The Designers Are Here, for Better, Not Worse

By: Steve Outing

In the early days of interactive or online publishing, the medium was very much text dominated. In the old BBS days, it was the word folks and the programmers who ran the show. Now as our industry has evolved, designers are finding their place in the new media world. That’s obvious to any World Wide Web surfer, as online interface design has become a worthy and popular profession.

More and more members of the U.S.-based Society of Newspaper Design are moving into new media, either straddling the print and online worlds at their newspapers, or moving over to work solely in newspaper new media. Jay Small, online services editor of Indianapolis (Indiana) Newspapers and chair of SND’s upcoming 1996 workshop and conference, says that a count of the SND board finds that more than half of the directors either work full time in new media or oversee new media operations as part of their jobs. Among the general membership, the portion working in new media is less, but still growing.

It’s not unusual to find a former design person heading up a newspaper’s new media department. At the Detroit News, for instance, former graphics guru Felix Grabowski heads up the paper’s Web site. And Small himself is a former newspaper art director.

Designers are naturals to move into new media, Small says, in large part because they already have considerable computer skills. The typical newspaper art department has had a computer network installed for years, with employees trained on software programs like Illustrator, Freehand, Quark XPress and Photoshop — all applications that are used in the creation of Web sites.

Newspaper Web staffs tend to be small, so except for at the largest papers, there are few full-time Web designers. Small says that print designers are being asked to help out with the Web sites, as the online staffs come up against their limitations and want to take their sites to the next level of sophistication.

For the most part, designers are up to the task, since by nature they tend to be “all-arounders.” But increasingly, SND’s leadership is being asked by its members to provide training to designers who suddenly must cope with designing for the online world. At SND’s workshop and conference in Indianapolis (October 17-19), new media is a greater emphasis than at any previous conference. Of 50 sessions, six have to do with new media/online publishing (including a half-day session organized by Knight-Ridder New Media Center design director Bill Skeet), and there are two hands-on Macintosh labs about the Internet. (Small notes that the HTML tutorials were the first labs to sell out in advance.) Two keynote speakers will talk about their transition from the print side to interactive media.

Advice to designers

Operating online is a whole different experience for a designer. Small says that doing online interface design is “more like being a software designer,” in that the designer must foremost think about how a reader is going to interact with the site and what she’s going to do next. Web site design is much about facilitating ease of navigation for readers, and setting up a structure that allows the reader to easily find what she wants.

There’s a little less homogeneity with Web site design than print newspaper design, Small suggests. SND’s annual award winners yearbook is partly to blame for the sameness of some print design, since designers see good examples in the book and mimic them in their newspapers. The best way to pick up good Web design tips is simply to watch what others are doing on the Web, Small says. And look for examples of really bad Web design and poor navigation structure, he says — and promise yourself that you will never do this on one of your Web pages.

For print designers, “learn to turn down your design inclinations a notch,” Small says. Particularly today, Web site designers must be mindful of bandwidth considerations (think about how long a typical reader with a slow modem is going to wait to see a page) and the limitations of HTML, the language of the Web. Also, online designers must be mindful of the different computers and Web browsers that readers use to view their sites, so test your designs on different platforms.

Big design, small budget

Modest staffs and budgets make it difficult for many smaller papers to incorporate good design into their Web sites. Small suggests some techniques for understaffed new media departments to overcome fiscal limits:

* Look to your parent company and leverage its assets. Organizations like PAFET (which I’ve written about in this column), a new media group formed by six medium-sized U.S. newspaper chains, exist to help their member papers be more sophisticated about interactive publishing. Chains like Knight-Ridder and Gannett have central Internet research and development units.

* Shed the technology side of interactive publishing, so that you can concentrate on content and interface design. For small papers, partner with local Internet service providers rather than load up technical responsibilities on your small staff.

* Consider templated Web site systems that can be customized. Companies like Pantheon sell Web site publishing systems and tools that automate the ongoing maintenance of a newspaper Web site and provide a well-designed framework with which to “look bigger than you are.” Automation of a site allows a smaller paper to do more and allows resources to be concentrated on content and design.

A little respect

Small sees some similarities between newspaper art/design departments and new media, in that both have had to struggle to gain respect and be taken seriously initially by newspapers’ top editors. At most newspapers, designers are more an integral part of the editorial operation; more editors now recognize that designers can intelligently discuss content as well as presentation, and that they do more than just provide “window dressing” for the news. That came from many years of educating editors and writers about the role of design in the newsroom, and from the work of SND itself in giving newspaper designers more credibility in editors’ eyes, Small says.

Newspaper new media managers and employees can probably relate to designers’ experience.

Contact: Jay Small, jsmall@starnews.com

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company.

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