Gathered at Syracuse University to judge the 35th Best of News Design™ competition, three speakers shared their best advice for students at the Newhouse School for Public Communications. Each had nuggets of insight useful to anyone starting their careers today.
Society for News Design President David Kordalski, who is AME/Visuals of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, said he has always emphasized face-to-face engagement and conversation with colleagues in other newsroom departments for design inspiration.
“And then, the industry changed, boom! The economy forced change to what we do and how we do it,” said Kordalski.
At his newspaper and scores of others, designers have been moved outside their own newsroom and miles from writers, photographers and editors, making those water cooler conversations are all but impossible. So now what? Engagement and conversation are still critical. It just won’t be at the water cooler, or through random exchanges in the hallway.
“Building trusting relationships is the biggest challenge to working long distance. It takes time empathy and trust, and lots of PDFs,” he said. “If you pursue a design career, chances are you are going to work in this kind of environment. No matter your environment, you can still do great work when you adjust.”
Smaller newspapers have benefited from off-site design hubs, Kordalski said, when resource-starved newsrooms suddenly enjoyed access to more seasoned page designers. And designers have benefited from working in design-studio environments, side by side with more fellow designers than they would have previously.
Next up, Sara Quinn, an instructor at the Poynter Institute, analyzed storytelling across the various platforms readers enjoy — even the emerging wearable platforms like Google Glass and wrist devices. Each device has a strength and weakness. Tablets are better for long reads or detailed instruction; social media for quick hits and breaking headlines. Understanding how the audience relates to these tablet will go a long way.
What about social media? Said Quinn: “Your newsroom’s designated ‘social media guy’ is going to go away. Everything is social.”
Social media report news, but also uncovers sources, unearths trends and elicits real-time reactions to breaking news. With apps, the audience can be the reporter. Coverage of an oil spill allowed readers to document their own sightings, for example.
One thing print provides better than other formats: context. Quinn showed an amusing British tabloid sports page with the Internet-famous headline: Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious. Attempts at puns or jokes, even ones referencing the Mary Poppins song, would flop online, especially in SEO. But it’s understood immediately on the printed page.
Designer Jennifer Daniel, who spent three years at Bloomberg Business Week and now works for The New York Times, was more contrarian about things like social media and even the title “designer.”
Visual journalist is a better term since so many people are calling themselves “designer” these days, Daniel said.
Still, she demands an intellectually engaged graphics staff who pitches ideas rather than waiting for editors to find story ideas to be illustrated. “We’re not just editorial barnacles,” she said, later adding that “the most mysterious aspect of a designer’s job is the journalism.”
And a designer who just passively follows orders, without emerging with original concepts, is not a designer. “You’re a mouse clicker.”
And what about looking for likes and follows online?
“Social media is overrated. Justin Bieber will always get more ‘likes’ than anything you do,” said Daniel.