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Unity with Variety

By  Dec 15, 2010

Topics: Design

At last -- I found a way to combine my passion for design and my passion for Shakespeare! It also happens to be a good example of the basic design principle of repetition (or unity) with variety, or how fixed design boundaries don't limit your possibilities but can actually inspire design flexibility.

I started The Shakespeare Papers, "Shakespeare by design, a wee bit at a time." I noticed through years of teaching that the big issues, the big themes, the big books written about the Shakespearean works are overwhelming to most people. So each "paper" (a 20-page full-color printed booklet) focuses on one small topic. The Shakespeare Papers have won two Davey Awards (Silver and Gold) and an award from AIGA New Mexico for design excellence.

I do the research, the basic design, layout, and typography, and my partner, John Tollett, is not only instrumental in the design process, but also contributes most of the illustration and photography, and constantly has new and brilliant design solutions. 

We needed to develop a look that could carry through six different issues each year. We wanted a consistency, or unity, to the look so each issue, though completely redesigned, would obviously be part of the annual package. But we also wanted the freedom to play and experiment -- the variety.

So we set down several repetitive, fixed elements. The fixed elements provide a stable base from which we can deviate, but they tie together and create connections between all the booklets. The following examples illustrate this concept of "unity with variety."

The unity: The cover of each issue has the same color bar and reversed title along the left edge. The color overlaps a half-inch onto the back cover to color the thin spine.

The variety: Each one of the six issues per year uses a different color.

The unity: There are six themes each year. Each theme always uses the same color so as you collect the issues, you can organize them on your shelf according to theme.

The variety: Although each color is different, we used the tertiary colors of the color wheel so they have an underlying connection. The tertiary colors are those on either side of the primary colors of red, blue, and yellow.

The unity and the variety: With the strong underlying themes of color bar, color scheme (tertiary colors), and white (reversed) title, we can get away with completely redesigning the rest of the cover for each issue and still maintain a consistent look.

The unity: With each issue, the subscriber opens the booklet and is greeted with a familiar layout and familiar text (a common feature, of course, in any periodical) that includes copyright information and an introduction to the theme of this issue. 

After the opening spread, the familiarity ends—we can get away with this because of the repetitive elements that provide a consistent base.

The unity: In each issue we use an underlying vertical grid structure so the pages within the issue have a consistent structure. Whether or not you actually notice that in the final printed page, the invisible structure is there, providing a stability throughout each piece.

I can’t tell you how satisfying it is -- on several levels -- to create each issue of The Shakespeare Papers!

Notes from John:
You'll find more information about The Shakespeare Papers and how you can subscribe to them at Most people know Robin as a graphic designer, Mac expert, teacher, and author, but did you know: she's also currently a PhD candidate and teaching Shakespeare studies at Brunel University in London; she leads two Shakespeare reading groups, gives presentations about Shakespearean Authorship, has given presentations five times at the Globe Theater in London to the Authorship Conference, is an Honorary Board member of the London Shakespearean Authorship Trust, and is the first American to earn a postgrad degree in Shakespearean Authorship. And we both have spent the night in sleeping bags on the Globe Theatre stage, with candles and pigeons and Mark Rylance.

Robin gives a Shakespeare presentation during a Shakespeare At Sea Cruise.