Across the country, millions of home-business owners are forced to lead undercover lives. They are justifiably fearful that if they operate in the open and inform their neighbors or local authorities of their business, they could run up against local zoning laws that prohibit such enterprises.
This was aptly demonstrated during a recent Home-Based Business Expo, at Elgin Community College, near Chicago. About 60 entrepreneurs chose to list only their phone numbers–not addresses–in the Expo’s directory. “Some of them are doing business in ‘no home business’ zoning districts,” said Hilma Nelson, a work-at-home graphic designer who lives in an area of Elgin that allows such home-based business activity. She is also founder of the Home-Based Business Owners’ Group, the sponsor of the expo. “People don’t want to be found out,” Nelson said.
The city of Elgin, like many other communities across the country, is now engaged in an ongoing debate about liberalizing its home-business ordinance to permit homebased businesses in previously restricted zones, but such a move is not without controversy. Residents fear that permitting home businesses could disrupt the tranquillity of residential neighborhoods and turn them into commercial zones.
Among the issues the Elgin City Council has grappled with are how many people can be allowed to visit a home office in a day and how many vehicles can be used in conjunction with a home-based business. The proposed wording is, “No more than eight visitors associated with the residential-based occupation shall be allowed within a 24-hour period. No more than two such visitors shall be allowed to visit at the same time.”
As to vehicles, the council has proposed “No more than one motor vehicle shall be used in connection with a residential occupation,” and “Such vehicle shall be limited to customary and traditional private passenger motor vehicles.”
“These kinds of rules make no sense to me,” said Terri Murphy, a Realtor in Chicago, who works from home herself. “My mother has more people than that coming over for coffee.”
Nevertheless, concern over traffic was the main reason Evelyne Simon, a management consultant, was recently put out of business. Last year, as she began setting up her home office in New Rochelle, New York, a suburb of New York City, some neighbors started to complain about increased traffic and parking around her house. The city’s zoning commission informed Simon that since there was no provision for a management consultant in the city’s home-business ordinance, she would have to shut down.
New Rochelle’s ordinance, which was written in 1921 and underwent a major revision in 1955, does allow for the offices and studios of architects, artists, lawyers, doctors, milliners, as well as dance and music instructors.
Simon’s attorney argued before the zoning commission that a management consultant “would certainly affect the neighborhood far less than the practice of physicians, lawyers, and dentists who are regularly visited by patients and clients, and music and dance instructors who are explicitly permitted groups of four students.”
Even the city’s director of buildings, Louis Goodman, concedes that the code needs updating. “With archaic businesses such as milliners still on the books,”
says Goodman, “obviously the code needs to better reflect the times.”
In the past, municipalities like New Rochelle used a laundry list of permitted occupations. With advances in technology and the creativity of home-business operators, it is practically impossible to predict what new professions might arise. As a result, most new ordinances simply set standards for how large a business can be and what effect it can have on a neighborhood.
The Simon case, which is still pending, highlights the evolving nature of home business and its impact on zoning issues, as such disputes are taking place in large and small cities across the country.
CHICAGO AND L.A.: WARMING UP
The city of Chicago technically prohibits all home business. It allows only professional consultation or emergency treatment in home offices. The reality is that full-time businesses are in operation in residential areas all over the city. “Lots of people operate businesses regardless of what the ordinance says,” said Graham C. Grady, the city’s zoning administrator. “It’s rarely enforced unless a neighbor complains.”
In the last few years, a growing constituency began asking the city to liberalize the law. Spearheading the effort was Ida Bialik, owner of the Women in Business Yellow Pages of Metro Chicago. “The people I talk to don’t want to hide anymore,” she says. “At first the city was totally unresponsive, but once Illinois Bell started allowing employees to work from home, the city knew that the work environment had changed dramatically.”
She and others eventually managed to persuade the zoning department to rewrite its ordinance to allow a wide variety of home businesses with certain limitations. A draft of the proposed ordinance is now circulating to interested parties for their input. It is expected to go before the city council as this article goes to press.
Similarly, Los Angeles, often considered to be on the cutting edge of social and political issues, has been slow to condone home businesses. “Right now nothing is permitted, except doctors’ offices on a part-time basis,” said Patricia Ialongo, a Los Angeles city-planning associate. A proposal to change the ordinance “has been in the hands of upper management for some time,” Ialongo says. “And it applies only to single-family zones. We left out multiple zones [those with apartment buildings] because we believe those areas are dense enough now.”
Many homeowner groups have opposed the proposal, believing it will turn neighborhoods into commercial zones. To prevent this, communities sometimes set standards on how a building’s appearance can be altered. Some ordinances, such as those in Bellevue, Washington, and Mount Prospect, Illinois, forbid signs or any other indication that business is being conducted inside. Other municipalities, such as Eau Claire, Wisconsin, limit the owner to one sign, no bigger than one square foot, mounted flush against the wall or visible through a window. The sign may not be illuminated.
