5 design tips that won’t cost your newsroom more time or money

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With shrinking budgets and shrinking newsrooms, it is easy to lose sight of the importance of design when putting out a newspaper, especially for smaller newsrooms where the task of just getting the paper to bed can be overwhelming. But there are ways to refocus your staff and improve your design, without spending more time and money.

Here are five design tips I gathered from different sessions held at the Society for News Design conference in Louisville, Ky., that any newsroom can enact.

1. Plan ahead

Bad layout happens because of a lack of planning, says Mike Whitley of the L.A. Times. In his SND presentation on the paper’s annual Oscar coverage Whitley said not planning ahead for major event coverage, whether it be elections or a special series, can lead to design disasters on deadline. “That’s when the worst decisions and mistakes are made,” says Whitley.

Always make time to plan ahead for scheduled events. Review what content you will have and how it should be presented. Planning to put your headline over a large photo? Planning ahead will allow you to shoot the photo to accommodate it. Not sure if you need a kicker headline? Print out samples to see how it might look in the end. Always short on graphics or art? Thinking ahead and commissioning what you need will prevent gray design.

2. Be rich, but simple

In an attempt to make its website more beautiful and user friendly, the staff of National Geographic refocused on the emotion of their site’s design and the message it was sending. Their Serengeti Lion video interactive online bucked their traditional site layout for large, standalone videos that brought their online users deeper into the lions’ world. It is a simple design that immerses their readers in the content.

FIT TO PRINT: Picture of the Boston Globe's front page from the Boston Marathon bombing.

FIT TO PRINT: The Boston Globe had many powerful images to choose from during their coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, but they didn’t cram it all into print.

Adding too many elements can take the focus away from the message and be distracting rather than enlightening. Weigh the importance of each design element and whether it would be better to leave it out. More doesn’t mean better.

It is better to use your best picture in a great way than to jam all the photos your staff took into print. Remember, you can always showcase every photo online.

The Boston Globe took this thinking to heart when covering the Boston Marathon bombings. Rather than getting every great photo in, they edited it down to a few and only ran the very best.

3. Steal from yourself

“Look back at your work, it will give you perspective,” advised Whitley in his Oscars speech. If you have several different ideas for a project that you undertake every year, write the ones you don’t use down and refer to them the next time around. This will give you a starting point and put you ahead of the game when you begin to plan again.

And don’t be afraid to repackage an old idea. “Different doesn’t mean better,” said Whitley. “Readers don’t remember things the way your newsroom does.” If a certain design style showcases your content best for a recurring event, don’t change it because you are bored, change it only if it truly improves the experience of your content.

4. Take risks

It is OK to admit something doesn’t work, says Whitley. Stop doing things because “we’ve always done it this way,” he advised.

Instead of a main photo to illustrate your story, why not think ahead and commission artwork instead?  Why not forgo a story entirely and instead create an infographic that expresses the same information in a more interesting way?

For their pre-Oscar coverage one year, the Times decided to forgo the usual cover photos for their section and instead commissioned several illustrations that when put side-by-side created one continuous poster celebrating the awards ceremony.

In 2013, the paper decided instead of placing notable quotes from stars at the top of pages in their awards coverage section, all the quotes were posted in bubbles on a back page, which garnered them much more attention.

Taking risks could mean a drastic change in your layout, or bucking your old content management system and choosing an alternative web design or outside site to better present your content.

5. Solicit feedback

Everyone can use feedback, from leaders to the lowest man on the totem pole, and it doesn’t require long meetings. It may be as simple as posting your layout or design ideas up for all to see and asking the rest of the staff to weigh in when they can.

“Be willing to hear others’ ideas,” advised Whitley. You never know where serendipity could come from.

Try not to overreact to your work or the work of others, Whitley advised. And when you give feedback, make it constructive.

Remember, it takes everyone in your newsroom to make things great. No matter how big or small the team is.

Eileen Faust

By Eileen Faust

Eileen Faust is the online managing editor at The Mercury, a daily Digital First Media Newspaper in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. She has worked in newspapers for more than 17 years.

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