Some things I’ve done that were printed on paper

I’ve gotten really bad at keeping a running visual tally of the things I design at work, so here’s a dump from the past few months! What you see here are some pages, some centerpieces.

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CP for Montgomery Advertiser


CP for Montgomery Advertiser


CP for Montgomery Advertiser

Lighten up: News design, levity, and fighting the impulse to be So Serious

I haven’t posted about news design here in a long time. Did you guys know I still do that for a living? Oh boy, do I ever.

My time working for newspapers has now stretched into a decade. In that time, I’ve had the honor of working with eight daily newspapers, each with its own distinct flavor determined by a combination of location, publisher whims, editor disposition (this goes all the way from the top editor to the last copy editor who proofs the pages before releasing every night), ad/marketing department attitudes, staff makeup, money woes or triumphs, and more.

If there is one thing that has cropped up time and time again that can impede good design, it’s an editor’s fear of levity.

Editors want their papers to be taken seriously. I get that, and I believe a paper’s credibility is what can ensure its longevity. But there seems to be this idea that newspapers are above needing to be fun or interesting, as if fun and interesting are beneath us as journalists. It’s such a dangerous mindset, particularly for midsize metro/regional papers. I’m not talking about the New York Times here.

Just think of all the amazing things that vie for a person’s attention every day. We carry around these Infinite Information Machines in our hands everywhere we go. We can read whatever we want, make art, or play games on these things. There are giant, beautiful television screens with whiz-bang graphics streaming across them at all hours, bringing us nonstop data and entertainment. We sit down at smaller screens and stare into the glowing rectangle for hours and hours, an entire world’s worth of knowledge at our fingertips. When do we actually stop and notice a piece of information and show it to someone else to spread our delight with it?

When it is unexpected, memorable or funny. When it brings us a ping of satisfaction.

They are small but important parts of our experiences as humans in info-saturated 2014, those little moments of fun. Build up enough of those experiences with a product and you will start to feel a connection that can grow into brand loyalty.

Newspaper editors are so reticent to play that game — a game where frivolity might exist alongside seriousness — that they often opt to squash everything but the seriousness because We Are a Real Newspaper, after all. But what does that mean now? And how is that working out for you, anyway?

Google doesn’t put that doodle up to make money. Google puts that doodle up because it’s fun and it expands the experience of using Google into something you’re going to want to do regularly, to see what silly/sweet/funny/wacky thing they might come up with next. And then Google makes money because once you get caught up in the Google brand, they’ve got their meathooks in you everywhere you go on the web and are running behind you, picking up the loose change falling out of your pockets.

So, what is the harm in letting your paper bring levity to your readers if it’s done in a smart way? Particularly if your paper has access to a designer or editor who is really good at identifying when and how to bring unexpected elements of fun to your pages?

It has sort of shocked me over the years to watch editors shoot down really, really clever ideas by designers for pedantic or overly literal reasons. Editors sometimes have a habit of letting small, inconsequential qualms that can easily be addressed blind them to the overall greatness of an idea. That’s why designer-editor collaboration — and having editors with strong visual understanding and designers with strong editing chops — is more important than ever. And why trust and building smarter teams is more important than ever. Our staffs are smaller so we need to work smarter. The people still left in the newspaper industry need to be the ones who shine the brightest, not just the ones who happen to be left over after years of staff hemorrhaging.

(And, yes, I know what a tall order that last sentence is. Still, I hold out hope.)

Part of my current job is to go to bat for ideas I think are worth fighting for, even if editors don’t get them or think they are silly. I have lost count by now of all the interesting, quirky, memorable design ideas we’ve pitched to editors that have gotten shot down outright for being a little too much, a little too forward, a little too weird, or that have made it past initial reactions but then got henpecked by editors who weren’t sold on the idea to begin with and built up enough steam over the evening to get it killed. Or, worse yet, ideas that started out really fun and engaging, but that end up getting twisted and mutated when editors ask for disparate concepts to be mashed together so that they don’t have to pick one idea over another.

Many editors would much rather go with something straightforward and boring than something that might be a little edgy, something that might give the reader a little wink wink nudge nudge to get the point across. But which of those approaches is actually going to get noticed? Or remembered? Can you remember what your daily newspaper looked like in the rack this morning?

I’m here to make a plea, in overwrought wording so you know how serious I am: Editors, be ye not afraid of memorable, unexpected news design. Be ye not afraid of silliness sometimes. Remember that more than ever before, people expect to have interesting, worth-talking-about experiences in conjunction with the products we sell*. We’d be foolish to ignore that and insist that providing moments of delight is beneath us.

