By: Robert Lockwood

Veteran Designer Lockwood Explores API’s Prognostications

The American Press Institute last year invited 25 journalists to attend its J. Montgomery Curtis Memorial Seminar on the future of newspapers. The seminar included an intriguing mix of editors, publishers, educators, designers, and a kilt-clad Scot from Microsoft who showed off an e-book.

The participants’ ideas and examples of what a printed paper in the year 2020 might look like resulted in a book, “2020: Visions of the Newspaper of the Future.” Moderator John Finneman summarized the results:

Smaller newspapers, not just in web width, but in number of pages; front-page advertising a much stronger presence than in the past.

Customized papers in both print and electronic form; free newspapers and newspapers delivered any time of the day.

A hefty dose of bar codes, briefs and indexes; multiproducts delivered in multiple languages.

Zoned publications; high-scale and humble community newspapers.

As the designer of the book, here is what I said in a foreword:

“How we think the future ought to be and how it will be rarely turn out to be the same. Economic and sociological realities and not the futurists’ visions determine the result.

“Surprisingly, the 2020 participants take into account many of these realities. Their view of the future went beyond how a newspaper in 2020 might look to how a communications company of the future (and indeed present) should act.

“Two major and opposing themes emerged: Killing trees has no future; digital does.

“The nagging question of newspapers’ existence in the year 2020 remains unanswered; 20/20 vision is always better in hindsight. It is my experience that questions worth asking seldom offer neat answers and themes worth pursuing rarely offer neat endings, happy or otherwise.”

What strikes me now, reviewing the participants’ essays and examples of their front pages, is how much more interesting in content and design they are from what you’ll find in American newspapers.

Designing interests

If the 1970s and 1980s saw a heightened interest in newspaper design in the United States, the 1990s witnessed a marked decline. Not so long ago, innovations – not only in design, but also in content and news coverage – were the norm. All this, of course, has changed for reasons too complicated to tackle here. The talk of the town these days is the 50-inch web and, well, the Web.

Today, you need to look to Europe for interesting developments in news design. The good news is that journalists there are enthusiastic about exploring new strategies in storytelling, connecting with readers and, in the case of the Web, viewers. There is a bias for arts and for design in particular, which I think is a byproduct of European culture and education.

In the United States, however, as newspapers become multimedia organizations and news folks continue to morph from journalists to personalities to content providers, more pressure is put on the working stiff’s time. Less time is spent gathering and presenting the news.

What we frequently end up with, however, is decoration masquerading a thin news report, but with links to the Web. There are serious economic ramifications: A decline in readership results.

Now here’s the point I’m trying to make. I am completely committed to the idea that news organizations must embrace new marketing strategies and continue to make profits. At the same time, I don’t think something disguised as progress should make us less adventurous and pull back from the very important and exciting journalism advances we’ve made in the past.

Recently I had a conversation with Bill Strump, the designer of, among other things, the Aeron chair, and author of “The Ice Palace That Melted Away,” a book on restoring civility and other lost virtues of everyday life. He said that when he was young, the designer George Nelson told him that to be a good designer, “you need to study life, not just design.”

People sometimes confuse design as an expression of the newspaper’s personality. That’s style. Design is more about planning, organization and finding order in news and information.

The page as life

Consider this: In 1996, Bertlesman acquired the Berliner Zeitung, brought in a new editor who oversaw the hiring of more than 60 new journalists, among them some of West Germany’s best and brightest, and bought a new pagination system and new presses, spending $20 million on a relaunch that included a new design.

Early on, the new editor-in-chief, Michael Maier, met me in Maine to talk about the project. He asked me if I would come to Germany and help change the aesthetics of German newspapers. On my first visit to Berlin, he arranged an agenda designed to help me better understand the city, its history, culture and citizens. One day I toured the city with the arts editor, an architect, and a city planner.

We discussed Berlin in terms of its city planning, architecture, and the culture and ideas on which they were based. On another day, I traveled with a social scientist, political commentator, and journalist to discuss social forces that shaped the city.

Maier believed you need to study life, not just journalism. He recognized that the path to good news design begins with recognizing the diversity and complexity of the world we are covering and with understanding that design is an inherent part of the communicative process – something more than mere decoration.

A year later, and after many discussions with staff and editors, we produced a series of prototypes that, after being tested with reader focus groups, led to the final design. The prototypes had added value in the process. The editor used them when showing prospective staff his vision for the newspaper. Afterward, he told me that the prototypes convinced many of the journalists he was trying to hire to join the newspaper – the prototypes made our vision concrete. In addition to redesigning the newspaper, we redesigned the layout, production, and design area of the newspaper.

All this is by way of background to suggest that, if newspapers are to survive in the future, they must, in Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s words, “master the art of change,” by creating a management climate that encourages new procedures, new possibilities, and new ideas. In the API book, John Finneman concluded his summary:

“Among the greatest challenges to be met by newspaper companies will be the creation of new business models, new and varied products reaching differing audiences, finding and keeping the necessary people to do the tasks needed to be done, and addressing at least one nagging question: What happens to the newspaper as a mass medium?

Lockwood has worked with more than 100 news organizations worldwide. His projects include newspaper redesign, as well as content, operational, and newsroom design changes. His most recent work has been at the Berliner Zeitung and the Financial Times Deutschland, both in Germany, The Globe and Mail in Toronto, and Kleine Zeitung in Austria. He is a co-founder and first president of the Society of News Design and speaks at many international design workshops; he is the author of “News by Design: A Survival Guide for Newspapers.”

Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher.

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