Things Your Designer Wishes You Knew: Q&A With EmDash

As a writer for alumni magazines, I like to think that words matter.

But when I pick up a gorgeous magazine, I am sometimes convinced that design matters more.

For example, I wrote a feature story for Denison’s alumni magazine in 2014 that I was pretty excited about. But when I got an actual copy of the magazine, my jaw dropped. Here was the opening spread for the feature I wrote called “Takin’ it Slow.”

EmDash Lorenzo Petrantoni Erin Peterson alumni magazines

Amazing work by EmDash and Lorenzo Petrantoni

I mean: Holy cow.

I liked the intro I wrote, but you could’ve put lorem ipsum on every line and those two pages still would have been breathtaking. I asked Denison’s editor, Mo Harmon, about it. She passed me on to her designer, Erin Mayes, who’s part of the two-person EmDash team. EmDash designed the whole feature package and they hired the illustrator who turned that intro into art.

I’ve been wanting to talk to Erin about design ever since.

Today I’m excited to (*finally*) do just that. Erin agreed to answer my questions while her business partner, Kate Collins, was off delivering a baby. (!!!!!)

Okay, let’s start with the basics. Who are you guys, anyway?

We’re both Texans who left but found ourselves drawn back, just like in a country song. We met while working together at the Pentagram office in Austin. Erin decided to break out on her own and start EmDash in 2006, focusing almost exclusively on publication design. She teamed with Kate in 2008, and EmDash has been a partnership ever since. We still specialize in design for editorial print media, including several alumni magazines. Current clients include Harvard Business School, Denison University, Caltech Alumni Association, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kappa Kappa Gamma, University of Texas—Texas-Exes, and UT Press.

Can you give me a few links to specific projects you’re really proud of?

We’re pretty proud of all our work — I mean, within the limits of our low self-esteem, of course. The Texas Observer is an old favorite just because we were able to make such a dramatic difference. And this recent Paula Bronstein book we designed…is actually really hard to look through. But it’s important work and it was an honor to design it.

This is also one of our favorite illustrations of recent memory. It was a difficult to figure out just the right tone for this anniversary, but I think Gerard DuBois really nailed it. And on the lighter side, this illustration by Gary Taxali (scroll down a bit to find it) is an achievement! Any time we can get away with some toilet humor is an accomplishment.

Most editors come from a writing background, not a design one. What are some of the common mistakes you see when you’re working with people who don’t have a design sensibility or fully understand what you do?

Well, we’ve been really lucky to work with editors that understand that there’s a difference between a visual language and a verbal language — and that good stories have to be told well in both languages.

So it really becomes a team effort. We’re not doing “our thing over here” and you’re doing “your thing over there.”

The editors we work with acknowledge and respect the fact that we each have our areas of expertise — and working together always produces better work. We’ve found that it’s best to keep the big-picture idea in mind when talking about how to approach a story. That way nobody gets lost in the weeds when discussing ideas.

Editors are often literal people — they can fall into this trap of wanting to see the visual part of the story narrating the exact words of the story. Or they want to say everything with the photos or illustrations and leave no mystery to the story. The visual stuff works on a very quick emotional level, and the message has to be super super clear. Then the narrative has to be compelling enough to hook the reader into the rest of the story.

There has to be give and take in that working relationship so you can create interesting work….or else readers will see quickly that a story is trying too hard or to do too much and just move on or recycle the whole magazine!

What do you find to be universally true among clients who consistently help you produce your very best work?

Honestly? Those are the clients who want to push themselves and their magazine to do a little better each time. The best are the editors who want to see something new and something different and are willing to put in the work to do something surprising. The editors who aren’t afraid to take risks and to fail sometimes are the ones who do the great work. And they’re the ones who push us to do our best work.

What do you wish editors would do more of?

I wish they would look at more magazines. I know we’re all super busy, and I have trouble making time to read magazines, too. But the only way to get really good at your craft is to consume it constantly — look, practice, take risks, steal ideas, have some fun.

There’s no reason alumni magazines shouldn’t hold themselves to a similar standard that all the great magazines do. All this consuming will help create better stories! It takes you out of the world of marketing materials and reminds you how to tell a good story — which is something consumer magazines do really well.

What magazines/other things do you study for inspiration?

The ones Kate and I both love to consume are Esquire, New York, The Atlantic, and The New York Times Magazine. We’re always aware of what the New Yorker is doing, what Wired and Texas Monthly are doing. I read every issue of National Geographic.

Kate definitely looks at more general interest magazines than I do. But I love going to a big magazine rack and just flipping through magazines I’ve never heard of just to see what’s out there. I love this new messy design trend that’s happening now — Lucky Peach, Crumbs, the Smudge. I’m usually excited by anything that is going against the grain a little.

We also love to go out and see art and photography in museums and galleries. We need to make more time to do that, frankly, and we’re lucky that we have so many great collections here in Austin.

What is a question editors should be asking any designer they are considering hiring, but might not think to ask?

There’s a big difference between editorial design and a designer doing page layout. I’m not totally sure most editors understand that. I’m not sure *I* really understood that until my late 20s. But when you’re looking at work in a designer’s portfolio, ask the designer to tell you what the idea is behind the layout — why they made the choices they did to communicate the story.

If you can get the designer talking about the work, and any good editorial designer will be able to talk about it, you’ll get a better sense of how that mind works and whether or not you guys will make a good team. Communicating about design is so essential to that art/edit relationship. Without it, everything will feel like a struggle. If you make a good team, then it’ll be fun and your work will be great!

Anything else you want to add here?

The other thing that really helps with the edit/design relationship is making the time to get out of the office and talk over beer (which was already the subject of a recent blog post). We wholeheartedly agree with that. In fact, Kate had done a presentation at CASE a while back showing how much drinking led to some fun low-budget ideas for images. It also helps getting multiple brains on a tough story.

You never know where a good idea will come from, or from what nutty conversation it’ll be born out of. Actually, just making the time to get out and be exposed to different ideas helps. Go to the book store, a gallery, a lecture.


Okay, Erin P. is back! If you want more interviews with experts in the field, email me and let me know who’d you’d like to see. I’ve got one more lined up that I think you’ll love, and I’d be happy to add more to the list. You can also read other interviews I’ve done with CASE Sibley award winners (Dale Keiger, Heidi Singer), CASE Grand Gold winner Madeline Drexler and CASE Sibley judge Jeff Lott.