Orlando redesign:
What a difference a decade makes

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The heated debate over the Orlando Sentinel’s in-house redesign (which launched today) brings a flood of memories of a redesign there – the paper’s first major overhaul in many years – that I consulted on in 1997. And 1998. And 1999…

I actually like a lot of what I see in the newest makeover (more on that later, including my doubts that it’s the magic bullet anyone may be hoping for), but first, here are some fun facts from the big relaunch a decade ago:

  • Yes, the project took 2 1/2 years. (I even had hair when we started.) Out of fairness, the main design work was probably done in about 10 months – planning, content reorganization, font testing, templating, etc. Then the delays began: first for pagination, then for press upgrades for improved color printing, and narrow web width. Then it was delayed a bit further to time the relaunch with Labor Day, which somehow made sense because the Classifieds Department was closed for an extra day and it allowed the computers to cool down or something.
  • All that said, 10 months was still too long for the design work. I recall long debates over whether the readers were ready for the shock of a stacked nameplate (Orlando above Sentinel). Somehow that camp won out, for a year or two anyway, then I think another big debate (not involving me, thankfully) returned it to its horizontal glory. Same with the issue of color coding sections – much back and forth, and prototyping till the cows came home – will people think we are mimicking USA Today? Will we run out of colors? Can we print them reliably? What if the business editor doesn’t like blue – oh my!
  • I hope I’m not offending anyone (though I probably will) when I say that in 1997, the paper looked like 1972. The outdated look at the start of that project was the fault of no one but institutional inertia. Circulation was soaring, ad sales booming, zoning going gangbusters – why mess with success, even if the paper looked like a muddy ransom note in places? Pagination and press upgrades finally forced the issue of redesign, as I recall. (I like to think the redesign brought the paper up to about 1992. The staff worked very hard and several areas of the paper actually did make big leaps, including sports. Hey, progress is progress.)
  • As with every single major market redesign I worked on around then, a big debate ensued on whether to jump the sacred Metro columnist, move him from its hallowed anchor on the left side of Section B, and so on. (I suspect these folks, fine writers they may be, will go down with the collective ship claiming that if only the design consultants hadn’t changed their column width from 18p9 to 17p, or cut their word limit from 1,200 to 1,050, things would have remained just hunky-dory for newspapers.)
  • My favorite anecdote about the ’97-98-99 Sentinel relaunch was how we changed the body text and actually increased it 1.2 points – let’s say from 9 points to 10.2 or something. (It’s like comparing apples to oranges when you consider the new font had a different x-heights and density and such, but still, to everyone it seemed optically much larger.) More than 1,000 old readers called and wrote to the paper to say IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE TO READ THE NEW PAPER and that all the new typography was horrible and they were canceling their subscription after 60 years and so on. In reality, of course, we know that it just takes anyone’s eyes a few days to a week to adjust to something they read regularly, like a newspaper. (Despite this, adjustments were made to the font to appease the cranky oldsters.) I’m hoping Bonita Burton isn’t fielding such calls this week.
  • Our revamp effort of a decade ago was tweaked at least twice since then, in-house, but it seems like this week’s effort is the first major radical overhaul in a decade.

Now, about the new design. Congrats to Bonita and crew for this week’s effort. Change is always hard work and it shows here – especially inside pages that haven’t gotten as much attention as the colorful fronts. Here are a few things that strike me as effective ways to appeal to readers (notice I didn’t say, “here are things I like,” which is irrelevant):

  • It’s sometimes hard to tell from prototypes and launch day pages, but I see an improved approach to story selection and relevance of topics in some of the pages previewed. In terms of front page headlines and promos, I always ask my clients to come back to the question: would ANYONE buy the paper for this story, pick it up off their doorstep, or open it at the breakfast table? (I got a chuckle out of the blog-o-critic last week who slammed a prototyped story about warning signs of a stroke. The critic obviously doesn’t know the Orlando market and doesn’t appreciate what a relevant, forward, “consumer” this is for a huge chunk of this market! Give readers ammo to live a better life in the future, let them think you have their best interests at heart – so to speak. Good story to publish, and promo, and glad to see the Sentinel’s not bailing on the oldsters.)
  • Love the promo gallery of columnists atop Page One. (I designed the same thing for Dallas in 2000, not that this was the first use of the device by any stretch. There it ran for a short while atop Page 2 until it was deemed too much work to assemble or bumped for more briefs or someone just got bored with it.) This “voices gallery” reminds me of the chatty, provocative way that the British papers present their opinion content, and reflects what I personally enjoy about a good newspaper – sparking a dialogue, taking a stand, inciting debate, creating a unique conversation. (That said, a strong effort by the Sun-Times to do just that, with a very clever “Let’s get into it” ad campaign, hasn’t helped much there. Sigh.) I hope other papers steal this device, and that the columns at the Sentinel, and elsewhere, rise to a level that warrants the emphasis.

All this said, I have to close with some doubts (echoed previously by many others) that redesign efforts have much of a chance of reversing readership or advertising declines. (Recent history, at least in the U.S. market, doesn’t support it either.) The problem is not fonts or web width or color-coded section headers or even overly long metro columnists – it’s that the thing is printed on newsprint, distributed at least 6-10 hours or more after the news becomes stale, and costs money – when readers know full well the same content is available online, instantly and searchable, for free.

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[Footnote: I know the question will come up, why consider redesign at all? If you’re changing the size of your paper, radically revamping the content or organization or sectioning, upgrading your printing presses, or adding a distinct new title to your market, go ahead and design or redesign. All are legitimate pursuits. But redesigning to lure young readers? Buy back classifieds that have long been lost to Craigslist? Good luck with that, and let me know if you hear of any sustained circulation or ad increases in the U.S. market these days.]

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