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.