May 23, 2019 / Ask Mike / Podcasts / Theme

Ask Mike: What’s in a yearbook theme?

Written by Shiloh Scott

Mike Taylor, CJE, believes yearbook theme copy should be so strong that the school principal can read from it at graduation.

Writing strong copy for the whole school year is no easy feat considering themes are typically developed in October. Some schools are even working on their 2020 themes now – in the spring of 2019! Taylor knows that it’s a difficult task. Even his first yearbook, from 1987, didn’t live up to that standard. The theme was “Opening New Doors,” and it didn’t really fit their decades-old school. With his third yearbook, “Nothing Ordinary About It,” he succeeded. His principal asked if he could read the students’ copy at graduation.

“What that meant was our book actually encapsulated and told the story of the year at Lecanto High School and for Lecanto High School that year,” Taylor said. “That meant we did it right.”

What is a theme?

Susan Massy, the adviser at Shawnee Mission Northwest in Shawnee, Kansas, defined theme in Taylor’s first theme podcast from season one.

“It is going to be a time capsule for the year, and for those students’ lives, and for the school,” Taylor repeated. “Now, how do you do that in May of 2019 for May of 2020? It’s pretty hard to do.”

Taylor acknowledged that none of the students or faculty outside of the yearbook will understand what theme is or complement the yearbook staff.

“What the theme is, is it’s the story the yearbook staff is going to tell about the year,” he explained. “When we’re deciding the theme, we really are deciding it for ourselves and how we’re going to build our story around it.”

What you’ll hear from other students, faculty and administrators? “Good book.” And that’s what you want to hear from them. That’s if you hear anything. Silence is usually a good sign.

The Beginning

Many staffs start with theme packets. Next year’s staff is divided into groups and asked to create their theme packets. They may come up with a mock cover, write theme copy and mock up a few pages. They may develop samples for every section of the yearbook, then present their results to the rest of the staff.

In his early teaching days, Taylor used this method, but said it isn’t the best. “Boy did they have to work hard to look into their crystal ball and say, ‘What’s it going to be like next year?’”

Choosing themes in the spring frequently results in staffs working hard to make it fit, then changing their theme late in the next school year.

Back It Up

It’s great when staffs see samples of something they love. For example, they may see another yearbook staff’s use of geometric shapes and decide they want to do it too. Taylor cautions that focusing on elements like this can quickly turn from design into decoration.

Taylor recommends you slow down the process and back it up. Theme copy needs to come first.

“When you get a theme that you guys like, sit several kids down in different areas of the room and have them take a stab at what they think theme copy is going to sound like,” Taylor said. Don’t have them work on the cover or anything else. Just work on the theme copy that’s typically on page two or three. It doesn’t have to be the final version of the theme copy, “just let them see if there’s a way that they can tell this story in their words,” Taylor explained.

For inspiration, Taylor recommends looking to commercials.

How will you know it’s right for the year?

“If that theme copy sounds like something that can inspire your staff and your students to do something well, then maybe the words, the theme phrase, are going to work for you,” Taylor shared.

At this stage in the process, it’s just about putting words on paper to see if the theme phrase works. Get input from other people. At the very least, last year’s staff should weigh in on it.

After you have some theme copy written – maybe a paragraph worth of copy – it’s time to think about how you’ll tell the story of the school year with that theme. Don’t concern yourself with fonts, graphics and colors yet; that would be putting the cart before the horse.

Gathering Intel

When discussing theme, Taylor suggests gathering facts about your community. Is your school on a hill? Do you only have one stoplight in the whole town? He cautions against using minor changes, like putting new turf on the football field, as the basis for a theme.

What trends are affecting students? There are political trends, environmental trends, technology trends, fashion trends and new slang and phrases that have big impacts on the school and school year.

You can’t assume everyone at the school is the same. Don’t focus on the school as a whole, but look at how the theme can encompass individual students with different feelings, ideas and experiences.

