Charismatic consultant emphasizes cooperation between art and editorial, and service journalism
He was a graphics editor before the term came into vogue. He was a visual journalist, in the broadest sense, before Google had 96,000 entries for the phrase.
Now Jan White, the charismatic 79-year-old consultant and publication designer, is this year’s winner of the ASBPE Lifetime Achievement Award (LAA).
White received his honor at the Azbee Awards of Excellence banquet the evening of Aug. 2, 2007 at New York City’s Roosevelt Hotel.
Uniting design and editorial
For the first time, ASBPE bestows its lifetime achievement recognition on someone primarily from the design side of the business-to-business (B2B) community.
Yet White long has been a leading voice for understanding between editors and art staff about the role they play together in the success of B2B publications.
A major White tenet, in fact, is that “word people must think visually and picture people must think verbally.” In thesymbiosis that results, designers and editors work together, understanding the vocabulary of both disciplines. Combining their skills helps the reader grasp information quickly and understandably.
“As professional communicators, our task is to achieve what our clients [readers] need, blending each of our specialties into one product,”White says.
“Our work may be judged by its excellence as splendid writing, innovative creativity, emotive image-making, but those are just secondary qualities, essential though they be. Our value to clients depends on how good we are at interpreting their problem, because that’s the very root from which our verbal or visual communication-solution grows.”
Design contributes to service journalism
While he doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge that B2B magazines are commercial operations — not fine art or literature — White believes that skilled editors and graphic designers can combine to deliver well-designed information that is rational and logical, rather than primarily emotional, as some publication designers prefer. And as is true for so many great journalists, Jan White’s views lead him into the realm of service journalism.
Past LAA honoree Don Ranly, longtime service-journalism proponent and professor emeritus at University of Missouri School of Journalism, describes White thus: “Jan White has always taught that the purpose of design is to enhance the message — nothing more, nothing less.No one, no one has done or taught that better.” Once, when someone approached White and said that she, too, was a designer, Ranly recalls, “Jan replied, ‘Well, dear, I hope you grow up to be a journalist.’”
By his own count,White has given more than 1,800 seminars to publishers, editorial organizations, and technical associations around the world.
“Ask a regular attendee at ASBPE’s National Editorial Conferences to list her or his favorite programs, and you’re likely to hear Jan’s name — and to see a smile,” said ASBPE president Roy Harris, a senior editor at CFO magazine.“His way of combining common sense and the tough day-to-day requirements of making articles clear and psychologically appealing to readers is a model for teachers of journalism, as well as for writers on all educational topics.”
A prolific author
In his own write…
Now in its third edition, Jan White’s book Editing By Design has become the bible of many a publication designer and editor. Jan White’s companion book, Designing for Magazines, has achieved similar stature. Here are some excerpts.
- “To test the effectiveness of a headline, read it out loud, then ask ‘So what?’ If the answer is … ‘Not much,’ then it isn’t involving enough. … Dead titles are products of lack of thought … regardless of the puns or cleverness of wording.”
- “Clusters of short elements pull better than long essays.”
- “Use infographics to replace long descriptions. …”
- “The skimmer should gather the gist of the story from the headline, deck, and subheads.”
- “Nobody wants to read everything. Making it obvious that it is skippable implies permission not to read, which is psychologically comforting.”
White has consulted for numerous publishing companies and publications, including National Geographic, The New York Times, CBS, and the McGraw-Hill, Advance, Reed-Elsevier, Webb, Meredith, Gorman, Intertec, Kalmbach, Bill Communications, Cygnus, and Dowden organizations. While he took on fewer design jobs for specific magazine titles after the late 1980s, his work continued in locations as distant as Brazil, England, Norway, Portugal, and Sweden.
“I worked with and for publishing companies and associations of various kinds, all over the world, and they showed me titles that I would comment on, suggest, cajole, beg, and generally excoriate, as required,” notes White. “Some I spent a day on, others 10 minutes after a lecture in a corner on a couch in the corridor. Those were the most useful consultations, always free! How can one not answer good questions? Besides it is so much fun, and maybe even good for our professions.”
