Designing the next decade: We must rethink old models

Editor’s note: We asked legendary design expert Roger Black to talk about what’s ahead for visual communication in the 2010s. Black has spent the last four decades working with magazines like Rolling Stone, for newspapers like The New York Times and Web sites like Last fall, he helped debut a new design for The Washington Post and has recently been consulting on the Web site of MIT. Here’s what he said in this video conversation:


Jonathon Berlin asked me to make a few observations about the change in the decade — where we’re coming from in the news business and where we’re going as we enter the teens, or whatever we’re going to call this decade.

The decade we just left, we didn’t have a name for it, the zeros, I guess … we were at a loss after having the ’80s and the ’90s to come up with a decade name, and it’s probably just as good, because I think we’re ready to forget the zeros.

It certainly wasn’t good for most of us in the news business or the media in general. The content media is stressed out in every single form. There are folks at cable television that think they’re going to make it through, but I doubt it.

The music business has been whining for years.

Motion pictures seem to be good.

But everything else — the broadcast TV, the news business in general, in any platform, is having a hard time. We’ve seen a lot of layoffs. We’ve seen a lot of cutbacks of all kinds to try to deal with it.

I think some people thought maybe three or four years ago that these changes could be dealt with in a cyclical basis, that you know, we’ve seen change before — we saw radio and television and the Internet start and we’ve seemed to deal with them. But I think it’s actually a much more fundamental change than that.

The end of the economical cycle is not going to necessarily mean that the media’s all going to bounce back. So what are we going to do? What are we going to do as designers, as art directors in the news media? Are we going to just sit there and watch it happen to us? Or are we going to find some other job? Or are we going to try to fix it?

And I’m working on fixing it. I don’t know if I have the solutions, but I’ve certainly got some ideas and I’m just going to take you through them really quickly here.

The first is to really understand that we don’t have an institutional framework anymore. This is the deinstitutionalization of the news media. Which means in some ways that we’re going to get out of our jails, we’re going to get out of our cells. We have to think very creatively and think like free people

And it may be outside of the environment of traditional companies. These guys have not necessarily dealt with the change very well. And you know who I’m talking about … You know who you are.

You know, it’s funny because when the music business started getting stressed out they all complained about pirates, but nobody ever said, “Well, maybe it’s the music.”

And I think this is the same way with us: Everyone’s complaining about the Internet, or they’re complaining about the economy, or the end of advertising as we knew it, because that’s really a key part of it. The CPM model is gone. The society has become so diverse and so globalized that the notion of mass media is not meaningful anymore. It’s completely diversified media — it’s “media for me.”

Those changes are mentioned and they’re all very important and adds up to the stress that we’re in.

But …

There’s also just the product. Could we not make more interesting newspapers? Could we not make more interesting television news programming, or Web sites?

The news web sites … there’s been some recent redesigns that are getting more interesting. I don’t think that Huffington Post or Politico are particularly exciting designs — they may have a better business model, but that’s yet to be proven. I think that … we have to work on the product too. We can’t just imagine that cost-cutting is going to save us. We have to make great, compelling stuff that people will want.

Alright, so what would that be?

I think that the number one thing that we as designers need to think about is changing back to being art directors. Instead of saying that we are doing this beautiful typography and layout and da-da-da … put the layout into templates. Make the layouts … my colleague Eduardo Danilo did 1,200 or more templates for Excelsior in Mexico City, that looks like every page is designed from scratch, but it isn’t — it’s all done by template.

And I think we need to do that in the regular newspapers and news Web sites. And in the new products for all these new targets, new platforms, new tablets and things that are coming out.

We have to come up with ways that we can focus on the news story, the storytelling instead of the little vagaries of layout. You know a lot of work in the print side is just working around the advertising. The advertising is going to have to be templatized as well. They don’t like to hear that — they want to take any ad that comes in and stack in any old way they want it and spend hours or days relaying the paper around it, but that’s not going to happen anymore.

We’re going to have a standard number of layouts. Maybe some custom work will be done on special sections or special reports, or front pages and things like that. But let’s get out of the business of spending most of our time in a design group at the newspaper working around the advertising, just doing layout. Let’s work on the storytelling, let’s work on the visual narratives. The picture stories, primarily. The information graphics, which in this light is zero, they seem to have been completely forgotten about.

SND at one time was famous for pushing the idea of visual information in the newspapers. When I first started working at the New York Times in the ’80s, Lou Silverstein had created what he called sides of beef. Whole pages of information graphics that he would order up when some big story came along. Where did that go? Even the USA Today has cut way back on information graphics.

