As Editor-in-Chief of a newspaper catering to an audience of undergraduates, I understand the importance of using design to engage readers. I created an environment of collaboration in the newsroom among reporters, artists, photographers and page designers to improve how writing, editing and design came together when presenting stories. In print and online, I worked alongside designers to creatively design how stories are packaged. Here are a few examples of front pages that I directed the design of while at the Cynic.
“Xanax on Campus” was an investigative piece the Cynic did about the widespread abuse of Xanax and other prescription benzodiazepines on campus. The story was a personal piece that revolved around the experience of addiction of two anonymous UVM students. When the piece came in, we knew it was A1-worthy material. The trick was that the sources, who shared stories of drug deals, failing classes and forgotten days, did not want their images to appear along with the story.
The only photo we had was of a University drug counselor and a bottle of prescription pills. I’d made the mistake before of running weak design for an interesting story about drug use, and was committed to not doing it again. Instead, I called a design team meeting. We sat down, read the story, and started brainstorming. What we came to as a group was that we need something that was both authentic and personal… and anonymous. We decided to take a series of photos with one of the sources and then manipulate it after the fact to protect their identity. We knew that we wanted something eye-catching and unusual… and appropriate for our young audience. We found a great quote from the story — a colloquial, conversational quote that got at the extent of the issue — and handwrote it across black tape. In a world where so much of the design we do is digital, we knew that “going low-tech” was the move for this deeply personal story. The result? An eye-catching, beautiful, serious A1 that draws the audience right in.
There are times when we design that photo comes in… and it’s unusable. Such was the case with another enticing story we had about a student’s experience with a phone scam on campus. Our photo editor was stumped: he’d staged a photo illustration of the real-life phone scam victim calling her mother; he’d edited the victim’s screenshots of a worried conversation with her mother; he’d even tried to get interesting photos of the outside of the police station. It was all boring, and frankly not what the story deserved.
I called a design meeting with the layout editor, the reporter and a few illustrators. I had the idea of something really graphic that ran four columns, with one column part art and part white-space. With the lack of art, we knew we needed a bold design, and came up with the phone with gold coins falling out of it. To connect the design even more to the story, I decided to use a one word headline with a descriptive, cliff-hanger dek below it. The coins falling out of the phone helped keep the design directional. We united the front page by using green (to symbolize cold hard cash) in a pull-quote and page numbers in the top-fold teasers.
There are bad designs that we learn from (like the prescription bottle disaster I linked to above), but there are also good designs we learn from — designs that get the job done, but still fall short of what’s possible in the world of design. A couple of months into the school year, we started to hear rumors about free speech and student right issues in a first-year dorm on campus. The story was that a couple of students had put up sticky notes in their dorm room window while a ground-breaking ceremony happened in the courtyard below. The students got in trouble, and some of them had to attend weekly meetings at 8 a.m. twice a week for the school year as punishment for putting the sticky notes up. We had some art… a couple of photos of the director of the dorm (the man who’d given out the punishments), someone’s high quality cell phone photo of the window with the penis visible in it and photos from the ground-breaking ceremony that day. Since nothing was particularly engaging or bold, I recommended that we design a graphic A1, essentially recreating the sticky note penis ourselves and using display text to connect the graphic with the issues that the story addressed.
The final design was serviceable, but fell short of what we could have done. Were I to do it again, I would incorporate the real cell phone image we had of students taking the sticky notes down from the window, and put that on the front page instead of the director of the dorm. That would have helped tell the story more than a one-column mugshot of the director.
One of my proudest decisions around writing, editing and design came to how we handled weeks of racial justice protests on campus. It was breaking news, and not something we had the ability to plan for extensively. When the protests broke out, I sent out four of our best photographers to get art. I called up our illustrations editor (an artistic genius) and our assistant layout editor and asked them to go out to the protests to see what was going on and prepare for coverage.
We started to put together the special coverage of the protests while we were out there covering it. When the photo came in, we knew that the emotion in the images was one of the most important pieces of the story to be told. For that reason, we decided to run a photo full-page A1. On stands, the protester’s eyes are visible when the paper is folded. Everywhere you walked on campus that week, students saw her eyes gazing out from the paper. We didn’t have a single issue left on stands that week.