The Het Financieele Dagblad redesign: A special interview with Jacek Utko

Jacek will be the keynote speaker at SND Amsterdam, Nov. 7-9.

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Award-winning design consultant Jacek Utko has become synonymous with SND World’s Best Designed Newspaper.

Poland’s Puls Biznesu, Estonia’s Aripaev, De Morgen (Belgium), and Het Parool (The Netherlands), all touched by Jacek, all have been named SND World’s Best. Jacek’s work also has been earned European Newspaper of the Year and more than 50 other awards in various design competitions. He has been working in 24 countries as media consultant and was giving lectures in 35 countries. His most well-known talk comes from TED conference – “Can Design Save The Newspaper?”

Jacek spoke with me about his latest redesign: Het Financieele Dagblad – the biggest financial newspaper in Holland. The publication was founded in 1796 and is headquartered in Amsterdam.

Q: 1) What was your experience in designing a niche financial publication?
A: I love financial newspapers, since I was working for them for many many years. My first job as art director was for financial paper. My first World’s Best Designed award was for a business paper. Business papers are a bit boring from first glance but they teach you content driven design, they teach you how to play with data, figures, charts … They also thought me how to make poster-style covers years ago. Because in those papers you rarely have amazing newsy photos. That’s why I was forced to rather make conceptual, magazine-style covers.

Het Financieele Dagblad – front pages gallery

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Q: What were the challenges in this redesign?

A: This is one of those newspapers that had great success online, converting readers to paid subscribers. They have a digital-first strategy, and it works perfectly well for them. Until one day when they realized that print is a bit behind, and many readers still want print! That’s why they called me. Print-saving Dr. Utko, haha. But there was more. This is a redesign made for readers. We honestly asked them what kind of newspaper they want in the 21st century? What do you expect from print when you consume digital news anyway? What paper would fulfill your needs? And after long series of tests they got very clear answers. First, we want an overview: we are lost and overwhelmed by the amount of information around, we don’t know what’s important. Show us. Second, we want insight stories, not only short newsy items. We want to feel smarter, give us 2-3 stories, longer, more analytical, high quality, serious, not shallow. Third, we need a summary of your stories. We don’t have an hour a day for reading, rather 15-20 minutes. Give us summary to bigger stories, so we know if we want to invest our time.

Q: How did you use those findings in the design?

A: We built the redesign around those three findings. We kept most of the old fonts in the paper, that was not most important. We wanted to serve people. We focused on designing an overview – the first few pages had newsy overviews at the top. The last few pages have a financial markets overview, in short. Easy and convenient. We made a special section inside the paper – everyday 2-3 insight stories, longer quality articles, usually on the whole spread. And to longer stories we added summaries, plus a whole system of boxes and references, to help navigation.

Het Financieele Dagblad – Spread pages

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Q: What was the reaction?

A: They love it. Honestly, I’ve never had such great feedback from readers. People that were reading the paper for 40 years were saying they were never more happy, that the paper now is perfectly clear, organized and gives them what they want. Honestly if I had a choice to get one more award or hear such positive feedback, I’d most likely choose the latter. It’s quite rare that people like products so much after a big change. And change was quite substantial – smaller format, completely new structure, new sections.

Q: The redesign included online?

A: No, it was only print. Web was doing quite well, so we will do it in the next step.

Q: How was the role of editors in the redesign? 

A: Editors were crucial. The big questions, this rethinking of the paper that will serve readers well, came from editors. Editor-in-chief Jan Bonjer was very active at all stages. They also set a special team working on the concept of new supplement called Features. They were free to come up with any revolutionary idea for this new section. I was working closely with team of designers from the paper, managed by Hans Spoelman. We were exchanging various ideas, picking the best ones, then showing it to the management and editors, then adjusting and working over and over again. That was quite a challenging process from this perspective – many iterations of the concept itself, design, structure, etc. But we wanted to end up with something that really answers those big questions.

Het Financieele Dagblad – Weekend Edition

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Q:The question again: “Can Design Save The Newspaper?”

A: Yes. Three things can save newspapers today: One is design thinking about the whole strategy, concept of the product. How we can serve better our audience in digital times. Second is storytelling. We have to come back to our roots, to the core of our profession, to our service. Today’s technology may change, we may be telling stories not on paper, even not on screen, but storytelling skills will be always crucial. And third is innovation in print. Some key people in our industry kind of forgot about it, they don’t believe in print anymore, preferring to put all their effort into digital. Are today’s newspapers the final development of print before it dies? Not at all. We will see many new faces of newspapers on the way. It will go more magazine, it will deliver book-quality stories, it will end up as a Sunday newspaper at the end… So print will not die, but your daily newspaper, as it looks today, might.

Interview by Douglas Okasaki / Edited by Stephen Komives

About Douglas Okasaki

is 2018 Past President of the Society for News Design


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