April 15, 1999 / Spring 1999 / Theme

Brainstorming key to helping staffs select right theme

Written by Ann Horner

A private space, comfortable couches, lots of food, idea lists, and open minds are required. It is not a time for the timid. By the end of the session, the individuals involved will have become a team. Love it or hate it, all will have committed to the common purpose of creating a book centered around the chosen theme.

There is no magic to selecting a theme. It is hard work and emotions run high. All staff members are expected to participate, and one way to ensure this is to require everyone to bring a list of at least 10 ideas that might work for theme.

Where do these ideas come from? The best sources are magazines, college pamphlets, books on design, business publications, and slogans. It is essential that the source of the ideas be new and fresh. Use the yearbook petty cash fund to subsidize magazine purchase.

Staffers should hang out at Barnes and Nobles pouring over what is trendy and fun. Language and the use of words change; be on top of the trends. Have students collect words and phrases that they like. Advertisers are paid big bucks to create catchy phrases and many times these words can be tweaked to become possible themes. Even if they do not work, they can generate ideas and stimulate the brainstorming process.

The goal of a theme is to help the student body define their year. Brainstorming begins with the staff analyzing the student body. What kinds of kids make up the school, what are their interests, what do they think will be important during the year, what feelings are in the air, what has changed about the school. All these questions need to be considered and pondered to determine what is important.

When ideas begin to surface, go to the thesaurus and look up key ideas and words that seem to be popular. Avoid cliches and overused concepts. Develop more ideas than seem necessary. Try phrasing the same ideas using different words.

As the selections narrow, start questioning how the ideas could be photographed. How could copy encompass the theme idea? How does it apply to the various sections of the book? Are they ideas the staff can live with for an entire year? Hash the ideas to death. If the staff is sick of an idea at the end of the brainstorming session, it is not the right theme for the book.

Usually two or three ideas become prominent and staffers debate their merits. At that juncture, quiet the room and solicit the opinion of every individual staffer. This is a time to calm the emotional furor that has invaded the room and make people truly listen to each other. Remind them they are a team and that the final theme will only be determined by a democratic vote. What theme idea does each staffer like best and why? It is not enough for someone to say, “I like…” or “I dislike…” there has to be a reason and evidence. The thoughts shared start other people thinking.

After hearing from every member of the class, discussion resumes. With luck, new ideas and thoughts will have surfaced. Perhaps a favorite idea can be reworded to appeal to more of the staff. Fine tune as many of the ideas as seem viable. If time allows, have groups of staffers who like a particular idea sketch out a theme packet. What would the cover look like? How do they envision carrying the theme throughout the book? What design elements would scream their theme to the student body? How does the idea relate to this year and this school?

Discussion will be heated and will continue indefinitely, so when nothing new seems to be cropping up, halt discussion and vote. Allow anyone who wishes to talk in favor of a theme one final opportunity to speak. Suffer no interruptions. Everyone has the right to speak once. Then vote.

When the theme has been determined, it is over. Staffers are expected to put as much energy into making the theme of the book a success as they did into fighting for the idea they loved. Yearbook is a team effort and with luck the best idea will win out.

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Ann Horner