What we learned

The design students at the University of Missouri had front-row seats to the SND college design contest when it was judged on campus yesterday. In between shuffling pages and posting the winners, we listened to the judges had to say about the best of college design. Here are some highlights.

1. Don’t be afraid to be bold in broadsheet.
There was an obvious trend all day: Daring, conceptual tabloid pages won out over multi-story broadsheets in every category. What’s the problem with that? Most newspapers still need to put out a daily front page with more than one story on it. The judges had a great conversation about how to make big broadsheet pages interesting.
“The broadsheets we have here took a traditional approach like they see big city papers- and that gets boring,” Greg said. “They forgot dominance, they forgot impact, they forgot all the basic rules. Just because it’s a broadsheet doesn’t mean you can’t have an interesting, vibrant centerpiece.”
The judges said the best examples of broadsheets are found in international papers that use illustration to tell a story. And illustration isn’t just a drawing or photo: it’s conceptual. The best ones are a tool for story analysis. Gayle said newspapers in the future need designers with conceptual illustration skills. What newspapers offer for readers is analysis, and illustration can reflect that.

1a. Get artsy.
To learn how to create conceptual illustrations and develop creative, critical thinking skills, Reagan and Gayle recommend taking art classes while you’re still in school. Then apply those skills to news design. “Innovation often comes from stretching the creative part of your brain,” Gayle said.

2. Color: Know your presses
“Something you should pass on to everybody is that black doesn’t print well on newsprint,” Greg said. Page after page didn’t win because of reversed-out type on a black background. Proofread to make sure that these pages are legible, and remember the press will change that. And, stay away from 100 percent yellow so the judges don’t need put on sunglasses to look at a page.

3. Clean up.
Little mistakes hurt some otherwise great pages. The judges constantly used their hands to measure alignment and space, and they noticed when elements didn’t line up in the expected way.

4. Edit, edit, edit your portfolio.
And then edit it down some more. Portfolios should only show a designer’s very best work. Many portfolios in the designer of the year category were eliminated because of a few bad pages.

5. Typography killed a lot of features pages.
The judges said type was often illegible, overworked and overwrought. They preferred straightforward, clean, consistent type, and definitely not novelty fonts.



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10 responses to “What we learned

  1. It looks like something that was forgotten here was function. A lot of the winning entries and the judges comments championed art for the sake of art over any kind of story-telling or functional design. Are we journalists or are we artists or are we artistic journalists?

    Europe is daring because it sensationalizes design with bright colors and huge images. But the truly great ones, who’ve won SND time and time again, have informational and journalistic graphics and illustration not just big concept art that kills space for other content. And they do it because a hugely competitive market and commuter society.

    Colleges don’t have that. Do these art journals think of their audience? Probably yes, because they are at art schools but the personality of a broadsheet is different and the schools they come from are too. Readers don’t generally find art-deco broadsheets credible because that’s not what the U.S. has taught people broadsheets are for.

    Design isn’t about “me me me me me, I’m the designer, look what I can do.” Design is the collaboration between all the journalists in the newsroom creating a message that manifests itself in sharing a page with everyone’s work. A good designer gets out of the way by making that page legible and easy to access, not by stomping all over the place begging for attention like a child.

  2. Good to know students are ruining their journalism focus early by participating in crap like this.

    Design is, at most, 10 percent of what makes a newspaper good. The judges in this contest sound as if they have their priorities upside down and backward.

    The only useful comment I see here is to avoid hard reverse. (Of course, most designers are dumb and continue to use hard reverse; they simply don’t care if the page can be read or not? Why? They’re dumb!) The rest, such as “take art classes,” is moronic nonsense. Way to ruin the students.

  3. ssnd

    I have to disagree with Mike — the judges definitely considered the function of conceptual pages. Designs that won spoke to the subject matter and offered smart interpretation of the news, and that’s important to keep newspapers relevant. After the judging was over, Joy Mayer, Gayle Grin and I discussed how we can to apply these conceptual illustration ideas to daily news content more often. Gayle said “the only way newspapers are going to survive is to interpret things… illustration is a tool for analysis.” From what we heard from the judges all day Tuesday, broadsheet newspapers can provide conceptual interpretation of the news, the entries we had just didn’t do it. The judges also spotted hierarchy, impact and dominance problems on the broadsheet pages.

    As a designer who works on Weekend Missourian cover stories, I also know that what we publish is not an artistic statement. We spend days developing each cover concept- working with student reporters, graphic designers, and copy editors to make sense of long and complicated (but excellent) stories. We always say those pages represent the best work that the Missourian has to offer, and we don’t take the content lightly or try to over-illustrate it for the sake of decoration. The stories in our free weekend paper range from in-depth features and photo packages to newsy issue analysis: the environmental health of the Missouri river, how much money the university makes on branded product sales, the details of a sewer bond issue. We try our best to represent this content in a functional way that is appealing to our readers because these are stories that matter to them.

