Roger Black joins SND Frankfurt lineup

Design and typography icon Roger Black is joining an already stellar cast of speakers at SND Frankfurt.

Since taking on his first job at LA Magazine in 1972, Roger has been chief art director or design consultant for publications of all kinds, all over the world. Among them: Rolling Stone, Outside, New York, The New York Times, Newsweek, Esquire, Fast Company, Smart Money, Reader’s Digest, The Los Angeles Times,,, The Washington Post, Semana (Colombia), Panorama (Italy), The Straits Times (Singapore), Kompas (Indonesia), Tages Anzeiger (Switzerland), Placar (Brazil), Svenska Dagbladet (Sweden), Nomad Editions, Scientific American, and Always On Network.

Recently his focus has been Asia. In March his design for the Asia Tatler magazines was launched, with a new Font Bureau typeface, Forma. Now he is working with a multi-platform news publication group in Myanmar. We caught up with Roger for a quick Q&A:

In the last year you’ve done consulting work in Myanmar & Hong Kong. What inspires you when you take on these challenges on the other side of the globe?

I like to go where its booming. New York in the 80s, the Silicon Valley in the 90s. . . . And, having worked in Europe and Latin America, as well as the states, I felt like I had been missing out on Asia. They still have newsstands in Hong Kong and the big cities, and there is still a big advertising market for newspapers. The South China Morning Post is stuffed with ads, and that’s the English-language paper. Apple Daily made Jimmy Lai a tycoon, like the early 20th century in the West.

And, there is news here. Americans have become complacent; relative calm has lulled people into complacency. They think, “The news just comes to me.” It’s not life-or-death for most people, but there is enough stress that everyone wants to keep up with what is going on. And despite the fact that free speech is in short supply, there is plenty of talk about the big issues, including pop culture issues. Online, apps and news sites are flourishing, largely due to the nearly universal adoption of smart phones. Bandwidth is much faster, and cheaper, than in the U.S. Even in backwaters like Myanmar, mobile data is arriving, and they’re expecting 15 million new smart phone customers in the next two years.


You wrote on your blog about tackling a (*gasp*) print project, the Tatler [in Asia]. What’s different about taking on a print redesign today versus, say, Newsweek a quarter century ago?

Attention spans have decreased sharply, and so magazines tend to be more collections of small bits than long narratives. The Asia Tatlers—there are nine of them—are at the top end of the market. In the first month I was in Hong Kong I met about a dozen billionaires. The great number of luxury ads allowed us (or pushed us) the artisanal approach—heavy paper, lavish color, with lots of cover gatefolds with gold stamping. The production quality of publications in Asia tends to be better than elsewhere, even for newspapers.

But the verities of editing and design are still important in this or any market. Great stories. Great pictures. And as Tatler reminded me, it’s a good idea to get pictures of readers in the publication whenever possible!

What advice would you have for a journalism design student graduating today? (Something they won’t learn in school)

My advice for a young designer is to learn programming. Just like we used to have to know the technology of typesetting and printing to be a good designer in the analog era, today you have know how to code. Maybe you don’t code everything yourself, but you should understand the technology and how to use it—-web CSS, server-side heuristics, client-based responsive design, etc. The best designers I know (under 40) are all designer-coders.

The list I made for the SND award a couple of years ago doesn’t need much updating:

Pages. News design is not just about page design anymore. I’ve been thinking about the design rules—the relationship between text and pictures, headlines and text, and the styles that mark different kinds of content.
Content. As Lou Silverstein said, “Ask yourself what is the news content before you take a design to the desk.”
Information. To succeed as a visual editor, you have to be as well- or better-informed on the news and political issues than the text editors. The way to stay ahead of changes in the media world is to be a reporter—observe everything as you go.
History. I wanted to know the history of newspapers, printing, type and graphic design. By standing on the shoulders of others you can see farther, and avoid starting over.
Design equity. Hold on to the good parts of a publication’s design. Some papers and sites have redesigned so much, readers can’t recognize them.
Inspiration. Design ideas come from the real world—the city, art, and nature—not just the design world.
Technology. Technology is your friend. A designer doesn’t have to code, but I had to know understand how code works, and what I can do with it, to make the transition to the new world.
People. The best news design happens when the process is open and the best ideas get published. I never just handed out sketches, but worked with the team. And if the team is happy, you get great design.
The reader. The best publication designers think of themselves as the agents of readers. They are in the newsroom to get the content across to the end users.
Life. With all the stress around deadlines, the meltdown of the media, and the economy, it’s easy to get lost in your work. Somehow I’ve been able get outside often enough—for me it’s to the ocean or the desert—to keep a little perspective, and a little fun. And to spend time with my partner in life, Foster.

About Stephen Komives

Previously served as Executive Director of the Society for News Design, from 2009–2019.

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