Before I discovered that I enjoyed the design side of the newspaper business, I was a part-time sportswriter and had my heart set on being a reporter throughout my time in school. Considering I’ve written one story in the last four years, I think it’s safe to say that those days are behind me. However, I’m very thankful that I spent a lot of time sharpening my reporting skills and skills with words in general, because they have served me well in my work as a designer, and I believe that they're what helps a “designer” become a “journalist.” And if you want to be truly good in this business, you should strive to be the latter.
So how does a good grasp of the “word” side of the business help a designer in an industry where specialization often seems to separate the two? For one thing, in the eyes of your bosses, it could legitimize you as a journalist and gives you a bigger voice. While design-oriented thinking has made a lot of progress in newsrooms, most of the people in management — people who have the final say-so over what you can do design-wise — still came up as writers. Some have made a true effort to understand how design and content complement each other, but some still see designers’ jobs as little more than “make it look pretty.” If you show your editors that you’re a designer who understands and appreciates “content” (one of those little buzz words that some editors like to throw around when shooting down a design, but that’s for another day and another column), it’ll give your arguments that much more weight the next time you’re explaining, or defending, your ideas.
A good understanding of reporting — knowing the things that make a good story and the hurdles that writers face in their daily work — will also help reduce friction between reporters and designers. Make an effort to get to know your writers and how they go about their job. It will cut down on the “why couldn’t you have run the picture smaller and run more of my story” complaints if the reporters know that you understand and value what they do.
Knowing your reporters’ workflow and workload is vital if you’re in a position to help make decisions about the newspaper’s content. Case in point: Last year I developed a series of new weekly pages for our sports section — a prep features page for Wednesday, a college football features page for Thursday, etc. The main consideration in which day to run which page was when our reporters would have the time and the access to coaches and players they would need to produce the content for those pages. Had I not had a good feel for that, it wouldn’t have mattered how good my templates looked, they simply would not have worked because of our limited staff would not be able to sustain them through a whole season. Also, the pages were planned so that they would disrupt the reporters' routines as little as possible, and some of the content on the pages were designed so that they would not take much time to write at all — and reporters always appreciate it when you make their lives easier.
Because I understood our writers’ routine and workload, I devised the templates so that they didn’t add a lot of work for the reporters, but rather reorganized and repackaged the stories we were already getting on a weekly basis into a more visual and reader-friendly form. The repackaging also improved the design because it emphasized planning ahead, which meant we had more planned art for stories and fewer instances when we would get two or three lengthy features on the same day.
Good verbal skills also are important from a practical standpoint because if you start out at a smaller paper (and chances are you will), it’s likely that your job will involve at least some copy editing and headline writing. Besides, being able to write a good headline can help your design, too. There have been many times when I’ve actually come up with a clever headline for a story first, and then designed the package around that headline to reinforce its point. I even had an instance where I came up with the title for a special section first and that provided the inspiration for the visual theme of the entire section.
Finally, and this last point may be a bit obvious, good verbal skills will help you forward your career. Good designers are always in high demand, and good designers who are also comfortable and interested in the “word” aspect of the biz are prized finds, in part because it’s one more designer who doesn’t need to be baby-sat through that part of assembling a page (making the editor’s job easier), who can help write strong headlines and catch mistakes or missing information in stories. And in an age when newspapers aren’t about to boost staff sizes any time soon, someone with that kind of versatility is invaluable. It also shows that you have the potential to develop into someone who can give good input not just on pure design, but also on how to combine design and content into an effective presentation.