AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 1996

Designer Papers   

Design experts have revolutionized the look of America's newspapers. Color photographs, informational graphics, digests and teasers dominate front pages everywhere. But is the result too much homogeneity and too little surprise?

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     

FOR OVER TWO YEARS, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Graphics Editor Tracy Collins toyed with an idea planted by one of the newspaper industry’s preeminent design wizards, Mario R. Garcia. Collins loved the idea the first time Garcia showed him a prototype at a design seminar. Garcia initially came up with the concept for the St. Petersburg Times' Tampa edition. The paper never adopted it, but Collins never forgot it. This September he got a chance to experiment with Garcia's vision.

The front page of the first edition of the Post-Gazette's Sunday paper, which appears in news racks around 10 a.m. Saturday, would contain no news stories. Instead, it would feature colorful teasers and short refers to the inside of the paper--classified advertising, grocery coupons, sports previews, real estate ads, TV guides and, of course, the comics. Some might say the Post-Gazette's editor, John Craig, committed journalistic heresy when he gave Collins the go-ahead to design a front page that had little to do with news.

The Post-Gazette's revolutionary page one first appeared on September 8--with half of the 70,000 Saturday street sale copies for Sunday using Collins' design and the other sporting a traditional news front. The paper plans to test the concept for a year.

"You have to be in touch with what is actually selling your newspaper and not be afraid to promote it," Collins says.

Collins couldn't wait to show the novel front page to his mentor. At the October convention of the Society of Newspaper Design in Indianapolis, Collins cornered Garcia just after he'd given the keynote address and showed him two copies. Garcia loved it. "You're doing the experiment," he said excitedly. "It looks really good."

Collins confessed he'd clung to the idea Garcia planted at an American Press Institute seminar in Reston, Virginia, in 1994. "God bless you," Garcia said, smiling.

For Collins, it was like getting God's blessing. In the newspaper industry, Garcia is at the top of anyone's list of the best people designing newspapers these days. They brag at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that none other than Mario Garcia helped them redesign their papers. Hiring Garcia for a redesign is a bit like having Calvin Klein design your wedding dress.

But the truth is Garcia isn't doing much work in the United States anymore. Most of his clients are in other parts of the world. Garcia, who flies a million miles a year, spends more time outside the U.S. than in. He's working in parts of the world that are just beginning to explore the use of color and informational graphics.

American newspapers have long been a guiding light in design for their counterparts elsewhere. But now there's a sense among designers that the look of American newspapers has plateaued, gone flat, lost its element of surprise. It may now be a more stimulating challenge to do a dramatic redesign in Switzerland or Latin America than to tweak a domestic paper's sports pages. Few newspapers dare to try anything as radical as the Pittsburgh experiment.

Garcia, who wrote the gospel on the subject, "Contemporary Newspaper Design," believes newspapers have lapsed into a lethargy that's made them "homogenized, sanitized and decaffeinated." "Newspapers all went for one look," says Garcia, who has designed 330 newspapers in 32 countries. "It's just the whole idea that if one newspaper does something nice, or a television situation comedy does something that becomes a big success, everyone copies it. But only one is the original. The others are nice. It's how it is in America."

There's a tremendous amount of similarity among papers. Witness the proliferation of front pages featuring sky boxes, a dominating color photo and left-hand indexes. New technologies, especially Macintosh computers and presses that can print vibrant colors, have provided newspaper designers with the means to push the limits, albeit not always successfully.

"What occurred over the past decade was a preoccupation with the tools of design and the new equipment," says Dale Peskin, deputy managing editor at the Detroit News, who is responsible for the paper's news design. "Everybody added new kinds of typography and color. I've worried that we've designed the news and the community out of our newspapers. What's left for newspapers is to really capture their sense of place and who they are."

Perhaps, though, what's more compelling--and challenging--to newspaper designers is creating a look from scratch for Web sites. The American newspaper model "is now a little dated," Garcia says. "Most American newspapers are very attractive, and they follow a pattern that is good. But at the same time, nothing extraordinarily new is happening with the printed edition. Wonderful things are happening with online editions."

Yet the question of "What's left?" still resonates at newspapers. Most of the nation's 1,500 dailies have gone through a major redesign of some sort, and almost all use color and informational graphics. The question confronting editors and designers is: What should newspapers look like at the start of the 21st century, and how can they get there?

