How To Use Design To Edit Newspapers / 16 октября 2007 г.

To some journalists, design is little more than cake decorating … to make pretty ... to make pleasing to the eye. That’s eyewash, says Jan V. White. In fact, it’s the opposite of what it should be: Design — functional design — is a tool to clarify whatever is being covered.

Copyright © News Design Associates Inc.

Too often design is thought of as a cosmetic that is needed after the “real” work has been done: the piece written, edited, finished. Only then it is handed over to the art department for treatment. (Those art people aren’t really editors. They are artists, for heaven’s sake … to them, out there on Cloud 9, graphic presentation means cutting our valuable copy in order to make their damn pictures bigger. Or using a weird typeface for the headline.)

Unfortunately, most reporters, writers and editors — the word people — labor under this misapprehension. Tradition, bad guidance and mis-education have propelled them into that boxed view that splits the team of communicators into two hostile camps: the word people and the visual people.

Neither likes or even quite trusts the other, and they work at cross-purposes — in the happy event that they don’t actually undercut each other.

In any case, all of them do a lot of under-the-bench muttering about each other.

How to use design for editing?

Start welding the two factions into one team whose individual members understand how vital their shared efforts are to the product’s acceptance by the public.

Clearly, design is only one of the tools of the information trade. Good presentation is analogous to good writing. Sure, a lousily written piece may hide its information in clumsy wording, just as a crummy-looking newspaper may conceal nuggets in confusing visual arrangements.

The stuff may be there, but will the readers want to dig it out? Probably not.

That’s where we have to understand our audience, whichever demographic group or social class or educational level our product may be catering to. They share one thing: their reluctance to get involved and read.

Why? Because the disastrous reality of this much-vaunted information age is overkill.

All of us are buried under an avalanche of so-called information rolling down at us from all sides, all day: movies, TV, videos, books, newspapers, magazines, corporate literature, junk mail, technical documentation.

All vie for our attention, and they are test-marketed and beta-tested and scientifically fashioned to creep up on us from behind and penetrate our subconscious from below (and make us buy).

What do all these information packets demand from us first? Our attention, our concentration, study and, worst of all, our time — the most precious, finite thing we have. No wonder we all build protective fences around ourselves.

We are afraid of getting involved, UNLESS there’s obviously something there that affects us in some way. (And that word “obviously” is the design-orientated word! We’ll come back to that.)

WHAT’S-IN-IT-FOR-ME IS THE FIRST CRUCIAL FACTOR. As potential readers, we may be predisposed toward a point of view and therefore feel good when we find out that the President agrees with us … or we are scared of cancer and are happy to find out that a cure has been found … or a new magic diet will help us lose 10 pounds overnight. So, the first technique to penetrate the reader’s protective fence is to edit and design to reveal the what’s-in-it-for-me factor.

You can even do it with hard news, which is supposed to be straight. It may be tricky to angle or interpret the hard news, but you certainly can and must do it with everything else, just as magazines do. If they didn’t, they’d fail. If we don’t, we’ll fail, because in our features we are producing magazine-type material in a slightly bigger format. (TV is swiping the news-disseminating function newspapers used to have. Newspapers are swiping the feature-report function general-interest magazines used to have. Magazines are serving narrow special-interest markets … and much of their news function and analysis function is passing to newsletters.)

On a more obvious level, the what’s-in-it-for-me aspect is, of course, taken care of with shop-window presentation — running teaser boxes about what’s inside a section on the front page. But the service-to-the-recipient attitude (perceived by the recipient as what’s-in-it-for-me) should form the handling of everything we do. We must couple exposing the what’s-in-it-forme factor with the second crucial factor.

SPEED IS THE SECOND CRUCIAL FACTOR. Few in our culture allow themselves the luxury of time. The normal attention span has been reduced to those 11 minutes between commercials on TV. We have been trained to live by sound bites. So we must couple the what’s-in-it-forme factor with speed so readers will get it fast. They’ll be happier than if you make them dig it out for themselves from a mass of background.

Most stories should be edited down to be shorter, more concise chunks, the shortest of which will probably get the highest readership score.

OBVIOUSNESS IS THE THIRD CRUCIAL FACTOR. A news item must be easy to enter, and it must be easily understood. Information turned into visual form can be grasped faster than verbal descriptions of statistics. That’s why infographics are flowing everywhere — in print from Time magazine to USA Today, visual presentations in computer-generated charts and graphs for overheads. And now in video training.

  • This is where better cropping of pictures comes in — homing in on the thrust of the story that the image is being used to translate.
  • This is where color comes in: not as superficial decoration but as a tool to organize, highlight, emphasize. Functional color.
  • This is where headline typography comes in: The size, boldness and positioning of heads helps in interpreting the relative importance of each story on the page.
  • This is also where modular page arrangement comes in, where stories in vertical or horizontal shapes, with big or little pictures, are displayed on the page for immediate recognition of what belongs with what and how long each item is.

