It takes more than visuals to carry a theme

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Colors. Graphics. Typography. Working together, this trio makes it easy to visualize a theme. But there’s more to
theme development than pretty colors and fonts. A theme should be showcased throughout the book—visually, verbally and conceptually.

To help your staff develop the theme, we’ve compiled a series of questions. For this post, we’ll focus on five of those questions. To see the whole list in more detail, download the Theme Questions PowerPoint or the video version, both available on StudioBalfour.

We recommend pondering these questions in a class discussion and having a Google Doc open for everyone to record answers. This will allow shyer students to still participate and everyone to witness additions as they happen.


What is new, different or noteworthy this year?
This question often drives the theme chosen and that’s true more than ever this year. But the query also lends itself to meaningful content. New teachers and administrators can lead to people profiles; construction and schedule changes can become entire spreads. As many schools juggle remote learning and hybrid instruction, those challenges will make valuable academic coverage. The noteworthy topics will become modules or full double-page spreads.

This 2019 spread from Inglemoor High School showcases six changes that school year. This format might inspire your design if you have numerous noteworthy topics that don’t individually warrant their own spreads.

What are students talking about?
Sup? There’s ridiculous amounts of stuff happening locally, national and globally. What’s piqued your students’ interest? From a pop culture perspective, it could be entertainment-related, like TikTok, Disney+ or Folklore. The latest fads and trends also make compelling content and are easy to create from a distance.

Current events may also play a role in your book’s coverage. Whether your staffs wants to cover the summer protests, the election, or another national event, consider if the coverage deserves space in your book. Also, don’t forget about the local angle—what’s happening in your city, favorite hangouts and restaurants, etc.

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Trend spreads like this one from Vista Ridge High School, are ideal for featuring pop culture and fashion, especially in virtual learning situations. Staffers can easily photograph objects at home, cut them out and gather quotes via email, text, IM and video.

What other coverage ideas connect to the theme? 
In addition to noteworthy and water cooler topics, also brainstorm content ideas that relate to your theme. Profile spreads are ideal for theme content. For example, the theme “Take Note” could include a spread featuring students with exceptional talents. For their 2018 theme “unabridged,” the Vista Ridge staff created several pages related to the whole-story theme, including an A-Z layout, a visual timeline of game day and an unexpected connections spread.

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For their “We see green & white” theme, Venice High School included this theme-centric spread. The eight profiles display students of all walks of life, with different passions and stories.


What phrases play off the theme verbally?
Verbal theme development is one of the easiest ways to connect to the theme, but often the most missed opportunity. Think about word play, using literary devices like puns and rhymes, to form witty phrases and connections. For example, a “Loud & Clear” theme might use onomatopoeia to create headlines associated with sounds (Tweet away, Boom! Crash & burn). A few years ago, an “absolutely unsure” theme at Liberty High School featured oxymorons for several of the headlines.

Also, think literally about playing off the words, using at least one part of the theme phrase to create catchy headlines. For their “What You Make of It” theme, the Rock Canyon staff used headlines like “What made it to the feed” for a social media spread and “Make it your own” for an interactive fill-in-the-blank spread.

After brainstorming ideas with staffs, look at the suggestions and figure out which ones work best for module headlines or main spread headlines. Some verbiage may even spawn innovative content ideas.

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Every headline on this Rock Canyon High School spread verbally connects to their “What You Make of It” theme.

What are other ways to say the theme?
The second verbal question concentrates on phrases that reinforce the theme without repeating the verbiage. Think synonyms and equivalent phrases that express the theme in other words. (Two websites that are particularly helpful: and The phrases become headlines and provide subtle touches to the theme throughout the book. The Suncoast staff used this approach throughout their book; headlines like “Leaving a legacy,” “Stand for change,” “Meet the leaders” and “Making miracles” promote the “Impact” theme without repeating the signature word.

Ready to brainstorm?
If you’ve never asked these questions when developing your theme, we encourage you to try it this year. We believe you’ll find that it expands and supports your concept, taking your theme to a whole new level. Because we all know it’s about more than color, graphics and typography.

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