Design Critique: Lots of visuals … too many?


Sajeev Kumar, Visual Editor of Kerala Kaumudi, the daily newspaper in the Malayalam language in Kerala, India, sent several pages for our critique discussion. Years ago I encountered, with much trepidation, the challenge of doing newspaper critiques in a language that I could not read or understand. The first time I did this was in Sao Paulo, where I visited Folha de Sao Paulo for a week to do training in the newsroom. “But I don’t read or speak Portuguese!” I protested when I was first invited. “No worries, we will have translators for you!” So, I went. And, I learned to play a game that helps me to this day, even with English-language dailies.

First, I look at the visuals on a page. I wonder, what are these stories about? What kind of feeling do they create – are the visuals telling me stories, in and of themselves? I form an impression. This is exactly what readers to, around the world – they look at the visual clues to form an impression of what the story is about, the content or the mood. (We have proven this in EyeTrac readership studies at Poynter, which I assisted with in the early 1990s. Review the most recent version of the EyeTrac research here.) Then, I ask the editors: tell me what the story is really about. Sometimes they will tell me something very different from what the story is really about! This is a common occurrence – and I ask, why did the visuals not match the story? “Oh … the photo assignment came in so late, we could not photograph the people who were actually the main focus of the story. Or, we did not have time to do graphic research. Or, the reporter told the designer what the story was originally supposed to be about, but then, she changed her focus after the visuals were created.” Sound familiar?

So, for the purposes of the critique for Sajeev, I first glanced over the pages, formed some impressions, and then considered his defense – what the stories were really about. Below are his statements, and my comments. Enjoy!

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Example 1 (above), Explanation from Sajeev: “Top photo is about the mock drill conducted by the commandos when terrorist fear arises. You can see a foreign kid crying after seeing the drill. Main story in the seven columns is about the arrest of two terrorist in Mumbai and other in the box with mobile local terrorist story. The photo at the bottom is about the school leaving examination that begins today. On the right side of the photo is a local mishap. Top story at the right side of photo is about the sunstroke in the state.”

Critique from Ron: “It may create confusion for some readers, why is this smiling sun next to this alarming photo that suggests police activity? There is a disconnect. Typically you would avoid this confusion by boxing one story, or separating with rules. If that is not your style, you might consider this: for the photo of the terrorist training, if there is no accompanying story on this page, a headline will help distinguish it as its own element. As it appears, a photo with a caption can give a meaning to the readers that it goes with the story next to it.

“For the story in the center of the page, I wonder if the photo elements might be incorporated into the graphic element that has the blue screen over it – if it is related, I suggest putting the photo inside the text box – this helps unify the package a bit.

“With the rail (index) down the left side of the page, the images are too similar in size. They compete. I also wonder: why is there some element on the weather at the very top of this index (forecast?) and also, another element (cartoon) at the bottom. Why not combine them? Readers like for related content to be packaged together; this speeds up finding and processing the information for people who are only interested in that topic.”


Example 2, Explanation: “Main is the middle story which is about the new candidates of the state ruling communist front who were selected to the Indian parliament. Top photo is about Christian spiritual function. Story on the right side of Main is about the hidden camera which is troubling the society. And story down the bottom is about the summer of the state which is a big issue these days.”

Critique: “There are eight mug shots on this page. That is quite a lot. Now, there is not anything inherently wrong with mug shots; but when I am faced with a design dilemma like this, I ask: how can I make something more? Is it possible to ‘gang up’ some of the mug shots into a simple graphic? In this case, I would suggest, yes. The three mug shots in the middle, with the lead story, could have been put into a simple box, maybe with colour screen, and more detail underneath each face. ‘Who is the person, what is their position (if different), where are they from, where do they stand on the issues, what got them voted into office,’ etc. This creates a simple entry point for the reader who might otherwise not dive into this kind of story. Sometimes you can go for a very unusual approach to the text under the mug shots: ‘What motivated them to enter politics? Who was their inspiration? (This might be inspiring to young readers.) What is the main problem in their district?”


Example 3, Explanation: “This page is about the state of Kerala’s budget. Top story is about a discussion between the youth and state finance minister on ‘Youth and the Budget’ which is conducted exclusively by our newspaper immediately after the Minister’s budget speech. The main story is on the highlights of the budget. In the box are the items which are most and least expensive. Illustration is connected with the political issues of the state and those items (like spiritual books, equipments and so on) whose price will come down.”

Critique: “This page has variety, and confidence. Nice mix of photo and illustration; horizontal and vertical elements. Terrific to include the graphic breakdown for the most and least expensive items of the budget; however, I am wondering if these elements in text should have been incorporated more with the pie charts to the right of them? Hard to say without being able to read it, but I wonder if this is the case. It is not unusual to see graphics coming out of an art department that may duplicate or awkwardly sit next to elements that might be created by another artist or on the news desk.”


Example 4, Explanation: “In this particular day there were too many big stories. One is cricketer Sachin Tendulkar’s record-breaking performance, second was India’s railway budget, and two other main happenings in the state – one is the photo at the bottom which is one of the biggest Hindu organisation’s rally and the other is the story on the right side which is about the state’s economic survey. Note there were two ads on page one.”

Critique: “Lots of great energy on this page starting with the cricket photo on the left. I like the photo from the Hindu rally, but I really think these could use a small headline, either above the photo, or, underneath the photo (above the caption). Then if it refers to related content inside, that can be mentioned at the end of the caption. One thing that helps this page, I think, is the use of the wider text on the main story – running across two columns, and in a different point size. This creates some nice texture on the page and keeps it from becoming monotonous. In any event, I think ‘too many big stories’ is a good problem to have!”

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Watch for several more critiques of India pages just before or after this post. For information on how I can provide a formal critique for your newspaper, similar to the above, at a modest cost, please email It’s easy – you send me pages via PDF, submit nominal payment via PayPal, and I produce a written analysis, which you can then share with your newsroom (and advertising and marketing as well!) perhaps bringing people together for a lively discussion for a training session that you direct. I also provide talking points for leading your training conversation. Until then … happy newspapering!

Just for fun: my photos from travels to the north of India – such a wonderful and surprising nation!

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