According to a report on home business by the American Planning Association, an ideal ordinance should be flexible enough to allow an owner to incubate a small business, but firm enough to push a full-fledged enterprise into a commercial zone. One way to accomplish this is to limit the percentage of space that can be dedicated to a business. The maximum is usually 25 percent.
Another common limit is on the amount and type of storage permitted. Mount Prospect, Illinois, allows storage of up to 100 cubic feet of inventory indoors, about enough to fill a closet. Bellevue, Washington, like many other communities, prohibits any outdoor storage of materials.
EMPLOYEES IN THE HOME
One of the most contentious issues in home-business zoning debates is the number of employees who can work in the home. Chicago’s proposed ordinance limits employees to family members living within the home. “To me that makes no sense,” said Gary J. Rovansek, president of Reliable Corp., a Chicago firm that markets office supplies to home-based businesses. He was asked by the city to critique the latest draft of its proposed ordinance. “Under that restriction, I couldn’t employ my own daughter, because she doesn’t live with me.” He also didn’t like the prohibition on retail sales from the home. “Does that include cosmetic and insurance salespeople?” he asked. “I could see not having a factory, but what impact does an insurance salesperson have.’?”
SPECIALLY ZONED SUBDIVISIONS
In some areas of the country, however, the idea of home business has been enthusiastically embraced. Whole subdivisions have sprung up where people live and work. Market Place, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, consists of 20 homes custom-built to accommodate home occupations ranging from dentistry to crafts. In Foresthill, California, a subdivision was designed to include a teleport containing a computer and modem. When the developer ran into money problems, the plans had to be scrapped. Nevertheless, such activity suggests that the opportunity to work from one’s home is being viewed as an asset that can enhance the market value of a home. In fact, many people believe that zoning away the ability to work from one’s home can impair property values.
One community has even experimented with a dual-zoning technique that accommodates both residential and commercial uses. In the Van Rancho development in Lynwood, Illinois, one-acre housing lots are zoned residential in the front and commercial in the rear. Village officials, who were skeptical at first, have found that the large lots give the neighborhood a country atmosphere, and the commercial component is hardly even noticed.
Such successes don’t surprise Tern Murphy, the Realtor from Chicago. “If people have the ability to work from their home and make money, it will probably mean they’ll be able to make improvements on their property that can only add value to the surrounding community,” she says. “What does it matter to other people if I can support my family from home? Trying to stop me makes no sense at all.”
Why don’t Americans like lawyers? (1) Lawyers are expensive. Depending on your locale, you may pay anywhere from $125 to $250 per hour for an attorney’s services. (2) Lawyers make people uncomfortable, sitting in their high-backed office chairs, behind huge mahogany desks and beneath a dozen framed diplomas. (3) A few lawyers are incompetent, unethical, or both, and thus many people are afraid of being victimized.
With so much to worry about, it’s no wonder that hiring a lawyer can make the most fearless business-person feel like the Cowardly Lion. But just as the Wizard of Oz was no one to fear, merely an ordinary man standing behind a curtain, a lawyer should not be viewed with awe or loathing but simply as an entrepreneur with a specialized service to sell–a service you might someday need.
Failing to retain an attorney when you need one can get you into a lot of trouble. Los Angeles trial lawyer Harold Greenberg tells the story of a client he represented in a lawsuit over the purchase of a small business: “My client had purchased a phone-order stationery supply business. The man tried to save money by negotiating the deal himself without using a business lawyer to assist him. This turned out to be a terrible and costly mistake.
“Because the man was not sophisticated in the legalities of a business purchase, he failed to insist that the phone number remain with the business. Worse, he didn’t put a ‘non-competition clause’ into the contract, which would have prevented the seller from going into the same business in the same locale. As soon as the seller had collected his money, he opened a competing phone-order business using the old business phone number. Naturally, customers reached the seller’s new business instead of the old business that my client had purchased–and he quickly went broke.
“It was only after the damage was done and my client’s house was in foreclosure that he came to see me. We brought a lawsuit that cost him thousands of dollars in legal fees and years of his time. All of this heartache and expense could have been avoided if only he had paid for legal advice when he was negotiating the purchase.”
CHOOSING A LAWYER
When and under what circumstances should you hire a lawyer? “It’s a real dilemma for entrepreneurs,” says David Voight, director of the Small Business Center for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “On one hand, they don’t want to get into trouble because they didn’t hire a lawyer; on the other hand, they don’t want to absorb an unnecessary expense.”
Voight lists several times in an entrepreneur’s life when a lawyer should definitely be hired:
When buying or selling a business; anytime you are negotiating a business contract involving significant money, time, or effort; whenever a real conflict arises in a business relationship; if you think you need a lawyer, you probably do.
“Just any lawyer won’t do,” says Lionel Allan, chair of the Small Business Committee of the American Bar Association. “Like doctors, lawyers are increasingly becoming specialized. A small-business person should look for a business lawyer who can give practical business advice but can also advise about business legalities such as leases and contract negotiations.”
