Here are some things I think I think about newspaper design.
1. Good design is important, but content is king. I think most people – except maybe for out-of-work designers – would agree. I do believe the point bears repeating, however. It should become a mantra, chanted throughout the newsroom. Readers don’t care whether you use Arial or Franklin Gothic for your cutlines. They do care about getting good content and design that doesn’t get in the way.
2. Designers are important for setting up the format and overall layout and spacing guidelines, but are less important than reporters and editors to the day-to-day overall product. It almost pains me to write those words, but I think it is true. Push comes to shove, I would rather have writers and editors than designers.
3. Design cannot be treated as a cosmetic add-on after all the content has been gathered. Design concepts must be integrated into the newsgathering process from the very beginning. The best time to think about design is when the assignments are being made. Bring the visual people into the planning meetings. Don’t simply hit them up on deadline for some clip art to “dress up” your story.
4. I don’t think people who lay out ad-free pages should worry about making each issue a completely unique set of pages. Readers don’t care, and the reality is only a handful of placements on pages work well any way. It would speed up the process to have a designer create a series of 5-6 templates and then get out of the way.
The copy desk folks could then call up the template that fit the best and make the few, small changes the content requires. No need to re-invent the wheel each issue and no need to pay designers to do layouts. That’s like paying police officers to be school crossing guards.
Pages with ads on them need designers even less. The ads pretty much limit what can be done beyond slotting in stories and packages in the space available. Again, get a designer to set up some standards and train the desk folks in the basics and be done with it.
5. I think newspaper designers worry too much about typeface, color and related issues that readers simply don’t care about. Although I think branding and user experience can be helpful in market differentiation, most newspapers have a monopoly. The web, magazines and television are competitors only if you stretch the term a bit.
There’s an understated beauty in black-and-white, and I think an all B&W newspaper could be successful. It would be an easier and slightly cheaper paper to produce. Every buck you could save would help.
I’d spend money on solving circulation problems and getting ink that doesn’t come off on your hands, clothes and tablecloths.
6. I think the Society for News Design has created this monster by (a) handing out thousands of awards each year, and (b) rewarding “pretty” when it should have been rewarding “successful.”
All those awards are ridiculous, and SND still pretty much ignores the vast majority of newspapers in the country, the small-circulation dailies and weeklies. It would be like handing out 15 Best Picture statues at the Oscars. Those awards remind me of the many self-congratulating awards that advertising folks hand out to one another in a number of competitions. The creative ads win, sure, but I want to know whether they succeeded in moving product. That’s a good ad.
If you need help with your newspaper design, contact me at News Design School.
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