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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Designing with Faces, Eyes, and Hands

My fiancee collects newspapers from friends and relatives for use in our art therapy work (i.e., to cover the tables and contain the mess). This week in the collection I found an Eileen Fisher catalog. Before returning it to my fiancee, I decided to use it as source material for this blog due to its masterful use of photos. And the reason I found the design masterful was that the graphic artist had used the models’ hands, faces (in general), eyes (more specifically), and postures and gestures to draw the reader into the catalog and to lead the reader’s eye through the page spreads. The models’ expressions, clothes, and demeanor, as well as the color usage, typefaces, and even the paper all contribute to an overall understanding of the Eileen Fisher brand.

So let’s break this down.

The Models

Good photography doesn’t happen by accident. Even if the photo looks like a casual snapshot (or selfie), a huge amount of work has usually gone into everything from make-up to clothing to lighting to the model’s posture. (Having a camera in every cell phone has for the most part made us forget the importance of this skill.) Making a good photo look like a happy accident takes work.

That said, the models in the Eileen Fisher catalog look to the left, to the right, off the page, toward other photos. The reader always has a sense that there is something to look at. It’s a normal human reflex to look where someone else is looking. (Try walking out into a crowd on the street and looking up. Soon everyone else will be looking up, too.) In the case of the catalog, the gaze of the models leads the reader from one photo to another (i.e., from one Eileen Fisher product to another). And it is a major goal of all graphic design to lead the reader’s eye around the double-page spread of a print book, catalog, or magazine. It is the designer’s canvas. There should be no confusion as to what the reader should look at first, second, and third. Eileen Fisher does this masterfully by incorporating the “gaze” of each model into the overall design.

And I’d go one step further. When models in a catalog or print book are looking at each other, you as the reader are an observer of their world. Periodically, in the case of this Eileen Fisher catalog, there is a slight change to this axiom. Instead of looking at each other (even from photo to photo), the models look at you, the reader. Since the models have such different, evocative expressions, this becomes an intimate moment. They’re looking at you. You’re looking at them, wondering what they’re thinking. (This is true in other catalogs, but often the expressions are more generic. These are more varied and emotive.) You will find the exact same distinction (between models looking at each other and models looking at you) in fine arts prints and paintings in galleries.

To add to the effect, the Eileen Fisher catalog designer has used the posture, carriage, gesture, hand position, and movement of the models to good effect, as a method of leading the reader’s eye around the page spread, as a way to break up the “space” of the two-page spread, even as a way to convey the models’ emotions. (That is, the models’ posture works as both a design element and as an emotional hook, presumably inviting the reader into the models’ world, enticing the reader to “associate” herself with the models by buying the same clothes they are wearing.)

More Design Values

Before we move on to commercial printing characteristics and choices, I’d like to mention some design choices that contribute to the (in my opinion) overall excellence of this print book catalog.

The first is white space. The reader’s eyes get tired from seeing too much type and too many images. It’s important to give the reader’s eyes a place to rest. White space (everything that is not type or images) provides this respite. In the Eileen Fisher catalog, such techniques as silhouetting images, desaturating the colors in the background of the images so the photo edges fade away, and surrounding the images with a generous amount of white space, all provide a sense of opulence to the catalog. There is no busy-ness, no sense of chaos or urgency, just a relaxed and sophisticated tone.

To achieve this, one of the tools the graphic artist has employed is the focus on the contours around the models (the negative space,: i.e., anything that is not subject matter). These shapes are intriguing. They grab the reader’s attention and guide the reader’s eye through the double-page spread. That the backgrounds of the photos seem to fade gives the feeling of more white space, making for a more open, simple design.

One other thing I’d like to mention about the design actually straddles the boundary between design and production. That is the paper. The uncoated stock the Eileen Fisher designer selected for the cover and text pages is a brilliant, bright blue-white. There’s no gloss or matte coating, and this provides a calming, natural effect. But beyond this, the brightness of the blue-white sheet makes the type design seem crisper and the colors of the models’ faces and clothes brighter and more intense.

Production Values

Back to the paper, this time from a production perspective. Thick, uncoated text and cover paper (and a thick, slightly different texture for the insert card) just feel good to the hand.

In addition, the catalog is short (32 pages plus cover). The designer could have saddle stitched the print book catalog. But she/he chose to perfect bind the catalog with a hinge press score parallel to the spine. Again, this choice signals opulence, sophistication, glamour. If there were no text or imagery in the print book—if the pages were completely blank—the reader would probably still want to buy something. Because the book just feels good–and natural.

What We Can Learn

The purpose of a catalog is to sell product. That said, people don’t like to be sold. They prefer to be helped to buy something that reflects their likes, dislikes, and values. A designer who can grasp the overall personality of the buyer and then use the tools of design to both consciously and subliminally connect the buyer’s persona with the values inherent in the client company’s “brand” will always be in demand. This catalog reflects such mastery.

The best way to develop such a skill is to observe and dissect (or deconstruct) whatever you see that you like. To give this lifelong task a roadmap, here are some things to look for:

  1. Paper choice: color, brightness, whiteness, caliper or thickness, coating, surface texture—just to start. Ask yourself exactly how each of these characteristics contributes to the overall look and feel of the printed product (any printed product, since any printed product is really an advertisement for something).
  2. Photos: Are the photos formal or informal? Are the models looking at each other or at you, the reader? What emotions are the models trying to convey (after all, they’re actors, in the final analysis)? Do they use their eyes? Do they use their hands? How does their posture help convey their emotions? You would be surprised at how few magazines, print books, brochures, and catalogs take any of this into account. If you bring this skill and awareness into your own design work, you will set yourself apart from other designers.
  3. White space: look for well-balanced page spreads with a place for the reader’s eyes to rest. If the design is busy (the opposite of this catalog), how does the cacaphony contribute to the overall effect? Or is the busy-ness just an accident or flaw?
  4. Type: Why did the designer choose the typeface, and what values and emotions does it suggest? In your own work, try various type combinations and notice the subtle changes in tone these changes in type will suggest. Even changing a headline from roman to bold or demi-bold will make a difference. Learn to articulate that difference and then explain how it contributes to the purpose of the printed piece.

Make it a lifelong task to study, deconstruct, and learn from what you see. Eventually it will become an intuitive feel as you’re designing something. The years of study (if it becomes a passion, this won’t feel like work) will make your design choices flow naturally. Look, study, create—then rinse and repeat.

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