“Editorial design is the art of storytelling, and DJ’s brand of it is uniquely American. Western American. It starts out slow and builds. It wins you with a bit of humility (almost ‘shucks-gee-whiz’) and then comes back at you with a surprise punch. The pacing and analogies feel like a Will Rogers narrative. . . . When he first began presenting his work to his London Pentagram partners, they thought he could have just as easily been from the moon. But the storytelling was so strong, so funny, so completely designed but guileless at the same time that the Londoners, and the rest of us, found ourselves confronted with something real, authoritative, and probably definable only as pure American Graphic Design.”
—Paula Scher, from the introduction
An internationally renowned graphic designer and partner in Pentagram, the world’s most famous graphic design firm, DJ Stout is a fifth-generation Texan whose strong sense of place has inspired his design work for over thirty-five years. His contributions to Texas Monthly, where he was art director for thirteen years, helped the magazine win three National Magazine Awards. American Photo magazine named Stout one of its “100 Most Important People in Photography,” and I.D. (International Design) magazine selected him for “The I.D. Fifty,” its annual listing of design innovators. The Society of Illustrators honored Stout with the national Richard Gangel Art Director Award, and he was made a Fellow of the Austin chapter of the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) for his lifetime achievements.
Variations on a Rectangle presents both a career retrospective of DJ Stout’s work and his inimitable, often humorous perspectives on publication design. Using nearly eight hundred images to illustrate more than two hundred fifty major design projects, Stout describes the inspiration and creative process behind his highly innovative designs for magazines, books, brochures, posters, and even a fiberglass “batcow.” He tells fascinating, behind-the-scenes stories of Texas personalities such as Tommy Lee Jones, Sissy Spacek, and Ann Richards, who figured prominently in Texas Monthly’s pages, while also discussing how his Texas heritage has influenced his more recent design work US and international clients. An essential primer for younger graphic designers and a revelation for everyone who values exceptional design, Variations on a Rectangle proves Stout’s maxim, “A publication without style is just a document, and documents don’t do well on the newsstand. And that’s why you need editorial art directors. Amen.”
Variations on a Rectangle
How I learned to think inside the box
I started making my first variations on a rectangle when I was seven or eight years old. What I was doing was drawing comic strips, in long horizontal rectangles, and single cartoon panels contained in boxy rectangles, and then I would compose all my drawings on several vertical rectangles. I took half a dozen sheets of standard typing paper and interleaved the pages with carbon paper. Pressing down furiously with a pencil, I could get several impressions of my comics at a time, and just like that, I had multiple copies to hand out to friends and neighbors. Technology!
We moved a lot when I was growing up, and I drew my cartoons wherever we landed. After a while my comic pages evolved into a neighborhood newspaper of sorts. My career Marine father had been a sports correspondent in college, so he was amused by my early forays into journalism. He would help me write, or mostly write, the copy for my neighborhood newspaper on his typewriter. My paper, The Weekly Laf, featured an irregular mix of neighborhood news and goofy kid humor. The front page always led off with a drawing of “Walter Concrete” sitting at The Weekly Laf news desk. A cascade of misspelled words, including the newspaper’s hand-drawn masthead, usually surrounded my anchorman, who was frequently throwing the peace sign. I had spelled “Laugh” as “Laf ” on purpose but had accidentally left out the letter L in “Weekly,” so the name of the paper ended up as The Weeky Laf.
By the sixth grade I was reproducing The Weekly Laf on a rudimentary printing machine my dad bought me at the mall. It involved a hot pad and heat-sensitive paper, and it smelled like burning flesh once it really started cooking. The device created an unappealing dark purplish line quality complemented by a smoky yellow-tinted paper stock. My neighborhood newspaper intrigued my uncle Harold, who operated a Linotype machine for a printing company, so he set some type and mailed it to me with suggestions on how to upgrade the appearance of my paper. He sent me what he called a “slick,” which was a piece of paper with type set on it. It included a new, more formal masthead for my publication, which my uncle rebranded The Weekly News and Laf, and several department headings, like Sports, News, and Weather, set in a variety of typefaces. He instructed me to brush “rubber cement” on the back of the slick and to cut out each heading with an X-acto knife. Then he explained how to do a “paste-up” in order to make a “mechanical” that was “printer-ready.”
I didn’t understand any of it. The concept of a paste-up was beyond me, and I had never heard of rubber cement. I didn’t understand that I was supposed to cut out all the typeset department headings to use in the corresponding sections of my paper. So I took the slick in its entirety, with the fancy new masthead and all the different headings, stuck it to the top of the front page with Elmer’s Glue, and then drew all the department headings by hand, just as I had done before. It was my first publication redesign, and it was a total flop.
When a new edition of The Weekly Laf was completed, I’d take my paper door-to-door and hand it out for free. The neighbors didn’t know what to make of the new boy on the block with his self-published newspaper. I’m sure they thought I was selling magazine subscriptions or boxes of candy for a school fund-raiser. I rang the doorbell, introduced myself, and began telling them about my paper. At first they were suspicious, but gradually their eyes would light up and a knowing little smile would emerge. And just like that, I wasn’t a stranger anymore. I was more than just the new boy down the street. I was interesting, I was talented, I was a journalist, and I had found that one thing in life I loved to do more than anything else.
My dad was transferred every year, and I continued to make my little newspapers in every new town and neighborhood where my family ended up. In junior high I started an unsanctioned publication, an underground newspaper really, that was composed of news I mostly made up. The principal quickly shut that one down. At both colleges I attended—James Madison University, and then Texas Tecwh University—I was on the staff of the school paper. After college I worked for a corporate communications firm in Dallas, and eventually I made it to Austin, in 1987, where I was art director of Texas Monthly for thirteen years.