    – Darla (one of Tuesday’s bloggers)

  4. “Designs that won spoke to the subject matter and offered smart interpretation of the news, and that’s important to keep newspapers relevant.”

    My eyes are rolling already.

    Also let’s compare your comments:

    First: “The judges constantly used their hands to measure alignment and space, and they noticed when elements didn’t line up in the expected way.”

    Later: “The judges also spotted hierarchy, impact and dominance problems on the broadsheet pages.”

    In other words, you think college designers, many of whom are so focused on the appearance of the page that they have no idea what stories are important (nor do they care), to place elements precisely AND somehow focus on hierarchy as well? Many of today’s “professional” newsroom employees would have a tough time pulling off that combo. In college, you’ll get what we already see: a jumbled mess filled with crazy cutouts and glaring typos.

    I’m not sure why I expect better analysis from people who think all stories are “long and complicated” and that they “have to make sense of them,” as if somehow no one ever could read and interpret an article if 15 drooling design dolts weren’t present to dumb it down for them.

    Yeesh. College journalism is in terrible trouble.

  5. ssnd

    Hi there, Wenalway. Would you care to identify yourself?

    There are indeed high expectations placed on visual journalists today. Precision AND hierarchy! Sophisticated storytelling AND art! How crazy!

    We often don’t achieve everything we’re going for. Yet readers remain at the front of our minds, and even our imperfect attempts to help them find the news leave the product more accessible.

    It’s too bad that design in your world means crazy cutouts. I wonder why you’re interested in our contest?

    Joy Mayer (contest coordinator, mayerj@missouri.edu)

  6. It’ll take you little time and effort to come up with an ID.

    I guess I need to expand on my point. It’s probably twofold: (1) It seems you’re unjustly penalizing the broadsheets for not having “hierarchy.” So, in your world, a tabloid with one screaming headline and an overdone illustration consitutes hierarchy? (2) If Point No. 1 does not apply, then I fail to see how your contest does anything to help these papers with establishing hierarchy when you simply say: “All of you did this wrong.”

    And why? Chicken eye.

  7. From a little bit of intense Googling…

    He’s Robert Knilands. Well known on journalism message boards for bashing design. Do a Google search for wenalway or rknil and you’ll find plenty of posts from this guy.

    In response to, “Design is, at most, 10 percent of what makes a newspaper good,” perhaps this is true. But even if design were only 1 percent of what makes a newspaper good, the bottom line is this is a design competition, so that is what we are here to look at.

    Congratulations to the winners. It’s a good time to be a visual journalist.

  8. Very good, although I’d say the bashing is against the design-based approach. Design in itself can be useful when used properly. Newspapers don’t use it properly, as they put it ahead of all else and then use that myopia to justify any number of other bad approaches.

    And nice try with the justification there, but if design is 10 percent of the good stuff, then 90 percent of the focus should be on content. Sorry, but throwing out all broadsheet pages on their face doesn’t indicate much of a focus on content. And you can’t establish hierarchy without knowing at least a little about the content of the articles. (Reading only the first graf or just the slugline, as many designers do, doesn’t cut it.)

  9. Mark Koenig

    Based on the pages that I have seen posted online, it seems to me as though the judges were spot-on in rewarding the tabloid pages. The designs submitted by the Missourian in particular were consistently well designed and nicely conceptualized. It seems to me that the designers there should be congratulated for their outstanding work instead of questioned for their use of the tabloid format.

    It seems a bit harsh to say that some of the winning designs were celebrated as art for the sake of art. Based on the comments from the judges that stated several entries in the overall design category were tossed out for having inside sections that did not match up with the covers, it is apparent that the judges did indeed reward the functionality of design. What I took from their comments was that the winning entries were innovative and conceptual, no matter the page dimensions. And, that the majority of the broadsheet designs failed to meet the criteria of
    innovative and conceptual designs in a manner that several tabloid pages succeeded.

    Anyway, those are my two cents.

  10. “It seems to me that the designers there should be congratulated for their outstanding work instead of questioned for their use of the tabloid format.”

    The typical designer bait-and-switch. The issue — stated repeatedly — was the discarding of the broadsheet pages.

    (I often wonder how these reading comprehension issues go over in today’s newsrooms.)

    The rest is the usual cheerleading for the design-based approach, which is always based on fantasy rather than fact. People keep trying to use hard reverse because “IT SHOULD WORK!” But it doesn’t. Extrapolate that approach to 99 percent of the design-based newsrooms, and it’s no wonder today’s newspapers are error-filled messes with stories softer than Charmin and far fewer readers.

    Based on this site, I’d say students are wasting their money in Columbia.

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