He has taught courses on communication design at schools from New York to Anchorage, and for seven summers instructed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
White has 15 books to his credit, including Editing by Design, Graphic Idea Notebook, Color for Impact, Using Charts and Graphs, Designing for Magazines, and the Xerox Publishing Standards.
His articles have appeared in Folio:, Step-by-Step, Ragan Reports, Magazine Week, and Credit Union Marketing. He has been a columnist for Dynamic Graphics, Technique, Graphic Solutions, Computer Publishing, and EP&P.
In Editing by Design, White examines how a magazine is “used” by the reader — offering a virtual lesson in physiology, psychology, and common sense. The book is in its third edition.
He presents the subject with the same verve, wit, and intellectual stimulation that color his conference sessions and workshops. And, of course, he shares his gifts with audiences both visually and verbally.
Now living in Westport, Conn., where he tries to hide from magazines by sculpting, he still finds time to speak and to write. He has degrees in architecture from Cornell and Columbia Universities.
But it was during White’s first job as a temporary draftsman for Architectural Forum that he fell in love with making magazines. That “temporary job” lasted 13 years, as he moved from Architectural Forum to become art director of its sister publication, House & Home.
His first talk on the relationship of designing to editing was delivered to the New York Business Press Editors’ Association in 1958.
In 1995,White was awarded the Swedish Word and Picture Academy’s Lidman Prize “…for his extensive authorship and exceptional services to design education.”
In a recent interview in Publishing Executive, White suggests that the way to approach readers/clients was “not to be creative…. Cool it — solve the client’s problem. Don’t build monuments to yourself, don’t decorate.… Simplify. … Understand the message so you can express it clearly. Understand what your reader buys your product for.”
What Others Say
Noelle Skodzinski, Editor-in-Chief
When I hired Jan as a columnist for Publishing Executive, I knew I’d be getting a brilliant contributor. I did not know that I’d also be getting much more — a mentor whose quirky stories would continually remind me to work hard, but not too hard.
He once asked me, “What’s more important, living or the job?” Then, he said, “The amazing thing is that if you choose ‘living,’ you’ll do a far better job.”
Jan seems to drain every last drop of enjoyment and humor not only out of life, but also out of work, and he has managed to help me do that as well, at least on most days. In an e-mail he sent me after I had a particularly hectic few weeks, he wrote, “You are an editor, by God! Not a hamster. Editors are valuable for their insights and knowledge, and capacity to manipulate thoughts, not for the number of actions they can perform in a 14-hour day!”
I have benefited professionally and personally from my work with Jan, and I feel very fortunate that our paths in this life have crossed.
The industry has benefited immensely from his ongoing contributions; his books, columns, and lectures have inspired many of us and helped us create better products. And, best of all, he has made us laugh in the process.
There is no question that he is a well-deserving recipient of this lifetime achievement award.
Bert Sugar, Editor/Publisher
[FPO] Magazine, Aurus Design
Long before I met Jan White, I already knew how he thought. His book, Editing By Design, was required reading for my publication design classes at American University, not because of the specific content (although it was — and remains — practical and poignant) but because the overall philosophy of serving editorial content and reader needs is a great antidote to the self-involved narcissistic tendencies of young designers.
When I finally met Jan at Folio:Shows in New York where we presented, I was both impressed and humbled at his engaging presentation style and his persuasive argument that only design and editorial working together will fully involve readers.
Indeed, at one show in Chicago in the mid-90s when Jan was stranded at home by a snowstorm, I filled in for him on an hour’s notice; an easy task since so much of the material echoed my own philosophy of design. Hardly a coincidence.
Roberto Civita, Chairman and Editor-in-Chief
Jan is unquestionably the wisest, most pragmatic, and best designer that we at Editora Abril have ever had the good fortune to work with.
With his impeccable good taste, creative panache, warm wit, and practical advice, he has contributed to making our publications better at communicating with their readers and trained a few generations of editors to deal constructively with their art directors and magazine design. Our only regret is that he doesn’t live in Brazil!
