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Printing Industry Exchange ( 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: Tips on Designing with Photographs

Photo purchased from …

In the 1980s, about a year after I had graduated from college and then had edited a small community tabloid for almost no pay, I got what my father called “a real job.” I was hired to copyedit, design, and shoot photos for print books published by a DC-area government education organization. I had been a writer and editor, and I had taken photos for two yearbooks in high school, but I knew nothing about publication design. I only knew how to lay out a tabloid newspaper.

So when I discovered Jan V. White’s Editing by Design, I was thrilled. Next to Getting It Printed (by Mark Beach and Eric Kenly), which has been my go-to textbook on all things related to printing (for the past three decades), Editing by Design has been the best print book I’ve found on publications design.

And just yesterday, I found a copy at a thrift store.

Photography as a Design Tool

What can we learn from Jan White about creating a cohesive design for a printed product (anything from a flyer to a print book) using photographs? Essentially, this question directly addresses the goal of all design. That is, how do you take a huge amount of information (visual and written), put similar things together, separate dissimilar things from one another, and lead the reader’s eye and imagination through all of this information in an enlightening and enjoyable way?

Not an easy task. However, there are some guidelines to get you started. Here are a few from Jan White’s Editing by Design. Actually, even though I refer to photos when describing White’s book, the images in the print book are all hand-drawn illustrations and sketches of book page spreads:

    1. Purpose: Choose photos for either the mood/tone you wish to evoke for the design piece (let’s say the huge opening shot at the beginning of a magazine article) or for the narrative content of the photos. Both approaches eschew photos that are (as Jan White says) just “pretty.”


    1. Size of Photos: The most relevant photo (in terms of advancing the goal/purpose/message of the design piece) should be the largest and most prominently placed. This will lead the reader’s eye to this image first. Other photos, which will be smaller, will create contrast in size (contrast is an important element of all graphic design and fine art), while supporting or furthering the message. As you can see, the design grows organically out of the editorial goal.


    1. Clustering: If your page spread includes a lot of photos (always design in two-page spreads, not single pages; after all, the reader is always looking at a left-hand page next to a right-hand page), consider grouping them rather than scattering the photos across the four or six columns of the two-page spread. Such a cluster organizes multiple images into a single unit, which is easier for the reader’s brain to process. (Unity is another principle of design.) When you cluster photos, you create a focal point. Choose the most important image and make it the largest in the cluster. Position the other photos with consideration (for instance) to the direction the people in the photos are looking or any other lines of sight (the direction of movement in the photo).


    1. Cropping: Jan White says “crop ‘till it hurts” in Editing by Design. That means you should crop in severely on the most important portion of the photos. What is happening? What is central to the message? That can mean cropping into heads, arms, etc. (What I have found over the years, though, is that it’s best not to crop exactly at joints, like the ankle or wrist, and it’s best not to crop out the eyes of the subject of a photo.) Try different cropping options. But focus exclusively on the story the photo is telling.


    1. Jump the Gutter: Two techniques in particular will showcase a large mood photo at the beginning of a magazine article. Jumping the gutter (from the left-hand page to the right-hand page) will make the photo seem larger than if it is confined to the left-hand page alone. Also, bleeding the large photo on the top, bottom, and far left side will make the photo look larger than the page spread or book itself. It will seem to extend off the page infinitely.


    1. Align Eye Levels: You may need to include multiple head shots in your clusters of photos. Let’s say you’re designing an annual report that includes numerous portraits. From birth we are so accustomed to looking first and foremost at people’s faces (and especially their eyes) that it is more comfortable for the reader if you align people’s eye levels when you position a number of photos side by side in a row.


    1. Contrast of Size: In groupings of photos, large images make nearby small images look smaller and vice versa. Use this to your advantage. On page 148 of Editing by Design, Jan White illustrates this with a large and small dog, but White also plays with this a bit by including a full-bleed photo of a man’s head on the left-hand page and several stacked lines of type (the words “biggest man in his field” and nothing else) on the right-hand page. This also demonstrates how a chunk of text surrounded by a sea of empty white space (on the right-hand page) can completely balance a full-bleed close-up photo on the left-hand page. White space (negative space) has visual weight, too.


    1. Break Out of the Picture Frame: Jan White includes three photos side by side on page 151. On the left is a big dog lunging forward. In the middle is a small dog. On the right is a medium-sized dog leaping at the dog in the center photo. Then White creates a montage in which each dog breaks the “picture plane” and extends into the next photo. (With effort, this can be accomplished in Photoshop.) It’s rather dramatic. Grouped, the three photos imply movement and operate as a single image telling a story.


    1. Similarity:You can create unity by grouping photos with similar characteristics. (In one case, Jan White groups two photos of monkeys and a photo of a man.) You can also group photos based on the similarity of their backgrounds. Or you can group them based on the similarity of their composition. (Jan White groups photos of a tree, a giraffe, a scarecrow, a ladder, a flag pole, and a flamingo. All are tall and narrow.) Granted, when you do this, you imply a similarity of “something.” It helps if the similarity you are highlighting pertains directly to your editorial message.


    1. Implied Growth: Editing by Design includes four increasingly larger images of a growing plant. Not only is each slightly larger than the preceding photo, but over the four photos the initial leaf grows into a group of leaves and then into a full plant (both larger and more developed). In this case a collection of photos implies movement (growth) over time. To me this is intriguing since, unlike video, print books usually provide only a static experience of a moment frozen in time.


    1. One Image, Multiple Photos: White includes four images side by side on page 153 of Editing by Design. As a group, they portray what looks like Times Square in New York City. All photos are the same height, but their width varies based on the overall composition (focusing on individual buildings or groups of buildings). Based on the treatment, all images hang together. Having the exact same-width gutter between the vertical photos and having the same top and bottom margin for the series of photos also unify the images.


  1. Mirror Images: Used once, this can be dramatic. Jan White includes a portrait of a woman (face, hair, and one hand) on the left-hand page (full bleed) and the mirror image of the photo on the right-hand page. More than one use of this technique will diminish its power and surprise. A similar trick is to marry two images that are similar both in meaning and in size. To illustrate this, Jan White includes a composite photo comprising half a woman’s face and hair on the right and half a skull on the left (appropriately sized to create a unified image).

The Takeaway

Overall, what can we learn about designing with photos from Jan White’s book, Editing by Design?

    1. Like any other skill, design can be taught (or even learned by oneself, as I did).


    1. There’s no better way to learn design than to study the work of skilled designers. Look for print books on the subject.


    1. An even better approach is to learn by observing. Pay attention to all of the brochures, signs, bumper stickers, print books, vehicle wraps, bus signs, etc., etc., etc., that you can find. If you like something, be able to articulate why. Ask yourself what the message of the ad (or other printed product) is and how the designer has used such tools of the trade as “balance,” “unity,” and “contrast” to reinforce this message. “It’s pretty” isn’t specific enough, although shocking work can grab the reader. It just has to do this for a reason.


  1. More specifically, pay particular attention to how photos are used in ads, on print book covers, etc. How do the photos give the printed product a focal point, and how do they enhance the editorial message?

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