The last thing any organization's harried communications director needs is to go through the complicated process of hiring a design firm/marketing firm/advertising agency to produce their history only to be met with: "We are ready to start, when will you send us the text, art, research, interviews, manuscript, and everything else?"
An annual report, for example, can easily reach book-length proportions. However, it's reasonable to expect that an annual report will begin with an overview of the previous year and end with lists of officers and board members. Moreover, altering the report's form would do little to enhance the content within and is even likely to make it more difficult to use.
A history that includes pictures, while nonfiction, is still a story, and integrating the ways both pictures and text drive that story is integral to creating an engaging illustrated book.
The design of an illustrated history benefits from a close relationship between author, editor, and designer. Even a history as rudimentary as a chronological time-line will do more to engage the reader if each benchmark is carefully considered, reflecting the preceding entry and informing the subsequent.
As an illustrated-book producer, I have had the good fortune to be involved in the "building" of an illustrated book. The editor and I met with the book's two authors and its photographer (who documented the entire project) for a series of weekly brainstorming meetings on how to portray the way architect Frank Gehry's astonishing Stata Center came to be, from concept through design, execution, construction, and implementation.
Each week we would meet and discuss the many issues that needed to be addressed. The following week we returned with our various contributions, such as rough manuscript or rough layouts (sometimes both). These inspired further discussion of how to expand and develop the story.
I've experienced very few projects that have developed as organically as this one. It confirmed my concern that when a designer is handed all the components of a history and told to put them together, he or she could easily miss any number of opportunities to bring the story to life. For example, I have seen countless designers roll their eyes at the art they receive for a project, never considering what they could do to improve both the art and the project overall.
My partner, the editorial "wing" of our company, and I provide our clients with a simple, unique service that seems to be little known outside of the publishing world. When we receive a manuscript, we can furnish the client with an "art manuscript": we simply annotate the text with suggestions for photographs, art, or artifacts that enhance the story's progression. We offer this service whether we are developing a new manuscript with the author, editing a client's completed manuscript, or have received both edited manuscript and art program from a client. Our suggestions are always well received, but never more so than when a client's "photo research staff" is actually an overworked manager who had too much to do before the project landed on her desk. Such circumstances rarely foster inspiration. In fact, our art manuscripts have often inspired researchers to track down illustrations above and beyond our suggestions.
I have never considered the elements of graphic design as a collection of discrete components that need to be balanced and arranged. When words and pictures work side by side, they elevate even the most unlikely subject and bring its story to life. A client need never apologize for bringing what others might consider a "prosaic" topic to the table. Our goal is to reinvigorate the client—and the ultimate reader— to consider a familiar story with their own fresh, excited eyes.
Vern Associates (VAI) was founded in October 1994, incorporated the following January, and set about marking these 15th anniversaries in February 2009. And we made plans! Press releases, email notices, mailings—we even considered tchotckes. In the end, we mailed a postcard and posted a few Tweets, but most of our ideas for marking and publicizing our good fortune and pleasure in making a go of our business came to naught due to the great levelers: budget, time, staffing, etc.
#4: Honor the Past and Consider the Future
Therefore, based on our experiences and those of our clients, the following few tips about letting the world know you've attained a significant milestone may be helpful. They apply to just about any business, association, nonprofit organization, even independent contractor that wants to leverage an important day or year.
#1: Remember It
Talk show hosts and sitcom writers rely on cheesy (but apparently evergreen) one-liners about the guy who forgot his wedding anniversary. We nod knowingly and congratulate ourselves for never letting something this meaningful slip. But what about business milestones? Do you know when they occur(ed)? Have you ever thought to investigate? VAI does extensive research to find potential clients with upcoming anniversaries. In contacting their CEOs or marketing VPs, we have discovered that approximately one-third of these people did not even realize that their organization was close to turning a notable corner. Granted, taking special notice of a nice, round number of years in an organization's history may be a bit arbitrary, but letting the world know about such an attainment also presents a perfect opportunity to reflect on where you've been, how you got there, and where you are headed.
#2: Allow Sufficient Lead Time
Obvious? Yes, but also frequently overlooked until it is too late. I contend that the "Information Age" pace in which we are caught up has done a spectacular job of obscuring a cardinal truth: a—perhaps the—crucial ingredient in any strategy is timing. Devoting the necessary time to a project results in a better product, more accurate publication, or optimally effective campaign. It may seem to be possible to reach the goal in record time, is that a good idea when you factor in the creeping inaccuracy and slipshod design that will have serious consequences for the project's acceptance and influence? What about the exponential increase in cost that rush fees engender? Knowing when to make a beginning is the trick, which relies on the next tip.
