Conversation with Steve Dorsey: On design, mentors, Detroit and staying involved

Fresh home from receiving SND’s Lifetime Achievement Award at SND DC, Steve Dorsey, sat down at the keyboard for a conversation with the SND International WebDesk, a group, of which, records indicate he was a founding member.

Here is what he had to stay about how he got here, who he learned from, and what it takes to give back.

What led you to news design?

I was working in design before I even knew that’s what I was actually doing — I was organizing and arranging my high school student paper for better appearance and a more planned, coherent reading experience. Then learning how to produce those print editions in a darkroom that used camera enlargers, video typesetters and cut-and-pasted page elements. Much of the equipment at the Norwich (NY) Evening Sun was pretty beaten up at that point — but that was cool in a way, since I had to learn how to use it, and even repair equipment on deadlined sometimes. It was all a rush. 

I wanted to be a reporter from early in high school. In fact, one of my degrees from Syracuse University is for magazine writing (I was intimidated in some early semester by the newspaper faculty and switched out of the program, can you believe it?). I got a second degree in English there too. So I was all about writing and editing.

Later, in college, I worked at the student paper, The Daily Orange, in design and production to help make ends meet. Turns out I got the bug. Telling a story as a reporter was cool. Seeing the news wires before any “civilians” did and determining what would get published was a thrill, too. But as a designer, I really liked being able to help tell ALL of that day’s stories. Over the years I came to love the energy of deadline and the challenge of trying to make big things happen on impossible turnarounds. The logistics, the technology, the challenge, the chance to do something epic and unique every day — all combined with storytelling and great visuals. I was all in before I knew it.

How did you get started in SND?

When I was just getting into courses in the journalism school in the early ’90s I was eager to get involved in anything I could related to my major. Like most schools they required a lot of foundation courses outside your major. I finally got to a point during my junior year when there was a small degree of choice allowed … I chose Marshall Matlock’s newspaper design class. But it came with a requirement — all students would have to “volunteer” to help with the SND print design competition. At that time it was “small” enough to be held in the Schine Student Center, just across from the journalism school, and the Sheraton hotel (where judges and facilitators still stay today). So, my earliest involvement with SND was almost accidental and totally inspiring and addictive. I was a gangly junior with no real clue what the world of newspapers held, and I was just about to meet a gang of folks like Michael Jantze (graphics genius at the New Orleans Times Picayune at the time — sporting an Apple Newton no less, who is now the famed source and inspiration of The Norm), GW Babb, Randy Stano, Kelly Frankeny, Harris Siegel, Steve Cavendish, Scott Goldman, Shamus Walker, Jef Capaldi and so many others … 

But what really sticks out to me was meeting Jim Jennings at that first competition. At the time, aside from being a founder of SND and former president already at that point, he was the design and photo editor of the Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader. And for whatever reason he was willing to sit down with me during a break in the competition to talk about internships — and look over my “portfolio,” such as it was. At the time. my total body of work was kind of pathetic. In fact, if anyone approached me with what I showed Jim then even a couple years later, I would have probably sent them packing … but for whatever reason, Jim didn’t laugh me out of the room as he looked over my class projects and my dot-matrix-printed newsletters and high school newspapers and whatnot. Quite the opposite — he was inquisitive, encouraging. And he offered me an internship.

I have no idea what he saw, but I didn’t ask twice. I accepted without even knowing what awaited me.

It wound up being the best summer of my early career. I was willing to work more than they ever let me, but I was there during a redesign of the paper. And I made friends that would last until I returned in a full time job some years later. 

After my early experience as an assistant at the competition I was hooked. I wanted more. I volunteered the next year. And again. I joined the competition committee. Later, I raised my hand (naively) to step up when the Design magazine gig came open. I joined the board … And the rest is history … (I think I eventually returned to the competition 18 of 20 years or something like that, in some capacity or another).

Your contribution to SND is so unique in the incredible range of what you’ve done as well as the length of time you’ve been involved. What are some of the highlights of your time with SND? And what is your philosophy behind giving back/What drives you to do it? 

That’s a tough question to answer … I’d say that almost every single highlight involved people — either fellow board members, students, or members in general. I was always impressed when we’d cook up some ambitious plan and manage to pull it off, despite complexity, our day jobs and the sheer odds. For example, it wasn’t enough to host a conference, when Matt Mansfield and the SND San Jose organizing committee set out to chronicle the most important 25 moments in our history for the 25th anniversary workshop — and produce a quality video segment for each — that seemed only natural, but it was damn impressive. Or when Bill Gaspard set out to elevate the conversation around visual ethics, and did so by touring the country to gather perspectives from all over. The annual competition was (and is) an enormous undertaking, but we always found ways to add to it — adding captioning and team statements for the judging teams, expanding live coverage each year, adding an entire digital competition, and so on.

