September 2, 2003 / Fall 2003 / Theme

Capturing the Elusive Theme

Written by Idea File Staff

Each year, advisers and staffs work to develop a theme to unify their yearbook and make it a reflection of the school and students during that particular year. This is one of the most daunting tasks of the entire production process. Themes do not magically appear. It takes thought and hard work. And theme development itself has a process.

To begin the process of creating a workable theme, David Zinsmeister, adviser at Manchester High School, North Manchester, Ind., said the staff should:

  • have a thorough understanding of their school and its unique qualities to determine whether the theme will work for their school.
  • know basic design concepts.
  • make sure the entire staff feels ownership of the concept
  • realize themes need to be flexible.

Think About It
Many advisers begin developing their theme by having their staff look at magazines and brainstorm ideas. These are good activities, but how you approach them can improve the theme development and outcome.

“We do a lot of brainstorming activities and a lot of analysis of the previous year’s book. We have a lot of discussion about the year and what sense they have of their own school,” Zinsmeister said.

He analyzes the previous year with his staff, and has them review what will be different and unique about this year, for example, a new senior class with a distinct personality that will leave its mark on the school. Zinsmeister said he lets the staff know policy changes that will affect the year and make it different.

“One of the things an adviser has to do is help kids be more on top of things,” he said.

Also, students need time to develop a workable theme. Advisers and students can meet and talk, but there needs to be time to let students mull over the discussions.

“The new adviser must understand it is a process and the kids won’t have the answers right away,” he said.

If a student has never thought about theme before, an adviser needs to explain how to think about things visually. Zinsmeister has a slide show of greeting cards, magazine designs and “strange ads that could be developed into title pages” to facilitate discussion of the use of text and design in theme both for his staff and at workshops.

“It is one thing to say ‘go look at greeting cards,’ but how does it apply?” he said. “The student may be asking, ‘What in the world am I supposed to be looking at?”

To help his staff think visually, he has them put together an idea book. He takes them to buy magazines, and the students clip items they like and compile them into the book.

“I just say find things you like, isolated elements, not spreads. Each idea book reflects that year’s staff. You start to see what they find pleasing to the eye,” he said. “It is a very valuable tool in the middle of the year.”

Traditionally the theme first appears on the cover, where it helps to establish the tone for the rest of the book. A successful presentation of the theme will not only be striking but it will also visually communicate its intended message.

He said the idea book is not allowed near the computer. Its purpose is to spur creativity, not steal designs.

Everyone On Board
Since the theme and its elements are crucial to the direction of the book, staff buy-in is important. The staff has to be an integral part of the decision-making process to help them thoroughly understand the theme, which will make it easier for them to work with the concepts.

“The staff needs to get on board. I’ve been to workshops where a student says the adviser gave the staff the idea. Finding attachment to it and developing someone else’s idea can be difficult,” he said.

Since working by committee can be cumbersome, Zinsmeister suggests editors write a list of about 20 theme ideas. The adviser helps that group pare the list and they take the top two or three themes to the entire staff.

“And it can’t be the editor-in-chief saying, ‘this is my favorite and this is my second choice.’ The editor has to be able to work with any of the themes,” he said.

He warns that advisers need to be ready for the student who has been with the program for a few years, is now editor and knows exactly what she wants, just like the pink-and-purple fairy tale book.

“A good theme creates ownership. A really good theme will help with marketing. It gets more kids involved,” he said. “Everyone has to be able to develop that idea verbally and visually.”

Versatility
When you and your staff come up with one or two good ideas, test them. A theme needs to be versatile.

“What you want it to be is flexible,” he said. “Push to find out how far they can go with it.”

Look at your ladder and see if the theme can be incorporated easily into all sections of the book, not just the folio and headlines. Zinsmeister said he has mocked up pages using the theme, various fonts and other elements as models for his staff to use to test the theme for flexibility and coverage ideas.

He recommends new advisers consider using a catch-phrase theme because it is easier than a concept theme, although make sure the phrase can be developed all the way through the book.

Zinsmeister said beginning advisers, especially those just out of college, usually feel the need to control the entire yearbook process. That is OK, he said, but those advisers need to realize that each staff has its own personality and advisers need to quickly get those students working as a team.

“There needs to be time organizationally to get to know the staff,” he said.

That will also provide time to find out whether any pink castles are lurking in their heads.

Idea File Staff

Idea File Staff reports are posts compiled by the Walsworth Yearbooks Marketing Department, covering a wide range of yearbook topics.