#3: Hammer down the Scope at the Outset
Before defining and setting up the specific elements, it is crucial to settle on an appropriate scope for the celebration. Does the strategy entail a couple of simple notifications, or is a commemorative publication in order? Maybe a banquet is warranted, or would an employee picnic be more in keeping? It goes without saying that every anniversary-specific strategy must determine what is most appropriate and cost-effective for the celebration. VAI has worked with clients that continued to add new pieces as they arose due to a progressive surge in organizational excitement and involvement as the date neared. Trouble was, corporate high spirits didn't consider budget overruns or time crunches. Technological innovation's marked benefits can't effectively shorten the time needed for most human-centric efforts—planning, research, writing, and the like.
This is especially important when determining what will proceed from the anniversary that is of lasting value. While a lavish party is likely to leave fond memories for those who attend, a paperweight residing on employees' desks becomes a daily reminder. A broader-based memento such as a book not only marks the occasion. It also becomes an excellent source of information that will reach many people outside the organization. A book is also often seen as a metaphor for the permanence and substance exemplified by your company. Perhaps best of all, it will enjoy a long shelf life as a superlative tool for anyone devoted to the marketing and/or development functions.
#5: Get Help
Assuming that the elements in the anniversary strategy fall partially or entirely outside "business as usual," the means of accomplishing them require close, clear-headed consideration by everyone involved. Chances are, the dinner-dance will be catered and (with any luck) an extra-corporate orchestra hired. So what about the anniversary publication? Are any staff members equipped to write a book-length manuscript? Can they devote the requisite time on top of performing their usual work? It may be wiser to hire someone from outside, whose sole responsibility will be the research and writing needed to prepare the manuscript. Once it's written, what then? Is your staff set up to edit, design, lay out, and produce the final book?
As VAI discovered, even the most modest anniversary commemoration entails myriad considerations. Following these five tips at the outset will help the rest of these issues fall nicely into place.
I am very fortunate to be able to design and produce wonderful illustrated books on painting, sculpture, photography, decorative arts, and architecture for museums as well as university and commercial publishers. I also take great pleasure in perusing a thoughtfully designed book-with-pictures, appreciating the pacing and rhythm of its layout and how text and art refer to and enhance each other.
In my work I strive to provide the viewer with text that is both easy to read and scan for specific information, as well as presenting pictures that one can scan with ease; taking in its surface or boundaries or finding its compositional (or metaphoric) focus.
Of course, all this suggests my preference for holding a book in my hands, scanning spreads from left to right, and turning pages. This experience may be destined for obsolescence, and at Vern Associates we are cautiously adapting our work to accommodate the insistent shift from print-on-paper to digital books.
One seldom visits a site or reads a blog that doesn't supplement its text with video. This is what most people have come to expect from an interactive medium, and video can convey a great deal of information effectively and persuasively. It is a boon for those looking for information on how to do something, because you can watch someone demonstrate the task. I'm more skeptical of sites that combine text with talking heads who instruct, coach, sell, or what have you.
I recently visited two publishing sites that sell hybrid book-and-video titles and found that they to relate to each other in unexpected ways.
Vook is a web-based application that partners with magazine and book publishers to produce highly interactive digital books that you can access on PCs, digital readers, or mobile phones. These vooks include both text and video, along with links to social media sites. Some titles, such as those about cooking and fitness are a good fit for this format. Fiction titles often include dramatized versions of the story, alongside the text. Another discovery was the children's and Y-A author Patrick Carman's Skeleton Creek series (Scholastic). Carman wrote an interesting piece in Publisher's Weekly about his successful series that gets kids really interested in reading.
These stories are presented as text followed by video and so on. This video carrot works really well in making the written word much less of a stick. In the Skeleton Creek books, kids must finish reading before they get to the movie. I don't think that would fly with customers downloading novels from Vook.
The voices in my head
I've never mentioned this to anyone—nor had reason to, until now—but when I read, I "hear" the words in my own voice. My voice is modulated depending on the topic. It is very nondescript when I am calculating figures in a math text, and can get quite dramatic for fiction, a higher pitch for female characters, an appropriate accent for English or French or Bostonian characters. It seems to me that these sounds become an integral part of how I comprehend the written word, make it part of my memory, and classify its value. More important, my internal voice is my first step to visualizing the images and situation being described. I'd like to think that other people share this experience while reading. If not, they must have other means of processing words and internalizing stories. I don't understand how the same degree of comprehension is possible from watching a scripted, filmed, and edited version of that same story, but would love to know if other people share my opinion.