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Magazine layout design mistakes: White Space

Vee

at User experience

I decided to make a podcast about the 3 most common mistakes in magazine design and how to solve them. In order to find these mistakes and give you more value, we needed to find somebody who is a real geek in magazine layout design and typography, someone with an almost scientific approach. Luckily, we found Eugen. He’s from Luxemburg and he’s just the person we were looking for.

Vee: Eugen, it’s nice to have you here. How are you? Tell use a bit about yourself!

Eugen: Hello everyone! I’m Eugen Coman. I’ve been an editorial designer since 2007 or so.

I first started working in this field in a small local publishing house where I was creating layouts in Microsoft Word for student books. Soon enough, I discovered that Word simply wasn’t flexible enough to deal with issues like orphans and widows, so I began to research workarounds. It was during this time that I bumped into Lynda.com and some very passionate trainers that caused me to fall in love with InDesign and the field of typography as an art form, one that serves to ease a reader’s experience with copy.

I learned and worked with InDesign daily until 2014, when I decided to take the Adobe certification exam in order to officially become an expert. I succeeded in the first shot.

Since then, I have been working with local magazines. My job is generally to redesign these magazines from scratch, reworking what the ex-designers created, including typography issues, in order to make them easier to read.

Cool. I can totally relate with you here on fixing the messes other designers leave. I’ve seen so many various niche and general magazine designs that suffer from bad design. It’s quite shocking to me that even in 2018, when designers have so many resources and information available to them, that there are still so many poor design decisions being made. Why do you think this happens, Eugen?  

I think those designers are missing the big picture when it comes to layout design. To make a good publication, you need to take into consideration many aspects before you can place any content on the page, such as how many columns you’ll need per page, what aspect ratio is required, or what typeface will be most legible given the size and positioning of the copy.

Do you think there are universal core principles on how to make a really good print magazine design? What are the top 3 mistakes that you, as a professional magazine designer, see today?

I see quite a lot of flaws, lately. For instance, I see the use of typefaces that weren’t designed for body copy being used for the body.Then there’s the generally poor understanding of how to use white space to make content more appealing and readable.

White space! I think this is the biggest one! So many people are afraid of white space. I think the biggest question is how to use white space so that the design looks crisp and professional instead of empty and unfurnished.

If we could draw a parallel between interior design and layout design, white space is very similar to the empty space that an interior designer uses to make our homes look ample and spacious.

It’s more likely that adding more white space will improve a design than adding more elements to clutter the page.

White space doesn’t refer to a space that is literally white, but to any space that a designer chooses to leave empty as part of a conscious design decision.

I believe that white space is a real challenge for any beginner designer. They’ll feel almost compelled to fill any empty space on the page with extra elements.

Actually, we had a client recently who was so afraid of white space that he insisted we fill all of it. Every space we left open, he commented and insisted that we fill it with something. The end result was overly busy and barely readable. This is why I love talking about this and, hopefully, educating people.

So now that we’ve talked about what white space is, can you tell us about the different types?

White space can be divided into micro and macro space.

Micro spacing refers to letters and word spacing, leading, gutters, and text indents.

Macro spacing, on the other hand, includes page margins, the space between paragraphs, white columns, and the space around graphics.

Okay, let’s say somebody wants to fix everything related to white space in their magazine: are there magic numbers they can use? I understand that numbers aren’t everything and you need to feel the layout, but can numbers help when starting with the basics?  

Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all. I would be more than happy if there were some magic numbers that I could always use to achieve good results, but that’s not the case.

I know that there are some common values that we often hear for body copy, like 10/12 (10 pt on 12 pt) for font. But oftentimes those are based on auto leading, which by default is 120% of the type size. It can work well for some typefaces, but that’s definitely not the way the professional designers go. If, for example, in your paragraph, there’s just one character that’s larger than the rest, auto leading will base that 120% off of that larger value, rather than the smaller characters that make up the majority of the paragraph.

[Leading is the space between lines of type, i.e. the distance from one baseline to the next.]

Loose leading will make the page feel too relaxed, while tight leading will increase the type density, making the content feel more authoritative.

However, going too tight or too loose with your leading values will compromise text readability. You can never achieve good results in typography if the values are extreme.

Typography is the art where the operative word is medium.

Okay, so what’s the impact of grid layout when it comes to body copy?

Leading should be synchronized with the baseline grid of the page.

For example, if the designer decides to use a baseline grid that increments every 12 points, the leading of the body copy should also be 12 points. Then there’s the space between columns (the gutter), which should either have the same value as the leading or a multiple of it (i.e. if 12 points of leading, then maybe 18 points for the gutter).

