Coverage concept an effective alternative for yearbook themes

Written by Brady Smekens

For decades, yearbook advisers have been pulling their hair out trying to lead staffs in the appropriate direction when it comes to deciding on and developing a theme. The introductory brainstorming questions are ones experienced advisers have permanently etched in their brain.

“What makes this year unique from any previous or future year at our school?” the adviser probes. “How is this school different from every other school in the country?” Unfortunately, the answers to those questions always seem to sound like the answers from the year before.

“Our school is so boring. Nothing new ever happens here,” one student says. Then, as it happens every year, the adviser redirects the conversation and asks the questions again.

“Our school has so many different social groups; we’re really diverse,” says one student. From here the brainstorming session starts rolling with comments such as “We have eight new teachers this year, and a new principal,” and “This spring they are supposed to repave the track around the football field,” and “This year’s freshman class is so rowdy!”

From these ideas and a few others the staff narrows their theme options to one: “Running in our own direction.”

While the staff thinks they have chosen a real jewel of a theme, the adviser knows that this will be another year when the theme stops with the cover. The reason: both the adviser and the staff have been trained to believe that solid yearbook themes answer the questions listed above and that really solid yearbook themes contain a catchy phrase which will “capsulize” the year.

In reality, the initial comment that “nothing new ever happens here,” may actually be correct. So, why try to create a theme that is rooted in social groups, new personnel and a paved running track? Even in those schools where significant changes occur regularly, it is unrealistic to think those changes will equate to a quality yearbook theme every year.

The most dynamic themes effectively unify a publication and give it personality. While a verbal theme with a catchy phrase can often qualify as dynamic, a host of other alternatives are available to enable staffs to develop a theme which truly sets their book apart from previous volumes.

Typically, books which abandon the idea of a “catch- phrase” spend less time fine-tuning the theme and more time developing an effective coverage “concept.” In fact, often it is the coverage “concept.” which drives the theme. Books that use a non-traditional theme approach rely on a single word or a collection of related words, along with page design, color or graphics to create the unifying effect.

For example, the Deka yearbook staff at Huntington North High School, Huntington, Ind., decided to divide their book into six sections and integrate coverage from student life, people, sports, academics, and activities into each section. While the book did not have a clear-cut verbal theme, the initial tone was established on the cover with a graphic which included the name of each section: Fundamentals, Camaraderie, Commitment, Applause, Leadership, and Community. Once inside the book, readers were able to recognize unity through the use of consistent design patterns, typefaces and recurring alternative coverage.

When the Red & White yearbook staff at City High School, Iowa City, Iowa, looked for new ways to structure the theme, their search ended with a weekly coverage concept. Rather than divide the book into the traditional sections of student life, people, sports, academics, and activities, the staff opted to cover school life as it happened. While some spreads included coverage from each of these areas, others focused on primarily sports, or primarily student life. In all cases, however, it was coverage that developed the theme of this book, not a cover catch-phrase.

To find out the true effectiveness of yearbook themes, ask a non-yearbook colleague if they can remember the theme of their high school yearbook. Then, ask them if they can remember how frequently their photo appeared in the book. In most cases readers do not give enough thought to the theme of their yearbook to make it stick in their mind. What they do remember, however, is how effectively the content of the book sparks their high school memories. With that in mind, during the next round of theme brainstorming, let coverage be your guide.

Brady Smekens