So, wonks and pedants, literalists and newshounds, hear my plea. Give your readers some moments of delight every now and again. Have a sense of humor in your pages, where it counts and makes sense. And take some time to enjoy that delight yourself. I promise it will not kill you.

* And yes, the newspaper we sell is a product. I have reluctantly come to understand and embrace that concept. It’s a product with a noble purpose, of course, so that helps.

Let me get a little Charles Appley for a sec

The president visited Chattanooga the other day. Big story. Big, big story.

My pal Nick designed the TFP’s front page for the event. Big page. Big, big page.

TN_CTFP

And yet this is how the paper looked when it hit driveways.

IMAG0246_BURST002

WHY? WHYYYY?

I did something I actually like!

I don’t post about specific stuff I do at work very often because … actually I’m not sure why. It ain’t modesty, I promise. I think I’m still just delusionally assuming that if I don’t post specifics about my work that no one at the new job (new? I’ve been there a year!) is going to find this corner of the internet and discover what a nutty broad I am. That’s crazy, I suppose, because surely by now they have already figured that out.

ANYWAY! For three weeks I have been working with the editors at the Montgomery paper to illustrate their huge series on violent crime in the city. I had spent a lot of time working on The Commercial Appeal’s True Crime series a few years ago, so I felt pretty equipped to tackle the topic from a design standpoint. Except this time around, the editor was not enthusiastic about the photographs that went with the main stories. So he asked if we could go conceptual.

So here’s what I did.

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I’m a bit self-conscious about my ability to execute conceptual designs. I’ve felt that it’s been a weak spot for me since I didn’t get much graphic design training in college (I was on the media design path in J-school; graphic design fell under the college of art) and I spent the first seven years of my career cutting my teeth at a paper that had amazing photographers and an amazing illustrator. There really wasn’t much of a need for me to do conceptual illustrations. So that muscle never got worked.

But I took the editor’s challenge and had a moment of inspiration one evening while digging through stock art. I found this one piece — a spiky blue wave drawing. I had my way with it in Photoshop and ended up with a huge and aggressive wall of red ink engulfing nearly the entire front page. I thought there was no way it would fly with the editor and suspected it wouldn’t fly with anyone, so I ran it past my creative director (email subject line: “Is this crazy?”). He enthusiastically greenlit it and helped me refine it. And then the next week’s photographs were also week, and so we decided we’d have a trilogy of illustrations.

The roots are my favorite. They are hand drawn. Er, mouse drawn. (I should get a tablet.) And that is the third iteration of them. They started out just at the top, and then I had them go down both sides of the page, but my boss told me they looked like Frodo’s head. (They did. And Michael Jackson’s.)

It was a ton of work but I’m happy with how each of these pages turned out and with how they all work together. Kudos to the editor for going with such a bold idea — many editors might have balked — and for letting me come up with ideas that strayed from his original vision.

Shane McDermott, ###

Day 141: Captain Arnold

Yesterday, my former employer laid off one of my close friends and one of the most talented people I have ever met.

I remember when he was hired. It was a few months after I had started and the art director sent out an email to everyone telling us we’d hired a new artist named Shane McDermott, so be on the lookout for some dude walking around, wearing a beret. Get it? He was an ARTIST.

Shane sat over and away from the rest of the design department on a little cube island with the art director and the other artist. Yes, folks, in 2005, The Commercial Appeal had TWO graphic artists, one of whom made maps and downloaded stock and weather graphics for a living. Can you imagine? I didn’t speak to Shane very much but I remember that first Christmas, he came around and dumped a little pile of chocolates on everyone’s desk. Obviously, we were destined to be good friends.

We also worked together like gangbusters. When I had my stint as assistant art director/Sunday Viewpoint designer my favorite part of the whole week would be when Shane and I got to sit down and talk about his illustration ideas. He would always come over to my desk with his sketch pad in hand and go over the intricate thumbnail sketches he’d come up with. Then I’d make a face and he was always really good at reading when I wasn’t into any of them. Sometimes he’d have something that was just perfect. Sometimes we’d settle on a combination of two thumbs. Sometimes we’d brainstorm a totally new but freaking brilliant idea, sitting right there at my desk. He’d go back to his desk and scan in the thumbnail and I’d place it on the page and design around it. He’d stay up all night making an amazing piece of art that would be printed in the Sunday paper and eventually end up in people’s trash or at the bottom of their birdcage (herf derf, we newspaper people love hearing that joke!). It’s so fleeting, making art for newspapers. You get one shot to make it count. Shane was fantastic at knocking it out of the park, visually, in that one shot. I have so many portfolio pieces with his work on them.