Some of the best moments came from watching new members and students join up and add to the mix. Seeing someone like Jon Wile grow from a student to a participant, a presenter to a board member, and now a leader in the industry, is always gratifying. Getting a chance to be just a small part of that (he was our intern in Detroit early in his career) and helping him get started was a thrill. 

Some of the best adventures will always be the places you never thought you’d end up — teaching a 4-day course in China with Denise Reagan, exploring the graffiti-filled steeply winding alleys of Valparaiso, Chile lead by Cristobal Edwards, strolling around Christianiatown in Copenhagen with Bill Gaspard — total bonus footage.

Why give back? I never really considered NOT giving back. I was a lucky recipient of great advice, patient feedback and caring mentors early on — they were catalysts to my career, my thinking, and my work within the Society. Giving back was just the currency of the deal, I never questioned it or considered alternatives. And really, doing well personally was sort of a one-note accomplishment, it satisfies me on a whole other level to help others and see them succeed.

You’ve also been such a champion for mentoring and worked with so many. Who were your mentors?

I’ve never had a formal mentor but I’ve been lucky to have a chance to work alongside so many people who’ve inspired and at different points in my career. I hesitate to name names for fear of leaving out people, but I will say that these folks all had a big impact on me:

Harris Siegel was an early friend and motivator. He set a high bar for sports design (hockey especially) as well as alternative approaches. When Lexington, Ky. landed the Thoroughblades NHL farm team, it was game time.

Tim Harrower has always been like the elder statesman of design for me. He inspired you as the author of “The Newspaper Designers’ Handbook,” but once you met him he took it up many levels. I’ve never met anyone who could break down and talk about design as well, or inspire better design as consistently. I am grateful to consider myself a student of his camp, and a friend.

Tony Sutton always brought passion and never apologized for being himself. He was always extremely passionate about the story and disciplined visuals, strong typographic foundations, and doing work that had an impact.

Mario Garcia. What can you say, really. I was so lucky to meet Mario early on at a post-graduate summer program at Poynter. Of anyone, he really opened my eyes to the international ecosystem of design. He taught us to always look deeper and aim higher. Easily one of the classiest storytellers I’ve met, too.

Dave Robinson was my boss in Detroit and taught me endless lessons about pushing deadlines, coordinating logistics, crafting memorable big headlines on deadline, and always sweating the small stuff too. I learned more about instant books and posters and more from him, too.

Thom Fladung was the night editor in Detroit when I first met him and went on to many news leadership roles, but he always kept it real. More than any other editor he taught us to edit and design like a ball player shows up on the diamond — do your best every day, go for the big plays, leave it all on the field, and come back and do it again tomorrow. He is the Godfather of the newsroom (“This is business, not personal.”)

Scott Goldman might have been my SND big brother — we both came through Syracuse, lived in the northeast and had a thing for newspapers. To this day I don’t think I’ve ever seen Scott get mad — but I have seen him bring large groups together and get lots done. He’s like the mayor of SND.

Deb Withey and Bryan Erickson taught me that history matters, and that design should be FABulous whenever possible.

Bill Gaspard has been a friend longer than I can remember. He effortlessly set an example as a designer, an organizer and a leader that helped me steer through a lot of challenges. 

Matt Mansfield taught me to take smart risks. Collaborator, co-consipirator, colleague, creative sparring partner — he’s played many roles, but he always inspires you to step up and elevate your game.

Denise Reagan is my sister in arms. We’ve taught together from Nashua, NH to Huangzhou, China. At our best we could trade slides like musicians trade 8s in a solo. She also always (always) insisted I pay more attention to my X and Y axes.

Dale Parry isn’t even a designer — (inside joke) — but he has single-handedly done more to inspire my design thinking, increase my willingness to grasp beyond reach,  and risk not know the answer in the name of seeking and finding bigger solutions, than any other single person I’ve worked with.

Working with SND has taken you to a bunch of different places and introduced you to a bunch of design folks. Do you notice any similarities or differences between news designers and their communities around the globe?

That’s a great question. I have been lucky enough to see a lot, both formally in service to SND and informally through connections and freelance work from time to time.

I don’t want to over-generalize or stereotype, but I have seen some stark differences …

While a large percentage of folks I knew in design-related fields in the U.S. seem to have come from copy editing or more traditional editing backgrounds, I think there’s a higher percentage of European designers and artists that I met over the years with a more formal art and design training.