Finding the names of good general business lawyers (or any other kind you may need) isn’t difficult. Some potential referral resources are satisfied clients, other lawyers, community contacts, local service organizations, and bar associations.
The number one criterion, of course, is a lawyer’s legal ability. But you also want a lawyer you can trust and can talk to, and who has enough perspective to step back from a tough issue and look at it from all sides. Throughout the course of your legal problem, you will be faced with making choices–to sue or not to sue, to sign a deal or let it pass, to go public with a stock offering or remain a closely held company. There is rarely one fight answer to these dilemmas. Your lawyer’s job is to present you with options, explain the consequences of each choice, give a recommendation, and allow you to decide what to do. If he or she cannot do this, you may have the wrong lawyer.
UNDERSTANDING LEGAL FEES
Before hiring a lawyer, make sure you understand how you will be billed. Lawyers bill clients in four basic ways: the contingency fee, the flat fee, the statutory fee, and the hourly fee. In a contingency fee, you pay the lawyer an agreed-upon percentage of the money a lawsuit makes. A statutory fee is one that is set by law or by a judge. A flat fee means an attorney agrees to perform a specified service for an agreed-upon price. However, most business attorneys charge by the hour. If your lawyer charges $200 per hour and he speaks to you on the phone for 12 minutes, you will be billed $40.
The legendary movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn once said, “An oral contract ain’t worth the paper it’s written on.” Mr. Goldwyn was right: Never hire a lawyer based on an oral agreement. Insist on a written contract–called a retainer agreement–that specifically defines how you are to be charged. Most attorneys ask you to sign preprinted retainer agreements. Here’s what to look for when reading the agreement:
1. How are you to be charged? If you are charged an hourly rate, the agreement may also provide for the payment of flat fees for specified services. For example, you may pay a flat fee if your lawyer attends court, regardless of the time it actually takes.
2. Is there a retainer fee? Retainer fees differ, but general retainer fees cover a predictable amount of legal work performed on a regular basis.
3. Does the lawyer charge minimum billing units? To keep billing from becoming too complicated, lawyers usually bill in tenths of hours (six minutes). This is reasonable. However, some lawyers put a clause in their retainer agreements allowing them to charge “minimum billing units.” For example, if the retainer agreement states that the minimum charge to be made to your file is three-tenths of an hour, that means that each time the lawyer works on your file, there will be a minimum charge of 18 minutes, even if the work performed took only 10 minutes. Lawyers commonly use unreasonable minimum billing units to pad their bills.
4. Is the lawyer permitted to raise the fee? Your retainer agreement should specify when and under what circumstances the lawyer can raise the fee. Generally, lawyers give a 30-day notice before the fee hike takes effect, so you will have time to find a new lawyer should you desire.
5. Are you responsible for the lawyer’s expenses? Increasingly, lawyers are charging their clients for expenses once considered to be part of the attorney’s overhead. Photocopying, secretarial time, and parking expenses can add up quickly.
Don’t be afraid to negotiate terms of the agreement so that you get the best deal possible. For example, if the lawyer asks for a $2,000 retainer fee, you may offer $1,000 instead. If the lawyer wants you to pay a flat fee for court appearances, you may state that you will pay only for the amount of time actually spent performing the service. If the lawyer wants to charge a full fee for travel time, think about offering to pay half the usual fee.
It’s important to receive a detailed monthly billing statement. Never accept a legal bill that states, “$250 for services rendered.” After all, you wouldn’t pay a restaurant bill that read, “$80 for food eaten.” The bill should tell you the following:
* The date a service was rendered
* The time spent on the service
* The amount charged for the service
* Expenses incurred on your behalf
* Credits for payments made during the month
* The total amount due or credit remaining on the file
* The period of time covered by the bill
DISPUTING A BILL, SUING FOR MALPRACTICE
The fly in the ointment of the attorney-client relationship usually involves fee disputes. “The most common problems clients have with lawyers is the lack of communication over billing,” says Theresa Meehan Rudy, director of education and research for HALT, a legal-reform nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. “Many clients aren’t told and don’t ask what is billed and how many hours a legal problem will take for resolution. This results in misunderstandings and legal bills that are higher than they need to be.”
Fee disputes used to end up in litigation, but now many states have a mechanism to resolve these controversies out of court, called the “attorney-client fee dispute arbitration.” Arbitrating the controversy has several benefits:
* You may not need to hire a lawyer, especially if you kept accurate records.
* The formalities of court procedures are dispensed with in favor of an informal atmosphere.
* The dispute can be resolved quickly.
* The emphasis is on a fair resolution of the dispute, not winning and losing.
Contact your state Bar Association if you want more information on attorney-client fee dispute arbitrations.
If you have lost money because of misconduct on the part of your lawyer, you may be able to recover all or part of your loss. Most state bar associations maintain a client-security trust fund to reimburse victimized clients. Contact your state Bar Association for details.
