BY MATTHEW BIRCHARD

My job as General Manager does not bestow upon me a designer’s credentials; however a decade spent looking over the shoulders of talented co-workers has taught me much about what goes into good design and layout.   My first lesson in design came long before I chose Marketing as a profession; it was given to me in high school.

I was a sophomore, the year was 1992 (I’ll do the math for you, I’m 33).  I enrolled in the yearbook class as the only sophomore on a staff composed of Juniors and Seniors.  Back then, and I’m sure this is still true today, Jostens ruled the yearbook publishing business.  At the beginning of the year, a  Jostens representative came and spoke to the class about what makes for a memorable yearbook and he shared with us what was to be my first real lesson in design: “The Importance of  The Gutter.”

The gutter is the center of a two-page spread, where the pages meet. In most printing, two pages are actually one sheet of paper, folded in the middle and bound with other pages into a signature for a book or gathered and affixed with staples for a brochure or other bindery method. When working with a page layout in the design phase, this entire two page spread is typically flat, giving the designer a view as if the book or brochure were open.

Cutting Edge in 1992.Cutting Edge in 1992.

For yearbook class we used blue grid paper in large pads for layout – imagine if you will something akin to a calendar desk pad.  These blue grids where supplied by Jostens and had the pages laid out in actual size, on a pica grid with areas designated at the top for a header, bottom for the “folio” (page number), and the all important gutter down the middle.  When designing on these blue pages, we just drew boxes for photos and spots for text.  This gave us the basis for a layout we would then set up in Aldus PageMaker (prior to the 1994 merger of Aldus and Adobe) on the handful of prized Macintosh Classic II computers the school had.

The long-forgotten Josten’s rep spoke to our small class about the power and responsibility we had as yearbook creators; how we were memorializing our time in high school and how impactful these years would be to our young lives.  His tale took a cautionary tone when he began to speak of the technical aspects of the design process.  Using a blue grid sheet to illustrate, he told us the story of how one hapless school had to spend thousands of dollars to reprint all of their yearbooks after a small technical error involving the gutter turned out to be a huge gaff.

Every high school has a Homecoming Dance and/or Football game.  There is an expected two page spread in every yearbook in America because it is built up to be a social event second only to the Prom.  The practice still stands to elect a king and queen for Homecoming, typically doing nothing more than reinforcing the high school social pecking order.  For the hapless school in our Jostens rep’s story, the Homecoming spread and the gutter were at the center (pun intended) of the gaff.

An innocent headline, which read; “Homecoming Queen” was run too close to the gutter on the left hand page, and when the yearbook was bound, the last bit of the right hand edge of the headline was lost within the spine of the book.  This was the result:

Doesn't Quite Read as "Queen".Doesn’t Quite Read as “Queen”.

Yep.  “Homecoming Queer,” adjacent to a large photo of a smiling high school student.  The odd nuance of lowercase English characters and the required margin needed for the space between pages when a book is casebound caused an “n” to read as an “r.”  If ever there was a reason to reprint yearbooks, this would be it.

And that is the brief cautionary tale of “The Importance of The Gutter.”