Behind the World’s Best Designed: The National Post

The National Post is deeply devoted to visual storytelling and delivering the biggest visual wow, day in, day out. Everyone involved in the paper — from reporters to editors to designers — knows and respects that. Throughout the newsroom, imagination and ideas are respected and visual display and creativity is regarded as much as the authority of words. Many of us began together at the startup of the paper in 1998 and the talent well at the Post is deep. We know our audience and we like to delight them with humor, surprise, and great analysis of the news, as well as a good dose of investigative reporting. (And we do all this despite the fact one-third of the newsroom was laid off with an ownership change in 2001). The Post has learned to be resilient even when running on near empty, and the staff knows to lean and depend on each other. Our biggest strength is how nimble we are with so little staff. While this might be a weakness in other papers, we’ve turned it into our greatest source for driving experimentation and creativity. We laugh a lot, enjoy each other and push each other to do better work. There is a real energy in the newsroom. We operate with a lot less planning than most papers, with little regard for conventional layers and organizational structures, coming together like a family, drawing on each other’s strengths.

The design process across the paper is collaborative. Gigi Suhanic, Financial Post Design Editor, says: “Each day is a growth experience at the National Post in terms of experiencing the power of collaborative creativity and finding new ways to visualize stories using the Post’s beautiful page architecture. I sit next to my managing editor, Grant Ellis, and we are perfectly positioned to discuss stories and possible art ideas and develop those ideas as they take shape on the page. This setup also allows us to transition quickly when news happens. We are a small tight-knit team of the Financial Post and all levels of staff are committed to page quality, consistency and innovation. In some ways, our strength is in our small numbers. I believe the one credo the reigns on our news floor is: “You can’t do it all by yourself.”

In the Features section, Benjamin Errett, Managing Editor, and his team often bring “back-of-the-envelope sketches” to Feature Design Editor Genevieve Biloski and her associate, Becky Guthrie. The designers then offer suggestions on how to best shape story elements on the page, and come up with ideas, too. There is an easy flow of ideas because the designers sit in the department they work in.

The News Team sits at a central desk right beside the Financial Post central desk. As a result, FP and News can talk to each other all day long. I am the managing editor of design and graphics sit with the News Team along with Richard Johnson, graphics editor, with all the senior news editors, ensuring fluid communication between content and design. Editors count on our imagination and visual ambition. I am involved with front page and also watch all the pages in the paper to ensure consistency, good rhythm in pacing and making sure there are some visual surprises. Laura Morrison, news presentation editor, and Paolo Zinatelli, senior designer, are also involved with coordinating the details of design. They work in conjunction with photo editors, the graphics department and copy editors — who, as the backbone of the Post’s news desk, are all given some design training to help ensure the consistency of the Post’s design.

The Post’s look is based on dramatic verticals, beginning with our nameplate and section flags. We also try to present our storytelling vertically. This is complimented by our horizontal attics (the small stories at the top of each page). As such, horizontal and vertical tension occurs on every page. A comprehensive library of page elements is updated daily by Laura Morrison for the whole newsroom. From this library, designers and copy editors are able to pull out the many variations of building blocks of a National Post page, ensuring the style throughout the whole paper is uniform, without at all being limiting. Our design consistency is especially helpful to execute sophisticated design with only a small staff. It also helps us turnaround something as overwhelming as the Tsunami disaster on a tight deadline in a way that allows for maximum visual wallop, delivering surprises each day the disaster unfolded, but, page-after-page, ensuring a consistency of look that helped the reader feel as if a steady hand was guiding them through the disaster.

On weekends, especially, the paper has a special flavor throughout. The whole paper is more magazine-like, filled with features, longer-form storytelling, deeper analysis. The design follows those cues, setting a tone of distinction with illustrations, standalone visuals, graphics, powerful and sometime playful typographic treatments. We often commission full-page illustrations for the front page, such as entry “In the Shadow of September 11,” where illustrator Kagan Mcleod and I grappled with concepts to use on A1, the special section front and section back cover. At year end, we commission editorial cartoonist, Gary Clement to illustrate the year in A to Z cartoons.

Of course, sometimes events interfere with even the most well-organized plans and that’s where the Post’s agility comes into play. That happened when the “How We Die” feature planned for page 1 needed to give way to breaking Egypt news. Or when the long-planned big feature coverage of our own enterprise “Long Road” series (illustrator Richard Johnson and reporter Brian Hutchinson in Afghanistan) needed to share the front with the Royal visit. Our solution in both cases — where completely incongruous events needed to be given shared hierarchy on a single front page — was to give the news a giant photo referral at top of A1, with the distinctive graphic visual below. The result was that both stories were given the primacy they deserved, in a manner where the visuals didn’t compete or distract from the other.

That pattern of visually sharing space, without competing visually flows through the inside pages of the paper. Since Saturday is also the day for longer features, reviews and columns, it is all the more important to balance that out with plenty of clever little nuggets. They let you know it’s a different, more leisurely reading experience while still unmistakably the Post. The feature weekend sections are filled with more small design flourishes to set them apart from weekdays: Brackets on the bottom of pages, skinny sticks, more illustrations, variations on our usual attics. These give the reader the cues they need to pause, look about, read the sections — and the pieces within them — differently than during the busier work week.

All of this explanation — about style; about weekend versus daily feel; about integration of vertical, of playful and serious, of photo and illustration — brings us back to where we began, which is to say that the National Post is deeply, and demonstrably, committed to visual storytelling and delivering the biggest visual wow, day in, day out.

Gayle Grin is managing editor, design & graphics at the National Post, Postmedia design consultant and past president of SND. Follow her on twitter @ggrin here.