The Onion’s design director on iPads, UX, and those miserable looking people in the Onion’s quote-opinion pieces

Today, as part of SND’s Year-Long Conversation, Veronika Goldberg is the Onion’s Chicago-based design director takes a few minutes to talk with us and tell us. “Everyone is certainly quirky and wonderfully unique. Nothing is off-limits, so unlike most office environments, individuality is encouraged,” Veronika said.

Give us a brief summary of what you do/who you are.

I’m the design director for The Onion and AV Club in Chicago, focusing mainly on the interactive, web-based facets of both brands along with designing for user experience and interaction.

Favorite gadget? Favorite non-gadget object?

My fairly recent iPad investment, which I resisted for too long has turned me from a skeptic into an addict. I wasn’t able to truly appreciate usability before its addition into my daily life.

As for non-gadgets, I couldn’t part with a recent gift, the original iPad, my vintage 1933 Royal typewriter, which holds an advantage to the computer that lies in its simplicity. For once, it enables me to do one thing only; connect my thoughts to paper. A therapeutic task that I’m convinced is more capable of inspiring ideas.

Where do you get your news?

An overwhelming spectrum of sources. How I digest my news is a better tracking system. In addition to The Onion and AV Club websites and apps, on my morning commute I skim the Economist, The Huffington Post and the NY Times on my cell phone. Throughout the day my RSS feeds are pulsating with everything from Smashing Magazine, Mashable, and TechCrunch for updates on technology media trends to The Fox Is Black, Notcot and Brand New for design inspiration. In the evening Twitter provides an overview and fills in missing gaps of information.

What do you think of the experience on most news sites? Are there some you love? Some you hate?

Online news experiences share unique design challenges due to the large amount of monetized, variable content. I find most visually overwhelming yet dull, typographically tense with poorly organized content areas. GOOD Magazine, The Guardian and The Telegraph approach these challenges in the best possible manner. They magnify readability and focus on consistency, higherarchy and balance. The Boston Globe as of recent re-design leads by example. With responsive web design as the driving force towards minimalism and simplicity, this consistent model of flexible grids seamlessly translates across multiple devices and resolutions, fixating on usability as the constant across all platforms. The inevitable pairing down of a website to meet tablet and mobile needs almost demands focus on the essentials.

The Onion makes a wonderful sport out of using some graphic design approaches from traditional news organizations — from infographics to briefings to photo galleries online — how does this work behind the scenes?

We have a brilliant team of graphic editors in New York who collaborate closely with the writers to magnify the humor with realistic imagery, graphs, and charts that enhance the overall impact and satirical value of each story. Essentially, the visual exists in the minds of the writers and it’s a designer’s job to intuitively understand their intentions and translate the creative concept into a visual.

In many ways, I imagine directing design for the Onion is just like working for any other publication, but there have to be some serious differences. What’s it like? What’s your day-to-day?

Our teams are closely knit and extremely collaborative. The creative process is a balance of synergy, analytics and intuition. Due to the nature of our satire we are lucky to have full support to experiment, make mistakes and take risks. Our readers expect nothing less, and our goals are to make the experience with the Onion immersive and unique. It’s thrilling to be a part of the Onion team.

theonion

Another journalism tool the Onion uses to great affect is Photoshop. What’s the process for developing some of the great art for Onion stories?

Unlike most news publications, our process is reversed. We stage our photoshoots after the article has been written followed by Photoshop magic to exaggerate the hyper-realism. Exactly how those decisions are made, we may never know for it happens in NYC, and the process is wrapped in mystery.

And who are those miserable looking people always featured in the quote-opinions?

They’re a balanced blend of perfectly desolate strangers, friends of employees, folks on the street and volunteers eager to be a part our effort.

The Onion must be an incredibly funny place to work? Is everyone a comedian?

Everyone is certainly quirky and wonderfully unique. Nothing is off-limits, so unlike most office environments, individuality is encouraged. The satirical nature of the onion doesn’t require a lot of self censorship, so what you read in the paper is who we are at work.

How do you explain what you do to your parents?

Let me preface this by saying that my parents are Eastern European immigrants, unfamiliar with graphic design as a profession obtained through college education. They have a hard time fully grasping its immersion and function in society. Perhaps that is why my mom tells her friends I’m an artist for a funny newspaper that she does not get in the suburbs nor will fully understand due to the language barrier. My dad is utterly convinced that I’m comparable to an engineer just like him, so he was shocked when I magically landed a newspaper design job.

the av club

You can only look at one website for the rest of your life. What would it be?

Presently I’m smitten by workflowy.com which had me at “lists”. I could probably trace everything that’s happened to me so far in life, through a hidden box underneath my desk, which hides a habit most people who know me would never guess I have; list-making. Workflowy not only consolidates and seamlessly links my invaluable checklists to all devices. It’s brilliant and i will use it for as long as I make lists.

When are you happiest?

I must admit, I love the early conceptualizing phase of a project when possibilities are endless and inhibitions are irrelevant. Nothing’s more freeing than a blank page of paper and a pencil. It’s instant gratification. Presenting early ideas in sketch is my secret weapon. I have found in a pencil sketch a permission to consider, discuss, and challenge ideas it represents. After all, it’s just a sketch, unfinished, loose, and disposable.

Read our other Year-Long Conversation dispatches here.

Larry Buchanan is a designer, columnist living in Bloomington, IN. See more of his work here.