One day at the magazine, around 1998, I got a call from a woman who told me she had been in my eighth-grade class in the early 1970s but she doubted I would remember her. She said she had several copies of The C House Weekly that she wanted me to see. I was stunned. I hadn’t heard anyone utter the name of that little school newspaper in more than twenty-five years. I agreed to meet her for lunch, and she was right—I didn’t remember her at all. She told me how in 1970 her family had moved to Hanscom Field, the same Air Force base in Bedford, Massachusetts, where my family had moved that year, and how she had gone to the small school on the base, called C House, that I had attended. C House was a cluster of only four classrooms with four eighth-grade teachers who taught social studies, English, science, and math. I had started a newspaper at the beginning of the year, brilliantly titled The C House Weekly, for which I had assembled a crack team of editorial contributors.
My social studies teacher at C House, Mr. McCall, was a classic sixties-era hippie and popular with the students. He was also the sponsor of The C House Weekly and the little newspaper’s biggest supporter. He could really draw, too, and I was envious of the single cartoon panel called “Cousin Wendell’s Column” that he drew for the paper every week. I labored over my comic strip, “Funny Fairy Tales,” and a fake advice column called “Dear, Naggy” for days, and then Mr. McCall would dash off his polished cartoon in the few minutes he had between classes. He also arranged for us to print The C House Weekly on a mimeograph machine, the kind of printer that tests were reproduced on at that time. The mimeograph printed blue ink with a pungent odor that every school kid knew and loved.
The other teachers at C House thought our little school rag was the greatest thing they had ever seen. Our prim and proper English teacher, Mrs. Rieske, gave poetry and writing assignments for publication in the paper; our nerdy math teacher, Mr. Wong, contributed math teasers; and even our no-nonsense science teacher, Mr. Cederlund, pitched in a column called “Amazing Science Facts.” My editorial staff was made up of a handful of friends. Chuck MacWilliams was our sports reporter and drew a weekly cartoon; my buddy Rex Snider wrote “The Churchly News”; and our hippie-dippy classmate Nancy Roubideaux did “The C House Fashion Revu.” Her fashion tips were timely and so early 1970s: “sew peace signs and ecology patches to your bell-bottom jeans,” “wear peasant dresses and sandals made from old tire treads,” and “tie long scarves and bandanas around your head.”
By the time I met up with my former C House classmate for lunch that day in 1998, I had managed to lose most of my copies of The C House Weekly. The few issues I had were torn and dog-eared. After we were seated in the restaurant, the woman handed me a large envelope and when I opened it, out poured a year’s worth of lost memories. She had saved every single issue of The C House Weekly, and there they were, like messages in a bottle, spilled out across the table. I sat there silent for a few moments, staring at the mysterious woman across the table. Why in the world would somebody save every issue of an obscure little newspaper that I made back in the eighth grade?
Then she went on to tell me a story I will never forget. Her sister had died in a car crash in 1970, just before the school year started. Her tight-knit family was completely devastated, and they were still reeling from the tragedy when they moved to Hanscom Field. She had been a shy girl anyway, but when school began at C House that year, she was so sad and shocked by the sudden loss of her sister that she showed up for classes but never said a word. She wandered the halls like a ghost. She told me she had made some small contributions to The C House Weekly during that year, but she had mostly just observed and envied our little publishing enterprise from afar. She admired the group of friends and teachers I had assembled to publish the paper every week, my “editorial staff,” and she had yearned to be a part of it.
When I got up to leave, she handed me the packet of little lost newspapers and told me to keep them. She had held on to those copies of The C House Weekly for a long time, but now she was in a better place. It had been a lengthy and painful struggle, but she was finally happy again. She wanted me to have the copies now. And then I realized that this mysterious visitor from another time hadn’t held on to those issues of The C House Weekly for twenty-eight years because she thought it was brilliant journalism or a good read to take to the beach. She had held on to them because each issue was the compilation of the budding skills and clumsy efforts of a bunch of eighth-grade kids. A band of friends making something together whom she had longed to talk to, laugh with, and create with—but back then she just couldn’t do it.
I was the new kid on the first day of school every single year. The teacher would call out “Doyle Erwin Stout, Jr.” during roll call, and I’d raise my hand to explain that I preferred my nickname, DJ, short for Doyle Junior. That annual pronouncement, usually accompanied by an outburst of snickering from the class, always made me feel like I had a giant wart growing on the end of my nose. The new-kid syndrome was a major part of my psyche growing up, but wherever we moved I always put together a newspaper, or joined an existing publication, so I could be a part of an editorial staff. A staff was a way for me to make instant friends: It was support, a team working toward a common goal, and—most importantly—it was a family.
I’ve always said that a publication is like a family; sometimes it’s a dysfunctional family, but it’s a family just the same. In my magazine redesign work at Pentagram (I became a partner in 2000), the first thing we determine when we start a project is who all the publication’s “family” members are. Who is the demanding dad, the sister who keeps everything on track, the mother who gets everything done; where’s the problem child (usually the designer), the golden boy, the crazy uncle? There is something wonderful and comforting about a publication family. It is often the case that members of a magazine staff will end up spending more time with one another than with their real families at home. The Weekly Laf, The C House Weekly, Texas Monthly, and the various other publications, all the variations on a rectangle that I’ve been involved with over the years, have brought joy to my life, but more importantly, they were an excuse to be a part of an editorial staff. The staff has always been THE thing.
This book is about publication design, but it is also a tribute to the talented designers, interns, writers, editors, copyeditors, publishers, photographers, illustrators, coordinators, printers, paper reps, Pentagram partners—and all the editorial staffs I’ve had the great privilege to be a part of. You are my family.