September 23, 1999 / Design / Fall 1999

Broken rules characterize contempory yearbook design

Written by Susan Massy

It used to be so simple.

Place the dominate photo, repeat the shape, contrast the shape, add additional photos, place captions, place the headline and copy block and, whew, you’re done.

The black and white, easy-to-define, clear-as-a-bell rules of yearbook design have been replaced by the “what if” and “why can’t I” whims of today’s cutting edge designers.

In short, the rules have now been made to be broken.

How important is an eyeline? If we leave it out, will anybody know?

Why is it that elements on the page cannot touch each other? What happens if the traditional one pica internal margin is eliminated on some parts of a spread?

What if we do not bleed a photo across the spread? Will that disrupt the sense of linkage that this has theoretically established?

What if three pictures of equal size and identical shape are run side by side? Will that be uninteresting, or exciting?

Why does the dominant have to be two and a half times the size of the next largest photo?

Yearbook designers posed these questions as they created the 1999 editions. The answers have resulted in a crop of yearbooks that have selectively and carefully broken the rules that have governed yearbook design for the past two decades. These students know the rules and they are deliberately choosing to break them. The results are surprisingly effective; however, for some traditionalists, they may be a bit unsettling.
Internal margins must be consistent.

Example 1: Trident
Kathleen High School,
Lakeland, Fla.

We have long believed that consistent internal margins are important because they give order and uniformity to a spread. Careful consideration of photo content allows the designer of this spread to successfully overlap photos, eliminating the internal margin between these pictures. The subject of each photo has not been interrupted by the photo which overlaps it. The 1 point white rule around each photo prevents the photos from running together. Overlapping photos guarantee that the reader’s eye will flow from one photo into the next in a predetermined manner, giving the designer a great deal of control.
Example 2: Patriots’ Pride
Lake Brantley High School,
Altamonte Springs, Fla.

This is probably the ultimate in inconsistent internal margins. There are a few places on the spread where 1 pica internal margins have been utilized. Everywhere else the internal margins are either greatly exaggerated or done away with completely. The right-hand margin of the copy block has taken on a free form that appears in various reincarnations throughout the book. The stacked photos on the left-hand page have no space between them although black lines keep the pictures from running together. Both these pictures and the ones on the top of the opposite page are of nearly equal weight, providing balance. This design trend tends to emphasize the relationship between the photos by giving them equal design weight on the page.


Lines provide division and break linkage between elements on a page or spread.

Example: Smyrnan
New Smyrna Beach High School,
New Smyrna Beach, Fla.

Magazines like ESPN have had a definite impact on the design of high school yearbooks and this spread is just one example of many illustrating how the lines from these magazines have been studied and adapted to use in a yearbook. Teachers of design have been telling students that lines serve two purposes: to divide elements on a page or to group things. Giving the feeling of a Mondrian painting, these lines serve not to divide but to provide eye movement across the page, leading the reader from element to element.


Captions must touch the pictures they describe; do not stack more than two captions.

Example: Talon
Highlands Ranch High School,
Highlands Ranch, Colo.

Notice that the captions do not each touch the photos to which they correspond, but are stacked to the left of the series of small photos. This flies in the face of the idea that designers must make it simple for readers to determine to which picture each caption refers. The use of smaller, clustered photos has created caption placement problems. Clustering captions allows for a compact and effective method of presenting the captions. This option, however, almost always decreases the amount of space available for each caption, forcing a return to the one or two sentence caption and should only been used when necessitated by clustered picture.

This spread is another example of ESPN magazine’s influence on yearbook design. This time the lines are used to highlight a section of small pictures at the top of the page and to provide graphic interest in the headline.


Every spread should have five to seven photos.

Example 1: Encore
Chatfield Senior High School,
Littleton, Colo.

As a part of their theme “decide,” the members of the Encore staff chose to cover the decisions that high school students are forced to face and make. To emphasize the individuality of these decisions, they chose to utilize one clearly dominant picture of an individual and one other small picture. The copy itself breaks the rules (all copy should be written in third-person past tense) and is written in first-person present tense. Together, the design and the writing style complement the book’s theme.


Example 2: Pioneer
Kirkwood High School,
Kirkwood, Mo.

And then there is the other extreme: this spread includes 12 pictures. In their coverage of the royalty of the year, the Pioneer made sure that every member of the court was included in the book. Notice that there is no large picture of the “king,” although a picture of this person included. The designer has avoided a crowded feel through careful planning and packaging. Despite the large number of photos, each picture has a lengthy caption which touches the appropriate picture.


Leading should be 20 percent of the font size.

Examples: Shield
Thomas Downey High School,
Modesto, Calif.
Kirkwood High School,
Kirkwood, Mo.

Negative leading, or leading that is less than the point size of the type being used, is one of the year’s hottest trends. One of the ways to assure the readability of a negatively leaded headline is to use type in varying shades of black or to use color. This increases the likelihood that the reader will be able to quickly decipher the headline. It is important that the designer make sure that the type remains readable when using this effect. If the leading is too small, the letter will overlap too much and cause the letter forms to be unrecognizable.


Never put copy of any kind over a photograph; never bleed copy across the gutter.

Example: Indian
Shawnee Mission North High School,
Overland Park, Kan.

The key to successfully breaking these rules is careful planningand some lessons from the Indian staff. Headlines over photos are a risky gamble. Too often designers choose to do this without ever considering the photo that will be invaded. Type over faces is not a pretty thing and destroys the effectiveness of the photo. Here both headlines are laid over an unimportant part of the picture. They enhance the picture rather than detract from it. Notice that the copy is printed in shades of gray rather than stark white. This prevents it from overpowering the picture.

