Harris Siegel on hockey, kerning, and being a mentor

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 two, Harris talks about his obsession with hockey, why his sports design still holds up today and his “nest” in Asbury Park.

NHLPreview96Rob Schneider: Explain your obsession with hockey.

Harris Siegel: I grew up when the NHL was making its big expansion push and I remember seeing these masked men stopping pucks and thinking this was the coolest thing ever — I mean, just to be able to skate like these guys is incredible enough, but now they’re stick handling, passing, checking, and shooting pucks at 100 mph, too. Throw in the occasional brawl and some blood and you’ve got the greatest Canadian sport since, er, OK I can’t think of another Canadian sport, but you get the idea …

RS: More specifically, why do you think your hockey work was so seminal for sports design?

HS: When I started doing sports design, it was unchartered territory. It seems kind of mind-blowing now, but no one was doing much for those sections. Some of it had to do with the fact the “sports guys” are kind of their own island — you know, they could get 24 open pages if they asked for it and no one messed with them. Sports had it all — the best photography on a daily basis with all the drama and conflict, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. And no one was dying so, unlike news, you could have a little fun with it. And hockey players were much more approachable than the big sports stars. You could get 30 minutes with Marty Brodeur but try asking for that with Derek Jeter — especially if you’re the Asbury Park Press — and they’d hang up on you.

I was also lucky to work with editors who would listen to my ideas (no matter how off-the-wall) and say go for it. Sully (aka Joe Sullivan) and John Quinn were as much a part of the process as I was or the illustrators or photographers because they let us run with the idea. It doesn’t matter how great an idea is if you can’t get it published — that’s the reason that I always included my editors on the SND entries. So to answer your question, here we were in this medium-sized paper at the Jersey Shore taking advantage of the passion of the average sports reader, the access to the players, and the weight the sports editors had at the paper, and it gave us the opportunity to do some pretty cool stuff. I mean how many papers open up three pages to promote the NHL All-Star game when it’s being played 3,000 miles away?

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RS: While some news design 10-20 years looks pretty dated now, your work would still hold up today (and would be heavily awarded still today!) Why do you think that is?

HS: The long answer is: At one SND I entered my 3 hockey preview pages that had a huge 66-88-99 (for Lemieux, Lindros, and Gretzky) for our NHL preview; I remember working on those pages and thinking that these 3 players are so big that they don’t even need to have a headline, that their sweater numbers tell the whole story. It won a Silver Medal, which is awesome, but it still nags at you as to why the other guy didn’t like it. I felt I had designed those pages with absolutely everything I had. During lunch, the pages were still out and one of the judges, Nuri Ducassi (she was in Florida at that time and was quite simply larger-than-life to me in the design world) was heading back to her table when she saw them. I remember she stopped midstride and expressed disbelief they didn’t win Gold. She said you could just feel how the person who created them knew and loved this sport and it came through their work. And if you know Nuri at all, you know that when she starts passionately speaking on a topic, it’s just amazing to hear. So there she was talking about something I’d done in such expressive terms — I almost couldn’t process it. All of sudden they sent me from the room and had a vote to award it a Judge’s Special Recognition. I was pacing around inside the men’s room for what seemed the longest three minutes of my life when Ally Palmer finally came in and said “You did it.” Nice moment.

After that, I always felt if you can have a little of yourself come through your work, it becomes more than just a page. I’ve always tried to infuse mine with a little attitude and humor. I never tried to attempt an idea if I felt I couldn’t pull it off. In the case of the tin hockey players that we did for a doubletruck once, I had that idea for a few years, but until we got Ed Gabel back from the Toledo Blade (notice a trend? The Press is like the mafia — you never really leave) I didn’t think it could be done as I envisioned it. But by the time Ed came back, I realized that the sky was the limit – that literally anything you could imagine could be executed. You want little tin hockey players with accurate facial hair and company-branding on their sticks – no problem!

My favorite Ed Gabel story: We were doing an NBA page once and were arranging to get a basketball photographed; Ed turned to Andy and us and — completely serious — said “Why would you shoot a basketball when I can render you one in two days?” Also, if I knew we had particularly strong portrait photographer then my work would skew towards doing pages that showcased that. It’s not rocket-science — you play to your strengths.

The short answer is: Don’t use too many fonts and take it easy on the friggin’ drop shadows and special effects.

app_tattooRS: Later in your career in Asbury, you started designing “Night Out” and did a lot of remarkable work that was influential to all the alternative storytelling we’ve seen in the past 15 years. How did part of your career evolve? What made you leave sports design?