"I think we've let our tools just shape us," Peskin says. It's time, many say, to regain control of the tools and begin to use them in a more sophisticated way.

"What's necessary is to rein in design," says Edmund Arnold, known in graphics circles as the father of modern newspaper design. "Take three breaths, pause, and then ask, 'What is our job?' Is it our job to produce pretty pieces of paper? Then we ought to work for Hallmark. Our job is to communicate. Good design is simply a package in which we deliver some information. The content must always be more important than the package."

CUBAN-BORN MARIO GARCIA, 49, joined the newspaper world nearly three decades ago, starting out as a reporter at the Miami News after graduating from the University of South Florida on a journalism scholarship in 1969.

"I must have been there two weeks and I realized that I was more fascinated by how the pages were put together than by the whole notion of going out and reporting the news," recalls Garcia in his Tampa office. "I would take the bus home and, like a voyeur, watch how people would read newspapers.... I would take the pages that I loved and study and study them in sort of an obsessive way and try to figure out what I loved. There were no books on newspaper design. There were no courses on newspaper design. I would go home and sit with scissors and paste and redo the pages. I still do that. Now I do it on a paper napkin as I'm flying places."

For a long time scissors and paste were staples in newsrooms. Then in the 1980s, computers began to redefine the way American newspapers are put together, and color photography and graphics became a major presence on front pages. Color, of course, had been around for years, but using it was difficult and time-consuming.

The emergence of color in the mid-1970s "marks a big revolution," Garcia says. The following decade marked the advent of informational graphics--the use of colorful reader aids to highlight important information that might get lost in a story. Informational graphics--charts, maps, tables, diagrams--became an integral part of storytelling. While USA Today, which debuted in September 1982, didn't invent infographics, its heavy use of them played a major role in making them a key element of the American newspaper.

"And that was another real revolution," Garcia says--one that could only be carried out on computers. It required a sophisticated, powerful weapon in order to prevail, however, and it came in the form of the Macintosh computer. As soon as it was invented in 1984, it began to change the way newspapers presented themselves. Peskin calls what ensued "Mac rapture."

The Mac, says David Gray, executive director of the Society of Newspaper Design, allowed newspapers to edit graphics from other outside sources, such as the Associated Press or the New York Times. "You could edit it on the Mac just like copy editors edit two wire stories together into one," Gray says. "Before, if you wanted to change the graphic in any way, you had to do it by hand."

And pagination--laying out newspaper pages via computer--has also dramatically changed the newspaper industry in the last 15 years.

While the Macintosh and comparable technology have revolutionized page design and graphics, they've also brought another huge change to newsroom operations. Printers, for the most part, are gone. In their place are college-educated graphic artists, news artists, illustrators and page designers, often called visual journalists. Ideally, a visual journalist combines the skills of an artist and an editor. During the mid-1980s, the title of assistant managing editor for graphics became commonplace.

"I think no other group in our newsroom has the potential to have a bigger impact on readers in this decade than designers, graphic artists and photographers, because they are adapters," says Marty Petty, now the Hartford Courant's senior vice president and general manager, who carried out a study on newspaper design for the American Press Institute in 1988. "They are visionaries. They are able to see the big picture much faster."

During the early 1980s, there was perceptible tension between "graphics people" and "word people." Communication was limited; neither "side" really understood or seemed to care what the other did. But the situation has evolved as reporters have come to realize that sophisticated graphics can enhance story play and attract readers. A more interdisciplinary approach is taken at most good newspapers, and new relationships have been forged among copy editors, photographers, reporters, editors, artists and designers.

But it's been a long fight for many in the graphics field to win the respect of newsroom colleagues. "I think there's finally a recognition that designers are partners," Peskin says. "Newsrooms are tough places. Credibility is hardly easily won. Designers had to fight for it."

SO IN THE 1990s, the world of newspaper design is vastly different than it was three decades or even a decade ago. There's a new breed of journalists who can turn dull statistics into graphics that sing. Articles are presented dramatically with the idea that photos and informational graphics are as important to a story as the writing.

But along the way, say critics, designers and editors sometimes have gone overboard. "We haven't reached paradise just because the job is easier," says Arnold, who has been involved in the redesign of some 600 publications. "We are turning liberty into license," he says, adding, "This is heresy for me to say. I made my reputation as a newspaper designer and one doing things considered radical for their day."