The phrase you come up with may not end up being your final theme, but it will help get everyone on the same page.

“I want you to be open to exploring any and all possible theme phrases,” Taylor said. Find phrases that might work for the 2020 school year and explore the different angles.

Next, use the seven-minute theme exercise: designate one student as the writer, then have students flip through magazines for seven minutes and call out phrases they like. Looking through a copy of Southern Living – which he admitted wasn’t the best magazine to use for this purpose – Taylor found “because life comes in different sizes” and “find new roads” on the opening page. Don’t worry about whether those phrases will get used, just write them down. Look at headlines, caption starters, the table of contents and advertisements. The paper should be full at the end of the seven minutes.

Next, set that paper aside for a little bit. Come back to it later, maybe the next day, and someone will read off all the phrases. Everyone else will remain silent, but show their level of approval with a thumbs up, thumbs down, or horizontal thumb for each phrase. There’s no discussion at this time, just think about if the phrase could work.

The writer/reader will circle the phrases people like and cross out the phrases they don’t.

After that, people can discuss the favorites until the list is narrowed down to one phrase that could work for the project. It doesn’t need to be the final theme phrase. Taylor recommends limiting that discussion to seven minutes.

Next, take that phrase, write it on a big piece of paper and draw columns below each of the important words. Taylor used the example “To Catch a Falling Star.” He would draw columns below catch, falling and star. In those columns, play a game of word association. Below catch, you might use “catch up,” “catch me if you can,” “catch you later” or “catch and release.” For falling, it might be “falling down” or “falling in love.” The word star could generate phrases like “star power.”

At this point in time, it’s good to be a hoarder. Keep these big pieces of paper. These phrases could become headlines or story starters. “Catch of the day” would be a great headline for a story about the catch that saved the season for your softball team.

Let’s Talk About It

Taylor shared some inspired examples of theme and theme copy.

Liberty Christian Academy, Lynchburg, Virginia

Their 2019 theme was “Live in the Now.” The theme rolls off the tongue and is reflective of the religious beliefs held at their school.

Blue Valley Northwest, Overland Park, Kansas

The theme “The Rules Don’t Apply” carries throughout their book in unexpected ways. They don’t use division pages, but intersperse their theme feature stories on different pages throughout the book. It happens to be a 50th Anniversary book. That isn’t dwelled upon in the book, but the topic is touched upon in the theme copy.

J.W. Mitchell, New Port Richey, Florida

J.W. Mitchell used their theme, “Next Up,” to show that it can be a tough world looking at what students are going through, but did a good job of looking at what’s next.

Mike Taylor’s Big Theme Project

You’ve heard of Ted Talks, but have you heard of Mike Talks? Most Ted Talks are about 15 minutes, but Mike Talks are a little different.

“A Mike Talk is based on me,” Taylor explained. “I lose interest in about 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes. Yeah, I have a little ADD.”

So Taylor came up with a project plan called the 2020 Theme Challenge. The project helps students think about theme, but not overthink it.

“How do you do that? Well, we need to try easy,” Taylor said. “A theme is a cohesive, consistent verbal and visual message.”

A good theme phrase should roll off the tongue. It doesn’t need to be sophisticated to be good. That means the verbal and the visual message match each other and match throughout the book. Use fonts and colors that match the theme to achieve that.

“A good book is going to have a personality. The yearbook world calls this voice,” Taylor said. He explained that the really good books create their voice with consistent style and flair.

It uses the method described above, and Taylor provides a PowerPoint presentation with extra ideas and inspiration.

If you want access to the 2020 Theme Challenge, email him at

Mike signed off his podcast with this advice: Be bold. Be creative. Go forth and theme it!

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Shiloh Scott

Shiloh Scott was the Digital Marketing Manager for Walsworth. They enjoy working in a variety of mediums, from print to broadcast to social media. Shiloh holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communication from Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri.