Book: Before & After Page Design

POSTED Tue Jul.19.2005 by Dave Seah UNDER Visual Arts TAGGED

One of the books I picked up last weekend was John McWade’s Before & After: Page Design, a book on graphic design and desktop publishing. What I found remarkable about the book was how clear and practical it was regarding the principles of design; this would make an excellent introductory book for any aspiring designer who is learning how to “see” a page. I would make it part of my teaching curriculum, should I discover someday that I needed one. I’m very pleased to have it as part of my collection.

What do I mean by “seeing” a page? Well, every page has a kind of narrative that’s formed by the order we see things on the page. First, our eyes gravitate toward the biggest things first, then attention rapidly follows along the natural lines and groups that compose the rest of the page. By being conscious of what attracts attention, and designing the rest of the page such that important words, pictures, and information are sequenced in a viewing order, we create a page that’s easy to understand and easy on the eyes.

The meaning of a series of events is dependent on the order with which they are viewed and the context of the person viewing them. By controlling order and context, we can communicate a specific message. If you don’t do this, you end up with ambiguity and confusion. Like the guy who runs into a bus station yelling “Give me your cell phone! Give me your cell phone!” to everyone around him, generally being ignored by everyone because (1) the context of the bus station tends to increase the likelihood that this guy is an insane homeless person until (2) the guy comes to his senses and says, “The building is on FIRE! Call the Fire Department! Give me your cell phone!” Oh, ok. Why didn’t you say that before? Could have saved us all a lot of trouble.

Designing a good page is very much the same: you want to emphasize the important elements that our eye can immediately latch on to, then control the reader’s attention to establish the order of understanding. Big context-establishing things first, Actions and Relationships second (or vice versa, depending on what you’re doing). If you are not conscious of those elements, then you’re not Designing: you’re noodling. The art is like that of the Magician, using sleight-of-hand and diversionary effects, to trick you into seeing an event in the way that he wants you to see it the way he wants you to understand it. Before and After: Page Design will teach you the basic moves you’ll need to do just that on paper, using newsletter, advertisement, and poster design as practical examples.

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On another note, I was not familiar with Before & After Magazine until now, having somehow missed it from my local magazine distributors. At $9 to $20 a pop, I tend to not to browse that section of the magazine rack. The last great design magazine to which I gladly subscribed was Critique Magazine, now defunct. I have most of the issues downstairs, and guard them jealously. It was a magazine about design thinking, not trends or agencies or advancing the professional identity of designers like Communication Arts. I don’t get the impression that BAM is quite in the same mold, but it does look like it focuses on getting the job done well, which I am all for.

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