Design and editorial are known for butting heads — but what if they didn’t have to?
By Thomas Marcetti
It’s not as fiery as the Hatfields and McCoys.
It’s not as old as Cain and Abel.
It’s not as musically delightful as Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.
But the rivalry between design and editorial can be a tense one. It’s a rivalry that boils down to one question: When it comes to design, who should have the final say: design or editorial?
In fact, the rivalry is contentious enough that most of the people approached by Signature with this question said they did not feel comfortable answering it. They said talking about it would be bad for their careers. They said political pressure held their tongues. They said it was safer to have no public opinion.
Editorial and design work best as two sides of the same coin. But if their work process is left to chance — or one side is usually left face down while the other is on top — the balance that leads to greatness is squandered. In associations — where the flagship publication can be one of the top values of membership — finding the right balance is even more important.
Having design and editorial teams gel on design decisions related to the publication is vital. That means having an answer to the question of who makes the decisions and who gets the final say.
“It sounds like it should be a non-issue,” says Carla Kalogeridis, publisher and editorial director of Association Media & Publishing and Signature. “Editors get final say on text and designers get final say on design…right? But I can’t tell you how many times in my career as an editor that I’ve cut content out of an article because the design team has a concept they’re in love with and the text won’t fit.
“The editor looks at the design and might think, ‘Yeah, that looks great, but if that opening spread didn’t have a full-page illustration — if they’d just made it a half-page — then I wouldn’t be sitting here trying to figure out what information in this story the reader can live without.’ And if you make that design suggestion on how to save space, the designer is thinking, ‘Yeah, all your words will fit, but then the opening spread loses its impact and the reader is going to skim right by.’”
As one association editor who asked not to be named points out: Much of the tension between the two groups regarding design comes from the fact that the question is raised at all. “You never hear about tension over who should take care of the money: accounting or editorial,” he points out.
“The bottom line is that in a publication, editorial and design don’t stand alone,” says Kalogeridis. “One can make or break the other. They are the two halves that complete the whole. And while coming to agreement through collaboration is best, in the end, sometimes someone has to have the final say on design questions when the team disagrees.”
WHAT’S THE TRADITION?
Scott Oldham, creative director at GLC, says he finds it surprising there is even a question of who should have the final say. He says neither department should ever have to overrule the other.
“There is no hierarchy. Editorial and design are the same level,” Oldham says. “The decision comes down to what’s best for the publication, what’s best for the end user.”
Kelly McMurray, creative director for 2 communiqué, says she has been on both sides of the conversation and knows that the best results come from collaboration rather than hierarchy. “The ideal situation is that editor and art director come to an agreement by combining their respective areas of expertise,” McMurray says.
But already, we’re talking about a lot of shoulds and ideals. How do design decisions really get made?
“Historically, editorial has the final say,” McMurray says.
“If the editor isn’t afraid of the designer,” adds Kalogeridis. “And I’m only half joking.”
Bradford McKee, editor of the American Society of Landscape Architects’ Landscape Architecture Magazine, says he constantly defers to designers and has tremendous respect for their knowledge, expertise, and instincts. But when it comes time for a design decision, he’s the one making it.
“I am usually agreeing with someone. But, yeah, I have the final say,” he admits.
Jennifer Moody, art director for Rotary International’s award-winning publication, The Rotarian, says that within the friendly confines of a magazine team, design decisions always involve give and take — but generally, editorial calls the shots.
“Organizations are constrained by rank, so decisions are based on chain of command as opposed to informed creative expertise,” Moody says. “There is little room for compromise — once someone disputes an idea, the designer often must abandon it and move on, rather than be allowed an attempt to refine it.”
Ultimately, Oldham concedes that the ideal dynamic is not the typical one.
“It literally happens every day. You can’t get around top-down direction,” Oldham says. “You have to hope you have someone in design who gets it, gets what we’re trying to do, and is willing to fight for it even when there is an apparently inflexible directive.”
However, Oldham says that for a lot of people in middle management, these types of decisions end up being about trying to minimize their pain. “It’s not worth it to them to fight,” he says. “It’s easier to do what you’re told than to take the heat for fighting for what’s best.”
We’ve all heard the cautionary tales of the committee trying to design a horse and ending up with a camel, or what comes out of the kitchen when there’s too many cooks. Yet it seems the design process is pretty crowded these days.
