Quills and Pixels

In Spring 2010 I took RHET 5347 Production Editing with Dr. Chuck Anderson. The class is primarily responsible for the final editing and production of the departmental journal of non-fiction, Quills and Pixels. Since I had quite a bit of editing experience, I happily accepted the position of Layout and Design Editor. I wanted to refine my previous experiences in book and literary magazine design and layout as I made typography and style decisions and built the columnar layout template that everyone on staff would use. For many in the class, it was the first collaborative editing experience they have ever had. When a technical writer works on a document alone, so many things get done from tacit knowledge. When working with others, however, it is crucial to make explicit the decisions you would have otherwise just done independently. I believe this is how style sheets were born. I learned so much more about the process of editing by trying to communicate my ideas with the other editors than I ever did for years doing it alone. But where I grew the most as a technical communicator wasn’t in making, explaining, and implementing style decisions, it was in the grid design and layout template itself where I experimented and tried something new and it really paid off.

Grid-based designs aren’t new to the world of print, but the concepts are being re-imagined for use online, where “page” boundaries are more or less artificial. Online, the grid is made but then often broken because the whereabouts of the bottom edge or end of the page are often left undefined. I believe this reality is why one principle of grid design is perhaps more important online than it is in print: the vertical baseline grid.

The best way to explain a baseline grid is to think about lined paper. No matter how big or small handwriting is on the lines, the space between the lines—the vertical baseline grid—remains the same. Having a consistent baseline establishes a vertical rhythm and helps to place elements on a page. Otherwise, thanks to technologies from early word processors and the first days of HTML to the latest desktop publishing software and web design techniques, the changing of font sizes usually makes this impossible because line height is usually automatically calculated based on font size.

As the Layout and Design Editor I decided it would be an interesting challenge to concentrate on this grid principle and bring it back to print. I eventually settled on a 14pt. grid height. This size then factored into all my font size decisions: 10pt. body text size, 28pt. titles, and 18pt. callouts.

Other than the grid and type decisions, re-familiarizing myself with Adobe InDesign was fun. The last time I worked this closely with InDesign was on my high school newspaper (and the program was called PageMaker). Since then I’ve made my way around the entire Adobe Creative Suite of products and back again.

The next time I undergo a project like this I’ll do a few things differently. From the beginning I should have more-fully read each essay, noting potential document style hazards before they presented challenges. Along those lines, I would have liked to have more time to discuss layout style in class. It would have also been nice to have more things on the checklist for each editor to watch out for, such as whether or not their individual documents had special style considerations like italics or block quotes. Such an inventory from the beginning would have allowed me to design and incorporate those styles from the get-go.