“Listen to the content.” How to master editorial design, with designer & art director Chloe Scheffe
“I think of each issue of a magazine as a complete reading experience, and my role is to modulate that experience,” Chloe Scheffe tells us. As a Seattle-based independent designer and art director, working with words and pictures is her bread and butter. She’s produced layouts, illustrations, spreads, covers (you name it), and lent her talents to a diverse range of magazines and publishers – from the radical Verso and socialist feminist Lux, to the iconic Penguin Random House and the legendary New Yorker. As a certified editorial wizard, we were interested in finding out more about her approach, and what design insights she can share with us.
When an editorial designer begins a fresh project and the content has been handed over, how much creative flexibility do they have? To what extent does a publication’s content dictate the design route? Or is content adjusted to fit the design parameters? This, as Scheffe reveals, is largely down to the client and what their design approach is. “If the main visual idea centres on something abstract, like a colour or type palette,” Scheffe says, “the content is going to feel more systematic and consistent, with each layout falling into the design system.” She highlights the biannual magazine The Gentlewoman as an example. “It achieves its visual voice not through concept, but a collection of really specific colour, pattern, typeface, and typesetting choices working in tandem. There's a nice amount of variation there, but the content is still being expressed within the bounds of a clear system.”
The key challenge was to embed an idea from the story into the design.
There are plenty of cases where the central concept – and communicating it through design – will take charge. Scheffe recalls working with The New York Times Magazine as a notable example. Whilst the famed publication has a tight palette of typefaces, there’s no bounds on the colour palette, nor are there layout rules for openers which can vary depending on the tone and subject matter of the story. “When I was on that team,” Scheffe reflects, “the key challenge we gave ourselves was to embed an idea from the story into the design.”
The reader shouldn't get fatigued by the design.
And as Scheffe points out, even when you have tighter parameters to work with, designing a consistent layout doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice creativity. “The reader shouldn't get fatigued by the design because it's so intense, or bored of it because it takes no chances,” she emphasises. “I listen to the content.” For some pieces, this calls for an expressive and unconventional route. Other, more serious stories, may call for a more subdued direction. “Have a great system, and then break it at the right moments,” she says. “Be willing to revise, especially as more of the pages start to pull together. Balance is a moving target.”
Whatever the decided direction, there is one fundamental rule that is unshakeable for Scheffe: body copy needs to be legible. “It's a disservice to the reader if they're struggling to follow the writing across the page,” she points out. “Sometimes that means you can get away with a 7pt sans because it has a high x-height and open counters; others a 10pt serif because the page size of the magazine is larger or the text is sitting over a low-contrast background. The choices themselves vary, but the goal is the same.” This is aided by an intuitive layout – something that creates a natural reading experience whilst being visually interesting.
Beyond the practical purpose of her role, there’s plenty of fun to be had when finding ways to engage, educate, and entertain the reader. According to Scheffe, readers are happy to delve into a longer or more complex piece of text if it gives “a layout visual punch,” or successfully delivers on a conceptual level. That being said, the content must always come first. “I tend to push these rules right up to the line in service of beautiful layouts, especially in the sketch phase of the project, but ultimately I try to honour the fact that a magazine is first and foremost about content, not design,” she concludes.