In extreme cases, you may even consider suing your lawyer for malpractice. Malpractice, or negligence, doesn’t necessarily mean losing a case, or even making a tactical error. It means a lawyer’s conduct is below the “standards of practice for lawyers in the community.”
Proving negligence is only half the battle in a legal malpractice suit. You also have to prove you suffered damages because of the malpractice. For example, if your lawyer gave you incorrect tax advice, you have to prove you paid unnecessary taxes as a result. Or if your lawyer blew a court case, you have to prove that you would have won the case. Often, proving you were damaged is the most difficult part of the case.
Some people contend that it is difficult to get a lawyer to sue another lawyer. This may or may not be true, depending on where you reside. If You Want to Sue a Lawyer: A Directory of Legal Malpractice Attorneys (Edited by HALT; Random House, New York; $10) lists attorneys that will take a legal realpractice case on behalf of a client.
If you don’t have cause to sue but believe that you have been the victim of unethical conduct, report your lawyer to the state Bar Association. Reporting your lawyer could lead to disbarment, so it’s .not a step you should take lightly. Here are some examples of unethical conduct that should be reported:
* Stealing client property
* Breaking client confidences
* Failing to disclose conflicts of interest
* Covering up or lying about mistakes
* Abandoning a client’s case
* Failing to perform
* Refusing to communicate with the client
* Commingling personal assets with client assets
FIRING YOUR LAWYER
If you and your lawyer cannot resolve differences, change lawyers. This will cost time and money, but if you feel that the relationship has run into a dead end, you really have no choice.
Ironically, many people are afraid to fire their lawyers. I once spoke with a woman on the radio who was on the eve of an important trial and who had no confidence in her lawyer. “Why didn’t you fire him?” I asked. Her answer, “Because I was afraid he would get mad at me.”
Let’s face it, lawyers can be intimidating, and most people avoid confrontation like cats avoid water. However, legal matters are too important to allow fear to keep you from doing what must be done. If you are going to fire a lawyer, remember the following:
* You have the absolute right to fire your lawyer.
* You will have to pay your fired lawyer’s fees unless the firing was for good cause. However, according to HALT, if the firing was for unethical behavior, such as abandonment, you may not have to pay.
The laws differ from state to state, so ask your new lawyer about this issue or contact your state Bar Association.
* Your new lawyer can do the firing for you. You merely sign a form or give the new lawyer written authority.
For years, tax sages have warned that claiming a home office increases your chances of being audited, and the IRS has tacitly gone along with those stories (maybe even exaggerating them, some suggest, to scare home-office workers out of taking the deduction).
In truth, there’s good reason to believe that the home-office deduction flag is fading, as auditors target more fertile ground looking for hidden tax dollars. Self-employment income in excess of $100,000 can still get you a place on the IRS hit list, for example.
But, as the number of legitimate home-based businesses grows, the IRS’s chances of finding fraud wherever it looks have slimmed. Recent rules and new forms have eliminated a lot of the gray areas that surrounded home-office claims at the same time that many more taxpayers have joined the ranks of home-office workers. If auditing home offices ever was like fishing in a barrel, the barrel has been washed away by the work-at-home tsunami. The IRS could waste a lot of energy and resources auditing the more than 20 million home-based businesses and find a lot of careful record keeping, a lot of legitimately deductible home offices, and not a lot of money owed the U.S. Treasury.
STOP THE PARANOIA
Many people (including my brother) have been so put off by the red-flag fear and the putative complexity of the home-office deduction that they have declined to take it, even though it can be worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars in saved taxes. By some estimates, only about four million Americans take the tax break, even though five or six times that number may work at home.
Rumors (largely unconfirmed) about the pettiness of IRS auditors have increased those fears. My personal favorite is the one about the auditor who found personal mail in the waste basket of a home office and disallowed the office because it wasn’t used “exclusively” for business.
How realistic is this apocryphal story? Not very. Frederick Daily, a San Francisco home-based tax attorney and author of Stand Up to the IRS (Nolo Press), claims that in 20 years of representing small businesses, he has never had an auditor ask to examine one of his clients’ home offices. The two homeworkers I know who did undergo sustained home audits say the IRS examiner never questioned the legitimacy of the home offices once he saw that the rooms looked like bona fide offices. In other cases where home offices were questioned at audits that took place away from the home, a few pictures or a photocopied floor plan were enough to save the office deduction from the clutches of the IRS.
My favorite home-office audit story comes from Scot Ogle, a Boulder, Colorado, television producer whose home office was featured on the cover of February 1990 issue of HOME OFFICE COMPUTING. Despite the fact that Ogle drew an “auditor from hell” who tied up his taxes for four months and even questioned the exclusivity of his stapler, the questions about the home office were kept to a minimum. Ogle had taken pictures of his home office, which his accountant passed on to the IRS, but it was our magazine cover story that sold the auditor.
