September 28, 2011 / Fall 2011 / Theme

Real themes for real people

Written by Crystal Kazmierski

In their quest to keep their yearbook relevant, this award-winning, veteran adviser’s staff has abandoned strongly held theme development principles to make an emotional connection with their readers.

After many years of advising yearbook, I admit it I have become jaded about themes. It’s not that I don’t like yearbook themes. But a brief look at their history might explain my view.

For years yearbook staffs were told that to be successful, a theme had to relate directly and only to this school and this year. That worked for a while, but eventually it became obvious that there are only so many ways to focus on change, growth, anniversaries or school spirit.

Staffs got more creative and built themes on popular expressions, gimmicks and catch phrases, with clever spin-offs for the traditional five sections. Sometimes they worked. But sometimes books were stuck with a section that just didn’t fit into the theme. In making such themes work throughout the book, they became forced and stilted.

Then we launched into the “concept” era, trying to discover ourselves in the yearbook. The collective “we” voice emerged, and theme copy sounded like the entire student body felt the same about everything. For students, the theme-page copy made little connection. It was too serious. Sometimes esoteric. And rarely fun.

It’s no wonder some themes don’t relate to students. Picture a red-and-white striped cover with bold letters emblazoned in gold foil screaming “Under the Big Top.” It can work, right? After all, life at Anytown High School is like a three-ring circus.

The 2011 Wings used the theme, “Noise,” to capture the thoughts and feelings of students at Arrowhead Christian Academy in Redlands, Calif. While not a concept theme, it is reflective in this school year that what was heard would only be said by these students in this school at that time.

The 2011 Wings used the theme, “Noise,” to capture the thoughts and feelings of students at Arrowhead Christian Academy in Redlands, Calif. While not a concept theme, it is reflective in this school year that what was heard would only be said by these students in this school at that time.

The teachers are the ringmasters. Or, better yet, the lion tamers. That makes the students the lions, tigers and bears? Oh, my! (No, that’s another theme.) Or maybe the students can be clowns, jugglers, acrobats or bearded ladies. (It’s all about diversity.)

The three rings are, of course, the sections. “Walking a Tight Rope” defines academics. “Juggling Act” is student life. And in the third ring, we have “Stunts,” otherwise known as sports.

Just one problem: Anytown High School is not a circus. And Mrs. McGillicutty is probably going to lower someone’s choir grade for labeling her “the fat lady.”

Forced themes just don’t work. They are arbitrary and predictable. They lack the realism and heart that are needed to have students say, “This is MY yearbook. It’s all about my friends and me.”

Being guilty of “all of the above” themes, I wonder if we are missing the mark. I have watched staffs struggle to come up with the coveted theme in the summer – as if something chosen in the mid-July can somehow reflect the school year that has yet to begin.

For a theme to work it needs to be real, organic. A theme that surfaces after school has started may have more of a chance to connect to the students. Get a feel for how things in the world/community/school are going. What colors and textures are kids wearing? What are the styles, trends, music, media that are emerging in the fall?

Tune in. Listen to what kids are saying. What makes them laugh? What makes them react? What makes them angry? What moves them? All of this is a key to who they are and to what they are going to respond to in their book.

Kids are more likely to embrace a book that is upbeat and entertaining. There is plenty of room between the covers to scatter serious articles. But from my experience, super serious, brooding themes are not as well received as the light-hearted, fun ones. And please keep in mind that most high school readers are not looking to the yearbook for a psychology lesson. They do not need to define, discover or search for their inner psyche in the yearbook.

The 2008 Lair from Shawnee Mission Northwest High School in Shawnee, Kan., resonates with yearbook staffs and students alike with its theme, “Honestly.” The theme helped the staff to be open and truthful in coverage of the people and events of the year. Looking for input from students, the staff collected more than 2,000 secrets supplied anonymously in English classes and through an “Honesty Box” on Facebook®.

The 2008 Lair from Shawnee Mission Northwest High School in Shawnee, Kan., resonates with yearbook staffs and students alike with its theme, “Honestly.” The theme helped the staff to be open and truthful in coverage of the people and events of the year. Looking for input from students, the staff collected more than 2,000 secrets supplied anonymously in English classes and through an “Honesty Box” on Facebook®.

They just want to look at the pictures, relive the moments in the stories, and catch up on what they missed.

After exhausting a zillion catchphrases and concepts, my staff finally settled on “Noise” for their 2011 theme. Was it specific to the school?

Nope.

Was it specific to the year?

Not really.

It wasn’t specific, period. It was something any school could do any year.

Was it a good theme? You bet.

More than any Wings theme of the past, it was embraced and loved by the students.

Why? Because it was about them. The noise reflected the overheard snippets of conversation collected by the staff as they eavesdropped all year. The book was plastered with noisy graphics and quotes, and the readers got the connection. It was personal. It was about them. They “wrote” the book. While it may be a theme that any school could do any year, the way it was carried out was one of a kind.

Creating the connection will be meaningful if the theme copy is real. Don’t write as if you know what every student in school thought or felt. There is no “we” who represents the entire student body. Instead, refer to the experiences of specific people with an abundance of quotes and anecdotes. Yes, even – especially – in the theme copy. Keep it real, honest, personal and entertaining, and it will be read!

Speaking of honest, one of my favorite yearbooks is the 2008 Lair from Shawnee Mission Northwest High School in Shawnee, Kan. The theme that year, “Honestly,” is timeless, and the book is still one of the most-reached-for volumes at workshops by students looking for ideas. This book worked because it was, well, honest. It debunked typical theme copy by filling in the usual hollow expressions with what is “honestly” meant.

Rather than flatten the entire school’s experiences into a few pages of hypothetical theme copy, the staff focused on individuals and told true stories on the dividers throughout the book. Real stories about real people. Even readers from other schools were hooked on the Lair’s theme copy.

Why? Because it was about somebody – not about abstracts or platitudes. Readers may not have known the people personally, but they could relate to their experiences.

That is what a good theme is all about.

Keep in mind: it is high school. Know your readers. Chances are they are not going to relate to a theme that is philosophical, sobering or obscure. They do not want to go inside the heads of the yearbook staff to understand the theme. It is their yearbook – the icing on the cake when school is out. A reason to celebrate.

So find a theme that is simple to “get.” Make it vague enough to fit anywhere in the book but specific in how it is carried out to reflect the lives of the students that particular year. That is how you give the book a place in time.

The best themes don’t overpower, but rather let the stories of the year shine with personality. Keep it about the students’ lives and experiences, and it will connect. It will also tell the stories of the year. Isn’t that what a yearbook is supposed to do?

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.