“I wish it were as simple as too many cooks, because then you might be able to kick a few out,” Moody says. “But it’s not just cooks — you’ve got the butcher, line cook, waitstaff, restaurant owner, and the guy who just stopped in for coffee — all in the kitchen. And it has become the designer’s job to try and explain to all these people what makes an idea successful.”
Moody says this crowding of the process leaves designers having to spend a lot more time doing something she calls education therapy. It’s part education, because it has become a designer’s job to show what current, appealing, and professional design looks like. And it’s part therapy, because the designer has to try to get everyone in the kitchen to discuss design in a nonjudgmental environment.
“Then it’s your job to get them all to change their thinking. Sound challenging? You better believe it,” Moody says. “This is the role of the 21st century designer.”
And it creates a lot of extra work for designers, too.
For example, Oldham says he recently worked on a project in which editorial gave a very rigid structure, including photos they wanted him to use. Oldham says he saw right away the photos were going to hurt the project. But he didn’t have a say in the early process, so he created one mockup precisely as it was asked for, and then created another one including changes he thought they should make.
“I showed them both and said, ‘Here is what we can do, if we do it the right way.’ When they could see the difference, it was an easy decision for them,” Oldham says. “Just giving someone the bad product they ask for doesn’t serve anyone’s best interest.”
This time, Oldham says things turned out for the best — but he still ended up doing twice the work.
McMurray says one trend that is impeding design-editorial collaboration is fewer face-to-face conversations, and the prevalence of digital interoffice communication is not always a good thing. She says some of her clients sit across the room from each other and trade email just to avoid potentially tense situations.
The result, of course, is often confusion and more tension.
“You can have 20 emails where you watch things fall apart, or one 10-minute conversation with both sides feeling heard. Your choice. It’s like fitness. It’s easier to take care of things upfront and better in the long run,” McMurray says. “A 10-minute meeting up front can save hours down the road fixing things.
“You are going to have conflict, and that’s OK,” she continues. “Some people don’t want any conflict, but it’s actually healthy.”
She says the tension between teams often comes from poor communication, and therefore, from not fully understanding what the other team or person is working on or what is most important to them. McMurray says she worked for a year as an editor of a magazine and was amazed at how different it was from the design side.
“It was really enlightening,” McMurray says. “It’s amazing to see how much pressure each side is under and how different that pressure is. Art directors face very visceral internal feedback — someone didn’t like that flower or the color that was chosen. Editors are getting reader feedback that is very specific and very, very critical.”
In light of that, she says it can be easy to forget the things design and editorial have in common.
“The editor and art director have the same goal. They want to create a publication that connects with members,” McMurray says. “When that is kept in mind, the conversation is less about the subjective, the color, the style, one person’s personal preference — it’s about the members.”
McKee says that due to the nature of Landscape Architecture Magazine, his design and editorial staff have to work seamlessly.
“We have very few stories that run without excellent photos and visual presentation,” he says. “All of us are working to make sure both the story and art are great. It’s essential that every piece of a spread reflects the personality of the story.”
McKee says conversations throughout the production process focus on the most important question: Do we have what the story needs? The question not only helps ensure stories have crucial information and visuals, but it also helps focus on the best way to communicate everything to the reader.
“For example, if you’re doing a story about slope and drainage, you need to see a water table,” McKee says. “Having that information in the body of the story is just not the same as seeing it.”
While this process is largely informal for McKee and his team, McMurray says she has created a formal set of guidelines for her team to follow. This list of subjective goals helps frame visual conversations in less emotional terms, which helps eliminate concerns that could turn into design debates.
“We’re not talking about whether we like a style or a color, we’re talking about whether this element helps us reach the goal or not,” McMurray says. “You end up being able to set aside conversations like how a photo was shot and discuss the portrait in terms of the mission.” She says this helps maintain a structure where people get to do what they do best. The production process becomes a series of checkpoints rather than a design-by-committee free-for-all.
Streamlining the process and putting people in position to succeed is also important, McKee says. It’s part of figuring out when to micromanage and when not to. “We call it freedom in the fence. Let people know what the parameters are, and then let them do it. If you keep sending back edit after edit after edit, you might as well just do it yourself,” McKee says.
“Ultimately, if you don’t trust the person to do the job you hired them to do, why did you hire them?” he points out. “And if you do trust them, then why would you want to get in the way of them doing what they do best?”
Thomas Marcetti is associate editor of Signature.