Catching up with Vince Chiaramonte
As design director at The Buffalo News, Vince Chiaramonte has had a history of producing award-winning pages with a firm hold on the paper’s very specific visual identity. Now, he’s working to bring that identity from their section fronts and special sections to their front page designs and digital products.
First, can you just give us a quick history of your career path?
I’m a native New Yorker, born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island. I attended Daemen College, a small private school in Amherst, NY (a suburb of Buffalo) and graduated with a BFA in Design and Illustration. My first job was as a designer at New Era Cap. I stayed there for 18 months and designed caps for the NFL, MLB and NHL. My most notable accomplishment there was designing the Minor League Baseball logo. I then took a job as an art director for Gelia Wells and Mohr and created print and television campaigns for clients like RCA, Trico and Bell & Howell, while learning how to direct photography. After years of being pursued by The Buffalo News, I finally decided to give it a shot. I started out designing features pages and was then given the responsibility of improving our sports section. Even though sports was my main focus I also designed pages for A1, Features, Viewpoints and was the art director for our monthly magazine.
To go along with that, you’ve spoken at SND conferences in the past about your transition from the ad side to the print side. What’s the biggest takeaway you brought to the editorial side from your days as an ad man?
I’ve always been told that creativity is an advertising agency’s most valuable asset, because it is the rarest. But there are certainly other things that have served me well in the newsroom — attention to detail, adaptability and patience being a few. I think salesmanship was the most valuable. Often unique ideas need to be sold and it’s good to think of an editor as a client. Not everyone thinks the same and it can be hard to visualize an idea. After sketching or roughing out an idea you should use strong words and body language to portray a confidence that will put people at ease. Be in command of the subject matter and spend a few minutes dissecting your idea intelligently, step-by-step.
Your history as a sports designer is fairly well-known. How do you keep your designs from becoming stale each year?
In a cyclical section like sports, it’s very easy to fall into a routine or even copy yourself. I purposely avoid looking at other sports pages or annuals because idea generation needs to be instinctual. The key is to think outside of sports and then bring it back. I like to use analogies or metaphors to generate ideas. For example: Our NFL Draft Preview story was about the Bills and their need to address the QB position. When you look back at the Bills history since Jim Kelly retired you realize how many bad quarterbacks suited up for them. In total they had 12 different duds. I started thinking about things that could symbolize failure and came up with a losing scratch-off lottery ticket. Every few years the Bills would buy a new ticket and hope they would get a winner. Sometimes they got a few good rub-offs (Doug Flutie, Drew Bledsoe) but often the ticket was a loser. Sports designer Andrea Zagata and I played around with some details and we wanted a graphic style to the ticket that felt unique. Then we turned it over to News illustrator Dan Zakroczemski and he knocked it out of the park.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I think ones influences as a designer must come from within. The strongest, most emotional work comes from using your own background, personality and experiences. Then if you combine these with observations from the world around you, your supply of influences and ideas is limitless.
In your current role, do you still have your hand on the print publication every day?
I am heavily involved in the print publication — specifically the Sunday paper. We have a very small but talented staff and a lot of display pages to design on a daily basis, so the economy of ideas is essential. I still function as a designer every day while providing design editing. I’ve also been getting more involved in our digital products and that can take me away from the print product for small stretches.
When trying to illustrate a bigger feature story or a special section cover, what’s your process like?
I have a very active mind and a lot of stuff races around before I start. First, I will lock on to an interesting part of a story. Then I’ll imagine if that could work as a photo or an illustration. I also work extremely fast so I’ll play with type or research photos and see what works. It’s very random. Each assignment calls for a different approach. But the end result needs to be merging of a bold visual with a sophisticated crafting of type. I’m also not afraid to illustrate something that might seem obvious. During a meeting for our NHL Preview our beat reporter talked about the cover story being about how the Sabres were thin (lacked experience) at the center ice position. I tossed out the idea that there was a hole at center and then evolved it into a simple drawing that worked in the idea of ice collapsing in the middle and the wingers looking over the edge. Very simple but effective. We don’t try to overthink our sports ideas. First you overthink, then you’re sure to over-design.
Are you big on sketching or are you more of a word-association kind of guy?
I tend to do both. I always sketch but that’s usually after I do a word-association or concept exercise.
You’ve worked with Dan Zakroczemski on a lot of projects. Do you tend to share the workload when coming up with a concept?
I’m always open to anyone’s ideas but I usually set the direction on illustrations, specifically sports. As an art director I have had the most dialogue with the reporter and editor and will come up with a few ideas so we don’t waste time and go off in the wrong direction. I then share those with Dan and look for his input or his own take on what I’m hoping to accomplish. I tend to do this more with sports because of my knowledge. For features I tend to keep any ideas to myself because I like to have Dan show me sketches first and then pick a direction. It’s important not to over direct an illustrator. It can take the spontaneity out of the drawing.
We use a lot of illustration in our Spotlight, Viewpoints and MoneySmart sections. It offers us a level of storytelling few papers can match. Since becoming Design Director I’ve stressed the importance of bringing the energy of Sports and Features to the News sections. With the arrival our new Editor Mike Connelly, we have improved the quality of our stories which has allowed us to have a more dynamic look on A1. So far we’ve done that with our Sunday fronts and will eventually work that into the daily side of things. Mike’s a huge advocate for design — specifically typography, which plays to our strengths.
You were a judge at SND this year for the second time. Did you see any trends in the pages? What keeps you going back to Syracuse every year?
SND is in my blood. It’s helped make me a better visual journalist and I want to give back whenever I can. Living in Buffalo makes it a no-brainer to volunteer each year.
The same things that have dominated the contest for years still hold true. Emphasis on idea generation, strong editing, bold use of photography and illustration, restrained use of typography and a limited color palette. They’re timeless principles and very few papers still practice them.