Thomaz Souto Corrêa, VP, Editorial Committee
I consider it very appropriate for an editors society to name Jan White for such a prestigious award. Because I don’t consider Jan merely a designer or a professor. Jan is one of the best editors I have known, and we have been working for a lifetime together.
Since he came for the first time to Brazil, to lecture for our editors and designers, he revolutionized the way we work, with an obvious and clear concept: The success of any magazine lies in having their editors and designers working together for the benefit of the reader.
Not a surprise that the first word he learned in Portuguese was bagunça, or “what a mess”… It was a mess.
Thanks to him, not anymore.
Blake R. Kellogg, Professor Emeritus
University of Wisconsin-Madison
One day, in one of my seminars, a newspaper writer told me he recently attended a seminar conducted by Jan White.My newspaper friend said, “He’s really good.” I purchased a book by Jan White entitled Editing By Design. It was a revelation!
In that one book, which was Jan’s first, published in 1975, he set forth all of the major principles of design for periodicals. Not only did the book provide a wide array of recommendations and guidelines, but it was written in a conversational, easy-to-read style. For me, it was comparable to finding the Holy Grail. The book was a wonder to behold! After that, Jan’s book was required reading for all of my periodical design classes.
Two years later, Jan published a sequel entitled Designing for Magazines. Just like its predecessor, it, too, contained all the advice that any editor would ever need to know. And, it, too, became required reading.
It finally occurred to me that if Jan’s books were so good, perhaps it would be useful to have the author of those books present a one- or two-day seminar on periodical design. So, I contacted Jan White, and he agreed to come out to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to conduct a one-day seminar for newspaper and magazine writers, editors, and publishers.
At the first seminar, about 125 people attended. The responses from all of the professionals attending the seminar were universal in their praise.
We invited Jan White back to the University for several repeat performances. Even after his first presentation, he conducted a two-day seminar to a packed house of 200 professionals.
Always, his style of communication was magnetic. He captured his audience right from the start, and held them for eight hours, two days in a row. And, always, he received rave reviews.
Jan White is not only a remarkable and talented periodical designer, but he is a gifted writer and an extraordinary “communicator.”
In my opinion, he is virtually without peer in his talent not only for graphic design, but in his ability to communicate his message.
Even though we’ve never met, I feel I know Jan White personally through his teachings and our mutual friend, Don Ranly (Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri School of Journalism and 2005 ASBPE Lifetime Achievement Award winner).
Jan’s contributions in understanding the reader and his practical design techniques that advance the story have been the cornerstone of Advanstar’s Editorial Audit program for years. I think Jan’s workshop handouts and textbooks should be a part of every designer’s and editor’s toolbox. His common-sense design approach captures readers with a verbal and visual blend. Jan has indeed perfected the art of magazine making.
In His Own Words:
The editor/designer partnership
While I was studying architecture at Cornell, our goldmine was a magazine: Architectural Forum. It had news, design trends, swipeable details… everything we students needed. It was just as indispensable to real architects. This was 60 years ago, yet drop the name Forum in a group of architects today, and you get immediate smiles of recognition and nostalgia.
So: June 1951: Newly-minted “architect” awaiting the draft to Korea. Now what?
I bump into a buddy. “Know anybody who can draw? The Forum is desperate for a temp draftsman.” (That’s when we still used pencils and pens with ink to make marks on real paper).
Next morning I started my job in Paradise. So help me, the first window of my working life looked down at the skating rink from the 10th floor of 9 Rockefeller Plaza. In the first hour I knew that for me, architecting was dead. How can anything be as exciting as magazine making? I finagled a deferment so I could become a permanent employee and get my job back after the army. Thirteen years of square peg in a square hole. I knew our subject matter inside out and learned the technicalities of art-directing on the job.
