Staying behind the design curve

August 8, 2014

By Ed Hennigner
Design Elements 

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “ahead of the curve.” It’s where many designers want to be.

Not me.

Not that I don’t like doing things differently. Not that I don’t like experimenting. Not that I don’t like to find better ways to design.

I don’t like the curve because I’m not a fan of fads—and too often that’s where the curve takes us.

Our job as newspaper designers is to present the news to readers in a fashion that’s comfortable and concise. We need to use design as a guide to helping them find what they want and being able to read it clearly and easily.

Yes, design also should be compelling in those places where it’s called for, but standing design elements such as page labels, section flags and headline fonts should be reserved, quiet.

Too often, the curve gets in the way of good design practice. Instead of helping the reader, it rushes at him, yelling “Hey! Look at me! I’m different! I’m new! I’m colorful! I’m cool!” I believe that a good design is characterized by elements that are seen but not heard.

Years ago, when an early version of QuarkXPress added the ability to create ovals, well—ovals all were “in.” Oval page labels, oval standing heads, even (ugh!) oval photo frames. Ovals were ahead of the curve.

Then came gradient color blends. You could use a green-to-red gradient screen behind a Christmas headline! Gradients were ahead of the curve.

And radial gradients! Wow! We could put a radial gradient in an oval for our standing heads! Radial gradients were ahead of the curve.

And overlines. You know, those little centered labels above headlines? They often serve to help place the story, such as an overline with your town or county name above a headline on a plan to increase taxes. These can work well, but not if they’re redundant or obvious. One of the first overlines I saw years ago was above a story about Iran ignoring UN sanctions. The overline read “World.” Gee—I think I could’ve figured that one out myself. Overlines were ahead of the curve.

And color headlines. No, I’m not against a color headline on a food page or an entertainment centerpiece. I use color in those headlines myself. But—an orange headline about the firing of city manager in a town across the state? No—let’s not. Color headlines are ahead of the curve.

The problem with the curve is that it swerves. There’s no telling where it will take you. And there are no road signs—nothing to tell you to slow down, stay to the right or stop and go back.

When readers pick up our newspaper, they’re looking for a brief trip on cruise control—not a roller coaster ride.

Let’s stay behind the curve. © Ed Henninger 2014

 

ED HENNINGER is an independent newspaper consultant and the director of Henninger Consulting, offering comprehensive newspaper design services including redesigns, workshops, staff training and evaluations. E-mail: edh@henningerconsulting.com. On the Web: henningerconsulting.com. Phone: 803-327-3322.

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