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Web design combines print basics with competing visuals and greatly reduced "read-time." Online text content is scanned quickly, from top to bottom, but many of the same design principles are essential for good readability.



Publication design is an art. Presenting the printed word on a physical page demands a set of linear standards that is far different than those of other visual media. Reading isn’t like watching a film or television. It’s not a video game or even a website. The functional differences between reading and watching … or gaming … or surfing … require special handling.

Reading is learned



Reading or Viewing?
Designing the printed page for readability – by combining diverse elements to support the overall intent – requires a delicate balance between text and graphics, visual weight and white space, calm and frenzy. To achieve the goal of delivering the author’s message – for reference or entertainment – newspapers, books and magazines aren’t meant to move. Unlike media that flows over, around and into the brain in an alpha state, physical reading requires that the eye engage in both rest and motion while information is processed actively. Treating printed pages as if they were projection or monitor “screens” is bad design.

Reading is learned top-to-bottom, left-to-right. Good publication design follows that basic premise to guide the reader from the opening paragraph to the last line of any article, commentary, critique, story, review or news release, with as little distraction as possible. Effective page design engages the reader from beginning to end, using established techniques and creative text manipulations (font selection, titling, drop caps, subheads, sidebars, color) along with carefully selected graphic elements that support comprehension. Even the most dynamic topics adhere to these principles; film, television, gaming and internet magazines don't try to become the media they describe. No matter the theme, successful print vehicles deliver their information in basically the same way.

The advent of desktop publishing (and later web publishing) enabled millions of non-designers to "publish" their own real or virtual magazines. Fortunately, the standards so firmly embedded in DTP software make every attempt to guide users toward the proper application of print design. Templates feature grid layouts for column and graphics placement; stylesheets help to organize text into hierarchies; graphic placement is tooled to work with type, not against it. Unfortunately, those constraints can't replace a solid grasp of the intricacies that form the foundation of any good publication.

Enjoyment or Struggle?
There is a psychology at the core of design that is beautiful in both its simplicity and its transparency. As a reader, you might not know why you enjoy certain magazines more than others. You may not realize, until you've devoured the entire thing, that you hadn't put it down. Why? Underlying principles of perception are at work to interpret the arrangements and relationships of objects (text and graphics) by the reader. Intuitive linear thinking begins with how the eye associates the principles of proximity (nearby objects are related); similarity (objects of similar color and shape are related) and continuation (a common path unites objects). Good design presents a visual whole that takes those elements of perception, and many others, into account. It's simple and intentional, yet transparent. The reader doesn't (necessarily) know how or why it "works" -- but the well-trained designer does.

Stop or Go?

Ads are meant to stop, and sell to, the reader in a single page or two

Content is designed to flow over multiple pages

Selling or Informing?
In commercial applications, print advertisements are meant to stand out and draw attention to themselves (and away from editorial content) in order to market their products and services. Any reader who flips through a magazine does so with an ingrained ability to identify the content pages they seek. Good design helps the reader differentiate between the separate intents of editorial and advertisement.

Most often, advertisers must concentrate and deliver their message in a one or two-page spread, with eye-catching graphics specifically intended to stop the reader from flipping past. By contrast, publication designers create an editorial flow, over multiple pages, that draws the reader into the story or article, engaging them with solid writing, good photography, pleasing graphics and relevant sidebar material. Incorporated into that flow is the placement of stand-alone ads, with the intent to create balance in the overall, finished publication. Bad design has no plan and no balance.

Marketable, or not?
Go to any newsstand and make a random selection of titles on a variety of subjects. Pick some dinosaurs (Time, Newsweek, the New Yorker) some sports (ESPN, Sports Illustrated), a little tech (Wired, PCWorld) new age (Yoga, Bodywork), alternative/political (Rolling Stone, Utne Reader) -- whatever you like. Then compare them. Even the newest, boldest, graphic-driven, fast-paced piece will share elements with one of the dinosaurs ... if it expects to stay in print.

Across the spectrum you've chosen, it's highly unlikely that you'll find a single commercially-successful piece in which every content page contains a full-bleed oversized graphic background, multiple fonts, no clear margins or negative space, frequent use of reversed type against every conceivable color, or unrelenting, eye-popping movement page after page. The consistent use of distracting elements like these renders a printed piece unreadable, and un-marketable.

But without notable exception, you'll find that each has discernable margins, white space, an underlying grid, well-crafted content, excellent photography, pertinent supporting graphics, good visual continuity in feature material and a clear distinction between editorial and ad components. That's good publication design -- and it's what keeps the print industry thriving.

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