“The guy was very impressed by that,” says Ogle. “He said, ‘Oh, I guess we don’t have to question it.’”
THE EXCLUSIVITY TEST
The bugaboo for many home-based workers is the exclusivity test. If you take the deductions associated with having an office in your home, you are supposed to use the office exclusively for your business. It can’t be a family game room or the dining room when it isn’t being used as your business office.
Does this mean that you are not allowed to pay personal bills while sitting at your desk? Or should you not keep Tetris on your computer? A stickler would say yes, but a more practical person would note that even corporate employees sometimes bring their bills into work or play a quick computer game on their coffee break. “There is a certain blurring,” says Ogle. “I bought my stapler for my office. I keep it there and use it in my business. But who is to say my wife didn’t walk in one day and staple some papers together?”
Daily points out that even if you are the subject of a rare home audit, you’ll have ample time to “cleanse” your office of offending paraphernalia before the auditor arrives. “What kind of idiot couldn’t rearrange things to take the personal items out?” he asks.
This does not mean that you should run your home office out of an actively used family room or guest room, or that you should take a write-off for the kitchen table. The fact that it jeopardizes the legality of the home-office deduction is secondary; what’s more important is that it’s very hard to run a profitable business in a room that isn’t set up and available to you as a place of business.
RECAPTURE YOUR TAX DOLLARS
There’s a second reason why legitimate home-office workers sometimes decline to take the home-office deduction: They’ve been told that if they sell the house, they’ll have a greater tax burden.
Here’s the truth: If you sell a residence and buy another, you can roll over the gain you’ve made on the house you are selling into the house you are buying (that is, if you even have a gain–a lot of people are facing losses instead when they sell their homes). You won’t have to pay a capital-gains tax until you sell your last house or start down-sizing and buy a house worth less than the house you are selling. Furthermore, if you wait until you are over 55 to do that down-sizing, you may be able to exclude the first $125,000 of gain.
But if you have depreciated a portion of your house, condominium, or co-op as an office, that portion is considered business and not residential. So you can’t roll over the capital gain; you have to pay tax on the prorated portion of it that represents the home-office deduction you’ve taken.
However, there is a way around this, too. Move your office out of your home in the year that you sell your home and don’t take any deduction for your home office–neither depreciation nor utilities–in that year. At the same time, suggests Daily, rent an office elsewhere. Then you’ll have real documentation to show that you don’t have an active home office while you are selling your house, which is all that you really need to stay on the right side of the IRS recapture rule.
TAKE IT, IT’S YOURS
So stop worrying about the home-office deduction and start enjoying this one real break you get as a self-employed home-based businessperson. Follow these eight timely tips to keep your deductions clean and profitable.
Use fonn 8829, “Expenses for Business Use of Your Home.” This is an IRS income-tax form that first appeared in the 1991 tax package. It will walk you through every calculation related to the business use of your home and keep you from making mistakes. It may even remind you of related deductions you might otherwise skip. And for sole proprietors (those of you who file IRS Schedule C to report your income), it’s the only way to get the home-office deduction.
Measure your office. Your deductions will be prorated by the percentage of your home’s square footage that is used as office. Although the IRS instructions suggest you can use square feet, number of rooms, or “any other reasonable method” of comparing your office space to the total space available in your home, it’s the square footage that agents seem to feel most comfortable with. When Amherst, Massachusetts, musician Paul Kaplan’s brick-lined home studio was audited, the examiner knew at a glance that the dimensions claimed on the tax form were a little off. Why? It turned out the auditor’s father had been a bricklayer and had taught his son how to estimate space by counting bricks. (It also turned out that the auditor was himself an aspiring folk musician who took a more sympathetic approach to Kaplan’s guitar-strewn office than another examiner might.)
Take all the related deductions. Your home office entities you to depreciation or deducting a portion of your rent. The deduction also entitles you to prorate your utilities (except your phone service). If you own your home, you can prorate and deduct the business portion of your mortgage interest and property taxes. Although those two items are deductible elsewhere on your income taxes anyway, they are worth more on the Schedule C, where Form 8829 totals are reported, and where they can offset the 15.3 percent self-employment tax.
Consider remodeling. If you’ve been tempted to remake the attic into a real office complete with built-in shelves, new staticproof carpeting, and glare-free recessed lights, go for it. New construction to create a home office may be 100 percent deductible in the year you do the construction under Section 179 of the tax code. This section enables you to take up to $10,000 of your depreciable expenses in the year you incur them. (See my column in the November 1992 issue for more on the Section 179 deduction.)
Stake out your space. Having a room that is yours and yours alone is a luxury. However, you are allowed to take a deduction if your home office is only a portion of a room–a desk in the corner of your bedroom, for example. If that’s all the space you can spare for your home office, do all you can to keep it separate. If you don’t like the fabric screen approach, pile file boxes around you or stick a line of tape on the floor to keep other family members away from your office space.
