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The Wonderful World of Layout & Composition Design

Teachers photobombing students is used to create a unique page spread.

My reflections on my years of teaching yearbook classes gravitate toward the students' ownership of their work. In general, student staff poured more time and energy into layout and composition compared to other aspects of the yearbook. In my perspective, the reason for this trend was because the students’ personalities could shine brightly within these pages. The staff took the elements of the style guide to manipulate design elements and principles of layout and composition to create uniquely styled page spreads. Staff members wanted to be credited for their distinct design work on the page spread. Staff must have a basic understanding of layout and composition, in addition to ample time to practice by this point. The style guide we adopted and utilized ensured consistency throughout.

There is a quote attributed to Aristotle that states, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” This is certainly true in layout and composition. As in most disciplines, the core set of principles of layout and composition varies slightly depending on which authors you follow. Some principles are based on Gestalt Theory and include Similarity, Continuity, Closure, Proximity, and Order. To these basic five, The Use of Grids & Boxes, Hierarchy, The Use of White Space, and Scale and Balance are added. For other principles, Alignment, Contrast, and Repetition are important, while the Elements of Art (Line, Shape, Form, Color, Value, Texture, and Space–Positive/Negative) are essential. If you include Variety, Rhythm, Pattern, Emphasis, Scale, Spacing, and Typography, there is quite a long list of concepts to learn, understand, and apply.

Regardless of which you employ, the design principles are combined and applied to effectively and coherently communicate. When design principles are applied with the user’s perspective in mind, layout and composition become laser-focused tools of effective communication. It is about how the user feels (the peer who purchases the book), when they look at each page spread layout. What is their experience as they digest and decipher the content? and are two online learning websites with resources in Graphic Design and Layout and Composition. You may find these useful.

Guided Practice

It is imperative to create practice opportunities for students to deepen their understanding of effective layout and composition. Here are some ideas that reinforce the definitions of each design principle and its effect. They are low-risk entry points to layout and composition design:

  • Have students work in teams of 2-3 to create a digital infographic of the layout and composition design principles in Canva. The posters should be the same size (12x18 or 18x12) and utilize a limited palette (3 main colors with 2 accents). Fonts should be limited to 3 (one display–heading, one–subheading, one–body copy). Graphics (illustrations) and photographs can be used. Pair teams to serve as editors of the other team’s infographic for grammar, spelling, and punctuation, as well as accurate information. Have teams make corrections and then print all infographics to post in the classroom.

  • Review a variety of magazines for the best layout and composition examples. Carefully cut away the page spreads from the magazine and mount them on construction paper frames. Using colorful Post-It Notes and markers, identify which layout and composition design principles were used and how they were applied. Add these notes to the page spread’s frame, and display examples in the classroom.

  • In Photoshop, or a similar third-party platform, have students create a series of 3x3 inch squares that they fill with examples of the individual layout and composition design principles. Then have students, in a new file, create a new design using all of their squares. These designs can be printed, mounted on construction paper, and displayed.

  • Prepare black and white construction paper to simulate the size of your yearbook’s page spreads–9x12 book = 12.25x18.25; 8.5x11 book = 11.25x17.25. Have some white and blue colored pencils and rulers for students to draw the margin guides and gutter. Cut additional square and rectangle shapes of different sizes. These will act as placeholders for graphics, illustrations, and photographs. Cut long, thin lines of paper that students can then cut into smaller lines to stack as lines of text. Ask students to draw the gutter and the margins and then play with arranging the larger shapes with some “text” lines to act as captions. Students should continue to add to the page spread until they have achieved a pleasing arrangement using some of the layout and composition design principles. Headlines, subheadings, and body copy should be indicated by the shapes, too. These can be displayed when completed.

  • Introduce the concept that places can act as touchstones for memories. Facilitate a discussion about revisiting places and how they may prompt memories. Brainstorm with staff, recording on the board, as many places on campus that may act as a touchstone for them as well as their peers. Have students work individually or in teams for this Page Spread project. Assign the task to interview 5 people, one from each grade level, and either a faculty or staff member. Find out their favorite place on campus and why. Make sure to cover appropriate content. There may be places on campus that students find of singular importance but for clearly inappropriate reasons. Add any new locations to the list previously generated. Have the staff self-select or assign a location to create a page spread including the following:

    • Photographs of the location with and without people

    • Story pulled from interviews with people who enjoy the space–this may require more footwork in getting more interview content–(homework?)

    • Quotes with fun portraits of those interviewed

    • Headline, Subheadings, and Captions per photograph

    • Yearbook Color Palette and Style clearly expressed through the Page Spread

    • Encourage the use of PLICBook templates for initial Layout Placement–can be rearranged as desired

These page spreads will be critiqued with the layout and composition design principles. Depending on the quality, one or more of these can be considered for inclusion in the yearbook!

Guided practice is a significant aspect for the formation of learning. United Yearbook offers resources to enhance your instruction and your yearbook staff’s learning. Our Curriculum & Resources instructional guides (with presentations), provide a Basic Layout and Composition presentation for use with your staff. We also tailor Workshop Sessions for any topic from learning the PLIC Books software platform to writing captions, Building Teams, Leveling Up Photography Skills, and Developing Layout and Composition Design Skills. Contact us. We are ready to assist you.

Former yearbook advisor, Lucy McHugh

Contributor: Lucy McHugh comes to United Yearbook Printing from a 39-year career in public and private school education. She was a former visual art teacher and yearbook adviser. She received a Bachelors of Science in Art from Columbia College in Columbia, SC, a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Nebraska in 2000, and in 2014 earned a Certificate in Catholic School Leadership from Loyola Marymount University. Lucy enjoys her family, making art and gardening.

Editor, Donna Ladner

Editor: Donna Ladner obtained a B.A. in Education and a minor in English from California Baptist University, and a M.S. in ESL from USC, Los Angeles. After she married Daniel, their family moved to Indonesia with a non-profit organization and lived cross-culturally for 15 years before returning to the U.S in 2012. Donna has been working as an editor and proofreader for TSE Worldwide Press and its subsidiary, United Yearbook since 2015.

Yearbook representative, Jessica Carrera

Co-Editor: Jessica Carrera, Marketing Manager for United Yearbook and Associate Editor at TSE Worldwide Press, holds a B.A. in English with a concentration in writing from Biola University. She aspires to touch the lives of others through her words.

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