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.

Love that Louisville

I was lucky enough to get to go to the SND conference in Louisville last weekend. I’d never been to Louisville and never been to an SND conference. Twofer!

The city seems cool — we stayed right downtown in the beautiful Galt House and walked pretty much everywhere — and the conference was inspiring. I came back full of hope and ideas and hopefully the right amount of added chutzpah to be a better designer and a better manager of designers.

Louisville

Racing

Racing Phonethip and Heather

One of my favorite quotes from the conference was by David Wright, a designer for Twitter. He said — and put up on a big slide — “Great experiences thrive in environments where design is respected.” You would think something like that might be a no-brainer, but there are a lot of people who actually don’t fully embrace this concept.

Churchill Downs

Ali Museum Ali courtyard

Hollowed

Galt House Galt House decorations

The full set is here. I definitely aim to get to another SND conference in the future, and I am going to be back in Louisville too! It’s not that far away and there is a ton of stuff to do there.

Escape plan

I’m pretty sure last night at work was one of those nights that I will eventually come to look at as instrumental in lighting that under-ass fire that finally got me to jump the tracks and hop on the Underwater Basket Weaving Career express.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Existential crisis, party of whee

My mind is this great humming butter churn of a thing, moving unformed chunks of ideas around slowly and with great struggle.

I have nothing to write about. It is driving me fucking bonkers. I have been sitting here staring at this screen, trying to make it happen, trying to remember something, anything, worth sharing and I have nothing. Everything is extremely mundane. I can’t just write about my kid all the time, cool as he is. I can’t write about work, insane as it is. That’s it, though. I don’t have anything else. I’m not overly happy or overly sad about anything. I just continue to have absolutely nothing to fucking talk about and I think it’s time to pronounce the blog dead because maybe then I will get my mojo back.

I can’t keep writing about not writing.

*&^&^%#$#@$%#$&*^()((&*^%$%@#!#$@$#%$*&(

OK. Now that I got that out of my system, I am just going to write. Some stream-of-consciousness shit helps unclog the mind, doesn’t it? I swear I think I have done this before here and yes I did just search my archives for an example and I came up short.

You are going to think this is ridiculous but I just made myself cry up there, when I decided to consider killing the blog. I’m not even PMSing. I am that emotionally constipated and frustrated. This thing that is mine that used to give me such joy is such a point of stress now. Self-imposed, completely stupid stress! No one cares! Once Google Reader is dead, there might be four people who ever remember to come by here and they know how fucking crazy I am anyway and don’t expect anything from me!

I’m, like, three months behind on Holden’s month-by-month posts. I feel a ridiculous amount of guilt about that, which is sort of making me feel like I shouldn’t write about anything else until I get those out of the way. Stupid.

Is it living in Nashville that has sapped me? Because crazy shit used to happen to me and around me all the time in Memphis. Nothing happens here except sometimes I get irrationally angry at a song Pandora will play. I don’t ever see or interact with people except for the ones I live with or the ones I work with, and all those people are off limits from my (public) online smartassery. I want to tell stories about all you delightful weirdos, dammit! Middle management has taken that from me.

I was thinking earlier about how I have been a middle manager at heart my whole life. How I always wanted to do roll call at school and take names when the teacher left the room. I always wanted to please the authority figures in life so they would know that secretly, despite my age, I was one of them. This explains why I never snuck out of the house or blew curfew without calling my parents and letting them know I’d be a smidge late.

Being a manager, though, has been an interesting trip. I have always always always been nonconfrontational and uncomfortable with delivering bad news or having to provide discipline or critique. It’s the people pleaser in me who is crippled by the thought of hurting someone’s feelings or saying something that will make them like me less. Learning to be OK with people not liking me has been a lifelong struggle, even though I am POSITIVE that there have been plenty of people throughout my life who haven’t liked me. Because, as I discover every few years or so, I am a serious asshole sometimes.

So now I kind of have to get right with that asshole part of me and harness it for good. Harness it to keep people honest, to foster productivity, to pressure people to stay on track. Use it to provide a push but not too hard.

WHY AM I WRITING ABOUT WORK? OH MY GOD, NO ONE CARES.

I’m sorry.

Work is my life right now. I think about it almost obsessively. How can I be better, do better, cultivate better results?

Is it because I think I’m a terrible mother? Or do I think I’m a terrible mother because I am so focused on my career?

Ew, those feelings are sticky. Best not touch them.

This post is not about work!*

We hit a wormhole back there or something. I don’t know. How did it get to be the freaking sixth month of the year already? YOU GUYS, CHRISTMAS IS ALMOST HERE, Target’s marketing department shout-whispered directly into your ear.

I think about blogging constantly and then I get on the computer and my work email pops up and before I know it, it’s four hours later and I’ve answered fifty emails and laid out three pages that someone else was scheduled to do but some editors REALLY REALLY NEEDED DONE LIKE RIGHT NOW PLEASE and I’ve worked on the schedule and attempted to make an illustration that doesn’t suck on rye toast and that’s all BEFORE I’ve even gone to the office. It’s kind of obscene how much I’m working lately. And yet that is sort of what I have to do to feel even close to being on top of my workload.

It’s kind of hilarious in a really sad way. I try to keep my dabbling in work in check at home while the boy is awake. I have to send out the daily assignments early in the morning but beyond that I really really try not to have my head buried in the laptop while he’s playing and could use some company and someone to teach him how to, uh, walk and talk and stuff. But when he goes down for a nap, all bets are off.

Hi, everyone. My name is Lindsey and I’m a workaholic.

I have friends who live fifteen minutes away who I have gone months without seeing. Five months. Seven months. Blink. How?

I’ve gotta cut this out. I’ve got to draw some boundaries. Got to get my social life back and I’ve got to write and take photos again. And make stuff. And play with my baby more. Shit, he’s not even a baby anymore. He’s a little dude and he is going to think that my face is a glowing white Apple.

*This post is about work

Vacating!

Vacation day one: The sun cannot be bothered to come out

I’m finally taking some time off work. First real stretch of days off since October. Gah, how did that happen? Oh right, we have been so short-staffed at work since December that it has been impossible for me to get away.

Day one of the vacation has been spent inside, rain pouring nonstop since early morning. I don’t mind. I need a day of decompression before I can even contemplate what’s next or how to spend the next few days.

Don’t squander them, my inner nag says.

A Life in the Day: 3.22.13

Last January, I did one of these so I could remember how it was taking care of a newborn while on maternity leave. I figured I’d do one again while I am a Working Mother of a Toddler, so that in a year or two when my life has changed yet again (spoiler alert: it just keeps changing!), I can look back and try to remember what this life was like.

So here is a pretty typical LT day, told in pictures. To see the captions, you have to toggle on full screen and click the picture, I think. You can hit pause and then scroll through them at your own pace.

Commence vacation!

butterfly

I got my two papers launched so I’m taking a week off. This feels obscene in some ways. Like, what could a person do with an ENTIRE week off? This means I will likely squander it in pajamas, watching TV shows I don’t care about. But I am not going to allow myself to feel guilty no matter what I do this week.

I have small goals:

• Give the cats a bath
• Watch the debate
• Get a haircut
• Carve a pumpkin
• Take the Buds on some adventures
• Get supplies for somebody’s big First Birthday Party
• Finish up some design projects
• Not check work email
• Go on a date with my man
• Take some dang pictures