What is editorial design, and why is it so important to digital publishing?

Posted on October 21, 2014 by - Editorial & Brand

Why editorial design matters

As mobile devices proliferate alongside traditional media, it’s all the more important for organizations to convey a consistent creative vision. Photo by Ed Yourdon, Creative Commons

The term editorial design has never been more relevant to our digital world:

  • Do you publish content at regular intervals?
  • Do you try to unify this content so it conveys a distinct editorial or creative vision?
  • Do you have a strategy to share your content with readers?

If you answered yes to these questions, you already practice editorial design. But do you practice it well?

As Sue Apfelbaum and Juliette Cezzar explain in Designing the Editorial Experience: A Primer for Print, Web, and Mobile, editorial design traditionally focused on how publishers designed magazines, newspapers, and journals. Of course, the times are changing: “What is a magazine, newspaper, or journal,” the authors ask, “in an era when the form reading takes is not tied to a single medium such as paper?”

Rather than debate how to define various types of periodicals, Apfelbaum and Cezzar show how editors, designers, developers, creative directors, content strategists, and others have adapted and extended traditional publishing’s approaches, processes, and techniques to create compelling experiences for today’s readers.

Disruption and continuity in print and digital

Apps, blogs, e-books, mobile devices, news sites, and digital content have upended traditional publishers’ business models. Free or inexpensive online publishing tools have dramatically lowered the barrier to entry for those who wish to share their words and images. Nowadays, if you own a website, you are a publisher, even if you aren’t an editorial or design professional.

But the classic elements of editorial design—format, time, identity, structure, art, typography, layout, prototyping, and production—have all held up remarkably well. Then as now, successful editorial designs synthesize these elements in ways that transform the reading experience.

Apfelbaum and Cezzar argue that this “goes far beyond arranging type, graphics, and images on a page.” Good editorial design is nothing less than “the result of empathy for a reader combined with the desire to create beautiful and moving experiences.” Designing the Editorial Experience demonstrates that achieving high-quality, consistent results requires long-term investment in strategy, talent, technology, process, and experimentation—factors that many nontraditional publishers have been slow to appreciate.

The book consists of two main parts. The first offers a primer of the terms and concepts that are the foundation of editorial design. The second part includes more than forty case studies and interviews about contemporary problems and solutions.

The elements of editorial design

The first part provides an overview of the elements of editorial design: format, time, identity, structure, art, typography, layout, prototyping, and production. In each case, the authors show how new digital considerations supplement, rather than replace, the print tradition.

In doing so, they illustrate how seemingly diverse channels ultimately share a common language of editorial and design components. Rather than present the material in terms of “old media” versus “new media,” the authors reframe the conversation.

The results are consistently refreshing and illuminating. For example, the section titled “Formats” briefly introduces “the more popular types and formats for distributing editorial information.” The section introduces traditional formats such as the broadsheet, the Berliner, and the tabloid, and newer formats such as the smartphone, the tablet, and the desktop monitor. This side-by-side treatment recognizes the reality that each format draws upon a particular history but that nowadays a publication’s material is likely to appear simultaneously in multiple formats, many of which are beyond the publishers’ control.

The authors present traditional formats alongside digital formats, acknowledging the continuity and change that characterize contemporary publishing.

The authors present traditional formats alongside digital formats, acknowledging the continuity and change that characterize contemporary publishing.

Likewise, the section titled “Time” addresses the expectations that various publishing schedules convey. The authors describe annual magazines, biannual publications, and quarterly magazines alongside daily newspapers, online articles, and minute-by-minute tweets. Each publishing method exists along a continuum, one that could just as easily include biweekly e-mail newsletters, weekly blog posts, daily Listserv digests, or any number of other publishing methods and frequencies.

In some cases, digital has added little to the elements of editorial design. The authors outline seven rules of good typography, all of which hold true regardless of medium. At other times, the authors remind us that print and digital share some but not all components. Headlines, subheads, bylines, body, and pull quotes are nearly universal characteristics of print and digital articles, while digital includes additional features, such as share tools, related links, tags, and comments.

This first part of Designing the Editorial Experience brought to mind two classics: Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style. All three works succinctly yet holistically address the fundamentals of their respective subjects.

Case studies and interviews

The case studies and interviews offer a wealth of insights from the converging worlds of magazine publishing (with examples from Anorak, Apartamento, Bloomberg Businessweek, Dwell, Gather, the New Republic, New York, Paper, Vanity Fair Italia, WAX), websites and apps (the Awl, It’s Nice That, Letter to Jane, Pitchfork, Rookie), and news sources (the New York Times, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, USA TODAY, and, yes, BuzzFeed).

Some of these publications exist only in print. Others are published only in digital. But most are print and digital hybrids that appear at various frequencies and in numerous formats. Apps, books, blogs, e-books, e-readers, magazines, mobile devices, newspapers, websites, tools for content creation and social sharing—they’re all up for discussion, and the boundaries are porous.

The book offers revealing side-by-side comparisons of organizations' print and digital media.

The book offers side-by-side comparisons of organizations’ print and digital media.

Despite the obvious ways in which publications and their publishers are different, certain themes tie the case studies and interviews together. The interviewees talk about the challenges of creating a unified experience that brings together editorial and design, print and digital, brands and subbrands, staff and readers. The interviews discuss the challenge of developing a business model and the necessity of establishing a solid but flexible content strategy. When hiring staff, the organizations look for editors who have a designer’s eye and designers who know how to tell a story. Underlying all of this is a set of core beliefs: form should follow function, technology should serve people, and organizations should push themselves to experiment while remembering the fundamentals.

If you’re interested in the future of publishing, you should read this book. The pleasure is in the details. Here are some of my favorite quotes to give you a taste of the case studies and interviews:

I came up in a design studio background, and we were designing magazines, but we were really designing the underlying architecture that could then be handed off to the magazine’s staff to do on a regular basis. That’s really what digital design is about.
Josh Klenert, vice president of design and user experience at the Huffington Post

Content today is read on phones and televisions and cars and tablets and just about everything else flat enough to put a screen on it. The design needs to work everywhere. And the content needs to be able to survive without the design. Good markup is a prerequisite for good design.
Mandy Brown, cofounder of Editorially

If you structure things right, you can create a system in which you can do a lot of work across an array of things while allowing each thing to feel unique and distinct. So for example, all the blogs [at NYTimes.com] shared the same skeleton template, but I created ways in which each one could be customized, so now if I need to update something across all of them, it’s as easy as updating something on one of them.
Jeremy Zilar, content strategist and blog specialist at the New York Times

We’re in this middle ground of where we want to make an experience that has some cohesive tone and a top-down vision, and yet acknowledges that that model is somewhat challenged by these new ways that we get content. Half the time, you get content on your Facebook page entirely divorced from the experience where it was created. We know that it’s important to have a tone and a vision and a direction, and to let some things branch out beyond that to be shared.
Stella Bugbee, editorial director of The Cut

Having a content strategy all parties agree on and understand is essential for the foundation of a great publication. From there, listening to your audience and knowing when to make concessions to your primary goals for the sake of the editorial subject matter and your readers is very important.
Michael Renaud, creative director of Pitchfork

Josh TongJosh Tong is a content strategist and content marketer in Washington, DC. He helps colleagues create powerful content through research, strategy, and implementation.

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What Is Editorial Design, and Why Is It So Important to Digital Publishing? by Josh Tong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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