The making of a great editor

June 22 2012

First, a bit of background about Studio Blue: we work primarily with museums and universities, and have deep roots in publication design. Since our founding 20 years ago, we’ve branched from an almost exclusive focus on books to projects that encompass signage and exhibition graphics, identities, magazines and print collateral, and web and mobile sites.

My perspective: I’m interested in collaboration, innovation, and a strategic approach to design and publishing. Thus, I ask the following questions:

– How can an editor develop a process that nurtures spirited and thoughtful dialogue and a team-based methodology?

– How can an editor build an open-ended process that fosters new editorial, curatorial, design, or physical approaches?

– How can the process be fluid enough to incorporate digital, environmental, and print publishing?

– How can an institution’s overall mission and identity be woven into all aspects of a work?

Cheryl Towler Weese
Here are a few suggestions, along with several real-world stories (some more confessional than others):

Develop a team-based process. An editor should:

– Help establish and get buy-in on goals early in the project. Return the team to those goals throughout a project’s evolution to help guide decision-making.

– Foster a fluid but structured approach to a publication’s evolution. Be open to team members’ ideas even if they relate to others’ areas of expertise; be willing to volley ideas back and forth.

– Be sensitive to and able to represent the curator’s or director’s voice and institutional mission.

Foster innovation:

– Embrace a high level of trust and a collaborative spirit.

– Help to clearly define a project’s problem and spirit, without presupposing the results or the means.

– Establish a high bar at a project’s outset and along the way, by showing examples or demonstrating excellence.

– Be organized and accurate. Complex, ambitious projects depend on careful management.

Build institutional mission and identity:

– Articulate those attributes that distinguish an institution.

– Provide opportunities for the team to hear from leadership early on.

– As the project evolves, articulate the why – address those elements that do or don’t speak to an institution’s mission and identity.

Examples – I’ve focused primarily on books, but will also touch on other forms of communication:

Art Institute of Chicago: TASS catalogue

Curator’s idea: communicate richly dense information in an engaging way; balance a contemporary and 1940s aesthetic; tell story with words, informationally-dense maps, and image relationships.

– To ensure that the project got off on the right foot, the project’s original editor (Greg N.) – alongside the curator – presented an articulate opinion early on about the tone he felt was important to strike with the publication’s visual voice.

– To allow us to learn from past mistakes and help build a better working relationship, the Senior Editor and Publications Director were willing to discuss and articulate what went wrong on a previous project, and give us a second chance.

– To help make the book’s dense plate section readable and informationally succinct: (the book has large plates, extended captions, 1100 words per page, and numerous comp ills):
the editor and publications director were flexible in their approach to the way content and captions were structured, and were willing to dialogue back and forth during the concept design phase to develop the best way to structure a typical entry’s content.

– To manage this complex, 400+ page book: the editor (Susan W.) and photo editor (Joseph M.) organized all of the entries, essays, captions, and images methodically and meticulously. Their work here was critical to the project and superbly executed.

– To facilitate the pacing of the book’s plate section: The editor (Susan W.) was able to fully understood both the curator’s and designer’s intent, and suggested specific ideas for scaling and positioning content and imagery that bridged both sets of goals.

– This was a giant project and labor of love, but our studio spent over double the fee in time. To help us build on the experience and build a richer working relationship, the publications director embraced an open dialogue about how we might approach a project differently the following time. We therefore developed a structure for the next book that allowed us to lay out pages more efficiently, which made the project more financially viable.

Washington University, Sam Fox School of Art and Design: website

– To help ensure that the website’s content and design would match the College mission discussed early on in the project, the editor and publications director bought into an adventurous format for the website. Since the site’s launch, they’ve continued to do a beautiful job building upon this format in ways that are harmonious with the original goals.

Krannert Art Museum: handbook

– To build a collection handbook that represented the institution’s history and goals, the museum’s director, communications director, and editor collaborated with us to evolve the publication beyond a straightforward collection of entries and plates. The director and editor collaborated with us in a very fluid way, building on each others’ ideas to add secondary stories that touch on highlights from the institution’s history. The book’s structure became the basis for the museum’s new visual identity.

Washington University Arts & Sciences: alumni magazine

– To help develop an individual identity for the publication that reflected the college’s spirit, the editor and communications director were open to ideas about the magazine’s structure, and embraced our suggestions for large, moody, full bleed images paired with quotes for section dividers, and horizontally structured pages to house “department content”.

Syracuse University, College of Visual and Performing Arts: environmental graphics

– To help build a narrative that was sympathetic with the College’s mission outlined early on in the project, the editor (and Communications Director) embraced a suggested concept and gathered and edited hundreds of quotes. Her highly collaborative spirit and willingness to help shape and extend an idea made the project possible.

Art Institute of Chicago: Bertrand Goldberg catalogue

Curator’s idea: a book that reflects mid-century Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg’s ideas but is very much of today; a book with varied pacing and essays that look different from one another.

– As with the Tass catalogue, to help unify groups of images and clarify caption information, the editor and publications director were flexible in their approach to the way content and captions were structured, and were willing to dialogue back and forth during the concept design phase to develop the best way to structure caption content.

– To respond to the curator’s desire to have different essays feel distinct from each other, the photo editor and editor were flexible in their approach to image use, and accommodated full bleed detail images and helped facilitate new or retouched images of furniture that matched that shown in concept design.

– To make sure that the book would be well-received by the publisher and sell well, the project’s senior editor (and Director of Publications) articulated cover ideas that would be important to the publisher, and what they thought would sell best.

– To marry the publisher’s desire for a full-bleed, iconic cover image and the curator’s desire for something “distinctly Goldbergian”, the publications director was able to synthesize both the publisher’s ideas, the designer’s ideas, and the printer’s production capabilities and recommend a beautiful final solution.

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