Show me what you mean­ – how editors and authors can influence the design process [guest post]

Lyn Strutt is an ELT professional providing editorial services and consultancy for the educational publishing industry. She is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP with extensive experience of editing teaching and training materials, and has a background in training adults in English and business skills. In this post, she looks at ways in which the author–editor–designer relationship can be of mutual benefit to a project’s successful outcome.

Picture this – showing the designer what you mean
I work primarily on English Language Teaching (ELT) publications. We’re not talking about straightforward text as presented in a novel here, but highly illustrated pages and magazine-style spreads with repeated features (many designed by the lovely folks at emc). I think the format applies to other educational books – and maybe recipe books, too.

Experience has shown me that the earlier that information is provided to designers, the higher the chances that what we see in the proofs is what everyone wanted. So how can editors make sure that information reaches the designer and is as useful as possible?

Is it a Time opinion piece, or a Cosmopolitan quiz?
There will already be a solid design concept for the book, covering the standard features like typeface, text colours, column widths, heading styles and repeated components. Authors are usually asked to supply – along with the manuscript – suggestions for images and special treatments such as ‘realia’ (for example, a reading text needs to look like it comes from a magazine, to give it a context). The point here is that the author knows the content best, and it is not quite as easy for any of the other people involved to match an image or a design treatment to that content and be sure it is what the author intended.

So the artwork brief I send to the designer could say ‘style as a magazine article’. But the designer’s job is to creatively interpret ideas, not to read through the author’s text and work out what kind of magazine. As an editor, I need to think like (or ask) the author: when you thought ‘magazine’, you probably had some kind of visual in your head – was it a Time opinion piece, or a Cosmopolitan quiz? The brief needs to express that idea, or better still supply an image of the kind of page that was visualised. This also has the benefit of showing that the author has spent time thinking about what is needed and what will work, and just how it will look (before the proofs arrive). An experienced editor can interpret the author’s intention and make suggestions – but if the author hasn’t really thought about it while writing the text, this signals revisions later on.

My favourite description of commissioned artwork: ‘Illustration of a friendly dodo in a forest walking towards a sailor trying to lure it over but with a net hidden behind his back’.
It’s better to supply a visual of any photos or illustrations needed, rather than try to describe them. If you can’t find a ready-made example, it might be worth thinking about whether the image requested is too specialised and whether another would do as well. The dodo image was to illustrate a sentence using the expression ‘died out’. An illustration is the answer if a photo can’t be found. Ask the author to do a sketch – or sketch it yourself (even if you can’t draw very well) and show it to the author for approval.

I once spent several non-chargeable hours looking for a photo of an open bag of cement.
Evidence suggests that some writers (and editors) like to procrastinate by trawling the internet for images. Editors know well that Google Images isn’t the whole solution; many images found there are unlikely to be suitable for licensing, or of sufficient quality for reproduction. A step up from this is to look at photo libraries – but you still can’t be sure whether the image is affordable, or usable in your markets, or from a library your publisher uses.

If your author has an image that is ideal for the purpose, but you know it cannot be used, supply a copy with an explanation of exactly which features are important, so that something similar can be found. Finding it is the role of another person (usually the picture editor), although there’s no reason you can’t help. (Their time is money, but an author with a specific goal – or an editor who won’t give up – might just look a bit longer and harder.) Ask the publisher whether they will be using a particular library and whether you can access it, to increase both the potential sources and your chances of success.

Getting information to the design agency can end up like a game of Chinese whispers.
Editors do not always get to communicate directly with the designers. It’s seen as more efficient for the publishers’ in-house editorial and design staff to ‘translate’ and communicate the author’s wishes. This means getting information to the design agency can end up like a game of Chinese whispers, especially if the brief is not clear and a vague idea is filtered through different people and further interpreted by each person.

I feel the only way round this is for editors to keep asking for more contact and more information. Ask the publisher for the design sample and make sure the author has it, too. Ask questions. Ask if you can communicate directly. Explain how knowing answers – and knowing the feasibility of alternatives – will enable you (and the designer) to do the job more efficiently/quickly/cheaply.

It’s all about communication, really – not necessarily more of it, but of higher quality – and preferably in both directions.

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