Monday, September 24, 2018

Design Study, Various Elements

Since Chris Gampat's "Emulsion" magazine is essentially a collection of small artist portfolios, together with some artist supplied text and bio information, let's look at another, similar collection. I happen to own an issue of LENSWORK which is structured exactly this way. LENSWORK is a bit stodgy, and while not over-designed to my eye, it is maybe on the design-heavy end of the spectrum. Here is the basic spread that introduces a portfolio in this issue:

It's basically a good looking spread, with a surprising number of moving parts. It's giving us the artist's statement, the name of the artist, the title of the portfolio, some side notes, and an opening picture. It's got a few design elements to tie together with the rest of the magazine, and a surprising number of elements to help us navigate these two pages in a useful way.

A minor nicety appears. One of the few bugs in the standard western codex is that when you turn the page, the first thing to heave into view is the recto page, the one on the right. But the text of a standard book does not flow from where you were to there, it goes to the upper left of the verso page. LENSWORK chooses to place the really important things recto. You can, in fact, completely ignore the verso page with all the text and go look at pictures. Brooks (the editor) is making a clear signal here about what's important. But this rabbit hole goes quite a long ways down.

This is the upper left corner of the verso page, the left page. Note the design element along the top of the page, the horizontal rule broken by the magazine title, LENSWORK. This appears on every page of the magazine, and helps to unify the whole.

Next, notice the capital W that begins the text, the so-called drop cap which serves as a visual cue to "Start Here." It is a bit of an affectation here, to be honest, but it almost universally respected tradition in periodical publishing. It makes more sense on a newspaper page which may have multiple articles starting at random locations on the page, in which case the strong visual cue increases readability.

Down at the bottom of the same page we have the bio:

Notice the font change to the sans serif font, the artist name in bold to both make the name clear as well as to give us that visual anchor. Note also the darker background for lower contrast, and the smaller text. This material is not as important as the artist's statement, which occupies the larger portion of the page. This is extra information. Skip it, if you want to get to the pictures. Come back later.

Looking now at the recto page, where your eyes first land as you turn the page:

The portfolio title, easily the largest text on the page, set against the paper white for maximum contrast. As if that was not enough, notice that it is styled in small caps, for greater emphasis. This is the only text that really matters here. Read This, if you read nothing else. Below it, the artist's name and signature, offset by a demure, almost invisible, "by."

Finally at the very bottom, in the smallest and lightest font, set against a dark background for lowered contrast, some side remarks about where you may find some more pictures. A technical note, intended to be ignored completely on the first, second, and perhaps third readings.

Brooks or his designer is using a total of only two fonts, one with serifs, one without, in a variety of sizes and styles, placement, and on two backgrounds, to create a fairly complex hierarchy of the text: Portfolio Title, Artist's Name, Artist's Statement, Artist's Bio, and Extra Information. This is a subtle and powerful piece of work here.

There are five different jobs that text does in this spread, and the designer has thought through how to make it do each job in a good way that is coherent with the rest, and functional for the reader.

Now let's look at "Emulsion":

In concept this is not terrible. There's the artist's name set out in a large font, in a contrasting color, nice. Underneath it is an understated block of text with a short bio (containing not one but two misspelled company names). There's a pull quote to get a little interest both graphically and to preview what is to come. There's an opening picture, and we launch into the text.

I have discovered that this is in fact one of the template pages in Blurb's "Modern Magazine" template. Chris seems to have changed fonts, re-arranged sizes in infortuitous ways, and plugged in some text and a photo. Blurb's template is pretty decent, Chris's changes are virtually all for the worse.

The pull quote is too dominant, what we really want is the artist's name, and then to launch into the text. Pull quotes are usually graphically big, but typographically quite light.

To accomplish this, Chris uses one font for the artist's name, a second one for the bio, and a third one for both the pull quote and the main text. A fourth font, sans serif this time, is used for the photo credit. I don't think we see any one of these fonts ever again in the magazine, nor do we see a photo credit again. There is a lorem ipsum style caption a bit later, but I'm not sure that counts. Even this group of fonts does not play well together, chunky, square, modern-looking serifs right next to traditional bracketed serifs, and so on. I mean, it's not awful, but it could have been nicer.

There's even a little graphical element, a dotted line on the bottom of the page.

Unfortunately, this is easily the best page in the entire thing.

Here is the very last portfolio intro page:

Again we have an opening picture (not bad) and the artist's name is at least present, slightly set off. It doesn't feel like an opening page, though, it looks just like any middle page, a mixture of text and photos. The only clue that this is the start of a new portfolio is that the picture doesn't look like it belongs with the earlier ones, and there is that artist name stuck there in the middle of the page.

There is only one font in use here, which is something of a blessing, and Chris is using size and bold to make it do different jobs. Good for you, Chris.

Here's another one:

The artist's name is set off by being italic bold, but then, Chris sometimes uses italic bold for the "Question" of the Q&A format that runs throughout, so at first it's not clear what's happening.

I could go on and on, there are 12 of these things, and they are literally every one different from the others.

LENSWORK clearly defines a series of roles that text is going to play on these pages. LENSWORK's design places those into a functional hierarchy, and leads you through them in a good way. The design uses graphical elements to tie together with the rest of the magazine, it uses a common format to tie them portfolios together and make the opening spreads useful. Understand one, the next unfolds trivially. Two font families are used creatively in this work, while tying things together more.

In contrast, "Emulsion" barely seems to recognize that the artist's name is important. There is no commonality, there is no useful hierarchy, there are little blocks of various fonts fighting pitched battles back and forth across the page. Far from guiding us through the text, the design (or rather, lack thereof) seems to willfully obscure any attempt to make sense of which text, if any, I can ignore. One has to struggle to work out who the artist is, as often as not.

Sadly, the correct answer is that you can ignore all of the text. It is 90% worthless and uninteresting. The only thing that is of any interest is the name of the artist, and trying to find that can be a bit of an adventure.

Chris has no concept of recto and verso, simply launching into the next portfolio whenever he runs out of material on the previous one. Honestly, I suppose we should consider ourselves blessed that he doesn't start them in the middle of the page.

I am about half sure that Chris had someone do that first page for him. The line on the bottom is a tell, that someone had a hand in this who had least had some rudiments of what design might look like. The rest of the thing looks like the work of a middle schooler who just opened InDesign for the first time. See above note: this is a blurb template page, and so was designed by someone else. A couple other pages are recognizable as "designed" as well, and they are all found in the template from blurb.

I think this discussion will flow fairly neatly into a discussion of fonts.


  1. Wow that's bad. It's like he roughed in the text and then forgot to lay it out and format it.

    1. Well, he DID format it. He selected it and made the font "Economica" and sometimes he bolded things or italicized things.

      You're gonna enjoy the next installment ;)

  2. i used to read a fair bit of Chris's blog, he seems to be replicating his blog in paper seems to have the same general feel, i think it definitely needs a bit of seperation

    1. His blog is actually much better than this magazine. The writing, while not exactly good, is not an unbearable wall of typos. The design is at least consistent from one article to the other (thanks to wordpress). The kinds of botches this magazine is filled with are precisely the kind that wordpress automates away.

      I don't think that's a coincidence.

    2. good point, havnt read the blog in a few years to be honest