How do you design a book with co-designers that don´t know what a layout is? I don´t know, but I am finding out at the moment and, not surprisingly, learning a lot about design myself along the way.
This is the school all parents wish they had gone to themselves: Berlin Bilingual School near Alexanderplatz. Thank god the kids like it too! To record and store memories of everyday school life, seasonal events, teachers and classmates for them, a group of parents decided that it was time to produce a yearbook for the school. Having run a kid´s design club at the school for several years, I suggested to co-design the yearbook with the kids. Will we get there?
There are seven students in my weekly yearbook workshop now, six girls and one boy from grade 4-6. We have 50 minutes every Tuesday afternoon to produce 44 events pages and 22 class pages until the end of the school year. This is the plan: to design the yearbook in an analogue way. First we will cut & paste manually, then scan & print digitally. As a side effect I would like to introduce basic principles of graphic design to the kids and get them excited about using design tools to add meaning, mood and magic to their yearbook. At our first session I am asking: what is a yearbook? Definitely something that they want to own themselves. We are looking at yearbooks from other international schools in Berlin and at an old one of myself.
Make them find people they know in the yearbooks and start talking about what a yearbook is and what the BBS yearbook could be like. Show them elements a layout is made up of: background, photos, display type, text blocks and clip art. Explain that we will cut and paste our layouts together manually, just like in the olden days. Let them assemble two layouts with material I have prepared in advance, to demonstrate how pages with the same topic can have completely different moods.
The kids have only a vague notion of what a yearbook is, but have lots of ideas on making one: “Can we add drawings, can we take photos, can we write the text ourselves?”. I divide them into two groups and hand out the plastic folders with material for layouting Winter Fair pages. The kids get down to the task of layouting without hesitation right there on the floor. “Please do sit down at the table, it will be easier”, they look at me and my voice is trailing off. Why not do it on the floor?
Group One argues about the background provided, one student finds it “too seventies”, the others ignore him and stick the whole thing together in what feels like two minutes. Job done.
Now they have to wait for the other group, who has approached the task with more irreverence to the material. Group Two is cutting up photos, mixing them with clip art and sticking photos at ninety degree angles on the page, so that the reader has to turn the page to view them – wow!
When we compare the two layouts, I ask them which one looks more like the Winter Fair. They all agree that the funny, colourful, messy one feels more like the real experience. I suspect this also has something to do with their disregard for the black and white photos Group One was given for the layout. The Winter Fair wasn´t all black and white, was it?
They obviously know what they like, dislike and what they would like to do. They ask if we will do the “same thing” again next week, and I explain that we will concentrate on just one aspect next time: type. And that we will produce the different elements of a layout, like type, backgrounds and clip art in separate sessions first, before everything will come together. They look skeptical. Kids want a result quickly – it will be hard to stick to the original plan but I´ll try.
All artwork by primary students of Berlin Bilingual School
This week we are drawing fancy letterforms for the page titles of the yearbook.
To show them a simple way to create whacky letterforms that I found in the book How to be the best bubbletype writer in the world ever by Linda Scott, which I can only recommend. Demonstrate the process at the blackboard and let them apply the method to their first names. Next, let each kid draw the letterforms of a page title in their own special letterforms. All you need is a pencil, an eraser and a black marker.
First, draw your letters simply in pencil as a guideline, then draw crazy lines in black marker around them.
Erase the initial guideline and you´ll have created your own special typeface in no time:
They spend ages just doing their names. They do it very nicely, but I have to hurry them along and explain to them that graphic designers usually always work under time pressure. It sounds cruel (and it is, I can assure you) but this is just the test, we have to get to the real task. There are words waiting to be designed:
When I demonstrated the technique, I did something different to every letter in order to speed up the process. Now they do something different with each letter of their word. I keep telling them that not every letter has to be different, that a typeface doesn´t consist of 26 different styles, but one style applied to 26 different forms (should I have called the session alphabet design?). They don´t believe me – if their neighbour is doing it, it must be right. Let her talk. Here is what they did:
Maybe they are right and it is even more fun like that? Their letterforms are really inventive, but they all got a bit self conscious and stressed with it, because every one had their own individual task and they would compare their drawings. One girl asked me to “help her”. Next time I will bring music to relax everybody a bit.
All artwork by primary students of Berlin Bilingual School
This session we spent hunting for patterns and hues around the school building to produce interesting backgrounds for the events pages.
Look at photos on different backgrounds first and talk about what happens to the same photo when the background changes. Then go around the school together as a group and take photos of patterns and hues they find.
When we look at the photos on my sample backgrounds it is difficult to steer them away from the concrete thing that is lying there. “Oh, this is a nice pattern, this could be good for the Summer Fair”. Or, “this is cool for Halloween”. Yes, but which photos work better on light, which ones on light backgrounds? Does a photo have more prominence on a pattern with many small repeating elements or with fewer and bigger elements? Where does the photo stay in the foreground, where does it blur into the background? Surprisingly, the students prefer different combinations to adults and don´t mind if background and foreground compete, as long as they both look groovy.
