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Part of the Newsletter Makeover Clinic

Publication Design Standards

By Fred Showker

I get letters quite frequently requesting design "standards" of some form or another. On the Design Cafe list, people often request references to "cool" layouts, or "bleeding edge" web sites, and even rules and regulations for various design projects.
      Quite frankly, if we ask these questions today, we'll get as many answers as there are respondents. However, in terms of print design, there are certain rules -- let's call them guidelines -- that one can rely on as a starting place for design experimentation.
      When you are at the onset of a publication design, you need to set up a prototype. The style or personality of the publication is determined at this point, so you need to be sure each decision you make pays careful attention to the details of good design. This could be any kind of printed piece, but for this discussion I'm intentionally talking about just newsletters, periodicals and perhaps books.
      There are six primary areas of concentration that have the most dramatic affect on your finished publication: format, grid, nameplate (title area on the front page), the style sheet, and graphic styling details.
      As briefly as possible, we'll walk through these areas before taking a look at one particularly innovative and visually exciting publication.

Designing the Format

The "Format" means the size and shape of the printed piece. There are many sizes of publications, from 8.5 x 11 (from 11 x 17 folded), to tabloid (11 " x 17"), to broadsheet (17 x 22) among others. But that doesn't make these "standards." They're convenient because they're based on standard paper sizes. I've seen quite a few based on 8 1/2" x 11 folded to 5.5 x 8.5, and 8 1/2" x 11 folded and trimmed to 4.25 x 9 or 10.
      So, in terms of "format" there are not standards beyond the availability and costs of standard sheet or roll paper stocks, and the printing limitations of your commercial printer. I encourage you to ask your commercial printer or paper house for convenient sheet sizes, then begin folding and experimenting with different formats that might suit your message best. Don't overlook web/newsprint printers, because they have a unique set of specifications that can make for a unique look.

Designing the Grid

The grid is probably the most important aspect of the overall design -- and it deems the most amount of attention to establish it. Although it demands a lot of work in the beginning, well planned grids are wonderful because they eliminate a lot of work later, especially if the publication is a periodical.
      The grid for your publication will dictate how many columns you will put on the page and where key elements will be placed. On the 8.5 x 11 page, your choices range from one to five columns or more.
      No matter how many columns your grid is based on, keep this rule in mind: Studies have proven that readers feel most comfortable with between 35 to 45 characters per line. This is a key factor to understand when you design the grid for a publication.
      A one-column grid is not always advisable because unless you have generous margins and white space between lines and paragraphs the line lengths will be too long -- too many characters per line. In the same regard, if you are trying to squeeze a five to seven column grid into an 8.5 page width, then the line lengths will be too small, characters per line too few, and the reading will be choppy and slow-going.
      The decision as to the number of columns and how they are used should be determined partly by the number of photos or graphics you will use.
      Modular grids can be helpful, and provide exciting variations in your periodicals, as we'll see in part two of this article. Alternate grids can also be incorporated into a publication for those special or unusual content items. But be careful: when you break from the grid, it will be noticeable. The reader should not be aware that you've switched grids!
      Later we'll taka a look at how Parade Magazine utilizes a fantastic modular grid to maintain the visual excitement of James Brady's "In Step With" column.

Next: Designing Nameplates


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