Taking the temp of news design – big scary fever charts and other options

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When I create a design training program for a newspaper client, I like to use as many fresh examples of news page and web designs as possible, from recent clients or papers I admire. This keeps the conversation on top of design trends and makes the examples seem more relevant. However, working outside the U.S. (as I did in Africa recently) can present a challenge if the big story of the day is U.S.-focused. How aware is the client of the story? Are the visuals used in the examples too American? Of course, the recent market meltdown is a story of worldwide impact, even though Wall Street, the U.S. dollar, Uncle Sam or other visual icons may be Americana all the way.

In reviewing a spate of current page designs online and solicited by friends, I was struck by how often American papers resorted to big fever charts to tell the story – not that there’s anything wrong with that, as many examples had plenty of impact and information (and really, how many worried consumers at their computers, or traders on the market floor, do we want to look at?).

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I selected a handful of such pages to help us analyze what worked, what didn’t. One of my mantras in particular is information, not decoration, so I’m wary of when a designer uses a half page chart to simply tell me that the Dow fell 500 points (after this was already told in the headline). Some of the better papers that resorted to the BSFC (big scary fever chart) took care to introduce a lot of information as well – such as the Chicago Tribune, which used parallel fever charts on its front page in timeline fashion, to track details of the current crisis against the crash of the Great Depression. Pullout text put the story, then and now, in perspective.

One newspaper really stood out to me as trying something visually daring – not for the sake of being different, but, balancing the elements of surprise and originality with (as always) information. Check out the St. Pete Times front page with the evocative illustration by artist John Corbitt. (For larger version click here.) It’s classic St. Pete Times* – not something you see every day, but when big news happens, look out – they go for impact. Big bold headline. Dramatic visual. Statistics, charts or other visual information, if relevant to the story. Glance boxes that send me inside and online, tell me the local/Florida angle, and flag “what comes next.” But interestingly, this page also has three stories packaged in the lead, and two more stories at the bottom – a good example of old school approaches mixing with the new. Another of my mantras is, every newspaper needs to offer something for scanners as well as in-depth readers, and this paper for years has done this well from front to back.

A final aside about my admiration for the St. Pete paper, and the funny way some people are criticizing the visual explosion in newspapers these days: during my tenure at the visually vibrant Times, and some years after just living in the community, one never heard people in the reading public say things like: there’s nothing in it, the paper’s just eye candy, it’s dumbed down or it’s just another version of USA Today. Never. Instead, even from people who didn’t know I had a current or past affiliation with the paper, I would hear things like: that paper is so well organized, it’s easy to find things …  it seems so balanced, informative, fair … it’s surprising to find a paper of such quality in a smaller market like this. This obviously is a reflection of the content that the paper’s visuals, at the end of the day, have to support. If and when the reader dives into the stories on this front page, you know they can find some substance and relevance. The marriage of words and visuals is seamless here, which is why I point to this paper when clients overseas, or anywhere, ask me which papers I look to for inspiration.

(* Disclaimer – I worked at the Times for 10 years at the start of my career and have a number of friends still on guard there, which is partly why you see it addressed in this blog from time to time.)

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