When one creates a new publication standard practice is to visually establish the brand message. This is also known as the identity, or how the publication feels emotionally to its intended audience.

Traditionally, this is created by the editor and designer working to create this “brand” for the client. However, in recent years, these roles are merging. Often the client will deal directly with the designer. In this instance the designer and the client take on the roles once held by the editor.

The challenge to creating this identity is that the designer must look at established norms for the intended audience, then determine how to communicate with that audience in a way that feels relevant. The term “relevant” in-and-of-itself has become “irrelevant” due to overuse, but the idea is that the design needs to be fresh without alienating the established customer base. Sci-fi novels, for example, have a look that is unlike a “Dummy’s Guide”, and “Dummy’s Guide’s” have a look that is unlike literary fiction.

The cover should help the target audience understand at a glance that this is a publication that might appeal to them.

There are several ways to accomplish this goal without having to stick to established current norms.

Look to the past. What has worked in this market before?

Look adjacently. Is there a trend in this market in another medium, like TV, movies, games, the internet, etc. where the designer might pull ideas?

Look at closely related publications to see if there are developing trends. For example: a sci-fi novel may have roots in comic books, fantasy novels, or the tech market.

Remember to take care of basics. For example: a publication for young readers might want you to design with a larger than normal font size to help younger readers read. Likewise, a book for younger readers will typically use a wider range of colors than a publication for teens and adults. Conversely, a publication aimed at an elderly market may also use large type, but utilize a more limited color palette. An “indie” publication should take more risks with design, because they will need those risks in order to stand out, and appeal to a customer base that is looking for something different.

Often, publishers will make use of a “dummy”, sometimes called a “pilot” (just like a tv show). The idea is to make the publication using self-publishing techniques, so one can look at the completed finished product in a physical form before sending it to a printing office. I have seen a publication go through 5 to 10 variations before a final version is achieved. I have heard of people producing many more than that, especially in the magazine industry. In comics (my primary medium) I am constantly surprised by my own inability to see drawing errors till “the next day”.

In some industries the “dummy” will be used in order to experiment with typefaces, paper stock, grid systems, and anything else that might be up for debate.

Typically, as one achieves knowledge of the brand’s “standards” those standards will be written down in some format easily accessible by a wide range of freelancers who might need the information. If it is a publisher who is producing a wide range of publications, but they want some elements to be consistent across their line they will often collect that data in an online format for freelancers to access. Trade dress, typefaces, logos, are all stored in this way.

Psychology can be utilized in designing a publication. Hard data to suggest that many, or any, of the norms established over the last century are real, but if you work in publishing, you will encounter people who have very specific “taste” opinions about what is and is not good. I know an editor who thinks gradients are passé. I know an editor who won’t publish the product unless there is a minority on the cover. I know an editor who won’t publish the product unless a blonde woman is on the cover. Some think red sells, and green does not. Yellow is typically avoided by most magazine publishers. 

I would say that these people are right, until they are wrong. In other words, there is a ton of anecdotal evidence to suggest that what editors think makes something work is not what makes something work.

So, what makes a publication work?  

Who knows?

I think it is good content that people know about. I heard a great story in comics once. There was an artist named Jack Kirby. In the 60s he was doing the best work of his life. He was in his late 40s/early 50s. His co-creator was a writer named Stan Lee. It has been argued that Stan did very little of the work in creating their comics. Stan would call up Jack, talk through an idea, then Jack would go turn it into a story. Then Stan would look at the drawings, and add words.

The question becomes: who wrote the story? Many of Kirby’s fans say he did, and I tend to agree with them. Having an idea for a story is not writing a story. The person who sits down and fleshes it out, and figures out the structure, and the emotional beats wrote the thing. It is pretty well documented that was Jack!

However, Jack had been drawing comics by this time for over twenty years. he never enjoyed the success he had with Stan before or after their collaboration. It could just as easily be argued that if it weren’t for Stan’s final polish, and if it weren’t for Stan cheering Jack on publicly, letting all interested parties know they should look at Jack’s work, no one would have known about it. 

Stan and Jack created the Avengers, Iron Man, the Hulk, Ant-Man, the Fantastic Four, Black Panther, and a host of other amazing characters. 

My point is that for something to be remarkable content it has to both be exceptionally crafted as well as exceptionally marketed. 

Branding, as presented in this article is the beginning of that marketing. There are other applications for the term “branding” we will discuss shortly, and in some ways it’s the last thing a marketer should worry about.