13 November 2006
Max Bruinsma
Max Bruinsma

Last year, the Dean of the Utrecht Graduate School of Visual Arts and Design, Dr. Henk Slager, asked Max Bruinsma to rethink the educational considerations for the graduate course of Editorial Design, and re-write its course plan. In the short essay below, Max Bruinsma summarizes his view on the discipline and outlines the principles on which the new course, which will start September this year, is based.

If, as Gui Bonsiepe holds, all design is at root interface design, then all design is editorial. For what is more editorial than turning disparate data into meaningful information, which is what an interface should achieve? In connecting these two terms, editing and interfacing, I define the bias of Editorial Design as an interdisciplinary craft concerned with structuring information for publication media.

'Editorial design' - or 'editorialism', as I like to term it - is the craft of organizing complex aggregates of information into a meaningful and accessible totality, balancing function (the interface aspect) and aesthetics (the expressive aspect). Literally, the Latin word 'editor' means 'producer': 'edo' (edere) means 'to bring forth', 'bring out in the open', 'make known', 'publish', 'present', 'deliver', 'reveal', 'cause'. All these associated words suggest that editorial design is concerned with preparing structure, form and accessibility of publications.

Traditionally, the term 'editorial (graphic) design' is associated with publication media such as newspapers and magazines (recently supplemented by the Web), which are characterized by complex information structures and short production cycles. In such media, transparency of editorial structure, clear formal hierarchies and ease of use are central values in giving form to, not only the end result, but to the processes of lay-out and production as a whole.

Principally, editorial design means to prepare design's potential. From the vantage point of editorial design, structuring the design and production process has a priority over giving form to the definitive outcome of that process. In today's design practice, with its concentration on formal aesthetics, this is not as evident anymore as it sounds.

Within the interdisciplinary environments of design, editorial design in my view holds the position of a 'meta discipline'. It is not solely concerned with (graphic) design for publication media, although that remains a focus, but also looks at editorial structure in any design process and product, from urban signage systems to database management systems, from the design of instrument panels to that of electronic displays, from advertising campaigns to newspaper lay-out, from information graphics to web design. The central ambition of the editorialst is: to organize culturally relevant understanding.

Editorial designers perform a key function in today's complex information environments by providing structure and overview, and by translating abstract data into meaningful forms. By visualizing editorial hierarchies, editorial designers make visible the content driven choices made by them and their natural partners, (text) editors, authors, and publishers. In doings so, they also prepare the way for colleagues they are collaborating with: photographers, illustrators, information architects, screen designers, database constructors, etceteras.

In addition to this process-oriented core of the profession, editorial designers act as mediators between the contents of the material they work with and the cultural contexts of which their products are part. They are 'cultural catalysts'. They balance content with context; they design the processes that organize the 'traffic' between various layers of information and meaning; they mix media and contexts, even from very diverse sources, with the aim of enhancing awareness of the connectedness of information.

That is the editorial core of design: the activity of making meaningful links.

This kind of linking requires a deep knowledge of and insight in the (con)structional aspects of design. Before the actual construction of any material artifact can even be conceived, the parts that will constitute that construction will have to be defined, their meaning and hierarchies will have to be established and analyzed, and - most importantly - the various ways in which they can be connected to a meaningful whole will have to be explored from the vantage point of both the internal brief of the product and a vision towards aims and objectives concerning the users of the product, and their contexts.

Editorial design is the craft of engineering meaningful vehicles for information. The underlying structure of (publication) designs greatly biases not only their formal outcome, but also their accessibility and meaning. In other words: not only should form follow function, but from an editorial point of view, form = function.

Editing is (almost) synonymous to interpretation. This, in turn, implies that information needs to be argued (i.e. interpreted) in order to become meaningful in a communicative way. Editorial design analyzes the structures and forms of visual interpretation, argumentation, and formulation as aspects of (visual) narrative. Taking references from classic rhetorics to modern cinematographic scenarios and hypertextual environments, visual narrative is seen as a way of translating information into a structured whole that can be experienced by its intended audience or users as a 'story'. The meaning of the 'story' is not only constructed from within (i.e. in terms of argumentation, 'flow' and consistency), but also produced by making meaningful links to its external contexts. As any storyteller of all ages and cultures will confirm, the success of a story (i.e. the ease and readiness with which it is understood by its audience) lies in the way it succeeds in connecting its own contents to the actual contexts, culture and history of its audience.

Editorial design is the craft of constructing meaningful and culturally rooted narratives. Visualization is a core-skill needed here, based on a thorough insight into the techniques and models of (visual) narrative. Editorial designers are trained in preparing the ground for visual narrative; they are 'storytellers of information' in today's visual culture.

The kind of products that are the focus of editorial design can without exception be considered interfaces. A newspaper or magazine, a website or signage system, a dashboard or an information campaign; all are interfaces which enable their users to access information easily and rewardingly. In editorial design, interaction and the design of interfaces serve not only as a digital craft but more importantly as the craft of organizing links for and actions by 'users'.

Editorial design is the craft of enabling users to act with and on information. Editorial designers organize and orchestrate actions by users.

In today's dense information societies, the way information is embedded into its cultural and social surroundings is crucial for its communicative success. Editorial designers must have a deep insight in cultural processes and include these meaningfully within the structure of their designs. A thorough insight into the theoretical bases of cultural and media processes is needed in order to be able to see topical and specific occurrences of cultural and social phenomena as part and parcel of the bigger picture of western mediated culture. Also, the skill to mediate between abstract conceptions of cultural structure, theory and history, and everyday cultural expressions will enable the editorial designer to combine clarity of structure and cultural meaning.

Editorial design is the craft of embedding information into cultural contexts. Editorial designers are cultural catalysts in the sense that they are able to translate information and information structures into culturally active communication. As cultural catalysts, editorial designers activate citizens by enabling them to not only consume information, but to participate in the processes that the information serves.

Editorial Design, Utrecht Graduate School of the Arts and Design
Teaching staff (provisional):
Chris Vermaas - course leader Editorial Design
Harmine Louw - lecturer Visual Narrative
Yuri Engelhardt - lecturer Information Design
Willem van Weelden - lecturer Cultural studies / Media Theory / Thesis
Max Bruinsma - guest lecturer Visual Culture / Cultural Agency
Steven Heller - visiting lecturer

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