A thriving life after newspaper design? Yep. Here’s how

Promotions for arts district annual open house weekend.

[Chicago] Every day brings new conversations with editors, news designers, photographers and students on the subject: what sort of life, and career, can there be after newspapers? And in this economy? To that end, I posted an entry yesterday questioning how we define ourselves, our lives, our work.

stacy.jpg I recently got back in touch with Stacy Sweat (thanks again, Facebook), former associate managing editor in charge of presentation at the Chicago Tribune. Her profile led me to the web site for her graphic design firm, which revealed numerous portfolio samples that set off sparks of inspiration in my brain. (You will want to explore it via the links here – after you finish reading this post.) Just a few months earlier I had admired Stacy’s graphic design work promoting a neighborhood arts open house, which my office participates in. (The promo piece is shown above.) I thought fresh design work such as this, and her transformation from newspaper diva, was worth sharing with blog readers. Stacy was kind enough to answer a few questions, and share some really useful tips for journalists wanting to break away into a career in graphic design. Some of my observations conclude the piece.

Ron: How hard was it for you to say goodbye to newspapers and to take the leap into corporate/graphic design?


 [You absolutely must have a web site. Don’t even think of going into corporate design without one. And since you may likely be asked to do digital design , prepare to make your site engaging, beautiful, and fairly advanced in communicating a variety of ideas.]

Stacy: Here’s the short history on my entrance and exit from newspapers. In 1978, I got my first job at the Orlando Sentinel and in the blink of an eye (and several other newspaper gigs), I become the graphics editor at the Chicago Tribune in 1992. My, how time flies. The Tribune was a great place to be in the ’90s. We were expanding and still in the mode of attracting new readers. There was an appetite for experimentation and innovation. But by the early 2000’s, that all changed. Very talented people who I admired like Joe Hutchinson of the LA Times and others were exiting newsrooms. The hand wringing at newspapers about what to do about this new thing called the internet was very frustrating. The Tribune’s internet group was not interested in journalism or even story-telling. The internet group (with very little editorial involvement) was more interested in blinking news alerts and sensational “stories” that lasted for a few minutes or a few hours and annoying banner ads. I think the Tribune newsroom retreated from the internet challenge by becoming much more conservative. It was as if the clock was being turned back to what some editors viewed as the “good old days” which was a much more comfortable place for most. But not for me.

Stacy Sweat: Art Institute of Chicago brochure

 [Think newspapers are the only place for your infographics skills? Think again. This promo piece for The Art Institute of Chicago benefits from Stacy’s journalistic eye.]

Ron: What advice would you have for someone who wants to explore setting up a graphic design shop, but has only done newspapers? How/where do they get started? Do they need to go to art school?


Stacy: Over the years, friends have encouraged me to start my own graphic design business, but it never seemed like the right time. I had never worked outside of newspapers. By 2006, and another blink of the eye, I was ready. It was time to leave after 28 years in the newspaper business. I have always strived on change and learning new things. It was now time to learn how to run my own business as a sole proprietor. If you are considering making this leap to start a graphic design business,  I would suggest focusing on these three distinct areas of discipline:

1) The Creative side: Having proven talent is a pre-requisite. Period. Your good work is ultimately what will get you hired, keep you competitive and make your business successful. You need to stay current with what clients are looking for and what can differentiate the quality of your work from others. You also have to “sharpen the saw” and stay up with the latest software training and technology developments so that these tools can help you be even more creative. Speed will help you increase the number of projects you can handle, so having the technological chops matters a great deal. Although in 2006 I was working on mostly print projects, increasingly, I am working on more web and digital projects. For some of the basic assignments (e-newsletters, basic web sites, eblasts) I can handle, but for more complicated projects, I team up with web developers.

Stacy Sweat: Garden Walk poster designs

[Think you’ll miss designing those glorious food or garden pages? Think again. These promo pieces for one of Chicago’s annual garden walks beautify the city almost as much as the event itself, and made me eager for summer to arrive.]

2) The Marketing side/Business Development: The number one marketing tool any graphic design professional needs is a good web site that represents you well. If clients don’t know you are out there, it will be hard to keep your business afloat so you need to find ways to market your business. I have found that networking is important, having business cards with me wherever I go and developing print pieces that refer back to my web site are key. I had a temporary business card when I first started, but a wise person told me that if you are going to be in this business your card must be beautiful. Now, I have a beautiful, simple letterpress card which does get compliments. (Where’d you get it? “Steracle Press.”) Learn how to play the RFP (Request for Proposal) game and make new connections every week. After you’ve done great work for a few clients, referrals will play an important part of new business development.


  [Stacy’s right: A clean simple business card design, classy stock, will make a big impact and show you are a serious candidate for a graphic design job.]

3) The Business side: You need to learn how to write proposals, develop your contract, negotiate contracts, keep the books and send and track invoices. One of the most difficult decisions you will have to make is what to charge for your services. There are many good articles on the web and through AIGA on these subjects, but if you don’t have experience in these areas, get ready to study up. Tap into friends who have business experience and get their counsel. The business side is probably the least creative (which can translate to the least enjoyable) side of the business, but ultimately if you don’t have solid business practices, you can’t be successful owning your own business. You also need to network with suppliers and vendors. Develop relationships with printers and web developers who can deliver excellent services for your clients and teach you about emerging business trends. Your technical knowledge needs to go beyond design software so that you know how to produce your work in multiple environments.

Stacy Sweat: Rome Brochures

[So you like designing travel pages for newspapers? You may love even more doing promo pieces like this, for Loyola University’s study abroad program in Rome. Printed on much nicer stock than newsprint, and making an impact (potentially) on interest in and enrollment for the school. ]

Ron: What’s the best thing about the work you are doing now?


Stacy: I love graphic design. That’s why I joined the newspaper business and it is why I am enjoying having my own graphic design business. My artistic abilities combined with my passion for complicated puzzles and figuring things out are important to the success of my business. I think this is what makes me so passionate about design. The more complex the problem seems, the more I enjoy it. That is why visual journalism and my graphic design abilities were such a perfect fit for most of my career. I also love people. I love meeting new clients and nurturing the relationships I have with existing clients. I have learned so much about Chicago since I left the newspaper. Imagine that. I worked at the Tribune for 13 years, but the jobs I held were so consuming, I had little time or energy to get involved in my community. Now, I am invested in several organizations in Chicago and love being a citizen in my neighborhood, my district and my city.

Stacy Sweat: Newsletter Design

  [Neighborhoods need good communicators, to bring people together and convey ideas with things like newsletters (and websites). Visual journalists are among the best out there. Why not pitch in and create something cool for your community? Even volunteer? It may lead to a great portfolio piece.]

I would be happy to talk with anyone wanting to start their own graphic design business. Here is my contact information:

     Stacy Sweat




Thanks, Stacy!

* * *

Back to Ron here: In case you haven’t gotten the picture – this will be hard work. Things won’t come as easily as they did in your career path through the newspaper. The money undoubtedly won’t be as good, at first. You’ll have to be aggressive in pitching jobs, clear in communicating why you are the best candidate, and be open to learning lots of stuff from the business side. But in the end, if you are following your path of communicating information while designing beautiful things, and making money, it very probably will be worth it.

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1 Comment

  1. gayle grin

     /  March 30, 2009

    Thank you Ron for this interview, I really liked seeing Stacey’s latest design work.
    It is ironic to read this the same day I asked Stacey to be my Facebook friend. I was just thinking about her and then saw on Twitter you interviewed her. Lovely!

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