By: Mark Fitzgerald

Top Designers Describe Their Inspirations

Lucie Lacava is hot, hot, hot.

She made Le Devoir in her hometown of Montreal the very model of modern newspaper design. After she remade The Province in Vancouver and The Ottawa Citizen, Hollinger International entrusted her with designing its first Canada-wide newspaper, the National Post. Now she’s redesigning the Chicago Tribune for its relaunch with a narrower web width, and there’s speculation she may go across the street to transform the Chicago Sun-Times once the Hollinger tabloid fixes the problems with its new presses.

When Lacava takes on the job of redesigning a newspaper, she doesn’t sweep into the executive suites with a sketchbook full of ideas and the hippest typefaces already picked. Instead, she heads for the basement.

“I go to the archives first,” she says of her method. “With every project, I like to go back and find out about the history of the newspaper. It’s just like a good physician: It’s important to know a patient’s history before you do surgery. In a way, I guess I’m searching for the soul of the paper.”

Lacava is one of many top newspaper designers you would find rooting through the bound copies. Mario Garcia is as venerable a name as there is in newspaper design – his recent work on The Wall Street Journal’s European edition was project number 433 – yet he still finds inspiration in the library. “You have to respect the past,” he says. “To me, the process must start with this sort of design archeology.”

A surprising number of newspaper redesigns come out of that research. To bring The Wall Street Journal Europe into the modern age, Garcia went back to fonts and graphic elements the paper used in the 1920s and 1930s. Lacava’s redesign of The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., resurrected a font that the paper used to cover Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic. “I thought it reflected the history of Charleston, and it could look beautiful with just a little kerning,” she says. The redesign is scheduled to launch this fall.

Everything old …

Now, wait a minute. Isn’t a graphic arts designer someone who thinks the early ’90s magazine Raygun – with its puce-on-magenta coloring and unreadable typefaces – achieved the look all publications should emulate? What happened to all those designers who told newspapers they’d better look like Web sites or they’re doomed?

That is over, newspaper designers agree. “I am sick of too much junk on the page,” says David Matt, vice president, publication design for Roger Black Consulting, which recently redesigned E&P. “I’m sick of the Internet stuff. I’m sick of Day-Glo orange. We’re saying, can we design for our readers now?”

Traditionalism even had a place in the winning entry in this year’s futuristic Society for News Design (SND) Tomorrow’s Newspaper contest. Ohio University Assistant Professor Christina Ullman proposed a satellite receiver the size of a watch that would allow users to project and read a holographic image of a newspaper – which in her vision would look very much like today’s paper.

Don’t say the word “conservative” around this crowd, which in its personal attire mostly favors the all-black artsy look. The most radical thing about newspaper designers these days may be their absolute insistence on clean, traditional looks that readers actually like.

This neo-traditionalism among designers is coming during a wave of redesigns the newspaper industry has not seen since suburban papers began adding color in the mid-1970s. Papers are transforming themselves not simply for the usual competitive reasons, but because they are moving to the narrower 50-inch web width. Designers say this is a perfect opportunity for papers to rid themselves of the many incompatible design elements they’ve accumulated over the past decade.

“What you want is consistency and clarity,” says Ron Reason, another hot designer whose makeover of the Orlando Sentinel just launched and will be followed soon by The Dallas Morning News. “Before you add something, ask yourself, how does it help the reader? And does it make the paper smarter?”

In his quest for a clean and consistent look, nothing enrages Reason more than what he calls “art heads” – that bewildering potpourri of fonts that newspaper feature sections fell in love with during the 1980s. A typical example is using an Old West font to headline a fashion feature on jeans, or running simulated handwriting over a Valentine’s Day article.

“There’s this game we play with the readers called, find the headline,” Reason says. “By themselves, they are all sort of perfectly wonderful fonts. But collectively they send a message of confusion to the reader.” Reason has a quick test for consistency: Fan the section front heads. If they are in the same font and perfectly aligned, the paper is doing its job for the reader.

Clutter cutters

Designers are declaring war on clutter across the paper – even as they concede that their own technological prowess has contributed to the problem. At the SND annual convention in Minneapolis this month, designers who judged the information graphics contest complained that in far too many entries the graphics overwhelmed the information.

“Newspaper graphics have gotten too complex,” said John Grimwade, former head of graphics for The Times of London. “I’m very worried about the sheer mega-complexity of these graphics. They were very dense, with almost no editing. It was a visual mugging.”

By contrast, newspaper designers love the approach to graphics that newspapers are taking in Latin America and Europe. At Clar?n in Buenos Aires, Argentina, every information graphic must justify its existence, says graphics director Jaime Serra. “There was an idea that the more graphics a paper would publish, the more modern it would appear to be. Fortunately, this is no longer the case,” Serra says.

Only one artist is involved in each graphic, which Serra says ensures creativity. The results are often strikingly original. A recent story about salary increases showed a loaf of bread sliced to represent how they would be distributed by income; the poorest fifth was represented by crumbs accumulating around a knife.

American designers also look abroad for inspiration – especially to Spain. Carlos P?rez-D?az, director of the Innovation design firm in Madrid, says Spanish papers also aim for consistency – although their graphic elements are far bolder than those in the United States. When his firm redesigned the 160,000-circulation Madrid sports daily AS, it wanted readers to be able to find things quickly, yet be “surprised” by stories or illustrations. Javier Errea says he worked toward a similar goal when he redesigned Marca, the 450,000-circulation national Spanish sports daily: “We put a change of rhythm in the pages. The paper can’t be just news, news, news. It has to be news, then interviews, then news by city, then international news of soccer, etc.”

While American designers are finding more inspiration from the past than their international peers do – often because Latin and European papers are relatively young – it’s also true that many are chafing to change.

“My frustration comes from top editors who think we look pretty good right now,” says Ray White, design director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock. “They tell me, ‘You’re doing a great job. And a designer doesn’t want to hear that.'”

There is hope: Just this month, The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., and The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk launched redesigns done by in-house artists and designers.

Say what?

North American designers can slip into a philosophical turn of speech that can leave nonartists confused. Almost as an aside, Lacava, for instance, describes how centered headlines wouldn’t work at The Post and Courier because “Charleston is a flush-left city.” And she says she has a “mission” to revive graphic elements that have gone out of favor, like the Dutch wrap (in which, for example. the top of the fifth column of text runs next to a four-column headline). “I like to make taboos work.”

Ron Reason says he was delighted to get the Orlando Sentinel redesign assignment because he had always wondered: “Why doesn’t the paper have that Orlando/theme park/la-la-la thing going for it?” The Sentinel proved open to a number of relatively radical changes, including abandoning its trademark pointillism-style portraits of columnists – and even dropping the “The” in Orlando Sentinel.

Designers say that what’s most important to them is acceptance not from editors or publishers – but readers. That’s one reason Lucie Lacava insists that newspapers run her redesigns past focus groups.

“If I designed for other designers and artists, I’d be too intimidated. To me, readers are the ultimate judges,” she says. “If they find something too strange, I’m not going to do it just for the glory of typography.”

Other designers such as Mario Garcia are training a new generation the same way. Every year at the beginning of his Syracuse University design class, Garcia asks students to redesign The Wall Street Journal. “They put in a red flag, some yellow here, some blue here – you know, a fruit salad approach,” he says.

At yearend he offers the assignment anew. “The best students, at the end of the year, would hardly touch it at all.”

Garcia, whose redesign of the Journal’s European edition launched last February, notes the irony in his long-time teaching exercise: “God was preparing me, sort of. For now, finally, I had the assignment.”

Mark Fitzgerald ( is editor at large for E&P.

Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher.

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