If you’re looking to learn more about editorial design, you’ve come to the right place. This guide is designed for aspiring editorial design professionals, including designers working in related jobs and complete beginners. It should teach you everything you need to know about the field.
We’ll cover a wide range of topics, from editorial design history to creating your own editorial design portfolio. By the end, you should understand what editorial design is, know a bit about its background, and feel prepared to start your editorial design career.
Let’s jump right in!
What Is Editorial Design?
Editorial design is a subset of graphic design.
Traditionally, it has referred to designing for newspapers, magazines, and books. These days, it could also refer to designing for online publications.
Editorial design has a big impact on how written information is understood. An editorial designer has many things to think about, from typography to layouts to graphics and illustrations.
The goal of editorial design is to make publications attractive, visually interesting, and easy to read. Good editorial design is cohesive, clear, and draws readers in.
Editorial Design History
Editorial design is a very old art form. To really understand editorial design history, we could go as far back as the beginning of writing itself.
Humans have been creating and designing written texts for more than 5,000 years, ever since the development of cuneiform script in Mesopotamia around 3200 B.C. The Sumerian clay tablet below is an example of the use of cuneiform script.
(Sumerian tablet describing the goddess Inanna’s battle with the mountain Ebih. Source: Wikimedia Commons)
In ancient Egypt, the Egyptians used sharpened reeds or feathers to write on papyrus, a reed paper made from the cyperus papyrus plant. The transition from st
one tablets to flat materials like papyrus brought humanity one step closer to creating “books,” as we know them today.
(Egyptian papyrus showing the god Osiris. Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Many years later, in medieval Europe, the famous Gutenberg Bible was printed using the first mechanical printing press. The press was invented by German blacksmith Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century. It revolutionized printing, lowering the time and expense of production dramatically. Books could now be mass-produced.
(Source: National Library of Scotland, Flickr)
The above are some of the earliest examples of editorial design. However, the editorial design profession as we know it today is relatively new.
As mentioned previously, editorial design is usually considered a type of graphic design. And the first use of the term “graphic designer” is often credited to American artist William Addison Dwiggins in 1922.
Therefore, we could say that the contemporary field of editorial design began to develop some time in the early 20th century.
Famous Editorial Designers
The 20th century saw a lot of innovation in editorial design. Due to the rising popularity of magazines, magazine cover art and illustrations became a new way for designers to display their creativity.
Below are some examples of famous editorial designers from this period:
Born to a British mother and an American father, Wyndham Lewis was an artist and writer who was active in Paris and London from the 1910s to the 1950s. He made his first foray into editorial design as co-creator of the avant-garde journal Blast.
(The cover of Blast in July 1915. Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Mehemed Fehmy Agha
As the art director of Vogue, Vanity Fair, and House & Garden magazines in the 1930s, Agha was a highly influential figure in editorial design in both Europe and the U.S. He is known for his innovative uses of sans-serif typefaces and photography, as well as illustrations.
Lubalin was the art director of Avant Garde magazine in the 1960s. Along with his layout work, he is also particularly famous for his typographic design, having created Avant Garde’s signature typeface, among others.
(Logos designed by Lubalin. Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Creating an Editorial Design Portfolio
We’ve now learned what editorial design is, talked a bit about its history, and named some famous figures. Are you intrigued yet?
Perhaps you’re thinking of becoming an editorial designer yourself. If so, you’ll want to start by creating a portfolio.
Portfolios are an important tool for all designers. The purpose of your portfolio is to showcase your best work in an eye-catching way for potential clients, employers, or schools.
If you’re new to the field, or trying to break in from another type of design work, you may not yet have many samples to share. That’s OK—there are many ways to build up your editorial design portfolio.
You could create new pieces from scratch, designing for a fictional publication. Or, if you have experience in another design-related field, you could select relevant pieces you have created in other contexts (for example, typography or illustrations).
Presenting Physical Work in an Editorial Design Portfolio
When creating your editorial design portfolio, you may run into a problem when trying to display physical work in a digital format.
While in the past, people sometimes used physical portfolios to display their work, these days most people choose to create a personal website. However, due to the nature of editorial design, you may have created designs that have appeared in physical books and magazines. So, how can you combine these two formats in a way that retains the full impact of your work?
Many designers choose to simply share the flat layout of their design in a PDF file.
(Source: Aamir Raza, Flickr)
Others may choose to photograph the physical magazine or book.
But there are other options, too.
On the popular Q&A website Stack Exchange, user Mentalist offers a few great tips for creatively displaying page layouts:
“I would create a 3D mockup and present that along with the flat layout (probably each on their own page so they don’t fight for the viewer’s attention), and that way both the design in its ‘pure’ form and its final realized form can be appreciated.”
“If starting with 3D data presents too much of a learning curve for the project’s timeframe, another option would be to start with a professional-looking stock photo of an open book and impose the layout onto it in Photoshop using the Warp tool, or in Illustrator using Mesh Warp.”
Tips for the Editorial Design Process
If you’ve created an editorial design portfolio and are ready to begin working as an editorial designer, the question becomes: how can you create impactful layouts that please both your boss/clients and your audience?
