April 15, 1999 / Spring 1999 / Theme

Recognizing the perfect theme is often a gut instinct

Written by Rod Kuhn

It had been hours since the group came together. Wadded pieces of paper cluttered the room, along with empty pizza boxes and tossed candy wrappers. Bodies draped over chairs and tables. Blank expressions intermingled with looks of agony. It had been a long day filled with trite phrases and the troops were beginning to lose hope. Regardless of how hard they tried, an idea just would not come. A suitable concept for their yearbook eluded them.

Scenes like the one described above play out in schools across the country about this time every year as new staffs struggle to develop a plan for covering the history in their schools. Advisers and students come together in massive brainstorming sessions to find the perfect catch phrase or idea to capture the mood of the year. Sometimes things work out easily, but more often than not the process is agonizing. Even after a decision is made, doubt often follows the production right up to the distribution of the book to the student body. If the concept is wrong, a year’s hard work can be diminished.

The idea of capturing the spirit of a school and a year in one easy phrase or concept is not a new one by any means, so it would seem logical that the secret of perfecting a theme package would be easily identifiable. However, talking with yearbook advisers and editors shows that recognizing a good theme early in the publication process is not as simple as one might think. Recognizing a workable theme is often gut instinct.

“You sense a theme is going to work when you like the sound or the feel of it, can connect it to your school that year, can see several possibilities for developing a non-hokey graphic, can hear the opening theme copy in your head and finally, when you take a look at your staff, can see them all nodding their heads ‘Yes, Yes, Yes!'” said Betsy Pol lard Rau, adviser at H.H. Dow High School in Midland, Mich. “Some year that may happen in the first hour of brainstorming; some years it happens around the 100th.”

Terry Nelson, adviser at Muncie Central High School, Muncie, Ind., agrees the recognition that a theme will work is often internalized.

“I get warm squishy feelings of love,” she said. “If it’s a good theme, it’s like a good excuse for getting out of trouble. It sounds good, rolls off the tongue easily, and if I get caught or questioned I can rationalize the reasons for doing it.”

Getting to the point where you fall in love with a theme takes time. After all, squishy feelings or good excuses, are not easy to come by. There is a process that editors have to go through to make sure a theme is working.

“After we think we have a theme, we start working on copy for the opening and division pages,” said Carolyn McCune, adviser at Parkersburg High School in West Virginia. “If the work doesn’t flow easily after the first couple of days, we start rethinking our theme. The kids’ enthusiasm for the theme is what really tells me that it will work. If the editors can’t easily sell it to the rest of the staff, it’s a theme we won’t be successful with. The kids get more excited about the theme when they design the cover, opening and endsheets and actually see how the theme is going to work in their book.”

It is obvious that finding the best theme concept is something that takes a lot of time and even more discussion. Paul Ender, adviser at Independence High School, San Jose, Calif., believes the actual point when a great concept is born can be pinpointed.

“When I’m working with my staff or other staffs on theme,” he said, “at some point, something clicks when you know the theme is going to work. You can hear it. The kids begin saying ‘And then you can…,’ ‘Oh that will be perfect for…,’ ‘And what about…,’ and so on. You can just tell there is that little charge of excitement in the air. Then you know.”

From that excitement, staffs can develop a book that captures not only the history of the school, but the personality and color of its students as well. Yearbook consultant Judy Babb believes the process that begins with the staff carries over to the student body.

“When the staff gets really excited about the possibilities for writing copy and getting dynamic photos, I know the book will work,”she said. “I love to hear the ‘what if we…’ that comes with a multi-dimensional theme. When they see the possibilities for developing a theme on levels that aren’t obvious or tritethat will allow for natural plays on the concept throughout the book without beating the theme concept to death, the theme will be an exciting one that the student body will recognize and embrace as well.”

Since a theme that is embraced by the school community usually translates to a yearbook that is likewise embraced, those early stages spent agonizing over a simple phrase becomes all the more important. At some point in those marathon brainstorming sessions something someone says will click and those blank expressions will turn to excitement. After all, when the concept is right, the staff will know it.

They will feel it in their guts.

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Rod Kuhn