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Avoid a page of pizza

So you want to create your own publication. As more people learn basic desktop publishing, developing an awareness of good design is perhaps more important than ever - if you want to attract any readers, that is.

A budding designer should start by considering a publication's size and appearance. This will be mainly influenced by budget restrictions, but also by the purpose of going into print and your intended audience. Money will also determine the number of pages and colours used.

It is crucial to have a clear view of how the editorial content will be organised. Getting the right "flow" and changes in pace from page to page is very important as it will help to maintain the readers' interest. A well thought out plan, like a good referee, will be invisible.

The design elements help give a publication its character and life. You only need to look at the different approaches adopted by newspapers. The Independent (using colour and a strong commitment to good quality images displayed big) is light years away from the Daily Star - professionally produced, but with colour panels and graded tones (shades) all over the place. Each design helps to reflect the editorial tone.

Taste and fashion will influence some elements. A basic discipline is to apply a grid to a page. Once the grid is established, the fun starts - you can break the rules, using "bastard" (irregular) measure so that not all items on a page, - pictures or text - conform to the grid. But don't overdo it - the controlled elements give you the foundations to be wilder in other areas, helping to add surprise, shock and visual entertainment for the reader. Getting the balance between control and "breaking away" is the key.

Typographic discipline is paramount. In the days of hot metal, type had a physical size. Today we live in an anarchistic age of "rubber" type. Layout programs enable type to be manipulated, giving the designer scope to create character and life by stretching and squeezing a typeface. Used occasionally it is fine, but stretching and squeezing to fit as a matter of course is lazy: a distorted face loses its proportions and impact.

Different type weights (roman, bold, extra bold) will help give a page essential light and shade. Rules and borders can provide identity, as does the use of space. An area of white can calm things down, signalling a slower read but, used badly, it looks like the words do not fit.

You don't have to spend a lot of time and money. The layout of photocopied pages should be as well-considered as for a four-colour process job. A layout program with ready-made templates is fine as a starting point, but at some stage you will have to fly by yourself.

In a larger environment, more people will be involved. They may not all share the same interest and ability. The most enthusiastic person may control the layout computer, but there is no guarantee that he or she is the most talented.

Everyone has a contribution to make, but needs to realise that their thoughts are likely to reflect their taste rather than what is actually required. They have to respect the role of the designer, who has to work directly to senior production staff or an editor for the best results. Otherwise, style slips and the four-headed horse reigns supreme.

Design gives a printed page its character and helps communication by allowing the words to live and breathe. Use it wisely and clearly - and have fun.

The writer is head of design at Times Supplements

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