And, again, remember that extreme gutter values can break up the readability. Gutter sizes that are too tight can cause the reader to read across columns, while gutters that are too loose compromise the visual relationship between columns, causing the reader to interpret them as being from different stories.

It turns, poorly implemented white space can mess up content really badly. To quickly summarize so far, you’re saying weak white space design can ruin even great content. Please, keep going, this is amazing.

Typography is also the space between letters and words. These space values ought to be consistent, or at least vary so little that the naked eye can’t distinguish the differences.This concept helps to increase text readability, especially if your paragraph is justified aligned.

In InDesign, the adjustments for word and letter spacing are made in the justification dialog box, and letter spacing doesn’t take into consideration the shape of the letterforms.

What is considered good letter spacing?

A good rule of thumb is to try to achieve a space that’s equivalent to the width of the letter “i,” which is the narrowest letter in the alphabet. This is a perfectly balanced amount of space: not so close that it’s going to compromise readability, and not so widely spaced that your words begin to look broken up and disassociated.

The space between words should also be as even as possible across the line, and smaller than the leading value, so as to discourage the reader from moving their eyes from the top to the bottom of the column.

What about paragraphs? What’s the best method to differentiate them?

A common method to differentiate paragraphs is to add a first line indent. It also plays an important role in text’s readability. It signals the end of one paragraph and the beginning of a new one.

Psychologically, it serves as a visual pause that makes the block of text look less intimidating to read.

A common method is to make it the same size as the typeface. So for example, if the point size of your body copy is 10 points, the width of the first line indent is also 10 points.

Thank you, so many important details to keep in mind. I guess this covers micro spacing. What about macro spacing? This creates the overall feeling, right? You mentioned that macro spacing covers page margins, spaces between paragraphs, white columns, and the space around graphics.  

White space at a macro level makes the layout more appealing.

White space is the space between the major elements of a page layout and it can be used functionally. Visually, it establishes the hierarchy of the page’s elements and makes it clear which elements belong together and which are separate.

So what’s the right size for margins and why do we need them? 

Leading

A common method to differentiate paragraphs is to add a first line indent. It also plays an important role in text’s readability. It signals the end of one paragraph and the beginning of a new one.

Psychologically, it serves as a visual pause that makes the block of text look less intimidating to read.

A common method is to make it the same size as the typeface. So for example, if the point size of your body copy is 10 points, the width of the first line indent is also 10 points.

Thank you, so many important details to keep in mind. I guess this covers micro spacing. What about macro spacing? This creates the overall feeling, right? You mentioned that macro spacing covers page margins, spaces between paragraphs, white columns, and the space around graphics.  

White space at a macro level makes the layout more appealing.

White space is the space between the major elements of a page layout and it can be used functionally. Visually, it establishes the hierarchy of the page’s elements and makes it clear which elements belong together and which are separate.

So what’s the right size for margins and why do we need them? 

Magazine margins

Historically, margins were places where the reader could write their notes. Nowadays, however, they simply provide a place for the thumbs to hold the publication without covering the content.

They’re also the white space that frames the page, separates the content from the edge of the paper, and define the live area (i.e. the space where most of our content goes).

Margins are not always symmetrical. Usually the bottom margin is bigger because it is used to place additional information useful for the reader’s navigation, such as the folio and page number, but they can also accommodate other type elements, like drop caps, short captions, and possibly small pictures. If this technique is used sparingly, it can help prevent the layout from looking boxy. It also helps to have a larger bottom margin so that your pages don’t take on a bottom heavy look.

The inner margin it is the smallest one, usually at least 10 mm, but this size generally depends on how many pages are in the publication.

The top margin is 1.25 to 1.5 times bigger than the inner margin, while the bottom one is 2 to 2.5 times bigger.

In conclusion, margins are an important design element that usually don’t get the attention they deserve. They are the first thing the reader notices on a page, which helps them to form a first impression about the publication.

White columns

When the publication is based on a grid layout that consists of an uneven number of columns, one column can be left empty or used to place captions and pictures. This technique will make the layout more appealing and less crowded.

Space around graphics

This space is obtained by using text wraps. It can be used as a design opportunity to add more visual interest to the page.

Text wrapping has the power to transform a boring picture into an interesting shape, or a boxy layout into a more organic one.

Wow, thank you! So much great information Eugen! I really wanted to cover the 3 most common mistakes in this podcast, but there’s simply too much left to discuss, so we’ll break this conversation into a three part series to make it easier to digest.

Eugen, do you think we can get some design cheat sheets ready for our listeners to make it easier for them to incorporate these tips into their own work?

Download the cheat-sheet and slidesCheck the podcast on YouTubeGet in touch with Eugen Coman

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