Be too legit to hit. Even though you don’t have to police the wastebasket, the more exclusive your office is, the better. At best, you’ll avoid the problems of one work-at-home mother whose very young child got so used to playing video games on her computer, he kept putting quarters in the disk drive when she wasn’t around. Take pictures of your home office, or keep a schematic of your floor plan (with home-office dimensions) on file in case of an audit.
Think twice about incorporating. For some inexplicable reason, the home-office deduction is available only to sole proprietors and not one-person corporations. Any way you try to do it, including leasing space to the corporation, ends up banging into a regulatory roadblock.
Avoid computer games in the office. Don’t put Tetris or any other game on your business computer. Chances are, the IRS auditor will never even get a peek at your hard-disk drive. But the game will ruin your profitability nevertheless. Take it from someone who knows.
How do you want to create your publication?
You could start your design from scratch, determining all the margin and column settings, type styles, ruling lines, text and image placement, and so on. Or you could use a prepared desktop-publishing template that poses the design question in a simpler, fill-in-the-blanks format.
A template is a ready-to-use publication file, with spaces for you to insert text and graphics into a prelab layout. Most page-layout programs today come with a variety of templates, and additional template files are available in several program formats, both commercially and as shareware.
GETTING WISE TO THE WHYS
To make the most of any template, you need to analyze it and understand why certain design decisions were made. If you understand the “why” behind the template, then you can customize the elements and adapt the design to fit your needs. And ultimately, by fiddling with elements in an established layout, you develop your own design vocabulary for future projects.
Let’s look at each aspect of a templated page and consider where adjustments may be necessary or advisable.
Page size. Nearly every template I’ve seen assumes a standard 8.5-by-11-inch page. That’s fine if you’re planning to reproduce your publication straight from the laser printer or with a copy machine, but it may be a significant blunder if you’re having the job reproduced in quantity by a professional printer.
Sure, any prim shop can print an 8.5-by-11-inch sheet. But is that the optimal size for your project? That will depend on a number of factors:
* The amount of information you need to convey. It may be more cost-effective to use a larger page rather than add pages. Or you may be able to economize by using a smaller sheet if you don’t need much room.
* The impact you are trying to achieve. When it comes to promotional pieces, bigger is often better. An oversize catalog that arrives in a big envelope will stick out among the clutter of the day’s mail. A bigger page may allow you to use larger graphic images, too. On the other hand, if you’re preparing a publication oriented toward ready-reference purposes (a member directory, for instance), then a smaller page size may be easier to store on a shelf or stow in a brief case.
* Your print shop’s equipment. Sometimes the difference of a fraction of an inch in a given dimension can cut your printing costs substantially, because different sizes work better on different printing presses. The only way you’ll find out if there are economies available in this area is to speak with your print shop expert before you go ahead and design the job.
If there are valid reasons for using alternate page sizes and templates are standardized on good old 8.5 by 11, we need a way to adjust page size accordingly. With an extreme size adjustment, an otherwise attractive template can become a poor choice. For example, a template that stresses long thin verticals, with several narrow columns and ruling lines, will lose its graphic punch if you lop off the bottom to fit it on a page that’s nearly square.
More often, though, you’ll be making relatively minor adjustments. The key to making these tweaks is changing the template proportionately. Now if you have a complex multicolumn template laid out for an 8.5-by-11-inch page, but you’re printing on 8-by-10-inch paper, the easiest answer is to trim away those outside edges. Otherwise you’re stuck adjusting all those column widths and the spaces between them by hand, plus resizing illustrations, ruling lines, and everything else.
Well, friend, you are stuck, because whacking away at the outside margins will guarantee that your page layout will look awful. If you like a template but have to adjust it for size, adjust each element roughly proportionally. Why roughly? Because sometimes the mathematically correct proportional adjustment is just too picayune to be practical. For instance, say you’re changing an 8.5-inch-wide template with two 22-picawide columns and a 2-pica space between columns to fit on 8-inch-wide paper. Mathematics would tell you to change the 2-pica space between columns to 1.882 picas, but nobody should ever have to deal with making changes of 0.118 picas except as punishment for the most flagrant design crimes. Instead, lop off 2 picas from the outside of each text column and be done with it.
Balancing design elements. Often you won’t have the same number or type of design elements found in the template for your own publication. The most common example involves illustrations, but it can apply to text as well. A template may have three articles on the front page of a newsletter, while you have only two. The banner at the top of the template page may include a bold, impressive logo, while your organization’s 1ogo is a feathery, fine-line affair. The template may include a powerful three-line headline for the lead story, while the best you can come up with is a single line.
