Bye, design

I’ve been firmly planted on the editorial side of publishing since my early days as a volunteer writer and proofreader at my student newspaper in undergrad, but my first paid gig in publishing was in production and design: after I moved cities for my MSc, I got a job laying out the student newspaper once a week at my new school.

I absolutely loved it.

Being the last person in the workflow meant a lot of late nights rushing to get everything done before the printer’s deadline, but at that time in my life I thrived under pressure. I revelled in tackling every issue as a visual puzzle to solve—finding a way to give each article and photo its due while balancing the spreads and giving readers a compelling reason to pick up the paper. Learning how typography and positioning could control a reader’s gaze and affect their mood made the design process feel almost subversive, and watching the pages of the paper finish uploading to the printer unleashed a perfect cocktail of adrenaline and serotonin that sustained me even while the grad school part of my life wasn’t going so well. It helped that I spent those production nights surrounded by hilarious and brilliant fellow student journalists, many of whom are dear friends to this day. 

Before I secured my own copy of InDesign, my team let me use the newspaper’s computers to lay out a few issues of the Canadian Undergraduate Physics Journal, a publication I launched to help undergraduate physics students become acquainted with academic publishing. (RIP, CUPJ, 2002–2010.) My experience editing and laying out CUPJ was a big part of why I got into the Master of Publishing program, which laid the foundation for the work I do today. The program trained us to be generalists, covering all aspects of publishing, and it included a full course devoted to design and production. I took advantage of my student discount to buy Adobe Creative Suite, which meant I could spend a few more years laying out the physics journal, long after relinquishing the editorial reins to my successors. It was a lot easier to find physics grads who wanted to work with words than physics grads who knew InDesign.

My MPub internship, though, was in editing, and the position turned into my full-time job for six years. I had the immense fortune of honing my editorial skills under the mentorship of some of the best editors in the country, including Nancy Flight, Lucy Kenward, and Saeko Usukawa. The publishing company also had some of the best book designers in the country: the design team—Peter Cocking, Jessica Sullivan, and Naomi MacDougall—routinely swept entire categories of the annual Alcuin Society Awards for Excellence in Book Design, and, well, their work was intimidatingly good. I knew my dabbling in design could never measure up, so while I earned money editing, I took on volunteer layout and design projects, working on reports and periodicals for local nonprofits and community groups, including the Pivot Legal Society and UBC’s Varsity Outdoor Club. In 2008, I copy edited, designed, and indexed the fiftieth-anniversary edition of the Varsity Outdoor Club Journal, an annual collection of trip reports and photos from club members. This special edition included not only the usual stories and photos from current club members but also retrospectives from several past members through the organization’s long history. The volume ended up being 542 pages long, and I had four weeks to put it all together.

Two years later, a friend was the club president, and he wrote me in a panic: the person who’d agreed to be journal editor had gone AWOL, and he had a week to finish that year’s journal. Could I possibly do the layout? I was happy to. The great thing about these volunteer gigs was that my clients didn’t impose stringent standards, and I basically had full creative freedom. No pressure.

When I went freelance in 2011, I billed myself as an editor, indexer, print designer, and publishing consultant. Design was quietly part of my tagline for years, but, in truth, I was too intimidated to promote myself as a designer. I was competent, I think, but I wasn’t great like the colleagues I’d worked with when I was in house. About a year after I left my publishing company, it went bankrupt (correlation, not causation!), and I passed along any freelance design opportunities I came across to my newly out-of-work and incredibly talented friends.

Maybe I was subconsciously looking for excuses not to put myself out there when it came to design. Good editing is invisible, but design is on full display for everyone to scrutinize. Ultimately, I can count on one finger the number of paid design contracts I accepted. The client, a civil liberties nonprofit, had seen my name on one of the Pivot publications and asked me to do both the copy editing and the design on one of their reports. They also asked me to bid on their next project, and I did, but they went with someone who could make them a website to go along with their print report. Web design was not something I felt remotely comfortable offering.

What ended my design “career,” such as it was, was Adobe’s shift to the subscription-based Creative Cloud. I clung on to my ancient copy of CS4 for as long as I possibly could, until an operating system update I couldn’t put off any longer broke it. For a couple of years, while I was still a PhD student, I grudgingly paid for Creative Cloud, but once I graduated, the monthly cost almost tripled, and I could no longer justify throwing money into the ever-more-demanding Adobe pit.

