First Lit Mag Layout in the Books

Last week I took on the role of layout designer for a community literary magazine. It was a satisfying experience with a few lessons learned.

The Job

The challenge included formatting and organizing 120 pages of photos, art, poetry, and prose fiction and nonfiction between 50 and 1,500 words, in three languages and three different scripts. The material was organized alphabetically by first name.

I wanted to turn it back to the committee inside 40 hours, and identified a few aesthetic improvements I could make easily: establishing uniform spacing and fonts, creating columns, and hooking readers on the longer pieces with highlighted extracts.

Adding Color

The most eye-catching design improvement I managed centered on adding page frames: a colorful header extracted from the dramatic cover image, and a footer with standard magazine information like page #, issue #, and Title. Modeling my footer effort on a familiar source — The Foreign Service Journal  — I went so far as to flip the odd and even page footer order.


Two concepts I discarded: justifying columns (ragged looked better) and adding ‘jazzy’ fonts and different size first letters or words (in general this created a sloppy appearance with too many font deviations; in a few cases where the look was appealing, these experiments remain in the final edition).

I also wanted to bring in a more dynamic font like Helvetica or Garamond, but the software we used didn’t offer them. We stuck with OpenSans, which serves the purpose.


The material still needed some organizing principle, so I presented the contents in 5 categories:

  1. Photo Essay
  2. Poetry
  3. Short Fiction
  4. Memoir & Reflection
  5. Art, Journalism, and Other Forms

We didn’t want to run all genres together, since we preferred to see it flow visually between short and long pieces, between image and art, etc.  So I built the table of contents around the five main categories, but assembled the pieces in a free-form approach that required the least amount of shifting. Then I added page numbers to the contents out of order.

The Gateway of India was selected as the lead-off piece, given its highly-visual and locally significant nature. Given more time, I might have grouped the contributions around themes, as well.

I’m excited to see the material launch today! Best of all is finding my own work in the same magazine as my sons’ debuts.



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