Below are some helpful tips for aspiring and current editorial designers to keep in mind:
1. Have a Unique Style, and Stick to It
Style is to editorial design what voice is to writing—it forms part of a book or magazine’s brand. A publication’s style should be tailored to fit its audience, and should use a consistent color palette and typeface(s).
Contrary to the old saying “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” you can actually tell a lot about a book or magazine just by looking at it. Consider the following photo of two books with very different cover design styles: what can you guess about the content of each one?
2. Play With Color Contrast
(Source: Design Wizard)
It may seem obvious, but color contrast still goes a long way when creating memorable editorial designs. Especially when you’re trying to achieve a modern and clean look, this simple concept can help you draw readers’ eyes towards the most important parts of the page.
The dramatic effect created by color contrast can command attention and induce emotion in your viewer.
(Color contrast as seen in Wired magazine. Source: Steve Jurvetson, Flickr)
3. Don’t Be Afraid to Use Illustrations
There are some concepts that photography just can’t cover, from fictional topics to stories where a source wants to remain anonymous. These are the perfect times to use illustrations.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
If you don’t create illustrations yourself, as an editorial designer you might end up working with outside contributors to produce these. This part of the editorial design process is certainly worth it, as you will end up with a quality piece of unique artwork for your publication.
Just don’t forget to make your creative brief clear—the illustrator should be able to understand exactly what you are asking for, from subject matter to stylistic guidelines. Otherwise, multiple rounds of revisions will be frustrating for the artist, and could be expensive for you. Milanote’s “20+ inspiring creative brief templates” are sure to help with creating an effective creative brief.
4. Use the Rule of Thirds
Many classic graphic design principles (such as color theory) apply equally well to editorial design. The rule of thirds is no exception.
For those who haven’t heard of it before, the rule of thirds says the following: when in doubt about where to place elements on a page, you should draw a grid diving the space into thirds both horizontally and vertically.
(The Fashion Week layout from above, with the rule of thirds applied. Source: Aamir Raza, Flickr)
You can then position your visual points of interest along the lines or at intersecting points, in order to create a pleasing and balanced composition. Notice how in the above example, the photo falls directly along the vertical line to the left.
5. Don’t Neglect Typography
When designing editorial layouts, it’s easy to get caught up in the colors and graphics. But typography is equally as important.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Remember famous editorial designer Herb Lubalin? He created this typeface, which became the signature of Avant Garde magazine. If the typeface looks familiar, it’s because it has since become iconic, and now brings to mind the American art and countercultural scene of the 1960s.
An investment in learning typographic design is very much worth it for anyone who plans to become an editorial designer. Typography is a big part of the field, whether you’re interested in print or digital media. And even for those who do not want to design typefaces themselves, understanding the available options is key to developing a good “design eye”.
Editorial Design Courses and Resources
Looking to deepen your knowledge of editorial design? Many excellent resources exist to help you further your professional development.
Editorial Design Courses
There’s a wide range of editorial design courses available for current and aspiring designers. Here are some standout options from schools around the world, including short online courses and full academic programs:
Magazine Design: Getting Started
Designer John McWade, who created PageLab, the world’s first desktop publishing studio, leads this online introduction to magazine design. The hour-long course works through every component of magazine construction from typography to cover design.
Graphic Design Specialization
CalArts via Coursera
An online, part-time program for beginners that takes approximately six months to complete, this four-course sequence teaches the fundamental skills “required to make sophisticated graphic design.” This goal is to equip learners to move into interface design, motion graphics, and editorial design.
Course in Editorial Design
School of Visual Arts
New York City, USA
This 10-session evening course, available from the Continuing Education faculty of the School of Visual Arts, is perfect for those looking for a quick introduction to the field. The course teaches learners to create a magazine from scratch, and covers the fundamentals of editorial design.
Master’s Degree in Editorial Design
Barcelona School of Design and Engineering (ELISAVA)
Taught in either Spanish or English, the master’s degree in editorial design from ELISAVA offers an editorial design education in just one year. In the course, students work as part of a team on three projects: a book, a magazine, and a digital platform.
B.A. (Hons) in Design for Publishing
Norwich University of the Arts
For newcomers who are totally committed to pursuing editorial design as a career, this Norwich University of the Arts program could be a match. A comprehensive three- to four-year course, it covers design for books, newspapers, magazines, and online publishers.
Editorial Design Resources
For those who aren’t ready to commit to a course just yet, there are still plenty of ways to learn about editorial design.
Online Resources for Editorial Design
Check out the following online resources to find editorial design inspiration, knowledge and technical tips:
– Designer Daily
– Graphic Design Stack Exchange
– I Love Typography
– The Book Design Blog
You should now have a solid understanding of editorial design fundamentals—what it is, where it comes from, and why it’s important. And if you’re looking to teach yourself graphic design with a focus on print and digital publications, there’s no better place to start.
Now it’s time to go out and practice. One way to develop your eye for editorial design is by looking at examples. The more you seek out and read beautifully-designed magazines and newspapers, the more confident you’ll feel to take on the editorial design process and produce your own original work.