Still, understanding how InDesign works has unquestionably made me a better editor and proofreader. I know how I should prepare manuscript files so that importing into InDesign goes as smoothly as it can. When I notice tricky problems on proofs, I can propose plausible fixes. I know how to make my markup clear and unambiguous for the designer. Most important, I’m conversant with typesetting and design terminology, and I understand the abilities and limitations of the software and workflow.

This past weekend, after more than a year of flailing in my transition from academia back into the publishing world, I finally updated my website, and it was time to acknowledge that print design wasn’t ever a big part of my freelance business and never would be. I’ve officially removed it from the list of services I offer, and I’ve made a few other tweaks to my site:

  • I’ve revised my indexing page to lean into what’s become my specialty over the past few years: cookbooks. Indexing cookbooks is (somehow) how I unwind, and those projects consistently bring me joy. If you know of a cookbook that needs an index, please get in touch!
  • I’ve been teaching plain language for about six years, and speaking about editing for longer, but I’d never made training its own section on my site. I’ve changed that now, adding details about the plain language workshops I offer and courses I teach.
  • I’ve fleshed out my consulting page to better explain what kind of consulting I do—namely, assessing publishing workflows and developing quality-assurance tools.
  • I’ve added a page for research services I can offer. That PhD ought to be good for something, right?

Letting go of design feels bittersweet. So, as a kind of final farewell, I’m posting a few of the projects I worked on. Some are quite old, and I’ve learned a lot—especially about accessibility—since then, so certainly I would do some things differently now. I did buy myself Affinity Photo, Design, and Publisher—analogues to PhotoShop, Illustrator, and InDesign I can actually own rather than rent in perpetuity. Although I’m almost certain I’ll never use them professionally, I hope I’ll eventually get to play around with them on some personal projects.

  • Cover of a magazine with a blue background and the words "Canadian Undergraduate Physics Journal" and "Journal Canadien des Étudiants en Physique" on the top. The cover image is a photo of a telescope on a snowy field.
    Canadian Undergraduate Physics Journal cover, September 2005

5 thoughts on “Bye, design”

  1. I understand and have been thinking about that myself—though my education is as a designer. As I enter the “golden years” of my career I find I am tired of having to keep up with the cost and learning curves of the ever-morphing technology. I’m not there yet, but I can see it from here. It would be an easier decision if I didn’t enjoy creating beautiful book covers and playing with typography. I congratulate you on being able to make the call. Kudos!

  2. As an editor often dealing with self-published authors, it depresses me how little understanding there is about book design. Self-published writers feel very professional paying for editing (though the difference between structural, line, and copyediting is generally beyond them) and paying for a clipart cover, but book design isn’t even on their checklist of things needs doing. “I took my Word file and put it through the software to turn it into an epub–what more is there?” I recommend a decent, affordable designer, but relatively few ever follow up. And then they wonder how people knew their’s was a self-published book.
    Even basic design is better than no design. But readers and many authors have no idea that’s a thing–though they can sense when it’s missing.
    Completely understand your decision to quit design in your business. I similarly had to give up copy editing when I realized my dysgraphia made some category of errors invisible to me. But it’s kind of a shame that you don’t have more clients asking for your help with that…

  3. I felt the same CS4 + OS upgrade pain. And what a pain! I, too, have Affinity now and think it’s amazingly powerful considering the price tag. Alas, I find myself launching the programs only under duress and frustrate myself trying to use them (due to my own ignorance and lack of planning). If I know you, you’ll find somewhere to apply your impressive (thanks for sharing) design skills, it’s not like they’re going anywhere, and in the meantime, you can focus on indexing cookbooks—I have more coming your way. Congrats on updating your other offerings! You’re among the smartest (and awesomest) people I know.

    1. Genuinely, thank you for entrusting me with your cookbook indexes, Lara. They really have been a lifeline.

  4. I, too, fell into design; a former employer transitioned me from editor to editor/webmaster/designer to cover staff gaps. I love design, but by the time I came to it, I felt I was too far into my career to back up and get the education needed for the jobs I came across. Still, I do offer design services through my freelance business, and the time I spend designing passes far more quickly and enjoyably than the time I spend editing dense technical material. Mostly, though, I’m grateful for the bird’s-eye view of publishing that comes from knowing both the design and the editing sides.

    I’m a bit out of the loop with Photoshop and Illustrator, as my design projects over the past decade use them less and less. But my daughter is showing interest in learning graphic design, so I may have to resubscribe to CS so I can teach her.

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