Editorial co-design laboratory

In this article I’m going to describe a co-design experience of 2012 in which my role was that of a facilitator designer in the collective design project of the layout of a school magazine.
When I was offered to carry out the graphic design of a high school annual magazine I immediately accepted the job proposing a co-design laboratory in which I could realize the project together with the direct users of the magazine: students, teachers and the administrative stuff. Beside verifying my research work assumptions I had the possibility to avoid the long revision and correction process that a project with an external client would have required, all the more so because it was a client not used to deal with professional relationships with a graphic designer.
My proposal to the school headmaster was an editorial lab to work out the school annual magazine structure and production, from the collection of material to printing.
At first the plan included a cycle of 10-12 two-hour meetings with the more heterogeneous group possible.

Lab’s objectives
The editorial co-design laboratory is aimed at the production of the annual magazine of the High School Institute in Udine . The participants are involved in the collection of the required contents, the magazine layout design and printing files.
I have chosen the idea of a lab because it is useful to encourage both the development of an individual subjectivity and the group social relationships. Active involvement in the whole procedure is of great interest and useful for participants. The project concreteness and completeness stimulate commitment and transmit to participants the importance of individual responsibility to reach a collective goal. Moreover a public confrontation helps in structuring a critical thought and arguing it.

General description
The course starts from the analysis of the magazine format starting from existing examples. This is useful in order to identify the editorial project basic elements (content, structure, sections, typography, image processing, running header and footer, page numbers, index, etc.). The design phase is based on the knowledge acquired in the analysis phase, it is divided in steps and provides for the development of all the components needed for the magazine layout design. Every problem is solved collectively by choosing the most efficient solution that satisfies all participants, based on functional terms, not aesthetic ones (it works/ it doesn’t work, instead of
fine/ ugly). Once the layout design is over, each participant works on the graphic layout of part of the magazine. The material collection (unless finished by the beginning of the laboratory) will continue along with designing, to be over before the beginning of the layout phase.

Laboratory structure
The structure of the lab consists in seven meetings in which the project presentation, the analysis phase, the designing phase and the layout phase are set out.
The presentation of the lab to the classes is carried out first by the school stuff and later also by one of the participating teachers in order to draw participation both in the lab itself and in the collection of contents. After the first meeting a note on the school noticeboard is also useful to increase participation. The proposed structure does not include the choice of contents to insert in the magazine and related articles and pictures. To facilitate the collection an email address is created where all students and teachers not included in the project can send the articles and images they wish to be published.

Used tools
Beside personal computer and projector, two are the tools that conditioned the editorial co-design lab design process. The first is the workbook, a tool for collecting the results of observation exercises and textbook of the realized graphic project. The latter is the free software Scribus, a multipage layout program, free and professional.

The workbook
The workbook is used to facilitate analysis, and it is planned to lead participants to the process of analysis and the gathering of the acquired knowledge.
The workbook is often used as a tool in co-design practices, its definition often recurs in the field literature. Sanders and Stappers give an exhaustive definition: A workbook is a tool, typically in the form of a small book with exercises and assignments, containing text and images. The workbook can be used in different techniques, e.g., it can be sent to people who carry out the exercises and return the results by mail without the researcher having direct contact with them. In another technique, filling out the workbook is seen primarily as a way of preparing the participants for later activities. So even though the tools may have the same physical form, the manner in which they are used can differ. Such differences can have large consequences for the insights that are gained and for the way the design process gets informed or shaped. 1

The workbook is an open instrument whose meaning is reached in the in the interaction with participants. This type of interaction varies according to the project: it can be aimed to a mere compilation activity, it can include exercises or the space for reports. The way and the place in which participants are invited to interact with the tool can also vary: it can be used autonomously by participants or together with the facilitator, it can be used during the co-design sessions or in other moments of daily life.
Sleeswijk and colleagues (2005) see the workbook as a useful tool for participants to express themselves: they suggest to insert movable elements such as illustrated stickers and space for pictures and all that can make compilation more inviting for participants. Also Sanders and William (2003) underline the importance of practical exercises.
Hands-on exercises also can be included; these can be completed and brought to a meeting, or mailed back to you in advance (…). Assigning exercises ahead of time in workbooks can save time at the meeting, but it is important that you give enough workspace and clear instructions. Also, make exercises as interesting as possible to increase the chance of people completing them. 2

The workbook must be planned by the designer before the beginning of the lab: its content should fit in the type of experience.
The workbook devised for the editorial co-design lab is divided in five chapters used during the analysis phase and four for the designing phase. Each chapter is compose by one folded A3, so it could be use as binder for material gathered during the observation phase and for the final layout guidelines. More precisely the card-chapter open format is UNI A3 plus while when closed they can be inserted in a standard ring binder.
The three card-chapters in the analysis phase are about the document grid, typography formatting and the running header and footer. Each chapter includes the necessary minimum information to define the graphic element in analysis. The space to insert the observation exercise results is inside.
The first card-chapter of the design phase is the one containing the menabò. A small scale of all the estimated pages is proposed in the menabò together with the hypothesized number of pages for every section or article. The content definition is the first exercise concerning the project contents, no more the mere observation of other projects.
Three more cards-chapter characterize the designing phase. In these cards the basic elements of analysis phase are repeated: grid, typography, running header and footer. In the “Grid” card the base grid design is inserted together with examples of use. The cards “Typography” define the features of the chosen typefaces for the project, and the “Running header and footer” card contain the characteristics of the chosen running header and footer elements. During the lab a final card “Colours” is added where the colours characterizing each section, according to their CMYK values, are defined. These five final cards-chapter contain the fundamental features of the editorial project and can be used as manual of style during the layout phase.
The workbook I have worked out to support this laboratory has been inspired by the six steps of the universal education method: Learn, Repeat, Imitate, Translate, Decompose, Reset. The first phase of learning is the one in which the analyzed graphic element (learning and repeating) is defined and it coincides with the reading of the brief introductions proposed on the cards and discussion about them. The observation phase comes next (imitating and translating) in which the participants, through visual assonance and dissonance, look for the similar elements and the different ones, so as to work out a range f possible variables of the analyzed element. The designing phase consists in the decomposition of editorial project in small elements we later designed, aware of the possible variables for each of them. The use of this instrument has given rhythm to the laboratory and allowed the participants to quantify the work done also in the observation and analysis phases.

Scribus
In the layout phase we intend to use the free software Scribus Open Source Desktop Publishing. Thanks to the GNU distribution of this program the participants can experiment the use of a professional layout program: the high cost for the purchase of a proprietary software license for all participants is avoided. Beside the high cost that would in itself have stopped the laboratory realization, the use of a free software is an emancipating factor that should encourage all designers to use these tools in a co-design experience. The participants can install on their PC a copy of the program and then use the competence acquired during the lab and in case repeat the experience. The movement Free Software Foundation (FSF) gives anybody the possibility to use a professional software and to start setting up one’s own artefact environment.

  1. Sanders, Elizabeth B.-N., Stappers, Pieter Jan (2012), Convivial Toolbox: Generative Research for the Front End of Design, B/S Publisher, Amsterdam.
  2. Sanders, Elizabeth B.-N. and William, Colin T (2003), Harnessing People’s Creativity: Ideation and Expression through Visual Communication, in Joe Langford and Deana McDonagh (eds.) Focus Groups, Supporting Effective Product Development, Taylor & Francis, London.