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From DESIGN, Winter 2006

Does design
matter to readers?

That depends upon what you
mean by design

By Alan Jacobson, Brass Tacks Design

Design can be:
A) A splashy, one-story, poster-style, SND award-winning page; or
B) An anchored crossword puzzle.

All of you who answered "B" win the undying gratitude of the newspaper business for truly caring about readers. If you answered "A" you need to get real. And maybe a hobby.

If you already have a hobby but still want to work for a newspaper, then you should ignore the glittering generalities of design experts and their impractical prescriptions for saving the business.

Such "wisdom" as:
  • Be Creative!

  • Think Outside The Box!

  • Convert to Tab! (I hope I put the last nail in the coffin of this lame idea at the SND Houston workshop where even European proponents had to admit results were mixed.)

Enough with the vague and reckless strategies! I want specifics and I bet you do, too. So I'm not gonna bore you with what I think. Instead, get ready for some real world data from real newspapers.

Let's start with Jim Jennings, editor of the Toronto Sun. In March 2004, The Sun's circulation was 211,000. Circulation plummeted to 189,000 six months later after a redesign was introduced - clearly demonstrating that readers care about design - especially one they think sucks.

Jim and his staff launched a new design two weeks ago and circulation is back up to 202,000. Way to go, Jimbo.

So there's proof positive that design matters to readers. But to hear Jim tell it, the kind of design that matters to readers may not be the kind that matters to you.

"Our new design is not cutting edge. It's a modern version of the design we had. We looked at content first, layering and storytelling second, and design third."

Jim's experience in Toronto proves my point. Design matters to readers. But not the kind that matters to those bestowing silver and gold in Syracuse.

Our next stop is the big Kahuna of reader-driven design. No, I'm not talking about that totally unproven, pie-in-the-sky, Readership Institute drivel. I'm talking real world. I'm talking USA Today.

Author's note on The Readership Institute: Tests run by the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis appear to give credence to strategies proposed by this high-falutin', august body. But these tests proved one thing only: If you remove two boring stories from the top of a front page ("Bush aims to repair alliance" and "Woman walks across Minneapolis") and replace them with two stories that are more interesting, compelling and relevant ("Should poker be a crime?" and "Cops want your DNA") then readers will prefer the page with more interesting, compelling and relevant stories.

Duh. And to think that newspapers paid for this "research." No wonder we're in trouble!

And while I'm on the subject of The Readership Institute, let me share with you what a publisher recently shared, confidentially, with me. As you should know, The Readership Institute has identified Eight Keys to Building Readership. They also have a nifty way of measuring your likelihood of success. It's called the Reader Behavior Score, or RBS.

Raise your RBS, and The Readership Institute predicts that you'll increase your readership and your circulation.

Like most people in the business, my publisher friend drank the purple Kool-Aid and pursued the Keys to Building Readership. And his RBS scores went up. And his circulation went down. This may be an isolated incident but I doubt it.

Now I'm not saying The Readership Institute is wrong. But it will take a stiffer drink from a more thoughtful fount of knowledge to win readers back.

But back to USA Today, which has more than 2 million readers. That's a 2 followed by six zeros. What was their circulation less than a generation ago? Zip, Nada, Zilch.

How does a newspaper go from zero to the top in less time than it took for Bodoni to go out of style and come back again? (Author's note: Thanks to Deb Withey, Richard Lipton, Cyrus Highsmith and The Font Bureau for Detroit Bodoni Roman.)

It's simple. Richard Curtis and his team at USA Today practice the kind of design that matters to readers. Here's what it takes to redesign for results:

• Legible bodytype and sports agate

• Excellent color reproduction

• Predictable layout

• Anchoring of regularly appearing features

• Simple typography – who'da thunk one typeface would be enough?

• Short form

• Simple graphics

Granted, this kind of design may not appeal to you. And the thought of DOING this kind of design may appeal even less. But if you love newspapers, you should pay more attention to the stuff that readers care about. I pity the fool who cares more about typography than the content it conveys.

So there are two real-world examples. But wait – there's more! Take this quiz:

What do these newspapers have in common?