In China we were surprised during a 4-day SND-Chinese design class that the students we super-prompt and quite attentive — aside from resting their eyes and their heads the entire time we talked, only interrupting their poses to snap photos of every single slide for later reference. They were very warm and insisted on posing for photos with us at the conclusion of the session, some presenting small gifts and even sketched portraits of us made during the sessions.

During a 3-day summit in Mexico City I was impressed that the single track, large room group was in place early and stayed put all day long — intensely listening to every single session. Competing newspapers even covered the session throughout the conference. 

The same thing happened at the Buenos Aires conference — where hundreds of students joined the workshop and were super-engaged.

Another time, working on a freelance project in Nassau I was surprised to learn they recruited new copy editors and designers from all types of backgrounds and disciplines — friends and countrymen from across the island — who often had little or no design training, who they then trained up from scratch.

The unifying factors I found in all my travels and meetings? Everyone was welcoming and eager to learn how to improve their craft.

Detroit is such an interesting visual city and the Free Press and DMP such matching voices for the place. How did your time there change your approach as a designer? And now what is it like being away?

Detroit was my muse. I remember being absolutely fascinated by The Detroit News and Free Presses when I first saw them as a student through the competition. They were gutsy, fierce pugilists that stood toe to toe and went to work on each other every day without restraint. I think I only first understood how powerful design could be, and what a difference it could make when I saw those pages. Dale Peskin, Chris Kozlowski, David Kordalski, Deb Withey, Joe Zeff, Wayne Kamidoi, and so many other heavyweights were just awe-inspiring. And the fact they could do it day after day after day was really heady to a young designer. I wanted to be a part of that. Kamidoi’s baseball lockout tombstone page, Peskin’s Gulf War deadline-killer full page graphic … and so many hundreds more. Where else could I go?

When I landed in Knight Ridder (pour some out for KR), I saw the possibility taking shape. Few people know that I actually interviewed at The News first — twice, in fact — before ever landing at the Free Press. Once there, Dave Robinson and so many others, taught me the art of deadlines in Detroit, of sports championships, memorable headlines, instant books (the trick with those was they had to be in the store before the first full weekend after a win, or you lost a ton of potential marketshare). I cut my teeth on multi-part storytelling. And, man, there were so many epic stories to tell, and renowned journalists and photographers to tell them with. 

So I put in my time and rose up the ranks. Eventually we were being asked to consider more than just deadline — what would we do to evolve, into digital. Into whatever might come next to stem the flagging circulation. It was a turning point for me to work closely with Dale Parry and many others, exploring how news orgs could grow and evolve. Instead of turning to normal consultants we cooked up a wacky idea to work with Ideo. Everything changed from there. We started looking at products and user experience in a whole new way. Ultimately that path lead me out of the newsroom. Susie Ellwood gave me a chance to work with the business side, trying to serve the News and the Free Press, and later a bigger slice of Gannett’s Michigan operations. Ultimately it lead me to work with her at the Austin American-Statesman and Cox Media. 

Do I miss it? I really miss my friends in Detroit, and the news volume and velocity is unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else. I miss the resources and approach we had (and I totally miss my Tigers!). But it’s good to try new things and see where I fit into a new organization, and where I will grow next, too.

What would you say to a young designer considering being more involved in SND? What would you say to an old hat who has lost their way from SND?

To young designers I’ve always said the best thing I can recommend is making connections and asking questions. Never be too shy to ask or reach out. Don’t be hurt if everyone doesn’t reply immediately. But always extend your hand, have a business card in it. And know what you want to ask for. Get a critique, ask advice, seek an internship, and so on. Then once you start building those connections work to stay connected, keep them informed of your work periodically, and your progress. Everything I’ve ever done has been the result in some manner or another of the connections I’ve made.

To veterans I’d say — keep coming back. If you feel stale or tired or bitter, you’re not looking hard enough. Volunteer. Try something outside your comfort zone. Make a new friend. Reach behind you and help pull someone else along — you likely have a lot more to offer than you think. I’ll never forget many years ago when my good friend David Kordalski was running down a list of things wrong with the Society to me. I turned to him and said, David — while you’re not necessarily wrong, what are you going to do about it? You need to join up and help make it better, or stop complaining. To his credit, he picked up the mantle and ran with it, making so many improvements to the board and the organization, having an impact on hundreds of people worldwide. Imagine if he’d chosen the easy path? We’d all have been lesser for it. I salute him, and those like him that rise up. Another great example was Kris Viesselman. Here’s someone who ran for the office of SND president without any previous board experience. She stepped up at a time the Society most needed her. While those might be extreme examples there are so many others. Do something simple — donate to the Foundation, volunteer at an event, tutor a student. Get uncomfortable and give something back. 

In his own words