San Francisco Business Times redesign: A chat with creative director Matt Petty

Matt Petty

Matt Petty

San Francisco Chronicle designer Christopher T. Fong chatted with Matt Petty, creative director of the San Francisco Business Times, which launches their redesign today. Petty joined the weekly business publication in December 2013 after spending 13 years with the San Francisco Chronicle as art director and, most recently, head of design for an S.F. marketing/advertising firm, Dial House.

SFBT is launching their redesign this Friday. What are some of the major changes? Isn’t the redesign part of a larger corporate-wide design project for American City Business Journal? What are some of the elements unique to the S.F. publication?

The redesign has been a bit of an evolution for us. We’re the penultimate paper to get the redesign installed, with Seattle launching next week as the last paper. That’s around 40 papers going through this process before we did, so we had some of the kinks worked out for us.

Over the last year, we’ve been adopting some of the thinking behind the redesign, but we’re finally putting it all together.

sfbiztimes_coverbigWe’ve reorganized some content to give the section a better flow. We’ve given more space to some of our readers’ favorite features, such as our executive profiles.

I think the biggest change is the typography, which uses Acta and Graphik as our two main fonts. We also now use a ruby red color, instead of our blue that we’ve used for so long. Red is such a powerful color that it really helps with navigation and guiding readers through the section.. The grid is also a very important element of the new design. We tend to have a bunch of tidbits and stand-alone graphics, so keeping things in order and aligned really helps the design. We use 12- and 10-column grids that allow us to build in white space and create more sophisticated layouts.

While the redesign is similar to the other publications’ market, each organization will bring their own flavor to it. The redesign provides a great framework to showcase stories, photography and information graphics, but you still have to do the hard work of creating those things in an effective way.

What were your biggest obstacles?

Changing our color was a big — and tough decision — but ultimately, we felt like we could really harness the power of the red color to create a bold and vibrant identity.

Going to a web first publishing model has been a newsroom challenge for us, after being focused on a weekly section for so long.

But really, as far as redesigns go — and I’ve been involved in a few. Jon Wile, the creative director of American City Business Journal, made the transition pretty darn seamless by providing us with very solid templates and libraries. He also came out and got his hands dirty by helping us put together a few pages of the launch issue, making sure everything was on the grid and properly aligned.

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What are some of the successes?

I think our biggest success is the cover, which has a cleaner presentation. It really gives us an opportunity to showcase the stories in that week’s issue in a more compelling way.

The typography is such a big improvement, both in readability and aesthetics, that it really sets the stage for some great design to happen.

I’m especially pleased with the way our new “The List” section looks. We do weekly lists about different business sectors. The new design really makes the dense amount of information feel light and approachable.

The executive profile page is not only a great read, but we’re now shooting the subjects with staff, so photography can shine here. In general, we’re giving more room to the photography. We have a talented crew, consisting of Spencer Brown and Paolo Vescia, who are great and creative portrait photographers as well as accomplished photojournalists.

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Looking into the future, what are you looking forward to with the SFBT redesign?

The typography is great. I’m looking forward to getting to know it a bit better. And establishing the SFBT as a great paper for design. I think deeper information graphics will play a bigger role. We already create a lot of research, digging up stats about Bay Area companies. I see us, building and using that information in visually different ways.

Were there differences between art directing a daily newspaper and a weekly business publication?

For me, it’s not all that different. When I was working at the San Francisco Chronicle, I was mostly working on weekly sections, so I’m used to that pace. The daily stuff that I did at the Chronicle is similar to the stuff I might do for the website here at SFBT, like creating news graphics, illustrations or even photography, if needed. It’s a nice mix of daily news and spending a bit more time on a weekly section. When big news happens, we jump in to action and cover it from a business perspective, just like a daily would.

What else do you do at SFBT?

We also have email subscriptions, special sections and events throughout the year. Often our events tie-in with our special sections — it’s a unique dynamic that I haven’t experienced at other pubs — but we have the chance to see something through from event promotion to staging an event and finally to creating a publication from it all. For something like ‘40 under 40,’ we call for nominations, then we compile the winners, based on their accomplishments. We create a section about all the winners and throw an event to celebrate them.

Did you pick up any new design knowledge from your stint at Dial House? And were you able to apply that to your publication design background?

I did pick up some great insights [at Dial House]. And as creative director at the Business Times, I think I’m able to apply some of those lessons about branding. I think it applies best to our event and promotion side, which needs to funnel back to the SFBT identity a little better.

Advertising design is much more nuanced than visual journalism. Every little detail in marketing is meant to feed into the brand. In journalism, it’s more of creating a discovery process for readers. We present the information in a clear and evocative way, but they are left to reach their own conclusions.