Marie McFadden is an associate art director at Ancestry.com. She designed most of the country backgrounds in AncestryPress, as well as the “Photo Book for Mom” theme. In an interview with Stefanie Condie, Marie offers guidelines for creating a book that will make a lasting impression on your family and friends.
SC: If I’m creating an AncestryPress book, how can I use embellishments to enhance a page without overwhelming it or detracting from the family history information?
MM: I would say the first thing you want to do is make sure your embellishments match. If you already have a lot of information on your page, you might want to use fewer embellishments. But don’t be afraid to manipulate them so that they enhance the elements you already have on the page and bring them to life. If you have a lot of photos on the page and you don’t have room for a lot of embellishments, you can use embellishments to accent the photo corners. They won’t detract from the photo if they all match and they go with the background.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. Try combining two or three embellishments. You can layer the elements on a page and place an embellishment behind something so that only part of the embellishment is showing. You can use an embellishment by itself on one page and combine it with something else on the opposite page, so that each page has a unique look, and yet the two pages match.
SC: Should I have a consistent look and feel for each page type? For example, should all the family tree pages look the same?
MM: When I did a family history book, I wanted some consistency between all the timeline pages and all the family tree pages. The timeline pages didn’t look exactly alike, but they all had the same background, so I knew it was a timeline page. And then to differentiate between a woman and a man, I would put the same feminine tag on all the women’s pages and a more masculine tag on all the men’s pages.
SC: So you’re using the embellishments and backgrounds not just to make the page more visually interesting, but also to help orient the reader.
MM: Right. You don’t have to do it that way, obviously, but sometimes it’s nice to have a little bit of consistency when you have so much going on and so much information.
SC: What should I keep in mind when I’m selecting a background for a particular chart or image?
MM: You have to think about what’s on your page. If there are a lot of photos, are they all in color or are they black-and-white? Think about the other information on the page as well. We have several country backgrounds that are perfect if you’re highlighting an ancestor from a specific country. But you want to be careful that you don’t make your images so large that you’re filling up the whole page and you can’t even see the background.
SC: So if you have a large image you should use a more subtle background that doesn’t have a lot going on.
MM: Right, or maybe a background that has repeating patterns. And if you have a lot of text on your page, you don’t want to use a busy background. If you have a page that’s just photos, or just a photo and a caption, that’s where you could use a background that has a little more movement. But if you have a ton of information, it’s going to be better if you have a simple background so that your information really shines and it’s not competing with the background.
When you’re doing a book, it’s also good to think about what you’re going to have on both pages of a spread. Pick backgrounds that go together. If you have a really busy background on one page, I would go with a more subtle background on the opposite page. The page with the simple background functions like white space—it gives the reader’s eye a little bit of a break. The simple background is probably highlighting the information better, but the more elaborate background is probably a more of a “hero.” Because they work together as a spread, you’re going to have a balancing effect.
SC: So people really should be thinking more in terms of spreads rather than individual pages?
MM: I think both, because you want to concentrate on one page and make sure you get it just right. When you get one page done, you can play off that design in your next page. So in that regard, yes, you’re going to think about the spread. But you don’t want to overwhelm yourself. It can be overwhelming for some people to think about two pages at one time.
SC: Is it OK to mix color photos and black-and-white photos?
MM: There are going to be cases where you want to mix photos. My preference would be to stick with all color or all black-and-white on a particular page. It harmonizes a lot better. But that’s not going to work every single time.
SC: Most people, as they get further back in their family history, have fewer and fewer photos. How can I add visual interest to timelines and family group sheets if I don’t have any photos of those ancestors?
MM: You try to find maps or embellishments that are consistent with the rest of your book. And then really embellish the one photo you do have, or highlight the little bit of information you do have. Try to find generic images, like a historical postcard or maybe a document from the country the person was born in.
SC: Do you have any advice about formatting text for family history charts and photo captions?
MM: If you want to spice it up a little bit, don’t be afraid to play with color. You can do a lot with color, but you don’t want to go overboard. For instance, on a family tree, you could use dark green text for the men and pink text for the women. Use a complementary pink that matches some of the embellishments throughout the rest of the book, so it doesn’t look like you’re just picking random colors. Or you could decide that all the men on one side of the family are going to be in green and all the men on the other side are going to be in blue, so that you have a pattern.
SC: So there again you’re orienting the reader.
MM: Right. But it also adds a little bit of color to the page, because most of your pictures are going to be in black-and-white if you’re doing a family tree. In that case it’s nice to add some color. If you have color photos you probably would want to stick with black text.
SC: Would you recommend that people pick one font and stick with it throughout the whole book?
MM: I definitely would. I know it’s exciting to use different fonts because you think it’s going to add more variety to your book. But I would use one font for your headlines and titles, and then I would pick a nice, very readable font for your body copy so that it’s consistent and it looks nice and people can read it. Or you can use the same font for everything and just do your headlines and titles in capital letters, so that it still has the same look and feel. Capital letters are a great way to differentiate between a headline and body copy. Italics work great for sub-lines, because you’re using the same text but it’s a little bit different.
SC: How can I make a census record or other historical record interesting and meaningful to someone who isn’t familiar with historical records?
MM: The first thing you want people to see is the name of your ancestor. So you want to include the whole record, but you can also duplicate it and then crop and resize the copy and place it on top of the original record. You want to expand the row where the person’s name is so that people can see it and read it. You can also play with the color options or drag over a highlighter to call attention to the person’s name.
I would put a frame around the record, because most of the time the edges are uneven. Crop the record as close as you can and put a frame on it so you don’t have those uneven black edges. A lot of the images need to be rotated too, because they were scanned a little bit crooked. So don’t be afraid to crop and rotate. You really can make the image look better and it isn’t that hard to do.
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NOTE: AncestryPress is now MyCanvas
In October 2008, AncestryPress was relaunched under the name MyCanvas. It is still a free, online software program provided by Ancestry.com. For current information about products and features, please see my more recent blog posts.