We have to stop doing the design work per se, the design direction, and start doing the art direction. That’s a big thing.

The next thing we have to do is really figure out how this integration is going to work. I was working this last year for the Washington Post. They’ve very bravely been integrating the news department on the web and in print. And it’s not been easy; it’s not yet done. But it’s what we all have to do. I’m saying we have to stop thinking of ourselves as newspaper people per se, but think of ourselves … how do we take this visual information, the visual content and push it out in a variety of different directions?

I think as news designers we’ve got to design a new model. We can call it Plan B: This is the way we think newspapers should be done. On some levels we have to start from scratch, but in any case we have to make it good enough that people will pay for it.

We can forget about the old models and the old institutionalized newspaper news site or news channel and start thinking about the real value the design or visual content can provide in this media context.

Video titles and editing by Jonathon Berlin; transcript by Steve Dorsey


I’m with you on templates. I think we all have a gut feeling about how much better templates would be, but in my experience, templating became a way to reduce staff instead of reallocating the brain power to do different and better jobs.

excellent article.
i would have liked to have had illustrations for some of the points you were making.


Kudos to Roger Black and SND for opening the ‘what’s next’ discussion. It’s way past time to look beyond mainstream media, whose owners have done everything in their power to hasten their own demise.

Roger Black is wrong. The problem is neither content nor presentation, any more than music was the problem with the music business.

People listen to the same music as much as they ever did. There’s just a lot of music out there that is free. iTunes is the only institution to get it right: To overcome the lure of free music, iTunes provides a superbly-organized music repository that sells tracks for pocket change.

News outlets that survive must find a way to profitably develop and organize content, and either give it away (with advertising) or sell it dirt cheap.

Please, stop encouraging news designers and artists to continue the futility of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

If we homogenise our presentation of news through templated design, what is to stop us from homogenising our gathering of the news? “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” – Jefferson. I would suggest that to template news production would be to limit our expression. Let’s hope Orwell was wrong.

I’ve left the biz and am back at school doing exactly what Roger is talking about, retooling. And what am I doing? Programming. Why? Because the future of visual communications, more than ever, is in the systems and structures that other people will use as tools. It’s about building thoughtful systems that others can use for their own particular purposes – and in thinking through and removing roadblocks to their communicating _their_ message.

Learning programming will give you more of those tools.

A small correction, which makes an important sorta-counter point to the article:

The music industry was never stressed. It’s been doing better and better as the decade has progressed, and is currently making more money than ever before. The *recording* industry is what has suffered, and is significantly hurting. It’s not going to recover, because its business model has been rendered mostly obsolete underneath it. There will always be some demand for a professionally-produced physical copy of one’s music, but the recording industry at its current size is dead and rotting.

The takeaway point is that the business of making physical copies of digital content has been fundamentally altered. There are still niches to occupy (vanity printing, frex, or high-quality reproductions), but one can no longer consider oneself as in the business of selling copies. If any companies in this sort of industry (newspapers included) wish to survive, they have to fundamentally alter how they think and proceed.

Focusing on content, as this article recommends, is a vital part of this transformation. It’s not a cure-all, but it’s a necessary piece of the treatment. For example, focusing on in-depth, interesting local news, which can’t be easily found in other publications or on the internet, has been a successful strategy for several newspapers in America.

The future of design is releasing some of the controls: Releasing the expectation that we, the Art Directors, Designers and Content Producers can dictate the method of consumption. Many of the progressive news organizations are beginning to see that users are choosing, from a huge variety of platforms, their desired method of consumption.

Shirley Hicks is approaching this from the right perspective. Content Creators must not be programmers, but must understand the technology that is being used and how to put some controls on that experience.

That being said, Designers and Art Directors have to look at logical standards and design as a framework to visually organize messages so that they can be consumed easily-and in the same tone as originally intended by the Content Creators and organization.

I think that one of the most important new models have become clear with media like YouTube. Video and the possibility to react on that immediately.

And I think that taking it one step further is what you did here, add a transcript.

Personally I like that a lot, because then it is very easy to remember and share further what was most important to me.

I don’t know anything about Roger Black or his work except what is included in this story but I have to say that I am not impressed at all by the Washington Post site or They look like they were thrown together and packed to the gills with content several years ago. The “designs” of these sites are just plain ugly.

I think that Bruce Oren hit the nail on the head. The days of a few sources controlling news/info are over. There are many, many places to get any particular bit of info – the sites that present it with best balance of clarity, function and design will succeed.

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