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From DESIGN, Summer 2005

Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Redesign (with apologies to Martin Luther)

What designers should be doing instead of chasing SND awards

By Alan Jacobson, Brass Tacks Design

1. Fix the body type.
Can you remember the last time SND gave an award for legibility? Me neither. So chances are you don't care much about your body type. But you should.
Most redesigns fail to improve the legibility of the text. Even worse, many reduce legibility. That's why most redesigns produce more complaints than cudos. If you want to be successful, you gotta sweat the small stuff. Stop fussing about the display type and pay more attention to the 9 point.
2. Enough with the color palettes already
"We spent months developing our color palette to work harmoniously with the colors of our community." Sorry, but this preoccupation with color palettes is just a bunch of horse hockey. Here's why: The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today use the same color palate EVERYWHERE despite regional and cultural differences. They don't tailor their color palettes for every market they serve, so why should you? Are your readers more discriminating then theirs? I doubt it.
Bottom line? As long as your paper doesn't look like a Hawaiian shirt (unless, of course, you're in Hawaii) it's probably just fine. Instead of wasting time making adjustments to colors that no reader will ever notice, spend that time on something that does make a difference - like making the paper easier to read and easier to use.
3. Ditto on the headline typography
I realize designers need to cost justify their existence, but I think we've taken the notion of tailoring typography to communities way too far. Just pick typefaces that are legible, efficient and appealing. Then stop and put more effort into something else that really matters. If you need a reason to spend more time on your redesign, tackle the sports agate. I dare you.
4. Promote the short form.
This story is probably the shortest one on redesign in this issue - that's probably why you're reading it. (Not you, Mom - I know you read all my stuff). Take a hint. Shorter is better.
That may seem easy for me to say – I'm only 5'5" – but I think Mario's even shorter. What a minute, maybe shorter isn't better. Roger, how tall are you? Deborah, Lucie, Tony?
Short stories get read before long ones. It's just a fact of life. As designers, we need to create typographic vehicles for short form: Fact boxes, lists, quotes, summaries, etc. But more importantly, we need to show our colleagues on the other side of the aisle (a.k.a. the word people) how and when to use these devices.
Writers are in love with their prose. What they don't believe and can never admit is that readers don't share their passion for 300-inch stories on the vanishing Rhino. But they can continue to write– and get paid to do it – if we help make the newspaper a more efficient (a.k.a less time consuming) vehicle for information.
5. Kill those "Here's everything you need to know about our redesign" special sections. Why? because nobody reads them.
If your redesign is so great, shouldn't it be obvious? Or to put it another way, if you need to tell readers why they should like your redesign, maybe it's not such a good redesign. Readers don't care how much effort you put into your redesign – unless you mess up the body type. Then they'll hound you down like the dog you are.
6. No more artwork in nameplates. The first ones were great, but now they're overdone and more often than not, poorly done. Better to have no artwork than bad artwork. Better still, pay Jim Parkinson to redraw your nameplate. Then you'll truly have a beautiful piece of artwork.
7. It's the content, stupid.
Sure, we all love design, and design can make a difference. But only the content will determine whether a newspaper thrives or dies. I worked with a managing editor who told me once, "Alan, they'll read it if we print it on a shopping bag if we get the content right." He was right – I've read a fair number of publications that looked like, well, shopping bags. But I read them for the content.
There's nothing we can do about this. But we're foolish to ignore it. Let's do what we can with design. But always keep in mind that design serves the content. We need the word people more than they need us. Because without their words, we'd have nothing to design but shopping bags.
8. Take focus groups seriously.
Designers put little stock in focus groups, claiming that the results are inconclusive and unrepresentative. But the REAL reason designers hate focus groups is because focus groups don't love their designs.

What focus groups say: "We don't love this design."
What designers hear: "We don't love the designer."

C'mon kids. Grow up. This is adult stuff. If they don't love your design, it doesn't mean they don't love you. It just means you did a shitty job. So buck up and fix it.
I have found focus groups to be remarkably accurate predictors of reader response to redesigns. There. I said it. And you can take that to the bank.
I sell redesigns for a living. If readers hated what I did, I'd be out of business and looking for a job designing something else. Maybe shopping bags. So I count on focus groups to learn whether readers will like the redesign BEFORE it debuts. Sure, you can fix what's broken after you launch. But you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
9. Stop the design incest.
Can't we be a LITTLE more creative? Where are all the original ideas? I can't believe they used them all in Allentown 20 years ago.
Let's put an end to design monkey see, design monkey do
and come up with something that people actually want to look at.

Make me say, "Damn, I wish I had thought of that!"

You can reach Alan Jacobson at

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