Seeing Double

My favorite part of grocery shopping is meandering out of the store with my new purchases swinging beside me, taking in the sweet satisfaction of my own, money-guzzling independence. And then there’s that delicious moment when, as I’m flipping open my awesome switchblade-style car keys (one of the many perks of owning a bug), I pause to flip through the stack of newspapers sitting beside the ATM and coins-to-cash machine.

I’m always brainstorming ideas for design improvements for The Elm, so even if I don’t have time to read any of the stories, I at least scan the front pages for an inspirational information box or graphic. We’re a tabloid sized paper, so we can’t copycat too many layout ideas even if we wanted to, but occasionally I stumble across something that sparks my imagination and makes me want to zip right back to the Publishing House and play with inDesign.

This weekend, while I was shopping with the family during my Father’s Day visit home, the familiar pile of papers caught my attention, and veered away from my parents’ preoccupation with a finicky self-checkout machine to do some front page browsing. The first that caught my eye was The Washington Post. As a D.C. regular, it holds particular interest for me, and always jump at the chance to read about one of my favorite cities in one of my favorite forums. The photos were, of course, intriguing and strong, and the design was crisp and clean.

The front page for The Washington Post’s last Sunday issue.

Satisfied, I investigated the other publications on the shelves. It’s not every day that a grocery store in Frederick, Md. stocks The New York Times, so I picked up the thick ream of paper for a quick perusal.

And the Sunday front page for The New York Times.

If it weren’t for the differing titles, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the two newspapers apart.

Both had a dominant feature photo on the lefthand side of the page. Both had a main, two-column article to the right of the photo. Under the photo, both featured two stories, a one-column and then a more prominent three-column.

Both layouts worked, but I was struck by how the two front pages were virtually identical. I hate to accuse the designers of being unimaginative, but I was certainly disappointed. Here I was, a young journalist hungry for inspiration and innovation, and I found myself glancing at two of the country’s most respected publications, both with the same, standard front page.

The brighter side of my observation is that there’s still consistancy in elements of design. In the upheaval of journalism so many of us are trembling under right now, it’s nice to know that print designers are sticking to the same, effective, time-tested techniques. Both front pages boasted a dominant photo, a clearly dominant story placed above the fold with a bold, strong headline, less prominent stories lower on the page, and other elements to spice up the look of the page, such as subheads and info boxes.

I never got any official training in layout or inDesign. I learned the art of Adobe through trial-and-error in high school, so I’ve developed my own, very personalized style. I’ve strengthened my skills as a news editor these last two years in college, working on a weekly news cycle instead of a sporadic schedule from high school. When you’re designing the same four pages of a section week after week after week, it’s easy to get into a rut. By the second semester of my junior year, layout had become formulaic, swapping old stories for new ones and doing simple rearrangements of text and graphics.

During our trip to the Associated Collegiate Press conference in my spring semester, however, I remembered why I love design. I love it because it can be artistic. I love it because there’s a concrete, definite goal (getting all the stories on the page) but a designer has the freedom to use his or her skills to make a page as effective and aesthetic as possible. The speakers at the ACP conference reminded our burned out college brains to bring some life back into our newspapers, to take risks and try radical design concepts. We’re students after all; we’re at school to learn, and what better way to learn than to try something new, fail, and try again?

We came back and electrified our design. We scrapped our old, horizontal “In this Issue” bar and tested out new design methods with it each week instead. We used color blocks and shading, different font sizes and styles. We integrated cutouts and treating the masthead as something unchangeable and permanent. Some issues were better than others, but people noticed out hard work. We got more compliments on our newspaper those last few months than we had all year.

I understand where those newspaper designers whose work I reviewed last weekend were coming from. There are conventions we use as designers. They’re conventional for a reason: They work. Those guys in D.C. and New York know what they’re doing. They’re getting paid to make pages look clean and effectively showcase photos and stories.

I feel pretty damn lucky to still be in college. I’m not getting paid to be perfect. In fact, I’m hardly getting paid to work at all. I’m on staff to learn, so I’m going to take as many risks as I can.


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