The new edition

Most readers take the design of newspapers and their supplements for granted, but Jim Davies lays out three examples that help us to read between the lines

That national newspapers have any design aesthetics at all is a minor miracle. As readers, we all take for granted the speed at which they are produced and printed, the limitations of poor quality newsprint and web-fed presses, the logistics of incorporating late-breaking news and pulling together several different editions. But that’s just a fraction of the problems a newspaper art director has to handle on a daily basis.

The success of a design solution in this context has little to do with vision, technique or craft skills. It’s about understanding and playing the system effectively. That includes the existing IT system and the way the paper is run, who is responsible for what, and who is able to back up decisions that may well upset the status quo.

Often the main stumbling block to achieving a clean, progressive, stand-out product is the troops on the ground – the long-serving, long-suffering editorial staffers, who are at best sceptical about the role of design and at worst, openly hostile toward it. They tend to resent change and are suspicious of new ideas, believing, that ultimately, it just means more work and longer hours for them. And yet, winning the trust and support of these people is a prerequisite to pushing even the smallest tweaks through.

Then, of course, there’s the sheer scale of the enterprise to contend with. It’s Forth Bridge syndrome – once you’ve created and implemented design templates for 12 chunky sections and a couple of supplements, it’s probably about time to start over again. On the other hand, if you’re required to revamp a single section, you have to consider carefully how it fits with the others and whether it adequately reflects the branding and culture of the paper as a whole. Every step you take is loaded with potential pitfalls and ramifications.

If you’ve been brought in as a consultant, there’s the question of what happens after you’ve left the building. You need to ensure that your rules and instructions are robust enough to withstand daily abuse and misconstruction.

In short, it’s a tough act. To be an effective newspaper art director, you need authority, discretion, political nous, an appreciation of good journalism and, of course, the ability to design.

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