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A Life in the Day of… the Editorial Designer / report

A Life in the Day of… the Editorial Designer / report

This is a quick report on the talk I gave at an event as part of London Design Festival last week. I spoke about making magazines, then Max Gadney, Head of Design & Audience Insight at BBC News Online, spoke about making websites. Followed by audience Q & A. What were the similarities and differences between magazine and web design?
To start I asked the 100-strong audience how many of them were print designers and how many were online designers. A roughly 50:50 split confirmed my worst fear that what I was planning to say would be insufficiently detailed for the offline audience and too detailed for the online audience. Too late! Twenty minutes later I was jumping rapidly over parts of my notes rushing to the end to keep on schedule. Then Max gave a clear exposition of how he and his team work on the BBC News Online site.

The one thing that stood out from the whole evening was that magazines (and newspapers) have so much more freedom to play with their form. Magazines are a relatively mature medium. On both a page-by-page and issue-by-issue basis they can adapt and vary their design and editorial approach in response to the nature of the content they are presenting at that time. And I'm not thinking of cutting-edge niche magazines, I mean all magazines including weekly news titles.

Websites meanwhile are stuck with their templates. There is little of the subtlety available to the print designer, a subtlety born of the direct and simple relationship between two individuals, the designer and the editor. The website designer, at least the designer involved in a major project like BBC News Online, deals with ongoing issues of usibility and efficiency. They are just one part in a long process-driven project, divorced from the content being presented. Their role seems to be focussed on familiarity and regularity, on protecting the design from change – very much the opposite of the print designer. They are also stuck with a working process of designing empty containers for content rather than designing with specific content in mind.

The evening ended with questions from the audience, during which I missed several clear cut opportunities to push the superiority of magazines. When asked if I thought magazines have a future I replied with some vague nonsense about how they had weathered other challenges. What I meant of course was that magazines are, more then ever, a key medium. Newspapers are losing out to the internet, and are turning to the language and devices of magazines to help them reinvent themselves. And websites are desperate for content. Happily Max stepped into the breach, declaring magazines would continue alongside websites for the foreseeable future.

Plus of course magazines retain that vital factor of tangibility, their physical dimension. No amount of predictions about hand-held electronic paper can yet replace the fact readers love the FEEL of magazines. This was brought home by comments from one of the audience about how she missed working in print, and by a conversation afterward with another web designer. She described the excitement she felt recently when a finished piece of rare print design arrived back from the printers; the smell and the feel of the paper and ink as the item was opened for the first time.

And that's the real difference. Right now, despite all the improvement in technology and access speeds, the web is essentially a very useful tool, great for fast information, but ultimately monotone. Whereas the printed magazine can be a sensory experience, changing tone effortlessly from page to page both visually and editorially. Currently magazines have more scope for the designer, the challenge for the web is to provide that same scope.

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