Want a more creative publication? Skilled staff? Conduct art classes

Sylvia Kolaski, Senior Art Director, and Pierrette Dagg, Creative Services Director for Crain's Detroit Business, prepare art training sessions for the staff.

Sylvia Kolaski, Senior Art Director, and Pierrette Dagg, Creative Services Director for Crain’s Detroit Business, prepare art training sessions for the staff. [Photo: Madalyn Knebel]

Often the road to redesign brings happy surprises (beyond, one hopes, a smart looking publication). Prototyping and other goal-setting can suggest workflow restructuring, clarification of roles and responsibilities, and training needs. All came about at our redesign this spring of Crain’s Detroit Business, where redesign project manager Pierrette Dagg was promoted to Creative Services Director shortly before the relaunch. She began looking for ways to elevate skill levels on the staff while making the redesigned pages even more inviting. One big solution? A regular series of cross-departmental art classes, or what she calls “Design Think Tanks,” which are already making the publication look and read better. The effort has expanded to include several sister newsrooms in the Crain family as well. Here’s my conversation with Pierrette on how that all came about and where it’s going.

What prompted you to suggest doing art classes for Crain’s Detroit Business? How did the redesign factor in to this idea?

“Everybody on my art team (marketing, sales and editorial) has a very different set of skills. That said, people are working differently, creating files differently, and sharing is difficult. Not to mention the hell that comes on when someone goes on vacation and we have to fill a gap. When I was promoted to Art Director, I took time to consider everyone’s strengths and realized we have a lot of talent and specific skills on this team. Marketing could benefit from some of editorial’s layout and typography skill. Editorial could be more aesthetically pleasing with some additional art techniques and understanding.

“With the redesign, the move toward more visuals and infographics also helped point out the areas in which we need to improve. I need everyone on my team to be able to build an infographic, create an illustration or a map, or tag-team on a project when necessary. Right now, we can’t do that, but we are learning quickly.”

What’s the format like? What were initial reactions from the participants? From your bosses? From you? 

“So far, we have learned basic mapmaking skills, simple illustration introduction, pen tool techniques, and color theory, and have participated in a HOW Design data visualization workshop to work on the ‘narrative’ of infographics. Each week we meet with a particular agenda and I create a project or two for people to complete on our own time. With the map class, I built a map beforehand, and then walked everyone through it during our meeting. We are calling these Design Think Tanks. Then, I gave everyone the parts they would need to re-create the map and they built one during the following week. The key to success here is actually creating these projects, using the tools, and staying fluent.

“In addition, I plan to tap everyone else’s strong suits. For example, this week Sylvia Kolaski, Senior Art Director, gave a color primer to the group. (Sylvia was instrumental in creating our color palette for the new Crain’s Detroit, which launched in late March.) Because everyone has different strengths, I hope to continue the group sharing and learning.

“Right now, I have my marketing team participating, as well as some editorial and web folks, in addition to a marketing person and someone in events at Crain’s Cleveland Business and a layout artist from Plastics News (a city business news and trade publication from the Crain’s stable).

“Within the first two sessions, we heard from management and outsiders about how our design is continuing to improve, even after the redesign.”

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How has the learning been applied in the publication(s), or how do you expect it might?

“Illustrative work on the above infographic (by Lisa Sawyer, published April 27, 2015) was a result of one of our classes and the workshops. One thing we learned in our workshop was simple ways to give that extra finishing touch to illustrations. Clearly this forum is working!”

How did what we heard during prototyping for the redesign, specifically feedback from focus groups, lead to the decision to commit to this training? 

“People in the focus groups said they wanted to be able to understand information easier. We included a few routine graphics, and a big infographic (similar to that shown above), just to see what people would think, and that’s what they gravitated toward. Everyone loved the visualization of data, so we stuck with it.”

Pierrette Dagg prepares materials for her classes for the staff.

Pierrette Dagg prepares materials for her classes for the staff. [Photo: Madalyn Knebel]

How do you think readers, or the Crain’s brand, may benefit from this? 

“Ultimately, the more well-versed the team is in illustration and graphic-building, the quicker we can make them. Right now, one of the biggest constraints for including more graphics is time. The more quickly and easily they can get built, we will be able to include more in the publication. Also, learning things like gestalt and visual hierarchy will ultimately help in reading and comprehension as well.”

Do you have innovative training programs in your newsroom? Email me at ron (at) ronreason.com and I’ll include it in a future blog post on newsroom training. 

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