Lifetime Achievement Award, Roger Black: Innovator, leader, visionary

The recipients of SND’s Lifetime Achievement Awards in 2012 are Roger Black and Deborah Withey. The awards were presented at SND’s annual workshop and exhibition in Cleveland this fall. Before Black and Withey, only 19 have received the honor.

Michael Whitley, assistant managing editor at the Los Angeles Times presented the award.

Here is a transcript script.

In 1995, a redesign changed my life. It showed me that newspapers could look like newspapers but still be smart and sophisticated. It cast aside some of the distractions of the 80s and showed that serious newspapers could also be seriously designed newspaper.

The Baltimore Sun was revolutionary in its retro look but its modern sensibility. That was the first time I was aware of Roger Black.

But long before that, Roger had cast his shadow in our industry. And almost 20 years later, he’s still redesigning newspapers, magazine and digital products. According to Roger, when a design is completed, it should look like it has “always been this way. Its logic should be clear to the users.”

So it’s logical that today we give Roger SND’s highest honor with our lifetime achievement award.

Early years

Roger grew up in West Texas and attended the University of Chicago in the 60s. He got involved in underground publications – as a designer by default and not training. By the mid-70s, Roger was one of the principle creators of the “Rolling Stone look.”

“I met Roger Black at Rolling Stone in the mid-1970s.

He was the first designer I ever met who loved type. He understood it and he worked with it masterfully. He was light years ahead of his contemporaries.

When type went digital, Roger was way out in front. As fast as new information technology appears, Roger has it mastered. He has a Midas Touch. I have seen it over and over during a forty-year friendship.

If you want to know what you might be doing in a few years, take a look at what Roger is doing today.”

Magazine work
From Rolling Stone, he moved on to New York magazine, the New York Times and Newsweek. Roger did exceptional work while a staffer for, as he put it, “some of the smartest people in the business.”

Roger fully embraced the “Age of the Mac” even as the generation before him resisted this seminal moment in design. At the same time, he went out on his own and began the consultant work that he is so famous for today, both at his own studio and cofounding Danilo Black with Eduardo Danillo.

“Roger helped all our SND members understand and focus on great typography as an essential ingredient of great design. And he generously passed on his love and passion for type to whole generation of newspaper designers.

Roger is always three steps ahead of the pack because he has an uncanny ability to see around the next curve. (He) has always been a crowd pleaser at SND because he is a joy to listen to. He is wickedly funny, insightful and always original.”

Font Bureau
At the same time, he founded The Font Bureau with David Berlow, which has been his typographical home ever since and has done “a lot more for me than I have for it.”

“Roger’s single greatest contribution to the type industry is his insistence on never stopping. 
That there’s always another brilliant font on the horizon, is not on most people’s horizons.

“Roger put the Font Bureau on the map, in 1989, 
when hardly anyone had heard of fonts, custom fonts, much less Font Bureau, by just being Roger.”

It’s daunting and nearly impossible to name all of the newspaper and magazine redesigns Roger was involved with or responsible for during this time. In fact, it’s probably easier to name the items on a newsstand that he HASN’T worked on. Roger himself has said he’s “designed more magazines that you’ll ever read.” A first run at a list would include: Esquire, Reader’s Digest, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, Entrepenuer, McCall’s, The New Republic, Fast Company, Foreign Affairs, the National Enquirer (so … a lot.)

As Michael Wolff said in his New York magazine profile of Roger, “We (the general reader) expect magazines to look the way Roger makes them look. Roger has created a standard. … A Roger design helps you deal with your insecurities. Roger moves you to where you want to be. At the front of a newsstand. At a power lunch. At the heart of pop culture.”

“Roger Black is one of our industry’s titans, a visionary, and one who has made golden and elegant any project he has ever touched.

“I have had the honor of working with Roger in a variety of projects through the years, and I always learned much from him. He is a perfectionist and the seeker of excellence, but more importantly, I am so proud to 
call him my friend. A well-deserved honor!”

And with his work at the Interactive Bureau and later, Roger has been doing early, important work on the Web since 1995, including influential designs of and @HomeNetwork. He designed or redesigned important, established brands (American Express, Discovery Channel, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Barnes and Noble, IBM, Hewlett-Packa) You want important? How about the U.S. Senate?

And as usual, Roger was ahead of the curve on Web design, recommending “Black basics” that included clean, easy to read typography, a simple color palette (red, white and, of course, black) and content that was varied (“lumpy”) but easy to use.

And, as I lead with, there have been Roger’s extensive newspaper redesigns. Again, to numerous to name every one, but notably: the Houston Chronicle, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Rocky Mountain News, Washington Times, San Francisco Examiner, The Nation (Bangkok), Rumbo, the Baltimore Sun, to name just a few. Each redesign allowed Roger to not only implement his core design principles but also challenge a newsroom that was already in the midst of change.

“Roger taught me many lessons but perhaps the most important one was in any project to challenge all your assumptions.

“The approach might make many uncomfortable. But it sure makes projects more exciting and productive.”

And like any passionate designer, Roger isn’t afraid to speak out against the things he disagrees with and challenge his peers, whether it’s another top designer or the industry as a whole.

Like SND for example. Here’s some unsolicited advice Roger gave after our 2004 convention in Orlando:

Gather everyone in one big room
Free wireless Internet everywhere
Avoid destination cities
Encourage people to mingle, not dispense

Think we listened to any of that????

And challenging the industry status quo is a big part of what Roger has been focusing on lately by launching Ready-Media, which markets high-end designed templates for magazines, newspapers, Treesaver, which provides similar services for digital products.

And to his critics, Roger’s evolved solutions still focus on his core principles of using great design and typography and then getting out of the way of the content.

As Roger says, print products “must be easy to read. Websites should be easy to use. Content must be brought to the surface. And when a design is complete, it should seem natural and obvious. It should look like it has always been this way”

“I love Roger.
I love his laugh.
I love his generosity.
I love hearing him describe a type face. Say, Cheltenham.
I love his passion and confidence about design.
I love just being in the same place with Roger.
I love a good forced march with him.
I love his voice.
I really love his voice.

“And I am pleased as punch that Roger has been recognized by SND for this great honor. It was earned. It was way past due.
I love that.

“Roger, I am sending you a big hug.”

And it’s with great pleasure that I present SND’s Lifetime Achievement Award to Roger Black.

About Jonathon Berlin

is graphics editor of the Chicago Tribune and a past president of the Society For News Design.

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