Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Imitating Graphic Design

I’d had some graphic design experience in college and at my newspaper job before coming to West End Games to start editing the Star Wars Adventure Journal; but I learned some of my most valuable lessons from the company’s production manager, Richard Hawran, one of the oft-unknown people working behind the scenes who really kept the game lines and the company together. Rich managed to simultaneously keep the often-volatile creative egos of the editorial staff focused on projects instead of vendettas, moderate management’s intolerance for game designers and its intrusive bureaucratic whims, and ensure the company maintained a rigorous production schedule through a generous dose of troubleshooting and maneuvering. One of the first of many lessons I learned dealt with laying out a book: find a graphic design scheme in a product you like, a visual look that works for you, and imitate elements of it with practical modifications for your own project.

Certainly publishers and graphic designers bring to any project their own preconceived notions, parameters, and overall “vision” for a product’s appearance. We were already working under particular constraints determined by management’s strategy for the Adventure Journal: a digest-sized publication layout and set font choices from other Star Wars Roleplaying Game products for article subheads (Eras Bold) and text (Cheltenham). The head of the art department – who’d viewed the Journal layout as his domain – had been taken off the project for a variety of reasons: he had allegedly run late on numerous projects, did not seem open to working as a team with editorial staff, and no doubt clashed with management personalities and egos. (Regrettably these contentious attitudes seems standard for the roleplaying game industry, as anyone reading the four-volume history Designers & Dragons would know.) So Rich and I hunkered down and hammered out the layout for the Adventure Journal one snowy Saturday in January, a month before the first issue was due to head to distributors. For the first hour we looked at similarly sized publications to judge the pros and cons of how they presented their content. At the time few digest-sized publications approaching the 288-page count existed (or I would have suggested the little black Traveller books). Rich and I paged through two I remember, TV Guide and Reader’s Digest, both seemingly obsolete in today’s information-overload Internet Age. I can’t recall what specific graphic design revelations we gleaned from examining the layout of both magazines, but it holds an interesting lesson in using layout elements you like and that work for your intended publication (and, conversely, avoiding the ones you don’t like or don’t work).

“Imitation is the greatest form of flattery.” I have no idea who said this or if the saying has simply entered into our collective culture; but it rings true when imitation provides some guidelines and standards in paying homage to the original sources. Many folks creating game material for established games try to emulate those publications’ layout style and font. Some OSR materials do this to evoke a connection with the original games they seek to emulate. An entire site charts the various fonts used in differed Dungeons & Dragons products as a guide for those seeking to use them in their own materials. Dedicated communities of Star Wars Roleplaying Game fans have used Eras Bold and Cheltenham, along with the layout conventions of those game books, to create their own original materials, often modifying and improving on the original graphic design.

The adventure gaming hobby has come a long way over the years. Gone are the early days of roleplaying games and wargames when creators typed out rules, mimeographed them, and passed them around among friends and game club members. Today’s technology has empowered creators with desktop publishing and Internet distribution tools, giving everyone – from teenage game enthusiasts and dedicated amateurs to game industry veterans – the ability to publish and share their material to a vast global audience. Some, professionals as well as amateurs, have a knack for solid if not excellent layout; many do not. I cringe every time I see a game product – free or paid (even worse) – without any consideration for layout issues.

I see many free roleplaying games, supplements, even miniature wargame rules on the internet, many looking very amateurish, just exported from a word processing program, with no illustrations, maps, tables, and sidebars to break up pages of densely packed text, poor sub-head use, single column layout across a full page, no headers/footers, no attention to adequate margins, no consistency in layout conventions. If they have some degree of professional layout I’ll read them, but if they’re simply PDFs of word-processing documents I usually pass. I don’t believe only “professionals” should publish game material, but I do like to get the impression that whoever created that material has some degree of professionalism about their work, a concern not simply for putting their ideas down on paper, but for doing so in a visually appealing way for readers.

I wouldn’t claim I’m a graphic design expert; but I some experience and, as a one-man operation, have to lay out my own material. I’m developing a few projects in the digest-sized format, a size with which I have little graphic design experience. Before I embark on creating a layout template for each, I look through some similarly sized publications. I’m lucky I own a number of adventure gaming publications in digest size to draw upon, including the classic “little black books” from Traveller (and the venerable Journal of the Travellers Aid Society), the Star Wars Adventure Journal, and a host of recently published gaming fanzines in a variety of styles. I’ll review these to note particular graphic design elements I like...and look for elements I distinctly don’t like and wish to avoid in my own layout. How do they deal with illustrations taking up room on a smaller page? What effects do wider or more narrow margins have? How doe they fit essential information into the headers and footers? If they use two columns, how readable is the text and layout? I also consider which fonts evoke the right atmosphere for each project’s subject and theme. That’s the first step, to offer some inspiration and help me determine what elements best work for the particular project; after that comes a lot of practical experimentation in actual layout to see how everything looks on the page.

I’m certainly not advocating that folks only look to similar format publications and use only what they see there...that’s only one small part of the graphic design process, but a good first step for those with little experience. A good eye, some research on the subject, and lots of practice can help improve the look of any adventure gaming product.

Want to share your opinion? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.