Four design quotes applied to editing

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Handcrafted marbled endpapers of a book manually bound in France around 1880 (Giacomo Leopardi, Œuvres, vol. 2). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Aristeas.

Greetings to you all,

Today I am going to use four quotes taken from Margaret Kelsey’s excellent and oft-updated list of 72 Quotes about Design and Creativity on the InVision blog to discuss some of the aspects that I consider crucial to good editorial design. This will focus more on the ‘macro’ scale of editing – book design, project management – rather than the line-by-line ‘micro’ dimension. Having said this, I strongly believe that these principles are relevant at any scale, from word to paragraph to chapter to book to entire series (as point one discusses).

Without further ado, here are four of my favourite design quotes from Kelsey’s list applied to editing:

1) “Where do new ideas come from? The answer is simple: differences. Creativity comes from unlikely juxtapositions.” –Nicholas Negroponte

This is an aspect of editing and project design that is often overlooked. A lot of academic innovation is made through cautious, incremental change, but some of the most interesting, the boldest, books and articles are brought about through the combination of forms that are unexpected. When it comes to the design of an editorial project, rethinking the format can be key.

To give an example, I’ve recently been very impressed by the ‘Contemporary Writers: Critical Essays‘ series released by UK-based press Gylphi. Why? Because they have applied excellent design to the task of editing. They have recognised that writing critical anthologies on still-living 20th and 21st century authors is a difficult process, and requires a new juxtaposition of elements.

2) “Everything is designed. Few things are designed well.” -Brian Reed

This is a particularly important principle for editorial interventions. Everything is edited in some fashion – it is impossible to write without editing. The question you, as the author – and your readership – should and will ask is this: is it edited well? Elegance of design jumps out, and is unmistakable. From the right front matter (the contents of a book such as the table of contents, preface, etc.) to an elegant arrangement of chapter, every publication is dependent on good design. Without it, a publication risks being perceived as ugly, dull, pedestrian, obtuse, or writerly rather than readerly.

A well-designed piece of writing invites the reader in, points out its salient features, provokes surprise, pleasure, and occasionally joy – or maybe that’s just me being a little too keen. Sometimes these features are simple. Sometimes they are profound. Innovative thinking is possible, even in the most formulaic publication.

3) “There is no such thing as a boring project. There are only boring executions.” –Irene Etzkorn

This is a particularly relevant quote for those at the outset of an academic publishing project. There is a common belief among academics with a certain attitude to scholarship or from a certain background that their research is not exciting or charismatic, even if it is extremely relevant, impactful, or important. Although recent years have helped to dispel this myth – the public are interested in many more ideas than academics give them credit for, but presentation is key – it is still very easy to let down a significant project with boring execution.

Is your project new, relevant, and exciting? Do your colleagues love it? Has it won funding from a scholarly organisation or government scheme? Good!

What about your publications? Choice of venue (do you pick the big established press or the small plucky one?), structure (do you follow the prescribed format of your discipline, or try something new?), and method of presentation (is the publication cheap or expensive, Open Access or restricted?) are all key. Even those seeking to reassure their reader by publishing through traditional outlets can still shine when designing their Table of Contents, arrangements of essays, use of editorial commentary, and so on.

Don’t let down an exciting project with a boring publication! Even if the ideas have the potential to excite, a dull presentation will obscure rather than reveal. Published research can always surprise and delight, and yet it takes good execution to do so.

4) “Design is so simple. That’s why it’s so complicated.” –Paul Rand

The point that I take away from this quote in the context of editing is this: a good publication takes a lot of time and effort in the planning and design phase that is rarely blindingly obvious to the reader, except in the elegance of the final product. Good editorial design is not in-your-face: it consists of simple decisions (typesetting, layout, use of images, arrangement, cross-referencing, appendices, and so on) that accumulate to make a well-designed book.

Clean copy makes a good book, but good editing is also about the receptacle that these words find themselves within. Even the best writing struggles to escape from the stifling effect of a boring design, or to appear coherent without the careful cultivation of content.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at an academic book review section in a journal and see how many reviews mention design or editorial decisions. Readers notice, and the more they read the more they notice. It may seem simple, but it takes a lot of painstaking work to design a publication.

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