Now let’s recognize a fact about our audience that our verbal friends hate to admit.

They always glibly talk about “our readers.” Readers aren’t really readers. At least they don’t start out as such. First they are lookers. People scan, hop and skip around, pecking here and there, searching for goodies until something catches their attention. Seldom do they begin reading at the start of an article. They enter where they damn well feel like entering. Watch how you read yourself. You are typical … that’s why we must build in as many welcoming doorways as we can. Because, once fascinated, lookers will indeed start to read.

SALESMANSHIP IS THE FOURTH FACTOR. It is also the function of design to catch and then seduce viewers into becoming readers. That’s visual salesmanship, and, like it or not, in our competition for the potential reader’s attention, we must use it or die.

EMOTIONAL INVOLVEMENT — THE FIFTH INESCAPABLE FACTOR. It’s a branch of salesmanship and of reporting. And of visual presentation. But our uninvolved lookers are humans, with curiosities, angers, sympathies — the whole range of human emotions, and we must use them. Play on them.

We know that they react faster and more actively to visual stimuli than to intellectual ones. That means photos: They are fast and easy to take in and can be emotionally involving if they are good. Hence, more space for pics, more budget for photographers. It sells papers.

GUIDANCE FOR THE READER IS THE SIXTH FACTOR. Directing the searcher’s eye to the important stuff. What is important? Defining that is a function of editing. Achieving the goal of displaying the material to the casual viewer is a function of typography, layout and design. The two work hand-in-glove to make it easy for viewers to orient themselves and find what they’re looking for.

  • Premeditated organization is the key.
  • Standardized signs are needed to announce the elements.
  • Repetitive elements ought always to be in the same place. Does that mean formatting? Yes — but only those things that make sense to format.

We work on two levels: the product level, where signs demand uniformity to orient the user, and on the journalistic level, where individual stories demand variety and freedom. Balancing the two is quite an act. Freedom is vital for non-repetitive elements. You have to be choosy — and responsible — about what to emphasize. Typography is the vital representation of tone of voice. If everything screams, all you hear is loud, conflicting noise, and nobody listens. Okay, turn the metaphor into visual terms. Messy disorganized typography and page arrangement is like static on the radio. Or call it visual pollution. Call it anything, so long as you don’t do it.

PERSONALITY — THE SEVENTH FACTOR. In this ruthlessly competitive world, it is vital that each product create its own character, both in terms of its substantive matter — what it thinks and how it says it, what its service is and in terms of its appearance. That appearance is vital to success.

Knowing who you are is no less useful to the advertisers. It is the visual context in which your information is carried. It manifests itself by adherence to style that must be protected by strict discipline. It is especially tricky for we designers to know when and where to depart from style, because we want to have fun and show off how clever we are, but every departure dilutes the precious recognition. So you only depart from it when there is overwhelming reason to do so. Every departure costs.

MONEY — THE EIGHTH FACTOR.As a marketing tool, better design is succeeding in getting accepted by the financial people who ultimately control everything we do. Design isn’t seen as a waste of money anymore. They know that a better-looking vehicle gets better attention from its readership and thus pulls more ads.

Good design has proved to be good for business. Hence, more redesigns, more color, more infographics, perhaps even more freedom for designers. No, not more freedom. We don’t need that. We need more clout.

So, in this time of positive change, what must we do to get more clout? We must sell the efficacy of design. Never ever sell a design on the basis of aesthetics — that you “like” it. That is an advantage to us, but not to our partners, who are afraid of such fine judgments.

That implies taste. And it is safer to say no than to say yes to anything unfamiliar or new. By hanging the decision on “liking,” you give them the weapon NOT to like it — and there’s no argument about that. You abdicate the decision. You have no recourse. No, we must be seen as responsible journalists who develop design as an integral element of editing.

That means we must develop our ability to explain, justify and rationalize what we want to do in words and concepts that they feel comfortable with.

We must make them see that our goals are no different from theirs, our standards are the same as theirs. We must learn to speak their language.

Only that way will we become accepted as intellectual equals and contributors to the common good. Because we visual people must join our verbal co-workers to hone our product to make it totally acceptable to our investors — the buyers.

They spend money for which they expect a certain service. We had better deliver on our promise, and they had better perceive that they are getting their money’s worth.

Design guides them to notice these vital qualities of clarity, value and speed. Those are the criteria on which good newspaper design should be judged. It has little to do with pure aesthetics. They are a given — they are the foundation on which we build. It’s like correct spelling and good grammar for the writers.

No, design has everything to do with journalism and functional expression of substance. That’s on the high level. On a lower level, it is really industrial design: styling a product that is right for its audience in its market niche.

That’s quite a job.

Internationally acclaimed as a lecturer and consulting art director, Jan V. White is also the author of many books on publication design.

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