SND38 Individual Portfolio Winner Spotlight: Tim Ball

Tim Ball
Creative Director 
POLITICO 

What is your current job title, and how long have you held it?
I’m Creative Director for Politico in Europe, based in Brussels, Belgium. I started here on October 1, 2015. (For scale: Politico’s European edition started in April 2015.)

What is the biggest difference you have noticed designing for a European publication, as opposed to the U.S.? 
I’m not sure I’ve really noticed many big differences, but that could be due to the fact that I came here and was able to put my stamp on our visual style. If I’d walked into a large European newsroom, I’d probably be able to speak to a lot more differences, but here I’ve mostly taken what worked for me (and for publications) in the States and tried to give it a more European sensibility from a visual and typographic standpoint. Maybe the biggest difference I’ve seen is that readers seem to be less finicky? We have a very small sample size, relative to the big guys over here, but I’m not aware of a single complaint about anything after we launched a redesign last year. In the States, if you change the body type in any way, there’s always a handful of readers who angrily call and ask why it’s gotten smaller. (It never gets smaller.)

What do you love about print design?
What don’t I love about print design? There is a permanence to it. This dates me, I suppose. I still save print products. Magazines, mostly. And newspapers from big news events, that have one story in them I love or that employ some visual wizardry in some way that inspires me. I have issues of the Guardian in my flat. I have a stack of California Sunday magazines. My mom mails me the NYT Magazine anytime I ask for it.

Online and interactive design are obviously the future. There are an almost infinite number of ways to display work on a screen and invite readers to interact with it. But for as many sites as I bookmark, Instagram posts I like, and Tweets I favorite, I almost never revisit them. On a rainy day, I’m perfectly happy to revisit a magazine or a book that I haven’t picked up in a year or more.

There’s so much more you can control about how a reader experiences a story in print. When I design something in print, I have a very specific way that I want a reader to see it. I want someone to pick up this paper, see this headline first, see how it interacts with this photo; then read the deck; then start the story; then see how the graphic helps tell the story; then turn the page when they’re at a specific point in the text. As a print designer, I can control all of that. I don’t have to guess which screen you’re going to be looking at — whether it’ll be a widescreen monitor at your desk, a phone you’re holding on the subway, a phone you’re holding horizontally in bed; etc.

I’m a bit of a control freak. Maybe 1 percent of readers actually experience a printed page in the exact way I’m envisioning they will. But at this point, it still feels like I have a much better chance of curating that experience in print than I do online. Certainly with our somewhat hamstrung capabilities on politico.eu at the moment, at least.

What was the biggest design challenge you faced in the last year?
Last May, our editor approached me in an unusually secretive way to tell me about a story one of our correspondents in Paris had been working on for the better part of a year. Very few people in the office knew about it; the story had been written and edited in a series of Gmail drafts rather than in our CMS; we’d been slipped a CD of digital images from a source but couldn’t publish them. The story was this one, a gripping tale of a man who claimed to be s Spanish businessman but who was, in fact, a Russian spy. He’d built a life and a family in Madrid. And then one day he disappeared. It was like a true-life, European version of The Americans.

The trick was this: Since we couldn’t use any of these images we’d been given, and obviously there were no other existing photos of this character, how do we present this story? And while there was great detail in the text, there were no images to show any of those parts of the story.

I immediately thought of Luke Waller, who is amazing and who is one of the easiest-going and also most enthusiastic artists I’ve ever worked with. So I pitched that idea to our editor, who liked it, but who stressed that we could not share any of the actual story until the moment it was ready for publication.

It’s tricky to art-direct a series of five illustrations for a story that can’t be shared. It’s much trickier, I’m guessing, to draw them. But through a couple weeks of cagey emails and sketches and Luke reading between the lines, we wound up with a really compelling set of visuals for a story that had none to start.

Tim has a list of illustrators he would like to work with, it gets much shorter once he knows the direction a story will go: “Once I have a good sense of where a story is headed, I’m pretty quickly able to narrow a list to a handful of artists I think would do well with it.”

How do you decide which illustrator to hire for any particular project?
I have a pretty massive spreadsheet that I update multiple times a week. It catalogs all the artists we’ve worked with here on any particular project, along with a much longer list of artists I’d like to work with, notes on their style, how the process went, types of stories I think they’d enjoy illustrating, etc. I read every email and follow every link I’m sent by artists who’d like to work with us; I’ve commissioned plenty of work from folks I’d never heard of before they dropped me a line; I’ve had great success finding new (to me, at least) talent on Instagram or Twitter and I really consider both of those to be essential to this part of the job. This is also, by far, my favorite part of the job.

Once I have a good sense of where a story is headed, I’m pretty quickly able to narrow a list to a handful of artists I think would do well with it, who would probably fit within our budget for this specific piece, and who are likely to be able to turn it around in the (often limited) time we have before publication. I also work with an amazing network of agents in London and New York who are often integral to the process. If I’m panicking and need something quick, I know I can email Matthew at B&A in London with one idea and he’ll respond within an hour with a half-dozen other people who’d be equally great for the job.

How has going from working at a daily publication to a weekly changed your work process?
Not as much as I’d like? The old saying in journalism goes something like “However long you have for this is how long it’ll take,” right? I thought, naively, that working at a weekly would mean that the day we close the paper would be a day of fine-tuning and careful proofing and making adjustments here and there. Obviously that’s not the case. We operate like we’re a daily when it comes to print — the last few hours before our deadline are just as hectic as the last few hours on the news desk at the Post or the sports desk anywhere or… you name it. It seems like it shouldn’t be that way, but here we are. And I don’t think this place is unique in that regard.

In what ways do you feel the staff around you facilitates excellent work? 
The staff around me anywhere I’ve been facilitates excellent work. Anyone in this business who thinks they, personally, are the only reason something is good is not going to get far. Any page that I’ve designed, or package that I’ve art directed, or illustration or photo that I’ve commissioned, that turns out great is that way because of the writer who had a idea for a new way of approaching a story, or the editor who shaped it into one, or the illustrator or photographer who took my idea and made it ten times better. And anything that I legitimately do myself is made possible only by my colleagues who design 10 pages on a Wednesday so that I can focus on three. Or who push to get me an unedited version of a story two or three days early so that the artwork isn’t rushed. Or who invites me to a planning meeting so that I can hear how stories are taking shape at the idea stage.

Or an executive editor who sees an illustration of Donald Trump as some sort of Godzilla-like creature thrashing his way through a German village and says, “Yeah, sure! I like it.”

So that’s a long way of saying: in every way.


What does it take to do great print design? Former SND Competition Coordinator Andrea Zagata set out to find tips and tricks from the winners. Check SND.org every week for interviews with the best of the best!

About Andrea Zagata

is a news designer at The New York Times.

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