Why this ancient history? It’s taken me 56 years to figure out the foundation of our magazine’s stature. It was not magic. It was also never money. We bled that, but we were protected by Henry Luce, who loved architecture, so our losses were covered by the profits from Time, Life, Fortune and the soon to be started Sports Illustrated (whose code name was MNORX). The stature came from the editor: Doug Haskell. He was a great conversationalist and used pungent pipe tobacco and never seemed very busy. He didn’t edit by retrofitting and improving what the writers produced. He edited by leading.
Every month we’d all get a mimeographed two-page memo, describing the upcoming stories in a few simple sentences. The first sentence identified the facts: building type, architect, location. The next ones defined the reason for publishing: Why should our friends the readers care? What can they learn from this in practical terms? That encapsulated the reason for our existence. It was so obvious, so right, that we didn’t realize how much thought and courage went into it.
The real payoff? We automatically worked as an intellectual team because we knew the direction in which to organize, write, illustrate, photograph, assemble, and lay the thing out. That’s where we started from, at least. If the story wanted to develop in a different direction as it was worked on, fine!
How did we work? Doug had studied memos, research reports, a few lousy photos, rolls of blueprints from the architects — and convened a story conference. He, the writer, and the art director secreted ourselves and discussed what we had, why we had it, how much space it might be worth, how to bust it into its significant components.
The story began to have a skeleton — an intellectual structure based on reader value. To pin it all down, we were forbidden to quit the room until working heads for each section or page were written. That was the last thing we felt like doing, because we were pooped. But it was inescapable discipline, so we’d know precisely where we were headed.
So the AD went off to do layouts suggesting how much space the writer had (inevitably too short, of course) and glue it up with rubber cement using cut-out sheets of dummy type, temporary pix, notes etc. (Scotch tape had not yet been invented.)
The writer went off ostensibly to gather facts and write copy but, in fact, waste time till the last possible moment.
Then we’d re-assemble to see how it was working, and start arguing. Never about esthetics, or cute typographic preferences, fun, or being different … but whether it was optimally functional: Did it reveal the usefulness of the information to our subscribers? The goal? Clarity. Simplification. Service. What mattered was the content as defined in Doug Haskell’s sentences. That’s the immensely hard work that had made the book a goldmine.
Jerry Hoberman was editor of The Journal of Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning, and he was staggered by this way of working when he did a freelance article for us. He thought the only way to make magazines was to write the manuscript, gather the illustrations, send it as a lump to an artist to make it pleasing to the eye. “Whaaat? You actually read the text and discuss it?”
In 1962 he talked me into doing a five-session lecture series for NY BPEA …and that started it, because I discovered that what we were doing was different from the way other books were assembled, and I had this fun of pretending to be a guru. So I’ve been preaching the integrated Editing-by-Design technique ever since.
The art director of Life was Bernard Quint — great guy: in 1965 he recommended me to a publisher in Brazil, and that started a whole career. Anyway, he said this just now: “The use of design for its own sake has increased in contemporary magazines in direct proportion to the lack of content.” Cynical? Of course. True? Unfortunately.
To thrive despite the visual competition, we must craft an indispensable product that must do two things:
1. Establish its own character so it is recognized at first glance (that is consistent design).
2. Establish its immediate intellectual value (that is editing — except the word “immediate” demands visual interpretation, so it pops out for immediate accessibility: editing by design).
Our value lies in how well we interpret the material we believe they need. The way we analyze, write, edit, arrange, and display its nuggets is the result of congenial accord among the team’s members. The editor leads the team, but we must understand our shared purposes, know the targets we appeal to, and together exploit the capabilities of our good old dependable paper medium.
Designing is not separate from editing. The thinking is identical. It isn’t a separate function, but integral with the editing process, because it is the visual lubricant for our ideas.
Sixty years ago, the Forum’s ideas were what mattered, and its design made them visible. Nothing has changed. Whether it appears on screen or on a paper substrate, its value is now and ever shall be content.
The ideas we promulgate must be apt. It is terribly difficult putting ourselves in the place of the subscriber, but that is our job. Doug Haskell’s acid test: read the headline out loud and ask “So what?”
If the answer is a shrug, you know what to do.