The Washington Star

Dallas Times-Herald

Philadelphia Bulletin

Rochester Times-Union

Die Woche

a) They all displayed world-class design.

b) All were designed by world-class designers.

c) You can see them in the SND annuals because all were winners many times over.

d) They're all out of business.

If you answered a, b, c or d YOU ARE CORRECT!

My point? SND-award-winning, world-class design will not save a newspaper. But the kind of design practiced by USA Today and the Toronto Sun does make a difference to readers.

"But Alan," I hear you saying. "I don't work at a newstand-only tabloid in Canada like the Toronto Sun or at national paper like USA Today. What kind of design matters to the readers of my paper?"

Listen up.

I bet you work at a paper of 50,000 to 100,000 daily circulation somewhere in the United States. How'd you like to hear from 100 readers of two different papers with 60,000 daily circulation – papers that are similar to yours?

Sure. I knew that you would.

One paper is in Connecticut and the other is in California. Readers of both papers reacted in similar ways to redesign prototypes we showed last month, thus eliminating any cultural or regional differences in the data we collected.

What I'm about to share with you are the results of focus groups conducted in Waterbury, CT, and Bakersfield, CA. Waterbury's redesign will be launched in October 2005; Bakersfield has scheduled their launch for March 2006.

These markets are quite different and so are their current designs. Bakersfield tested a more dramatic transformation with their prototype. Not surprisingly, it drew a stronger reaction than Waterbury's prototype.

Many people in Bakersfield thought the new front page was just too much. Otherwise, they clearly preferred the new design to the existing one. And many people said they would look at the Sports front they normally skipped only because they preferred the format and content of the new design. One former subscriber even said she would resubscribe when the new design appeared.

Now that's pure gold.

In Waterbury, everyone preferred the new design. Said a tattooed, obese, prison guard, "I think you have a homerun here."

The differences in these design approaches is obvious. Less obvious, and maybe more important, are the digest items that got the attention of focus groups. There stories included:

• "Sea lion attacks teen"

• "Hacksaw may be used to repair shuttle's belly"

• "5 stabbed at Dodgers' game"

• "State taking gas price gripes"

• "It's a boy for Britney Spears

• "Dog theft foiled at pound"

As published, these stories were buried or didn't appear at all. In the prototypes we built with the same day's news, all these stories moved to display positions. Readers found these stories to be more interesting, compelling or relevant than the "important" stories they displaced. And we didn't need an RBS score to figure that out.

Here are the design elements that caught the attention of readers in both cities. I bet your readers would share their preferences for:

• More color

• More anchoring

• More lists

• Better color reproduction

• Smaller photos, but more of them

• More short form (Bless you, Tim Harrower!)

• More digests (not promos or teasers, complete stories in brief)

• Fewer display stories on section fronts (hence, fewer jumps)

• Better headlines (not necessarily better typography, but better words)

• More legible bodytype and sports agate

• Simpler ruling systems

• Consistent grids

But here's the more interesting list – the design elements that had no impact on readers:

• Custom typography

• Large photos

• Poster-style, single-story pages

• "Photoshop" effects

• Centerpieces

• Color palettes

• Nameplates

• Large areas of white space

• Making the design reflect the community

Look closely at these two lists. Which list looks like USA Today and the Toronto Sun - two papers that have made circulation gains - and which list looks like bait for an SND judge?

'Nuff said.

But just in case you haven't caught my drift – yet – consider this headline: "New York Times Company lays off 500, Philadelphia Inquirer cuts 100 jobs" These are two of the best papers in the country. What do these numbers mean? That readers don't care how many Pulitzers or SND awards your paper has won. The numbers that should matter to us are as simple as ABC - as in Audit Bureau of Circulation.

We need to start measuring our success by the number of people who buy our work rather than the number of awards our peers bestow upon our work.

But don't get me wrong. I'm proud of my SND awards. And now that SND has awarded almost 20,000 of 'em, I bet you're proud of yours, too.

But isn't it time we start doing the kind of design that matters to newspaper readers while there's still time to do it?


You can reach Alan Jacobson at alan@brasstacksdesign.com







Read the follow-up Q&A between Alan Jacobson and the Society of News Design's Web editor, Rich Boudet.

Read the prescription for the newspaper industry forumlated by Alan Jacobson and Mary Nesbitt of The Readership Institute.