Thorough planning is key to the efficient production of any print project, ensuring that resources are used effectively and deadlines met – and making the whole process easier and less stressful for those involved.

It is much better to plan properly than to fix problems on the run: planning can be done early in the production process when time is relatively free, and if mistakes are made or problems occur the time can be taken to solve them. Later in the production cycle, as the print deadline approaches, time is tighter. The quickest, easiest solution to a problem might have to be adopted – rather than the best. So ‘fire fighting’ always has a negative impact on the quality of the publication.

There are many ways of planning and managing print projects including sophisticated editorial content management systems, but a simple system can be established using three documents: the content plan, the flatplan and the production schedule.

Content plan: choosing the right content

Content planDownload an example content plan (pdf file)
Download a blank content plan (xls file)

The content plan helps to plan the content of a publication and to monitor the production process. In this case it divides content into important areas:

  • News which may include other highly topical material eg events calendars
  • Regulars including cover, contents page(s), letters, regular columns etc
  • Features in this case meaning other editorial not covered above
  • Ads both paid advertising and house ads

The sections might vary depending on the type of publication.

The articles or items in each section are listed and each one allocated a number of pages and a responsible staffer. The columns labeled ‘copy’, ‘pics’, ‘layout’ ‘sub’ and ‘PDF’ are tickboxes to show progress of the item through the production process.

Normally an approximate number of pages for each section will be determined before the content is planned in detail. The ‘weight’ of news compared to features or features (ie one-offs) compared to regulars will make a significant difference to the character of the publication.

With the relative sizes of the sections decided, content can then be planned into each of the sections. At this stage it is the type of content and the space allocated to it which is important – not its position within the publication.

Flatplan: knowing what goes where

flatplanDownload an example flatplan (pdf file)
Download a blank flatplan (xls file)

Once the space allocated to each editorial item is known, the positions of the items within the publication can be decided – a process called ‘flatplanning’.

The flatplan is a representation of the whole publication, with one box for each page. Note that the example shows the pages in double-page spreads – flatplans are not always laid out this way, but it makes it easier to see which pages face each other. Each editorial page has a short description of the content. Blank boxes are ads.

Considerations when flatplanning:

  • ‘Hard’ points Pages which cannot be moved; eg cover must be p1, centre spread (which may be used for a pull-out section, poster, wallplanner etc) is on two specific pages
  • Running order Commonly a magazine will start with news and maybe some regulars (eg columns), have features in the middle, more regulars (eg letters) near the back, then advertising, perhaps with a last-page column. But some magazines might start with a big feature, or with editorial and letters. The permutations are endless.
  • Pace The rate at which new items are presented to the reader as they turn the pages. Multi-page layouts (typically features) are slow-paced; lots of stories on a DPS (eg news layouts) produces a fast pace. Varying pace by splitting up big features with smaller items, often regulars such as letters pages and columns, can avoid monotony and lead to a livelier product.
  • Facing pages Items on one page, or which begin or end with a single page rather than a DPS, will be facing some other material – another editorial item or an advert. It’s important to ensure that whatever this other item is, it does not clash with the editorial page – in its visual style or its meaning (in other words: is that full-page ad for an undertaker appropriate facing the Obituaries page?)

It may be impossible to reconcile all these issues and at the same time accommodate all the planned editorial items and all the advertising requirements (eg for ads in special positions or facing editorial). Changes may need to be made to the content plan (eg changing the number of pages allocated to a feature) following which the flatplan can be revised. This back-and-forth process, which may include consultation and negotiation with publishing management and the advertising sales team, continues until the flatplan is complete.

It is important to iron out problems at this stage, as changes later (when pages have been laid out) is more difficult and more time-consuming. Flatplan changes should be kept to a minimum.

Production Schedule: making it happen

Production schedule

Download an example production schedule (pdf file)
Download a blank production schedule (xls file)

Production of any sizable print publication is about managing resources. For instance, there will be a limited number of staff whose role includes final subbing of page layouts and the pace at which they can work is finite. Work must flow to these subs throughout the production period of the publication at a rate they can manage. If an article goes to the subs late, they will have more work than they can cope with and the print deadline may be missed.

To identify these bottlenecks and attempt to resolve them, a production schedule can be used. The example shown has days and dates across the top and page numbers down the left side. On the right-hand side there is a set of tickboxes like those on the content plan, to keep track of progress.

For each page, staff initials can be inserted under the appropriate day to show a deadline. The example shows that generic terms like ‘sub’ can also be used – though this can mask problems (see below).

In the example shown staff member ‘AG’ has been given a deadline of Friday 29 January to finish copy for the news pages (pp4-5). Reading down the column for that day we can check whether that the same staffer has another deadline – and we can see that AG is also scheduled to finish the copy for a feature (pp30-31) on that same day. If both jobs are not achievable within one day, one of those deadlines must be moved. The schedule shows us where a problem lies and gives us a chance to do something about it ahead of time.

If ‘AG’ also happens to be the main sub editor, there is a further problem, which is less easy to spot – pages 6 and 7 are due to be subbed that day. Problems like this are more difficult to spot when generics like 'sub' are used on the schedule.

This example assumes the publication is a monthly magazine. As production cycles become shorter – for weekly or daily titles – so the cycles for successive issues overlap to a greater and greater degree, making the management of the production process more complex – and effective control of the process all the more important.