May 6, 2009 / Design

Hey Mister D.J., Spin Some Design

Written by Victoria Prater

The child of a military family, D.J. Stout found it difficult to connect with people he would soon be moving away from. However, by age 11, he took his love of drawing and his fascination with publications and parleyed them into “The Weekly Laf,” a cartoon newspaper he drew on carbon paper and distributed around the neighborhood. Soon, he was organizing peers into small newspaper staffs, and, eventually, he was approaching local high schools and offering to organize and produce their newspaper.

I love stories like that.

With that kind of creative aspiration, it is no surprise that Stout is now an award-winning designer and partner with international design consultancy Pentagram in Austin, Texas.

Stout is often invited to share his design ideas with various groups around the country, and it was at the invitation of Walsworth sales representative Missy Green that he brought his engaging presentation to his first-ever yearbook audience at the Spring Zing High School Yearbook Workshop in Orlando.

The first thing Stout emphasizes is the thought process behind his designs, particularly some of the work he did during his 13 years as art director of Texas Monthly magazine.

“There’s always an idea in my design,” Stout said. “I never put anything in [the magazine] that doesn’t have a reason. I don’t just do decoration. You can point to almost anything I’ve done and I can tell you what the idea was behind it.”

He was not kidding. Nearly every cover idea, spread or article in his presentation had a distinct train of thought or story behind it.

A terrific example of this, and probably one of Stout’s most famous covers, is the July 1992 issue of Texas Monthly, which featured then-Texas Governor Ann Richards in a rather unconventional photo.

“We were in an editorial meeting, discussing Governor Richards and how she was at the height of her career,” Stout explained. “Someone said ‘she’s really riding high right now.’ This made me recall she had been recently quoted in a local paper as saying that for her 60th birthday, she wanted to learn how to ride a Harley.

“I thought, that’s what makes Ann Richards popular. She’s not this retiring old grandma, she’s a feisty, unconventional Texas woman,” Stout recalled. “I remember thinking what fun it would be to take the idea to the extreme, and show her in leathers atop a big ol’ hog.”

Richards’s notable white hair gave Stout the idea for the headline “White Hot Mama,” and the cover was born.

Hold on to your hair, friends of journalism. He faked it.

Unfortunately, Richards (who had wholeheartedly agreed to the photo) was too busy to pose at the last minute. One of her staff suggested using a stand-in.

“We dressed a model, put her on the bike, took the picture, and superimposed Ann’s head,” Stout explained casually to his yearbook audience.

There was an audible gasp, and several hands shot into the air.

“What about the ethical issues involved with photo manipulation?” an adviser asked.

“Well, that certainly is something to consider, especially today” Stout explained. “At the time this cover was done, publications and designers were just getting into the whole concept of being able to digitally alter photos. Later on, magazines such as TIME and Newsweek would be in thespotlight for photo manipulation issues, and bring about more awareness regarding ethical considerations.”

“It’s really something you have to use your own judgment on,” Stout continued. “We eventually developed our own policies about altering photos in the magazine, because readers were starting to assume we frequently faked our covers.”

Stout definitely does not shy away from using the very effective tool of humor to communicate.

“If I ask you to think of your favorite commercial, it’s usually a funny one that comes to mind, isn’t it?” Stout asked.

“Don’t be afraid to use humor. Sometimes people shy away from it because they fear it’s not ‘professional,’ enough, but it can be very successful.”

This cover, featuring a caricature of presidential candidate Ross Perot as MAD Magazine icon Alfred E. Neuman (cleverly parodying the original 1956 MAD cover introducing Neuman as a presidential write-in with the words “What ­ me worry?”) is a great example.

Stout also suggests designers look for the emotion that can be illustrated. He works very closely with the writers and editors, because usually the story or copy alone can lead to an idea, and the idea leads to a relative design.”In Texas Monthly, the headlines and copy sometimes came from me, because the images and copy should all tie in together,” he said.

