An open letter on the value of Design

Like many of our colleagues, we read with concern this week’s announcement of Gannett’s plans for regional hubs to build pages for many of their newspapers. This plan is similar to others that have sought to template publications and centralize parts of the creative and production process, or, in some extreme cases, eliminate design and graphics departments.

We all are looking for ways to eliminate inefficiencies to ensure a future for newspapers. However, as leaders of the Society for News Design, we would like to challenge some assumptions at the core of this (and similar) plans, as well as offer some ideas to consider at this critical time — a time when there is a need for relevancy, re-invention and creative solutions.

Beyond layout: Design thinking

This is not merely an aesthetic consideration — but also one of product value and usefulness. If one considers the sole value of design to be making pieces fit on pages, an “assembly line” solution may seem attractive. However, architecting publications to meet reader needs is something more complicated, nuanced and essential.

We see design as identifying and understanding user needs and business requirements, conceptualizing solutions and crafting products that directly address those needs.

Good designers are really visual editors who have a mastery of information graphics, storytelling and story layering forms, illustration, photo editing, typography, use of color as a navigational tool, which are used to achieve these goals. If designers are used solely as decorators or mechanical paginators, their publications are not leveraging their full value.

This is an industry that has been change-resistant and fiercely protective of the status quo. We are at a critical moment. Now is the time to embrace innovators in all roles – not abandon them in favor of homogenization. We would caution our colleagues against promoting a creative “brain drain” in our industry at a time when innovation is so critical to our survival.

Effective designers make the complex easier to understand. We organize and prioritize information and make it accessible. We are early adopters of technology and therefore valuable teachers, developers and inventors. We have been at the forefront of newspapers’ major innovations in printing and new platform development. It is our responsibility to be relevant – and valuable – in our newsrooms, but we need to retain a place at the table.

We are vital in story design. The danger of excessive templating is that it eliminates the conversation about what is the most appropriate form for the story to take, in terms of serving the reader with as much information as possible in the clearest, most memorable way. This is what alternative storytelling achieves, and media companies that have embraced this approach have seen proven gains with readers in terms of how they are received. There is enormous potential here, but it requires intelligent design.

Therefore, creativity should be a driver – not a casualty – of the publication evolution. News designers are uniquely qualified to fulfill the promise of collaboration and innovation needed in this environment. Tim Brown, the CEO and president of IDEO, often talks about the relationship between business strategy and design: In order to do a better job of developing, communicating and pursuing a strategy, you need to learn to think like a designer.

The value of proximity and local-ness

Certainly, there is a place for templating and streamlining. In that context, for pure production, Gannett’s moves may make some sense. Yes, newspapers could centralize or semi-automate some routine functions to drive down those costs. If done correctly, this could free resources to concentrate on content creation and more challenging design issues. While some parts of the paper should be done more quickly, others need to be architected more carefully to maximize impact and understanding.

This is where we see a potential gap.

First, the capacity for front-end design thinking appears to be absent in this equation. At our best, reporters, photographers, graphics reporters, editors and designers collaborate to create effective, cohesive stories. We know from industry research that readers are drawn to stories with visual components and spend more time with them. If we separate the collaborative parties, the planning and reporting at the core of visual journalism will be hampered. Front-end collaboration and shaping becomes much more difficult with this remote communication paradigm.

Second, there’s a high danger of detachment from the needs of readers, who look to us to prioritize and curate information for them. Without a firm understanding of the communities we serve, it seems inevitable that these publications will be compromised. If our information is not seen as authoritative and unique, we lose our diminishing competitive advantage in the crowded information marketplace, where many things are free.

And, we fear for the survival of the “magic” – the surprises that delight readers. When it’s working correctly, design takes our best offerings and tunes them into a final outcome worth more than the sum of the parts. Imagine for a moment how different last week’s much-celebrated Cleveland Plain Dealer front page about LeBron James’ departure might have been were it produced hundreds or thousands of miles away, by a staff tasked with deadlining dozens of other publications — simultaneously.

Multi-platform publishing

While we agree that simplifying the assembly of the newspaper can be part of a smart strategy, if we want to work in many media, we need smart ways to direct content to many platforms. We look at it this way: The media is the message; the design is the messenger.

Newspapers at last have begun to learn: A print report posted online does not make for a very successful website. And yet, don’t newspapers’ multimedia strategies ultimately depend on scaling content from one set of reporters across platforms?

In a Web-first world, reporters need to be focused on efficient, economical information delivery. As their partners, they need print designers who can shape, augment, elevate and craft their material to create rich, vibrant newspapers. That’s a collaborative process, not simple assembly. It frees reporting resources to focus on time-sensitive, template-driven formats like the phone and the Web, while allowing their newspapers to deliver analysis and design in print.

Achieving the efficiencies of a single content center probably requires more, not fewer, designers. As we continue to compete for our readers’ attention with multiple channels, it is easy to make the case that our essential roles as information architects and shepherds of user experiences have never been more important.

And, while we are concerned about corporate decision making, we also know the onus is on designers to broaden their skill sets, to embrace digital and to prove their own worth as journalists. Coupled with the centralization trend have been drastic cuts in training. We urge Gannett and all media companies to restore training as a vital component of newsroom culture, so that forward-thinking organizations such as SND can help create a robust future of journalistic innovation.

Sincerely,

Kris Viesselman

President, Society for News Design
Managing Editor and Creative Director, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Stephen Komives

Executive Director, Society for News Design


UPDATE (July 16): Gannett responds:

Kate Marymont, vice president/news in the community publishing division of the Gannett Co. Inc. responded directly to me regarding the open letter I penned with Stephen Komives, SND’s executive director, following Gannett’s announcement of the formation of centralized design centers. Ms. Marymont is charged with guiding the plan.

She provided some insight on Gannett’s strategy and also extended an invitation to SND.

“I think that your goals and our goals are not so far apart” and “I hope that SND will work with us,” she wrote.

Ms. Marymont and I had a brief telephone call and agreed to propel the conversation. Next week, we will begin that dialogue.

Additionally, you’ll find a Q and A between Jonathon Berlin and Ms. Marymont on SND.org in the next few days.

We are encouraged that Gannett is seeking input from SND leadership – as advocates for quality visual journalism – as they shape their company’s future. Obviously, their actions will have a significant impact on our industry and newspaper readers.

We will provide updates on our progress. — Kris Viesselman