So you’re a magazine editor/publisher, and it’s time to map out your next issue: what order the departments and features will go in, where the ads will fall (if you’re an ad-supported magazine), how much photography you’ll need to come up with, etc.
Oh, and one other big, important factor: word counts.
Whether you’re writing all your content yourself (not unheard of for smaller magazines) or delegating the editorial to a team of staff or freelance writers, figuring out just how much needs to be written can be complicated. The answer probably depends somewhat on the design sensibilities of your particular magazine’s readers, and in reality there is no “right” answer — setting your word counts is more about establishing a balance point between the editorial copy and the overall design and layout of each individual story.
So, then, where should that balance point lie? Again, not a simple question. But as the managing editor, you should resolve to address that question purposefully and proactively (rather than as an afterthought) by answering another key question: How do you want your readers to experience your publication’s content?
More Than Words
For many magazines, the editorial content comes first in the minds of readers. Particularly for news-heavy, informative periodicals, readers pick up a copy expecting editorial substance and (perhaps) a good deal of intelligent commentary. For other publications, readers may value the visuals, photography and overall design feel just as much, if not more than, the editorial content.
I would argue that unless there’s a really, really good reason why a magazine’s look should be text-heavy, dry and straightforward, the design should always be a major consideration in the planning of an issue. Magazines aren’t paperback novels or heavy nonfiction texts — they’re meant to be an experience and a feast for the senses. Done properly, the design of a magazine article (particularly feature articles) should be integral to the reader’s absorption of the story, making the editorial more enjoyable and, in fact, more readable! An experienced magazine designer will have a whole library of techniques for enhancing the content, creating a visual hierarchy in the layouts, and keeping readers engaged with an issue from cover to cover.
Room to Breathe
To a designer, a magazine layout is somewhat like a puzzle: There are a certain number of pieces, and everything has to fit together within a finite space to create a cohesive, attractive overall picture. Text, drop caps, photos, infographics, pull-quotes, sidebars and any other appropriate design elements all need space to thrive — not merely to fit — within a design. Try to pack too much in, and you’re probably going to end up with a cluttered, cramped design that won’t be very pleasing to the eye or enticing to interested readers.
And let’s not forget that all-important mystery design element: white space (also known in the design industry as “negative space”). White space is just that: empty space within a design that, at first glance, doesn’t really seem to have a purpose, but actually provides much-needed separation and cleanliness within a layout. More broadly, white space can also be thought of as space without text — perhaps instead occupied by images and other visual content that help to break up the “grayness” of a large block of editorial copy.
With so many elements competing for positioning, it might seem counterintuitive (and even wasteful) to throw empty space into the mix, but thoughtful use of white space can make all the difference between a mess and a masterpiece. Empty space also helps to establish a visual hierarchy in a design, silently telling the eye where to focus attention first, which in turn will make reading a much more enjoyable experience.
If you’re not sure whether your existing layouts make intelligent use of hierarchies, open up an issue and ask yourself what your eye is naturally attracted to first, second and so on. If you can’t answer that question quickly, or your eye is jumping from place to place, you probably have a design issue that needs correcting — and white space is just one technique to help get you there.
Making Peace With White Space
What does all this have to do with planning the next issue of your magazine? Well, it’s often at the very beginning of the planning process that word and page counts are set for an issue, which in effect determines the amount of space your magazine designer will have to work with. The more space you allow for the designer to do what he or she does best, the more interesting and innovative the design is likely to be — and the more pleasant an experience your readers are likely to have.
But if you’re an editor who loves a thorough, well-written piece, the whole idea of leaving extra space in a layout — space that could be filled with more words — might not make much sense. The idea behind white space, however, isn’t to take away from your content. Quite to the contrary, white space and other important design elements should work together to create a synergy with the editorial that enables your stories to come alive and hit home with readers. If you’re trying to cram every nook and cranny in the design with something, you may need to step back and evaluate whether all that content really is adding to or detracting from the reading experience.
Now you might be asking: Where is this extra room for a more engaging design supposed to come from?
For starters, try lowering your word counts a bit — perhaps by 5-10 percent (or more, if you can). Your magazine designer will sincerely thank you for the extra room, and your layouts should, under the right art direction, evolve to become richer and more interesting.
If your page count is flexible, you might try adding a page here or there (of course, keeping the total page count divisible by four for print magazines) to provide some extra room to work with. Or if your page count is fixed, another option might be holding out a story (perhaps for web-only publication, to help drive readers to your site), thereby allowing other articles some additional space to breathe.
Again, opening up your layouts is about striking the proper balance for your readership. While the text is central to a magazine’s content, it isn’t everything, and you should carefully consider both editorial and design space needs while setting word and page counts.
Case Study: Energy of the City Magazine
A lifestyle magazine published by a major Washington, DC-area utility company, Energy of the City has been a wonderful publication to design. From the project’s outset in 2008, the client expressed a strong desire to make the magazine a gorgeous, almost lavish reading experience for its audience. To accentuate the carefully crafted editorial content, striking photography, innovative typography and liberal splashes of color — along with plenty of editorial-free space — drive the magazine’s design. Energy of the City is a perfect example of “less is more,” with visuals providing a graphic framework to allow the editorial content to unfold without dominating the layouts. The design elements are an integral part of the overall “story” the magazine seeks to tell, and the working together of editorial and visuals make this an experience that is to be enjoyed and absorbed slowly, rather than flipped through hastily.
To be sure, this kind of design probably isn’t appropriate for all publications, but the use of space and other graphic elements is perfect for a magazine aiming to immerse its readers in a feast for the senses.