The kids suggest that they take a preliminary look around the school on their own, before we all go together to take photos of the patterns they found. “Will you really be back here in 10 minutes?”. I walk around with one of the students. As we walk from floor to floor I suggest lots of patterns to him, but he doesn´t suggest any. I ask him why not and he asks me what a pattern is. Oh no, I have to make sure everybody knows what I am talking about, especially at a bilingual school, where kids sometimes know particular words only in one language and not the other. I explain what a pattern is and then we find several together.
Time is flying and we still haven´t shot any photos. Now that we are all back, where do we go first? One student suggests the lost & found section where she has found a patterned towel. They show me a range of ready-made patterns they have found:
But they also see more and more found patterns in the built environment around them:
And slowly the visual meaning of the term pattern becomes wider and wilder,
yes, they are really good shots, even though this must all still seem so abstract to them. Sorting through the photos the next day, I am very satisfied with our catch, not so satisfied with my photographic skills. I will have to retake the photo of the bat in the movements room, can´t let them down.
All photos taken at the Berlin Bilingual School
This session we are producing clip-art for various event pages in the yearbook. Clip-art being a no-go for any self-respecting designer, I am curious what the kids will make of it.
To talk briefly about the term clip-art and then give out different-sized stickers for them draw on. To help them loose their inhibitions by turning the proccess into a sort of speed drawing game with music.
Before we start, I ask them to range their desks into one continuous line, because they will be churning out clip-art in an assembly line today. I have assembled 7 sets of stickers in different sizes and colours, so that every event has a different type of sticker. Each student gets one sheet with a different theme. I explain to them that they will have three minutes for every drawing, then the timer will go off and they have to pass the sheet over to their neighbour and work on the next theme. So each group of clip-art will be assembled by the whole group. Ready? Steady, go! I put on some music to keep them in a dynamic mood. I have often read about playing “upbeat” music to get people working, but I am never quite sure about what classifies as upbeat. I am putting on a song by Sugarhill Gang, a song my daughter has on her playlist, which is 14 min. long. It turns out, they “did” that one in music last year. It also turns out, that three minutes is far too long, they draw 3,4,5, 6 stickers in that time – stop it now, or the stickers won´t last until the end of the session! Next round I give them only 1 min, that is more than enough. I realize that they are all clip-art professionals – of course – that is what kids are doing all day at school: doodling in their exercise books.
To enlarge their visual repertoire I have picked up on an idea I have seen in the classroom of grade 6 last week. The students there have come up with different versions of their class, notably as teacups. So now I set them a different what-if-theme for each round. “What if your event was something to eat, an animal, a plant, a person, something to wear, an ornament, a tool, a vegetable, a shape, a word, a pokemon, a present, a ghost, a hat, a vehicle e.t.c.”. They love that and come up with their own ideas like a piece of jewelry or a toy. They ask me if this is still the same song playing and if I have any other music on my phone.
There is one problem with one student holding up the production line, by not stopping to draw when the alarm sounds. Thank God I have one additional set of stickers (Book Week) and can thus throw in an extra sheet whenever needed. Now the clip-art factory is running smoothly and produces great results:
This amazing clip-art bank will not only be really useful when layouting, but is interesting in itself. It represents on a small scale the doodle vocabulary of a group of children in a specific place, at a specific time. I am looking forward to seeing these doodles pop up throughout the book, like subdued giggles in a classroom.
All artwork by students of Berlin Bilingual School
At last the kids will be putting it all together: the first layouts!
Give them material to layout two events in two groups. Look on as it all comes together beautifully.
All the elements you need for page layouting spread out neatly on long tables: the photographic backgrounds we hunted for in school, the page headers they drew copied unto acetate, the clip-art stickers, some additional quotes by kids, a text column and the photos. Plus some additional coloured paper to use as backgrounds, in case the photos are too busy on the page. Ok, get started on Summer Fair and Maths Week! The kids start layouting without hesitation. Both groups opt for the photographic background and then it all seems to happen all at once and so quickly, that I don´t know where to intervene first.
Hey, do not start by sticking clip art on the background, there will be no space for the photos. By the way it isn´t a good idea to start with the details, with the little weeny tiny bits, start with the big picture. I mean with the whole page, with both pages, yes, at the same time. Try to design both pages at once, even though that goes against anything you have practised in school so far. And please, don´t forget the photos, most people think they are the most important bit on the page. Stop! Do you have to cut all photos up into pieces? Wouldn´t it be nice to leave at least some photos untouched, so that people can still recognize what the subject is? And do we need your comments on every image on the page? What if you would try and find a balance between calm and busy areas?
Who do I think I am talking to? These are kids, not design students and of course they don´t listen to me. They have things to do and they do it with unfettered enthusiasm, until we have to break up again. Group II asks if they can finish their spreads at home. Of course. So, this is what they present to me at the end of the day:
I am speechless. At last. I realize that there is a fundamental difference between a collage and a layout, a difference so obvious to me, that I forgot to mention it. A layout is not a sum of equal parts but a hierarchical structure, quite an abstract construct, don´t let the scissors and glue fool you. I can also see that we will have to work on finding a balance between self-expression and functionality. And most importantly I will have to talk about COMMUNICATION as the raison d’être of graphic design.
And yet – every designer I show the spreads to is delighted. They are wild, dynamic and anarchic –David Carson would love them. Me too.
All artwork by students of the Berlin Bilingual School
© Rose Epple, 2017