How to keep design smart on a tight budget with Dan Zedek

Dan Zedek put it bluntly.

“Use ignorance as a weapon,” said Zedek, asst. managing editor for design for The Boston Globe. “As journalists, our first impulse is to pretend we know what we don’t know.”

In his presentation on Friday morning, titled “Smart Design on a Tight Budget,” Zedek handed out tips and techniques for those working in newsrooms with little to no budget for design, photography and illustration.

Zedek told the audience of designers to push their traditional thinking away and just simply ask the reporter some stupid questions. That is, after all, a way to get the most direct answer. And come up with some amazing concepts.

With an emphasis on in-house graphic illustrations, Zedek provided examples of some of the best work that runs in the Globe. And after explaining how the idea was conceptualized, you sort of want to slap yourself for not thinking up that on your own. And it’s so simple, anyone could do it.

“One of the things I want to suggest is that you can sort of think your way through some pretty cool solutions with very little money or no money, actually,” he said before the presentation.

Providing a list of four main tenets to follow (which you can read below), Zedek put attendees to work by having them brainstorm ways to illustrate a cover using either a handout photo, typography, or a graphic illustration. With only five minutes to sketch up a design, groups were forced to work quickly and efficiently.

Zedek decided to go with this topic after looking at the past year at the Globe. Budgets were tight. There were talks of a change of ownership. So they had to get creative. Even though the Globe is lucky enough to have an illustration budget, they needed to be thinking cheap.

“Last year was really really tough at the Globe and at the end of it I started looking at our work,” he said. “There was some really nice stuff, some really exciting stuff, and I kept thinking, ‘how did that happen?’  and I started realizing that most of our editors were into  the brainstorming part rather than the spending money part.”

And thus began the Globe’s initiatives to keep it in-house, keep it cheap, and—most importantly—keep it smart.

Here are Dan Zedek’s four strategies to thinking of smart designs with little cash:

1. “Find the real story. Get underneath the surface.” For this, Zedek showed a couple examples, one being the Cleveland Plain-Dealer’s “Gone” cover. With ample white space and a poignant single-word headline, you’d think you had a perfect front. But after you read the text—and recall the lack of rings LeBron James won while still in Ohio—you see the deeper story: that he abandoned his hometown team for the allure of Miami. He also showed an example of an Ideas page from the Globe, including one designed by Mike Swartz (gotta give a shout out to a Daily Orange alum!).

2. “Focus on emotions.” Here, Zedek emphasized playing to the audience. When you know who you’re trying to reach, then you can reach them much better. He showed an example of a “g” cover (the daily living arts/event calendar/reviews insert in the Globe) with a cutout of big ol’ Shaq’s head and the text “Brand Shaq.” It was good, people are excited he’s playing in Boston, but what really won it over is one small detail—a bow tie underneath his chin. Making him look like the charmer he is—and the charmer Boston thinks he is.

3. “Concentrate on details. Although we all love them, not everything’s a splashy poster page.” Ah, here’s where ignorance comes into play. If you ask a lot of dumb questions, then you get more of the story. Anyone can read it. But pick that reporter’s brain and see the real story.

4. “Readers love to read. Large images are dramatic and make a strong point, but they want to read the story.” It’s as simple as that. Sometimes, the right choice isn’t always a dominating image or graphic. Sometimes, you can use the text itself to get your point across, if you design it right.