Arnold and others believe that many newspapers have used color extensively simply because they could. "We use so much color that it becomes confusing," says Arnold, who lives in retirement in Roanoke, Virginia. Arnold says that when he looks at page one of his hometown paper, the Roanoke Times, "I don't know where to start. After I read one story, there are no guideposts nudging me on."

He'll get no argument from Times Associate Editor Roger Holtman. In fact, the paper is in the midst of a redesign scheduled to debut early next year. "I really agree with Ed," Holtman says. "I, myself, think we are using color in ways I don't particularly like. In the redesign, our color palette will be very limited."

Says the Detroit News' Peskin, whose paper recently won the Society of Newspaper Design's award for overall quality of design and content for large papers, "People in newsrooms spend more time worrying about what color to use than writing a good headline. What's really important is the news and headlines."

Not only did newspapers go a little crazy with color, but also with graphics. Like kids with brand new toys, designers couldn't stop experimenting with the cool new tools at their disposal. Robert Lockwood, a leading newspaper designer, recalls attending a seminar shortly after the Persian Gulf War. He found himself confronted with a wall of splashy, colorful front pages obviously assembled to impress the man who has designed more than 30 newspapers. Lockwood was underwhelmed.

"A lot of times people don't know what design is intended to do," Lockwood says. "During the gulf war, you just saw mega-graphics filling up pages with Marvel comics of planes swooping down. Visually, the people in charge accepted a Marvel comics version of the war on the front page. If a story were written the way the graphics were presenting the information, the writing would have had too much flourish and not been accurately telling the story. No editor would have allowed such a story on the front page."

Lockwood and others believe that editors must scrutinize the work of designers as rigorously as they do stories. To Arnold, problems stem from the fact that editors don't trust their judgment about design enough and are less likely to second-guess their graphics people.

"Picture people are making decisions that the word people don't know enough about to veto," says Arnold. "Good art now will put a six-legged camel on page one and bump a solid story someplace else."

Another problem, designers say, is that their handiwork is often set in stone. Many papers adhere rigidly to the game plan and, as a result, look the same every day. Garcia believes newspaper design is now 90 percent formula and 10 percent surprise, "allowing for very little room for someone to do something creative."

Another leading designer agrees. "The element of surprise and unpredictability isn't there," says Lockwood, now working on a newspaper redesign in Bangkok. And, without the unexpected, "you have a very boring newspaper or work of music. When you are a designer, you come in and freeze the ice in terms of structure and architecture. But you just freeze it enough so journalists don't fall through. But they can do acrobatics on top of it. You need internal logic. But on top of that you need emphasis and bursts of surprise."

Some papers do that well, he says, citing the Chicago Tribune (also a Garcia favorite) and Minneapolis' Star-Tribune. Some papers don't. (Lockwood won't name names.)

The problem is compounded by the fact that, when it comes to newspaper design, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. "The cloning of a newspaper design, unfortunately, is a practice that is done all too often," says Jim Jennings, president of the Society of Newspaper Design and a Lexington, Kentucky-based designer. "I spend most of my time as a design consultant outside the U.S., and I've seen more variations of USA Today than I want to."

A certain approach, he adds, "may have worked in one city, but fails miserably in the next."

But Lockwood says there's nothing new about homogeneity in newspaper design. "Newspapers have always looked the same," he says.

It's not unusual for an editor trying to boost sagging circulation to go the redesign route. But designers warn that that won't help if the paper's content isn't compelling. "Just changing the design is like plastic surgery," Garcia says. "It changes your nose but not your personality."

AS FOR THE FUTURE, Mario Garcia is not so sure there are large changes in store for American newspapers. "In the 1990s, we already have color," he says. "We have designers everywhere. Every newspaper has an art director. The color's been perfected. The infographics are perfected."

In his view, the action is moving into cyberspace, in the design of online newspaper sites, venues that, in his view, should not simply replicate print. "We should no longer call ourselves journalists or newspaper designers," says the man whose name is virtually synonymous with newspaper design. "We are going to go into the next century as information designers."

He may be right. So many designers are venturing online that a name change for the Society of Newspaper Design appears inevitable. President Jennings says it's expected to switch to the Society for News Design in the spring.