But one risk was not enough for this designer. On top of this, both the picture and the headline package bleed across the gutter. Generally speaking, this remains a rule that should not be broken and yet, again through careful planning and spacing, this headline package crosses the gutter without losing readability. This was done by leaving two picas between the letters on either side of the gutter, thereby assuring that part of a letter will not get caught in the gutter.


All photos should have 90 degree angles on all four corners.

Example 1: Talon
Highlands Ranch High School,
Highlands Ranch, Colo.

Not only is this rule being broken, it is being broken inconsistently. Sometimes staff designed a spread or a series of spreads which utilize round-cornered photos, but occasionally the staff chose to round only one or two corners. Notice that the dominant in this spread has only one rounded corner. This is a trend that is really just beginning. Expect to see more of it in the 2000 yearbooks.


Example 2: Catamount
Crosby High School,
Crosby, Texas

This book takes breaking the 90 degree rule all the way to oval. The oval picture on this spread echoes the oval element introduced on the cover and repeated here as a background. The round and oval photos are really nothing new to yearbooks. They have been used on and off for many years, but we are seeing new uses for the round (more than the oval) photo in today’s yearbooks. Like any special touch, it is best used in small doses and when you want to add emphasis. Be sure that usage of odd-shaped photos allows for the emphasis to remain on the photo content and not on its shape. The use of diamonds, hearts, triangles and other shapes remains questionable.


A mugshot should appear with every quote.

Example: Horizon
Blue Valley Northwest High School,
Overland Park, Kan.

Okay, maybe it was never a formal rule, but it seems that it was a common assumption that in a quote collection, a mugshot of the person quoted would be placed near his or her words. In an effort to include more students in the yearbook without increasing its size, designers are not using mug shots along with quotes, although names are, of course, included.


The dominant photo must be 2 to 2-1/2 times the size of the next largest photo; vary photo sizes and shapes on a spread; no two pictures should be identical; reverse type is hard to read, so do not use it; and one element must cross the gutter.

Example: Wings
Arrowhead Christian Academy
Redlands, Calif.

A quote on the yearbook spread of this book says that they went to camp to learn the rules that they were going to break, and this spread is the proof of that statement.

Okay, can you find the dominant photo on this spread? Dominance, in this case, is certainly not established by size, although there is no doubt about which photo you are supposed to look at first. The head size of the lady in the box along with her intense expression snap your eye to attention. The picture of her is certainly more compelling than that of the boy washing his car.

Internal margins range from 1 pica to more than an inch, clearly defining elements that are supposed to be viewed together. The wide margins around the dominant photo group the headline, caption and photo together as one unit, separating them from the three related pictures above. Could these photos have been run with no space between them? In theory, yes; in this particular instance, the black backgrounds would have caused the photos to run together, giving the impression of a many-headed creature. These pictures run all the same size, with the same basic crop, really emphasize how similar these guys look, and that is the point.

So, does all this white space and division cause the spread to be viewed as two separate pages? After all, no element crosses the gutter. The spot color in the headline, copy starter and the sidebar links the pages nicely.

Although we have traditionally been warned of the dangers of using reverse type, the truth is that if you make the copy block small enough and the type large enough and bold enough, it can be done. Is reverse type a problem on this spread? No.


Copy to the outside, photos to the inside; one element must cross the gutter to provide linkage between pages; and avoid putting copy between pictures.

Example 1: Hauberk
Shawnee Mission East High School,
Prairie Village, Kan.

An excellent example of one designer’s method of mixing it all up. It is tough to say why the rule regarding copy and photo placement came into being. We have been trained to expect copy to appear on the outside and photos to be corralled inside the spread. This spread flies in the face of that expectation, which initially causes the reader to be uncomfortable. And yet it is difficult to avoid being drawn to this spread by the dominant photo and the use of spot color.

Although no element crosses the gutter, it is clear that these two pages are meant to be viewed together. Why is it we cannot assume linkage takes place between facing pages because they touch at the gutter? Bleeding the dominant photo into the gutter helps to link the pages of this spread, but ultimately, linkage is established simply by touch.

And what about the copy that appears between pictures? Can that rule be broken as well? In this particular instance, placing the caption and a direct quote between pictures causes no problems. The direct quotes refers to a general topic and not to something in any photo on the page although it does draw the eye across the page and into the dominant photo.


Example 2: Safari
North Allegheny High School
Wexford, Pa.

Photo placement in this spread effectively draws attention to pictures that might otherwise get lost on the page. By wrapping copy around the lower photo as well as allowing the photo to break into established white space, the designer has drawn the reader’s eye to this picture. The same theory has been applied at the top of the page. By placing this small photo in a sea of white and then using a heavy frame around it, the reader is forced to take note of the picture. Note that this treatment does not detract from the dominant photo or the headline. Another interesting and unusual touch is that the caption for the upper photo is found in the first paragraph of the copy.

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Susan Massy

Susan Massy is the yearbook adviser at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School in Shawnee, Kan., where her Lair yearbook staffs have been demonstrating excellence in writing and design for the past two decades. The Lair recently won its 18th Pacemaker award from the National Scholastic Press Association under Massy’s guidance. In 1999, Massy was chosen the National Yearbook Adviser of the Year by the Journalism Education Association. In 2013, Massy was inducted into the Kansas Scholastic Press Association Hall of Fame.