One of the most powerful and chilling pieces Stout showed was an article on the brutal and senseless killing of a horse by a group of kids from east Texas.

The demon-like youths, violent red and black hues, and the chaotic sense of movement in the illustration are scary enough, but the childish, hand-drawn copy typeface, which gives the impression of having been slashed viciously into a dark wall with a stone knife, drives the horror home.

“Don’t be afraid to do things manually,” Stout advocates. “Whenever I can, I like to make certain pieces look like they were touched by a human hand.”

“Today, typography is a dying art in publications, because the computer makes it so easy. Some designers have gotten lazy.”

Not Stout.

In one ambitious piece on the death of Latin pop star Selena, Stout Xeroxed the typeface out of an old Bible. He then took the Xeroxed letters and pasted them all together to form the copy on the facing page.

Stout has pulled from a variety of sources to inspire his original typography, including vintage circus posters, authentic 1950s beauty product packaging and even the girlish, loopy handwriting he found in an old yearbook inscription.

“I really don’t have a big budget for the yearbook,” one student editor stated. “What can I do to create powerful designs without a lot of expensive software or professional designers?”

Good question.

Stout suggests simplicity and a little clever creativity.

“Just because there is all this computer software out there with all these fancy bells and whistles doesn’t mean you have to use all that stuff to make a great design.

“Sometimes, you can simply take a good headline and blow it up, or illustrate some of the copy by hand, making it the dominant image on the page,” he said.

“Also, use your resources, especially the human ones. Do you know someone who can draw? Have them illustrate something original for the yearbook, even if they are not on the staff.”

Now, as a partner with Pentagram, Stout shares his years of expertise and ideas with others, helping a variety of publications improve, enhance or completely re-create their look.

Often, he uses a simpler design to make a more appealing or powerful page.

For example, Internet newspaper Interactive Week came to Stout wanting to freshen and update their look.


Stout began by turning the somewhat dated masthead with the generic “@” sign into a logo Interactive Week could use to establish an identity all their own.

The logo makes a more interesting visual for the front cover, where Stout proceeded to eliminate the plethora of text boxes and replace them with an expressive, dominant photo of Bill Gates.

The copy reads “If ugly is in the eye of the beholder, Microsoft now wears a multitude of garish faces…” It is the same copy that appeared on the “old” cover, but now a relevant and powerful visual (Gates’ close-up) gets the reader’s attention and brings it into the spotlight as the issue’s lead article.

Stout did something similar with an inside spread about Microsoft and the antitrust battle.

The original spread features facial shots of the “contenders” as the dominant photos. The revised spread takes the same article and adds a creative headline, enlarged for maximum impact, and much stronger images (notice how the headline copy and dog images tie together) to really grab the eye.

Again, Stout removes the multitude of boxes from the original spread, giving it a clean, uncluttered look with plenty of white.

The “NewsFront” bits are moved to the top with some graphic images, where they stand on their own and in no way distract from the main article. The single solid color box on the page stands out and offsets an additional smaller story, again without cluttering the page.

So what does all this have to do with your yearbook?

After seeing some of Stout’s work and learning where it comes from, you can see that being creative does not always require a big budget or the ability to apply every filter known to Photoshop.

A simple idea can become a powerful cover, endsheet, spread or story.

Green invited Stout to speak because she strongly encourages her yearbook customers to go after the design of their dreams.

“I will bring my schools a bunch of current magazines, or show them the work of professional designers so they can get ideas that work for their book from the designs they like,” she said. “The important thing is to let them know they can do anything they want, and then show them how to do it.”

Have you ever been riding along in a car or simply staring off into space (perhaps during math or history class) and you suddenly have an idea? It may be inspired by the work of someone else, or it may be all your own.

Do not let it pass. Keep it. Write it down, make a sketch or snap a photo. You never know where it may lead.

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Victoria Prater