Harris Siegel on contests, news design, and Springsteen

Harris Siegel was given SND’s Lifetime Achievement Award on Saturday. We haven’t heard much from Harris since he left newspapers in 2008, so we wanted to catch up with some questions and answers.

In part one, Harris discusses his early career and design influences.

Rob Schneider: Run me through of your career stops. You and Wayne Kamidoi were Detroit Free Press coworkers, for example?

Harris Siegel: Ok, I’ll begin at the beginning … I went to Syracuse’s Newhouse School and I missed Mario Garcia as a design professor by one year – can you imagine the influence I might have had on Mario’s work if only he’d just hung around a little longer (kidding!)?

The person who took over as graphic design professor was Nancy Tobin and she taught me more about design than anyone else – she was without a doubt my mentor. What was amazing about her was everything wasn’t design, but it translated into a life-lesson as well. I remember I handed in one assignment where I had gone a little crazy with using too many fonts and she said, “Think of fonts as part of your wardrobe. When you’re getting dressed would you wear plaid and stripes and a houndstooth all in the same outfit? Of course not.” A couple of years later Nancy left Syracuse and became the Asbury Park Press’ first Design Director and she offered me a job right out of school. Timing — it’s all about timing. So I got to work at the Jersey Shore and meet guys like Andyman (aka Art Director Andy Prendimano) and Voger, who teased me relentlessly and called me “Ferris” (I still hate Matthew Broderick because of this), cartoonist/designer Tom Kerr and of course Eddy-the-G-Man (aka Ed Gabel) who had just been brought up from the Press’ mailroom to the Art Department because they discovered he could draw (I am not making this up).

contest harris B shamus

So I got the chance to live a half block from the beach, surf during the days and see Springsteen at the Pony on the weekends. About a year-and-half later we entered work into the SND contest and one of the Detroit Free Press volunteers saw my (losing) entries and called me to interview. That resulted in 2 things: 1) The SND implemented a “No stealing people from other papers if you are volunteering at the freakin’ contest” rule. 2) I went to Motown.

And all of sudden I was part of this news design team at the Free-Press, the brainchild of Randy Miller and John Goecke. The idea was that every aspect of the news section would be touched by a designer. Wayne Kamidoi was there but he was strictly the toner cartridge replacement guy so we didn’t talk that much (I am making this up). Actually Wayne-O, Lee Yarosh and I were the threesome that comprised this news design desk.

This was a totally new concept at the time – most papers didn’t even have one designated news designer and the Freep had three. You rotated between A1 with its million zones/editions and doing stuff like the ROP pages with 5×18″ ad stacks. That meant that on the nights you got the ROP pages you were also the guy who went to Tubby’s to get the subs since you were bored out of your mind. But because Detroit was a magnet for corrupt politicians and plane crashes, being a news designer meant you learned a lot and learned it fast. I also learned how to play pool since after you put the paper to bed, the News and Freep guys would meet at the Anchor Bar and take out the night’s frustrations over games of team pool (note: Wayne is a better pool player then he is a designer). I didn’t stay in the Motor City long because about a year later Nancy Tobin called and asked if I wanted to come back to Asbury as the news layout editor and since surfing on the Great Lakes sucks, I went back to Jersey. I did get some offers during my next 20+ years, but I remember Kelly Frankeny saying that they “were wasting their time, you’re not leaving Asbury Park.” #turnsoutshewaspartlyright!

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RS: Who or what you were your design influences? Your career really started around the time SND was getting more prominent. Any early SND founders or newspapers that inspired you?

HS: I grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and we got the paper each day — actually we got a morning and evening paper, so that just tells you how long ago it was — and my relatively small, local paper was doing these innovative things in the field of newspaper design … and I had no clue — I just thought everybody’s paper looked like that. So, on a daily basis I was being exposed to some of the greatest work being produced at the time, like full-page infographics by Ken Raniere. The design director was Robert Lockwood and he had a studio near my home. I was fortunate to get to visit with him for an afternoon. He told me that my work in newspapering was foretold, that I could not escape my destiny. OK, that was actually Obi-Wan to Luke in “Return of the Jedi,” but it was still amazing to meet Mr. Lockwood. I also attended an American Press Institute seminar for news page designers.  We had to do assignments for  class and I remember how confident (the teacher) was that I could make a mark in this field. The following day we were touring USA Today and the Gulf War broke out while we were in their conference room. So basically you had every major newspaper’s A1 designer at a conference and the biggest event in recent history is going on. Papers were calling their people home to take take flights, trains – whatever they could find – and report to work immediately. I was still on this high from what the teacher had said and I remember calling Asbury Park and them saying “Oh no, we’re good, you stay and have a nice time there.” And that, my friends, is how you kill a buzz!

But so much groundbreaking work was being done at that time. I remember seeing Lucie Lacava’s work at LeDevoir for the first time and thinking “I am a hack.” I think that’s good though — seeing someone so much better than you that you realize you have a lot to learn. Each year I’d see Rodrigo’s (Sanchez) work I’d leave saying “Crap, I wish I’d thought of that.” Tim Harrower: I mean Tim literally changed my worldview in regards to newspapering; he showed me that you could inject humor into your work. David Carson blew my mind. I did a page on Bruce that was my homage to David Carson and it was pretty much illegible; yes, it won SND award. And then there’s Ally Palmer too — amazing, and he’s a soccer fan for crying out loud. Randy Stano, Roger Black, Deb Whithey, Kelly Frankeny — the usual suspects.

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RS: Explain your design evolution.  Designers are usually an insecure bunch. When did you start doing work that you actually thought was good?

HS: When I won my first SND award (a Carl Lewis page called “Can he outrun time?” that Andyman told me I should enter even though I had tossed it out), I felt vindicated. I mean it’s unfortunate but until you get recognition from your peers, you feel like you haven’t done “good work” (boy I do not miss that at all). But you’re right about the insecurity factor because more often than not I’d come back from the SND contest where I’d volunteer and be depressed as hell because a year of my work was in the trash pile. I think the first time I came to terms with that was when one year at an SND contest Tony Sutton — in direct violation of the Prime Directive — was removing all my losing SND hockey page entries as they were voted down; when someone asked him what he was doing he said something to the effect of “writing a bloody article about how much I like these pages!”

RS: Many journalists fall into design after thinking they would do something else (writer, editor, photographer)? What made you become a designer?

HS: I was tired of people laying out the stories I’d written and having them look like crap.

RS: We have to talk about your signature bandana look. How did that come about?

You can blame that on Bruce Springsteen (“Born In the USA” tour) and former Kings goaltender Kelly Hrudey.