

Go around a few more times (2?) and maybe you're ready to pull a proof copy. Do that, and live with it for a while. You may end up tossing the whole design, going back to square one. This is also an excellent time to do some proofreading.

Is my design spiral complete? Probably not. You can fiddle with it. You might break out typography, or picture handling, or whatever. The point is, though, that you throw down a set of facets you're going to cycle through.

Cycle through them, and don't get married to any specific ideas too early.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Andrew, this is really wonderful stuff, a million thanks for putting it out there.
    My hard-drive crashed and I had to get a new one, and all that goes with that, and of course I did not back up as well as I should, so, lots of work ahead. That’s one reason I have not commented. So, finding this was a real treat!