Well “NightOut” simply couldn’t have happened if Cody and Nikki weren’t at the Press. To me, it was my “Beatles” time, where you had to have the combination of personalities to make something greater than the individuals. (I was Lennon, by the way.) But that began because of the perennial “what-can-we-do-to-get-young-people-to-read-a-friggin-newspaper” question that people have been talking about for decades. Our solution was radical … talk to them. I remember that the topics we were covering were so controversial that each page had to be brought to our publisher for approval. So every Friday, I’d trek to the publisher’s office and show Bob Collins the page. He’d usually look over it over and sigh a “what-has-the-youth-of-our-country-come-to?” sigh. In the time we produced it, the only page we we got censored and weren’t allowed to run was our kosher Passover wine tasting – it was just too risky. I remember going to my library and the librarian– who was a huge fan of the paper – telling me that the “NightOut” page was trash and she couldn’t believe we’d publish such garbage. That’s when I knew we were really on to something because once you piss off one generation you tend to be embraced by the other.

Cody was telling me a short time ago he felt that what we were doing was really the beginning of social media in some ways. I just know that I look back on those pages and still go “how the #@#(@ did we get that in a daily paper?!”

RS: Looking back at your newspaper career, what work are you most proud of?

HS: That’s like asking which bourbon is my favorite.

RS: After leaving newspapers, what are you doing now?

HS: I’m doing work for the Department of Defense. I can’t tell you any more or I’d have to kill you.

RS: How do you consume news now? What are you print habits or digital habits?

HS: I get my news from TMZ.

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RS: One of the things so remarkable about your career are all the great designers that came through Asbury during your time there. Do you consider yourself a good mentor? 

HS: I remember Nancy Tobin telling me that the most important aspect of a being a Design Director was hiring (Life Lesson #2!); her philosophy was that you should “build a nest” and surround yourself with not only creative people, but ones that you want to be around and have as part of your family. She (and later Andyman and I) hired people like Chrissy Dunleavy, George Frederick, Jim Denk, TIm Lee, Adriana Libreros-Purcell, Lon Tweeten, James Bennett, Rosa Castellano, Sean McNaugton, Amy Catalano, Tim Oliver, Steve Cavendish, Jeff Colson, Mark Kseniak, Cody Schneider, Nikki Faux, Coleen Lanchester, Jacie Chun, Elaine Melko, Annette (AJ) Vázquez, Lucy Quintanilla, Tom Peyton, Steve Breen, Shawn Weston, Karl Smith, Andrew Garcia Phillips (mini me), John V. Smith and Janet Michaud (and I know I’m forgetting people, but I’m going to blame it on getting older) … not to mention our home-grown talent like Jeff Colson, Michelle Steimle, Joe Lee, Jimmy D. and John Scianna – at the time I literally felt like I was playing on the ’27 Yankees because we had such a depth of talent (and believe me it pains me to use a baseball analogy). I think that Asbury at that time offered an environment where creativity could thrive and it allowed us to compete against the big papers when it came to hiring because as important as money is a truly creative person seeks creative freedom. It had almost a “design commune” vibe, but instead of drugs, we had fonts. Our philosophy was simple: “Don’t edit yourselves, that’s our job.” We wanted people to think in the most creative fashion they could and if they’d gone too far, we’d reel them back in. By this point Asbury had merged its Art & Photo departments and we had some terrific shooters — guys like Jim Connolly, Russ, Pete Ackerman, Mike Treola, and Mike Sypniewski — who were supportive of these edgy ideas we were coming up.

Regarding mentoring: I do remember giving a critique to Janet one day and it focused on kerning — I think she had an A and W on a sports headline that wasn’t kerned at all; well I drew a truck on her page and showed it navigating through letter spacing and then said “you could drive a truck through these letters!” I might have ripped apart her page after that. It was funny at the time … really. On second thought, maybe you should ask the folks I worked with if they thought I was good mentor or not.

Michael Whitley, Tim Harrower, and Siegel

Michael Whitley, Tim Harrower, and Siegel

RS: Who of the people you’ve mentored gives you the most pride looking back now?

HS: Every one of the people I’ve worked with is a snowflake – beautiful in their own way. But really, so many have gone on to do great work. I think it’s wild there are some many Asbury alums out there from the heyday.

RS: Along those same lines, who are your design contemporaries that you’ve worked with and still keep up with? 

HS: Keeping in touch isn’t my strong suit, but I can’t tell you how many times guys like Tracy Collins saved my ass during an SND presentation – what a great guy, always has your back. The SND gang of Matt Mansfield, Stephen Komives, Steve Dorsey, Denise Reagan, Kris Viesselman, Mike Whitley and Toni Piqué (my brother!) to name a few, were so supportive and gave me so many opportunities to take my work to the masses — stuff that would never have been seen otherwise. That was always a great time of year to see those guys again at the conferences. You realize that what you’re doing is bigger than your little paper.