Editing by Design
Professor Alex W. White has recently completed the fourth edition of his father Jan V. White’s book Editing By Design, which pioneered the influential philosophy of design as an editing process.
This is Alex’s eleventh book, and its backstory is the result of an amazing legacy from his father. The striking cover was adapted from a page in the first edition, with words crossed out to reveal the title. “I chose to cross out my own name on the cover,” says White. “Though I spent 14 months on it, it’s not my book, it’s his book.” It was a way of updating this classic for a new generation, while at the same time honoring family continuity and history.
Born in Prague in 1928, Jan V. White escaped the horrors of World War II in Wales, later getting degrees in architecture from Cornell University and Columbia University School of Architecture. Though fascinated by the three-dimensionality of architecture, he ended up working as an art director for the magazines Architectural Forum and House and Home until 1964, when he decided to become a freelance design consultant, opening a studio in Westport, Connecticut. He spent decades across the nation and around the world redesiging more than 200 publications and giving 1800 seminars on the relationship between graphic design and editing. His ideas about visual rhetoric, information hierarchy, and how word and picture people can work together in service of this message. His 1974 publication of Editing by Design was among the first books devoted to magazine design, and became an instant classic, translated into numerous languages and never out of print.
Alex was in college at the time, working on a BFA degree in Graphic Design from Kent State University and an MFA in Advertising Design from Syracuse University. “The truths in this book transcend the medium, transcend the technology,” says White. Then, a few years ago, their publisher asked them to collaborate on a much-changed 4th edition. However, after Jan died during surgery that year, Alex put the project to the side. “I wasn’t willing to get inside my father’s head at that time,” he says. The publisher kindly put it on hold, until finally Alex’s wife asked him: “When, if not now, are you thinking of doing it?” She encouraged him to start work on it again in 2019.
Using his father’s lecture notes, as well as the first three editions, White reorganized it into the “original state,” streamlining and modernizing for today’s readership. “It’s finding out how to make the puzzle pieces fit together,” says White. “But you also get to create the puzzle your way.” The updated edition includes a treasure-trove of practical tips and hundreds of illustrations. It provides solutions to various design problems, while reinforcing the main point, which is that design is a language all its own, working side by side with the written language of words. It remains an important book today, despite the rise of desktop publishing and web design.
Now that his father’s book has new life, White is working on a new edition of yet another book coming out next year, his own biggest seller, Elements of Graphic Design. “I just ran a marathon and now I’m running another one,” says White, laughing. While reflecting many of the precepts set down first by his father, the book is being expanded for a wider audience. The four elements of graphic design that this book covers are Space, Unity, Page Architecture, and Type. “After all, design is the lubricant of ideas,” he insists.
“I approach teaching in the same way as designing,” he says. “It must be a combination of doing and reading together. The combined process is important.”
White’s legacy will not only be as keeper of the flame that his father lit, but as inspiration for the thousands of students who have passed through his classes and have read and learned from his books. And that may be his most important project of all.