Your central concern in customizing the tempTate to match the available content is to maintain the sense of balance on the page the designer has created. For example, the newsletter template shown here (taken from the now-discontinued PageMaker Portfolio Designs for Newsletters collection) includes a large, handsome illustration in the lower fight corner, and all you have available is a standard rectangular head shot of Fred, your organization’s chairman. Look at the layout and think about the function that illustration serves: It balances the bold initial capital letter in the left column and the bold ruling lines on the right and leads the reader’s eye diagonally down the page. Blowing up that boring head shot and popping it in to that spot just isn’t going to have the same effect.
So what do you do? Ideally you find another illustration to fill that spot. For instance, I’ve taken mediocre head shots and tinkered with Aldus Gallery Effects to turn them into graphically exciting illustrations.
Failing that, consider combining the head shot with a pull quote presented with a bold, interesting type treatment. That way Fred still gets his picture in the paper, and there’s enough graphic oomph in that lower right corner to preserve the attractive page balance the template designer intended.
Type selection. Templates are generic documents, meant to be readily usable by everyone who buys them. That means sticking with the most plain-vanilla typefaces to ensure compatibility: nearly always Times and Helvetica (or their genetic equivalents, usually dubbed Dutch and Swiss). I’m not one of those hoity-toity types who automatically turns up his nose at anybody who uses Times and Helvetica in his desktop-publishing projects. Since these two faces are used so frequently, type designers have lavished extra attention on making them as crisp as possible at 300 dot-per-inch resolution. And Times, designed for use in the Times of London, accomplishes the goal of high readability while accommodating lots of characters per inch.
When adapting templates for your own use, though, it’s time to experiment with type. Once again, you want to analyze the template functionally: What effect does a given type decision serve in the overall layout? For example, an advertising-layout template will frequently use a large, bold typeface for the leading headline and other typefaces from the same type family elsewhere in the ad. Perhaps the company name and phone number will be set in the same bold type in a smaller size, the company address in the roman (that is, nonbold) version of the same face, and subheadings within the body text in the italic version of the typeface. This interrelated type selection helps to hold the layout together. If you blithely come along and decide to draw on different typeface families for the headline, subhead, address, and so on, you lose the quality that attracted you to the template originally. Instead, you’re likely to achieve that distinctive ransom-note typography that prompted professional designers to sneer at desktop publishers in the first place.
Ruling line treatments. You can get an awful lot of design mileage out of relatively simple combinations of lines and boxes. Frequently I find interesting ruling line treatments in professionally prepared templates. Though an attractive ruling line treatment doesn’t get the attention it deserves, ruling lines can add an extraordinary amount of flavor to a layout–a design quality you should be sensitive to when working with prepared templates.
On a purely mechanical basis, you should analyze the way the designer has used ruling lines in the template so you can maintain this approach consistently when adding pages or revising existing ones. Is there a thin underscore beneath each caption? A combination of thin and thick lines setting off the table of contents? A ruled box around each illustration, or a drop shadow, or a shaded rectangle? Be sure to follow the ruling lines laid down to maintain the look you like in the template.
Keep in mind, too, that ruling line treatments can frequently be lifted from one template and applied to another. Does the line work in a particular newsletter template provide a classical flavor, or a modem flair, or an art deco elegance? Try adding that line treatment to a catalog template or an advertising template that lacks the design flavor you’re seeking.
CHECK YOUR BRAIN AT THE DOOR?
Even when working with templates, putting together a desktop-published page is by no means a “no-brainer”–there is a big difference between using templates and using templates well.
One challenge involves technical competency. Pouting text into columns and graphics into frames will require some thought to make everything fit. For instance, you’ll have to watch out for bad breaks in the text. Leaving a single line at the beginning or end of a column is a design flaw that requires hyphenation or editing to avoid. You’ll also want to check for “rivers” of white space, which occur when there’s too much space between words, and those spaces link up to form unsightly lines of white throughout your text. These can also be corrected through hyphenation or editing adjustments, or by changing from a fully justified setting to ragged right.
You’ll also want to monitor the way the page-layout program imports your graphic files. Often the software will squash or stretch your illustration into the shape of the template’s placeholder box, distorting the graphic’s dimensions in the process. More likely, you’ll want to either crop the illustration to fit the space or adjust that space to match the size of your graphic. The knowhow required will vary from program to program, but the need to keep an eye on what the program is doing when it stuffs your graphic into a template is a given for all programs.
We’ve been talking about ways to customize standard, fill-in-the-blanks templates. But there’s another way to answer our basic design question: multiple-choice. That’s the approach taken in two innovative midrange page-layout programs: Microsoft Publisher running under Windows, and Aldus Personal Press on the Macintosh. Instead of simply delivering entirely prefabficared templates, both programs ask for your input and create templates tailored to your responses.
Personal Press, with its AutoCreate system, offers fewer customization questions than Microsoft Publisher, but lets you import your text and graphic files during the initial template construction process, which will expedite your work. Microsoft Publisher’s Wizards, by contrast, creates an empty shell for you to fill in manually, but its question-and-answer interaction is more complete, and the resulting designs are often very slick looking.