Shane’s art made The CA better. So much better. His touches were all over the paper. When they laid off the graphic artist responsible for doing maps and stocks and weather, Shane picked up those duties on top of his already substantial illustration load. I’m sure he wasn’t thrilled to be spending some of his hours making locator maps, but it was something he did with skill anyway.

Having Shane on staff made the paper more colorful and more engaging every single day. When the holidays rolled around, you could be sure there’d be a sweet story that would unfold in his advent calendar. And he could take a two-dimensional concept and turn it into an entire (and adorable) papercraft franchise. One of the few things I carried from my old desk to my new desk here in Nashville is my CA newsbot. It sits proudly beneath my monitor, looking pretty busted because it’s taped together and not glued, but proud and fucking rad nonetheless.

newsbot
Day 180: Independence Bot zombot2

And having him as a work friend was the shit. For a long time I saved almost every email he sent me at work because they were all hilarious. We worked in this surreal space where there were nosehorn trumpets and foot stompers and people humming and clearing their throats and clicking their fingernails on keyboards and sing-song yawning, and had I not had him there to make incredulous faces at and field my frustrated emails, I never would have lasted as long as I did.

Shane is an incredible talent and a damned great person. It shows the desperation of the company if they are getting rid of him, frankly. Shane’s artwork helped set The CA apart from and above other news outlets. It makes me so incredibly sad to see the paper — which gave me my first job out of college — go this route. Several other people I admire and respect tremendously lost their jobs yesterday in the same round of brutal layoffs. I’m so sick of being a part of an industry that just keeps cutting and cutting with no end in sight. It’s heartbreaking.

The good news is that Shane will be fine. He is going to be plenty busy and I hope it’s with stuff that doesn’t involve a LICK of school mergers and politics. Because he’s illustrated enough of that stuff to last a lifetime.

Shane, my friend, seeing that picture of you loading your stuff into a shopping cart made me cry and laugh at the same time. That is entirely you. Absurd and funny and wacky but always with a baseline of utterly heartbreaking sincerity. You will be missed by an industry that didn’t even know what it had.

Dear reader, go visit his blog, where I hope he’ll be updating us on what’s in store for him.

Internet, I’m moving to Nashville

Over the years I have always wondered, when a blogger I followed made a last-minute “I’m leaving the city!” announcement, why he or she waited so long to announce it on the blog, and why there was usually a lack of contemplative “what does it mean for my life that I’m moving?” kinds of posts in the run-up to the departure. And now I know that it’s because when you decide to rip your life up from the roots and cram it hundreds of miles away in a new city with a new home and a new job and new routines and new expenses, THERE IS NO TIME TO LOOK AT YOUR NAVEL, NOT EVEN FOR A SECOND TO REMOVE THAT NASTY LINT YOU’VE BEEN IGNORING FOR THREE WEEKS.

And so here it is, my big announcement: I am packing up and moving this crazed little life to Nashville to take a new job. I have been at The CA for seven and a half years and, as you can see from a recent post, things lately are not great. But let’s not dwell on that; it’s actually much more accurate to say that I have been offered a really interesting opportunity that is going to help me grow careerwise and personally. I’ve accepted a position as Gulf Coast team leader at the Gannett Design Studio of Nashville. I will be helping manage the design of five newspapers in the Gulf Coast region. It’s a robust gig, one with a ton of responsibility. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little intimidated by the prospect, but I think that’s because I have been doing my current job for so long that it’s scary to think about doing something I’ve never done before. It’ll be much less actual live design and much more mentoring, planning, organizing, communicating, and managing.

I’m heartbroken in many ways to be leaving Memphis. I feel like my time here was cut short and that I had a lot more Memphis living in me. But I made it count; I met some of the most amazing, interesting people in this city, and I got to be a part of some incredible things because of those people. Memphis will always be home to me and I will always cherish my little house on Midland because it is where my baby boy was created and where he came into this world. Memphis will always be sacred to me because it’s a tough city and living here has made me a stronger person. And also a more grumpy person but I think that would have happened anywhere. Many people don’t see the beauty in a city like Memphis and I’ve had more than one person use my moving as an opportunity to tell me how much they think Memphis sucks. That’s too bad; I think it takes a special kind of understanding of the fucked-up kind of beauty and humor the world can present to really appreciate it here. And the music. I am going to miss that lazy pulse of bass-driven blues when I have to trade it for twangs and fiddle strokes.

I’m sad that Holden will be leaving his first friends, but I know we will be back to visit and I hope our friends feel free to drop by if they find themselves in Middle Tennessee.

It’s scary picking up and starting again when just two years ago I thought I was going to be settled for a good long while.

Which reminds me: Anyone looking to rent a house?

Let’s give those headline writers some love

I’m starting a little something new at The Memphis Blog. Let’s see if it catches on.