April 29, 2008 / Design / Spring 2008

In the background

Written by Crystal Kazmierski

There is only so much a designer can say with a white page. True, the beauty and simplicity of a plain background can be stark and dramatic, calling readers’ attention to a stunning photograph, a dramatic headline, or an isolated story. But other times, less is not more, and, well, more is needed. Textured backgrounds have been a staple of magazine designers for years. They are not too distracting, but give the page a nice feel.

In today’s pop culture, other media have picked up on this design technique. Advertising, websites, album covers and other media sources pulsate with color, texture and images – all giving cues to our yearbook staffs in search of trendy ideas.

In the eyes of an untrained designer, though, a background becomes more of an excuse to decorate a page. Cute and clever might be OK for the occasional feature, but too much of a good thing can take a background from subtle enhancement to a full-on visual assault. A background, by definition, implies understatement.

My staff jumped on the textured background bandwagon a few years ago when my students chose “junk” (the stuff you treasure) as their theme. I was entertained daily as then-design editor Daniel Mason started a junk box in the yearbook room. He stuffed it with things he collected from just about everywhere – trampled papers and random pieces of rusted metal from the school parking lot, old jeans, ticket stubs, frayed shoelaces, sun-bleached formerly blue lace curtains from his church’s bathroom. I never knew what might find its way into “the box” each day. Even items in the classroom provided inspiration for Daniel’s designs – dusty vent covers, discarded holes punched from colored paper, old Chipotle receipts, shriveled up apple peels.

For Daniel, life was full of the wonderful junk he collected, scanned and turned into artwork on the backgrounds of our pages. Cut letters taped haphazardly on crumpled paper and run through the scanner became backgrounds for senior portraits. He even stitched a background of random love notes, allowing the colored threads to ball up or scatter over his paper quilt. One time I caught him in the dark shooting cutout letters piled atop watercolor paper by flashlight to get the shadows just right.

As an adviser, I held my tongue more often than not, believing that this young rebel had a plan. He did.

Daniel learned a lot in the process and created exquisite pages with uniqueness to each one. Together, his pages held a sense of combined wonder and amusement and made the book feel like everything belonged together.

It was an exercise in experimentation and restraint. We quickly learned that when used wisely, backgrounds enhance a presentation and focus attention on the story being told. In the wrong hands, they can be jarring and disruptive. So how do you know when to go for it and when you have gone too far?

"Slacker" won Daniel Mason first place in the Yearbook Page/Spread Category of the 2007 NSPA Design of the Year contest. "I wanted the background to be really involved so that more details would become apparent to viewers whenever they took time to look at it, like students who slack off have more to them than meets the eyes." He started by using the photos the way they dump onto a page in sequence in InDesign. A black blur graphic was repeated several times and placed to make the story and other captions visible. The pictures were casually placed without a stringent design scheme to express the theme.

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“When creating a background, you have to keep in mind that there is more to the page than the piece you want to scan or shoot,” Mason said. “Sometimes, what looks great solo doesn’t play well with other design elements. You should try to make your background graphics flexible.” Grunge-like texture can be cranked out in a few keystrokes in Photoshop. Or, three-dimensional objects can be scanned and tweaked to create original looks. Discretion is key as students must learn to differentiate between what advances the story and what distracts from it. This is a hard lesson for most young artists to learn, especially if they use a background to fill in the gaps when imagination fails. Laziness should never mask as aesthetics.

“You’ve gone too far whenever the page becomes about the neat background and not about the story,” Mason said. “A designer might create a fantastic vintage, grunge background with lots of cool rust and interesting colors, but if you make it the background for a story about girly friendships, it becomes pointless.”

In “Black Dog,” Mason used correction tape on paper, then scanned, to create the article’s title. The tape evokes the idea of trying to cover a mistake. The tape also has been scratched at to give a sense of imperfection.

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Black Dog

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When done thoughtfully, backgrounds add personality and individuality to a page. When done poorly, they make the story hard to read – sometimes even hard to find. So judge accordingly. Does what you have in the background draw readers into wanting to read the story? Does it set the mood and make the story come alive?

Or does it stand out like a sore thumb and make readers want to turn the page as quickly as possible to rest their eyes?

“Backgrounds are great for communicating a mood or feeling,” Mason said. “When illustrating a story on depression, I created a dark background with a hint of blue.”

He then isolated words from the story and blended them into the background to highlight the anger and frustration that comes with depression. Each detail was carefully thought out, right down to the angry, harsh, dark scribbles, which gave readers the feeling of the frustration and angst expressed by the writer.

When the marriage of graphics and storytelling takes place seamlessly, readers are pulled in with little effort. Anything less than this is contrived, forced, distracting and unnecessary.

Designers should also concern themselves with how often backgrounds are used. Even the most elegant or interesting backgrounds can get old after a while, so interspersing spreads with backgrounds among simpler pages keeps the book light and airy. Or, interspersing white or subtly textured pages among several with backgrounds keeps the book from getting too heavy. It’s all about balance, and, ultimately, making sure the loudest part of the page is the message.

It is also best to avoid full-page photos as backgrounds. It forces a compromise between the photo and the text. Either the photo must be screened to make the dark text readable, or the text gets lost in the contrast of the photo. Nothing wins.

Mason created his own method of using photos as backgrounds, which was both subtle and stunning. The key to success was in finding the correct combination of overexposure and blur.

“Sometimes I would run a series of Gaussian blurs in Photoshop with variant radiuses. Overexposed images worked best to make an elegant, stark background with a hint of detail that, when blurred, created rhythm and flow,” Mason said.

Some of the worst photos create amazing backgrounds. In Photoshop, the colors can be manipulated to reflect other elements on the page, unifying the message and feel.

“The design elements should not compete,” Mason said, “unless of course you are doing a story on multiple personalities.”

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Crystal Kazmierski

With a background in commercial art, Crystal Kazmierski advises the Wings yearbook at Arrowhead Christian Academy in Redlands, California, and teaches design and photography at journalism workshops and conventions across the country. Under Crystal’s guidance, Wings has received multiple CSPA Gold Crown and NSPA Pacemaker awards; including winning a Yearbook Pacemaker 18 times in the last 19 years. Crystal is also the author of Finding Your Theme, a unit in Walsworth’s Yearbook Suite curriculum.