IFRA asks: What’s the state of news design?

Brian Veseling, Senior Editor of the IFRA magazine “Newspaper Techniques,” wrote recently to ask me a few questions about the state of the art of news design and redesign. Here are his questions and my answers:

1) How has newspaper design evolved in the past few years and how much do you expect it to change in the next two or three years? Do you expect the changes in the near future to be radical ones or more a matter of fine-tuning of what’s being done today?

In the last few years, the waiting period between redesigns has condensed dramatically. It used to be every 10 years (more or less). Then it seemed to become every 5. Now, some newspapers, even big titles, are willing to redesign every 1-2 years. (Chicago Sun-Times being one that just recently retooled, junking a nice redesign about 3 years ago.) This is caused by
increased desperation by publishers to reach eroding markets; increased tolerance by readers who are now used to designs that change yearly, monthly, maybe even weekly on the web; and of course, the need to adjust for smaller page sizes, a trend that continues.

Within the next 3-5 years, I would not be surprised to see the formatting and templating of newspapers to take off; i.e. increased standardization of layouts to reduce costs of design and editing staff. Newspaper designers and art directors won’t want to hear that, but I think it’s coming. I never felt strongly that designs had to radically vary from market to market, to reflect local tastes in typography or color palette, for example. The global standardization of blog design, for example, show
that readers go for content, not “new” fonts or dramatic color palettes; readers online have proven that design variations don’t have the importance that many print traditionalists have long suggested.

2) You have worked on redesigns outside of the U.S. as well as spoken at journalism institutes in several countries. Do the basic principles for good newspaper design apply everywhere, or are there some major differences depending on the country and culture?

Of course some alphabets are different, and some cultures read from right to left. But every culture I have visited has shown a voracious appetite for all things visual and graphical in recent years. Gulf News of Dubai, U.A.E ., whose redesign I assisted with several years ago, went from 0 to 60 in the area of art direction and graphics and a dramatically improved newspaper has been the result. It is now one of the regular top winners in design competitions worldwide, and the changes have brought amazing attention to the quality of its content as well.

3) What key points should newspapers keep in mind when undertaking a redesign?

You may wish to review this entry on my web site, which answers many questions on this topic.

In addition to this, I’d add: newspapers must keep in mind the dramatic competition for reader attention, first and foremost. Keep the design clean and orderly. Navigation must be lightning fast and readability must be pure. Staffs worldwide have lots of work to do to move away from the long-form, inverted pyramid narrative style of storytelling and get better at layering, segmenting, “chunking up” of text – nontraditional story formats.

4) What advice do you have for the average newspaper designer who wants to become a better one? (And here I mean the in-house staffers who lay out the newspaper night after night).

Stick to the rules of your newspaper, the style guide, if there isn’t one.

If there isn’t one, ask what the standards are to which you should be held. Perhaps volunteer to help create it, clear up any inconsistencies or misunderstandings of how the newspaper is to be put together. Focus on clear page layouts, dramatic selection and sizing of photos (recently reaffirmed by the new Poynter Eye-Trac results as something readers are drawn to), and the creation of glance boxes and infographics, even simple ones.

Have an open, honest critique session, perhaps over lunch or dinner once a week or at least once a month, so pages can be reviewed. A supervisor should attend and offer up the best examples as well as what is not working, and explain why.

In lieu of this, find a mentor, either inside the newsroom or at another newspaper, who will offer this periodic review of your work. Honest feedback, wherever you get it, is really the only way to get better.

5) You spent five years as Director of Visual Journalism at Poynter, and they have recently released the findings of the EyeTrack07 study, their first major study of this kind in 16 years regarding print newspapers. How much influence on newspaper design do you expect their findings to have?

I think the biggest change may end up being an increased adoption of alternate, easy-to-read story forms. Short summaries with pullouts, magazine-style, that serve various audiences quickly. The new research proves that readers respond to this kind of information, and retain knowledge more readily than from traditional, long-form storytelling.

6) Are such findings – based on a study of newspaper readers in one country – useful to newspapers in other countries as well?

They will be useful to editors of English-language newspapers around the world.

7) To what extent will the print newspaper of the future be a daily magazine? Do you see this as a developing trend?

Three developments suggest that magazine formats may be on the way: 1) the shrinking of newspapers from broadsheet to Berliner and some even smaller, in many markets; 2) increased concern about falling profits and rising expenses, newsprint being chief among them; and 3) the nascent appearance of PDF newspaper editions in letter-sized format that readers can print out in the afternoon and consume on their commute home from work, in urban markets.


8) What changes would a normal daily paper have to make to become a daily magazine?

The biggest challenge would have to be advertising. Already fickle print advertisers (especially broadsheet) will balk at giving up one of the true benefits of newspaper advertising: the tremendous size when compared with any other form of personal media (magazines, but also online, cell phones, and such). Not without drastic cuts in ad rates would this happen easily.

Finally, multi-section newspapers (broadsheets, mainly) would have to swallow hard before telling traditional families that they no longer may be able to separate sections of the paper to distribute around the breakfast (or dinner) table. But so many conventions of newspaper thinking have gone by the wayside that maybe this will too.

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