Are “intelligent” templates the wave of the future? I think so, but that doesn’t mean I’m letting you off the hook. Even using templates blessed with artificial intelligence, you’ll still have to come to the keyboard equipped with the real thing in order to use the tools at hand effectively.
There’s no law against bad office design, but after a talk with Philadelphia-based graphic designer Allan Wright, you can’t help but think it’s a crime. After a recent visit to a client’s very corporate, very bland headquarters, he had this to say: “We found people stuck in little booths with no natural light. Everything was horrible.”
His colleague Michele Armstrong agreed: “I felt like crying when I left the place.”
Some may accuse Wright and Armstrong of holding non-artist types to lofty standards; after all, why does an accounting firm, for example, have to be pretty? How do high ceilings affect the bottom line? In Wright’s opinion, a beautiful, well-designed home office has two very clear benefits: It makes your business look good, and it makes you and everybody else feel good.
Wright, who is originally from Scotland, rounded the World Design Consultancy four years ago on the coffee table in his apartment near Philadelphia. He and a team of art directors and designers from Great Britain, Yugoslavia, and the United States provide a wide range of design and advertising services, from print campaigns to product rollouts, for American and European clients in industries as diverse as fashion, automotives, and pharmaceuticals.
World Design’s offices, where Wright also happens to live, are a testament to his taste and style. Light pours in through tall windows hidden behind a landmark brick and sandstone facade. Lilies, irises, ferns, ivy, and tropical plants soften the visual blow of gleaming high technology. “Light, windows, open spaces, flowers–that all directly affects us when we’re working– especially on the creative end,” says account manager Armstrong.
The company, which has moved three times in as many years because of rapid growth and Wright’s wanderlust, is currently located in a pier house on the Delaware River formerly used for unloading barges. “We always pick strange places,” says Wright, who does so partly because he believes people coming to his design studio are looking for something different. World Design once set up shop in a 100-year-old cigar factory with mosaic floors and stained glass windows, then moved into a former schoolhouse. He now has his eye on an old Rolls Royce plant and a 150-year-old mill house. “We don’t look at any modem buildings. We like to show what we can do with old spaces instead of just tearing them down and throwing up something ugly, like the standard low-cost office buildings.”
Although Wright has no qualms about tearing down whatever gets in his way, he lets the original structure dictate his renovations. “We keep the physical structures intact. The place we’re in has exposed steel girders, and the one we’re looking at has concrete pillars and industrial sash windows, which are now rare antiques,” says Wright. While working on the schoolhouse, Wright found “a beautiful plaster wall. It was like a piece of art–the paint had faded through in different patterns and shapes.” He was so pleased that he couldn’t paint over it as planned. “We painted and plastered the new walls to match the original wall.”
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Wright shares his two-story, 2,000-square-foot home with his wife, his brother, and his brother’s wife–as well as five graphic designers, two or three regular freelancers, and a steady stream of models, photographers, print reps, clients, and other visitors. “We’re a very social company. And we have the best coffee in Philadelphia,” says Wright. “Everybody comes over, relaxes. and gets involved in the projects.”
HIDING HIS HOUSE
Since this busy design studio operates 20 hours a day, seven days a week, schedules are tight and space is at a premium. But in addition to being a skilled designer and decorator, Wright is a master engineer. Every room has several uses. Bedrooms double as photography studios, which double as conference rooms. “With the master bedroom, Allen did his usual knocking out the whole wall,” says Armstrong.
He then hung French lace from the 18-foot ceilings, which form elegant columns when they’re tied up and fall into a wall when released, making an instant conference room. “Our clients don’t know they’re in a bedroom,” says Wright. The television, which Wright likes to watch in bed, twists around so Wright can review video presentations with his clients.
Like the rooms and the television set, most of the furniture and equipment is mobile or convertible. The computers and fax machines are all on wheels, since Wright gets the rearranging bug often. “I’m always changing everything around. People will leave work for the weekend and come back on Monday to find that everythiug’s been changed around.” He once laid an entire parquet floor over a weekend, “for relaxation.” Wright attributes this compulsion to moving around constantly as a child but also calls it part of World Design’s philosophy: “We’re never satisfied.”
Although World Design looks like it has a big decorating budget, Wright purchases most of the furniture, like the “early Jetsons” coffee tables, second-hand or at inexpensive furniture emporiums like Ikea. As with profit-making ventures, office design is a collaborative effort. For instance, Wright found the wrought-iron chairs for his conference room at a local garden store. His production director’s wife outfitted them with striped cushions. Armstrong provided the finishing touch–tassels she bought in Florence, Italy.
The real money, according to Wright, goes toward first-rate technology. Besides a Mac Quadra 950, a IIci, two IBM-compatible systems, two color scanners, and a CDROM drive, World Design has one of the only Canon 500 full-color laser printers in Philadelphia. He believes that if a gadget or new software package, even an expensive one, energizes a designer, that enthusiasm will show up in his work. And that can only be good for World Design.