Four design quotes applied to editing

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.

Reconciling Creative Identities

Bundles of charcoal sticks, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Stephhzz

Today I would like to talk about academic creativity in the context of multiple creative identities. An increasing number of academic researchers, myself included, do not have an academic identity in the singular. Rather, there is a bundle of identities: researcher, freelancer, tutor, writer, creative, administrator, and so on, that we draw on to live our lives. The list of potential identities is endless. What I would like the suggest today is that identities, like ideas, work better when they are reconciled. Feelings of guilt, underachievement, confusion, or alienation can result when we feel out of balance.

If someone wants to express themselves creatively as a researcher, is it irrelevant that they are also creatively motivated as, say, a fiction writer? An editor? These are more obvious links, but the potential list of identities is endless. Preparation through practice and time to think through identities can yield interesting results: those with a creative writing degree. for example, have bound their identities as author and scholar together. Those in the US who have graduated from MFA (Master of Fine Arts) courses before undertaking a PhD understand that being a poet, or a writer, or a creative of another stripe can be part and parcel of being a researcher. Those who have completed double degrees have struck out in different and yet complementary directions, and their future lives are better for it. Certain topics of research lend themselves to synthesis more readily than others, it is true. And yet, I think it is fair to say that an exercise in reconciliation is good not only for one’s work, but also for one’s overall happiness.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, finding yourself through research improves scholarship, but also cultivates the self. Tightening the bundle that is one’s identities gives them strength, but also consolidates energy, identity, and motivation. In a world of uncertainties—a difficult academic job market, a generation of drifting millennials, an increasingly atomised work life replete with tasks and ad hoc gig economy activities—it has become increasingly crucial to find happiness not in one thing that we do, but in all of them as a whole. Passions need not be partitioned: they can be combined. Sometimes a wonderful job appears that reconciles passions—I know someone who combined over a decade’s experience in editing with a passion for clothes-making to become editor of a sewing magazine—but sometimes it takes a lot of work to identify synergies between identities.

The stakes are high. To neglect the integration of creative identities is to neglect the wholeness of the heart, to put it a little fancifully. Although some find comfort in partitioning themselves, there must also be a core wellspring of motivation that drives life. To be divided between passions is to dissipate energy. Balance is key to a happy life, but the combination of reconciled faculties, creative drives, and abilities brings something more than balance. It brings self-understanding.

What does this mean in practical terms for those seeking to enhance their creativity? This goes beyond writing or research alone, since we live in an era when all of us will be called upon to be many things, and the notion of a traditional career is looking very shaky, if not defunct. The gig economy will likely grow and this new reality, while disruptive to traditional academic notions of career, achievement, behaviour, interpersonal interaction and self-presentation, offers us the chance to shape activities for ourselves that deploy not only a single skill, but multiple skills.

So how can we think about reconciliation of creative drives? Perhaps the most important action to take is this: think about things you love to do, and why. Can they be merged? Do they share a root faculty or ability? Is there an intermediate skill-set that could bridge them? Is there a way that you could undertake an activity (paid or otherwise) that draws on two or more skills? The answers may not be easy or quick to achieve, but thinking through such quandaries can lead to more satisfying work, an enhanced sense of personal worth and ability, something unique to offer the world, and some innovative ideas for research and scholarship.

Find Yourself in Research

Lesser Ury, Man Reading with Magnifying Glass

Hello All,

This week I have been thinking about the role of personal passions and motivations in the pursuit of academic creativity. In the last week, I have read the accounts of several academic friends finding passion and engagement through the exploration of topics close to their personal background and experience of life. It occurred to me that this aspect of scholarly creativity is often neglected. Academics often seek the most objectively “interesting” or “relevant” piece of research, regardless of their personal engagement. It is common to read that PhD students should pick a topic that they are passionate about, but I feel that it is equally important for academics – at all levels of research – to engage in work that is personal, that brings them to a closer knowledge of themselves.

We should not be afraid to be creative by sharing that part of ourselves that inspires research, and fuels our hunger for answers. In the past there has been something of a disdainful attitude to this kind of “personal” work, but I am pleased to see it thriving. I have increasingly come to feel that researchers are nothing without their own story, and that research should enhance what is distinct about individual scholars. The process of moving into academia should not be a process of monastic-style oblation and initiation in which a rigorous process of training makes us into copies of our mentors or copies of each other. We are each of us at our most creative, engaging, and passionate when we share something that is close to us. Local historians and the “amateur” scholars that certain scholars demean understand this well: the power of scholarship, its root, lies in relatability. Nothing is more relevant or profound than something created by someone with a unique story to tell, embedded in a unique context, and articulated in a unique format.

Taking the self out of research, be it humanistic or scientific, is a great waste of creative potential. The marriage of scholarly methodology and personal experience is a potent blend. If all of us can take some time to speak from the heart and create work that is true to our emotions, lives, and hearts, then the world benefits. Running into a realm of impersonality and dry clinical diagnosis is the sign of a world that has ended, and yet lingers. To my mind, we should all fight to see it consigned to history.

Two points occur at this stage. First, for research to be personal, it does not necessarily have to be about a person. Something that a scholar has a passion for because it suits their temperament or skill set is also personal, for it defines and develops that person. It is a passion that is intrinsic to their identity. These things are just as important as issues that directly related to the particulars of a scholar’s life. Secondly, not all research has to be personal. The core need is to allow work that a researcher feels a personal affinity for, but also to branch out into areas beyond the self. Research should not be wholly self-reflexive.

Working with topics which bring us closer to ourselves has a transformative effect on our lives, and those of others. It is also true that issues of relevance to the researcher are likely of relevance to a wider audience, including the public. To be ourselves is to engage, the core mission of twenty-first century academia. If we do not define what is relevant to society, someone else with deep pockets and a more nebulous agenda will do it for us.

My message for today? Get personal! Find a path to creativity that is a path to personal development, and your benefits will be two-fold.