Roger Black on Ready-Media, templates and the future of design

When Roger Black and Eduardo Danilo launched Ready-Media this week—the template service for newspapers, magazines and, eventually, the Web—the announcement this week triggered distress signals throughout the design community.

“I’ve just spent much of the past 10 years teaching young designers and editors that design IS content. If you do it right,” the longtime visual journalism columnist Charles Apple wrote on his ACES blog. “I’m shocked by this. Much more so than I was the Gannett hubbing announcement last week.”

Over on the Society for Publication Designers website, a piece with the snarky headline “Just Add Water” created an avalanche of incendiary comments from some of the world’s best-known art directors and designers.

Pentagram partner Paula Scher, who is in the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame, took issue with the “cookie-cutter formats” and said that these kinds of projects in the 1980s actually made “editorially specific designs shine and spawned a decade of terrific in-house art direction.”

She continued later in the comments: “The positive result is that when generic design is permeated, regardless of its level, it ultimately encourages individualism. That’s good for designers.”

Her Pentagram colleague, Luke Hayman, saw positives in the approach, which can help publications nail the basics. “Don’t hate me,” Hayman wrote, “but I think this may not be such a bad thing.”

Meantime, there were many people, at least initially who did see it as a bad thing. We decided, instead of speculating on intentions, we’d ask the man himself what he had in mind when creating Ready-Media.

Here’s SND’s edited interview with Roger Black:

Why hasn’t such a project come to fruition earlier? There were no technical barriers to this type of business five or even 10 years ago. Why now?

Perhaps there was no real market for them until the last 18 months. There were lots of templates in the business world, and some of us built our own at publications, starting in the ’80s. The main thing is that small publishers were making enough money to pay for a good-size art department. Now, with resources tighter, they’re looking for ways to to improve their efficiency. And start-ups now have zero-based budgets.

You seem to be suggesting that templates—”Just add content” is your slogan—will benefit media shops of all types that cannot afford world-class design. Has the proliferation of template packages on the Web paved the way for a similar approach in print?

Yes, it’s really the same idea. With templates and a good content management system (Woodwing and InCopy come to mind) you can produce a small newspaper like you produce a website—but with much richer typography and attention to detail. Interestingly, with CCI and the like, the big papers have been able to do this for a while, but most use the system to build unique pages, rather than to manage pre-designed templates.

Let’s get this out of the way: You’ve taken a fair amount of criticism for introducing this template service from the design community. What’s your response, and do you worry that this will have a chilling effect on jobs for designers?

A good visual journalist will be able to find a job, even in this economy. But people get nervous about change. We always think that the way things were when we arrived on the scene is they way they ought to be. Yet change inexorably happens. We started in the era of the Linotype machine, when there were ten times as many production people at a daily paper than there were “artists.” There was big boom of newspaper design in the ’90s, which SND helped create. But with the change in the advertising business model, papers were looking to use templates before Ready-Media launched.

Ready-Media can actually empower designers to do more of the things that readers notice—to work on the visual content, rather than just re-arranging layouts. They may like doing page design, and moving away may not make them happy. But with the decline of the old newspaper business model, art directors need to think more about the readers, the subscribers to the newspaper, and less about holding on to their lifestyle. If they do, they will make a better product, build a better portfolio, and keep or get a job.

You said on Twitter that this is an opportunity to rethink methodology, not a threat. Can you explain what you mean?

The key is using a full set of templates (hundreds of them) to produce the regular layouts of a paper. You don’t have to use Ready-Media templates, you can design your own. Or hire Mario (Garcia) to design them. With templates you get the needed efficiency. And by focusing on the visual content, you can think more broadly about multiple platforms—how photos and infographics and typographical structures carry the design from print to the Web to the tablet and the phone.

Right now, Ready-Media has introduced print templates for newspapers and magazines. Who do you envision using these?

Small publications can use them for redesigns, and startups can use them to make their first dummies. Bigger organizations can use them to build on or as alternatives to show to focus groups. Some will tweak them. Some will hire us to do custom additions. Some may use them just to copy the careful style sheet system and then implement their own design. With the right templates, a big newspaper group could produce some content from a central hub—or a local paper can retain its own typography and visual branding.

The template-driven approach that Eduardo Danilo took with Reforma and then continued with the redesign of Excelsior has won wide acclaim from the design community, seeming to prove the point that this approach allows for creative solutions. Was that cultural change a difficult one for the newsrooms involved or did design professionals immediately begin to see the benefits?

Excelsior was an effective start up, so many changes were being made, the small staff eagerly took advantage of the templates and created an award winning paper every day. But we’d agree there is a lot of resistance to change in most newsrooms, and the switch to template design will take careful management.

You’re working with your old friends Sam and David Berlow, who bring a rich print and Web typography skills to the game. Can you talk about that collaboration and why you wanted to have that connection in this start-up phase of Ready-Media? And, any thoughts about making this more of a conduit or marketplace for others designers to contribute and find customers?

As well as having a great typographic style and talent, the Berlow brothers created the model for Ready-Media’s partnerships with designers. The developers of templates get a revenue share off the top, just as font designers do at Font Bureau.

Next up, according to the Ready-Media site, will be Web templates, presumably some paired with magazine and newspaper libraries. Can you talk about that step in digital design and what the company may be trying to achieve?

We’re focused on the media market, and many newspapers and magazines want a visual brand that ties their various products together. Web sites are a natural, and we expect to have them in the fall. But perhaps even sooner, we’ll introduce iPad templates that carry over the template themes. You heard it here first!

Thanks for the chance to talk about this new effort. We’re delighted to connect with SND folks on the subject. Even negative comments are good for us to hear. Hey, we remember when they didn’t want us to use Macs in the newsroom. And just as we thought desktop publishing was inevitable for newspapers, we are convinced that templates are now the way to go.

Matt Mansfield is an associate professor at Northwestern University and the co-director of the Medill School of Journalism’s Washington program. Mansfield was president of SND in 2009. Follow him on Twitter: @mattmansfield