San Diego U-T’s grand design on design

If you work for a newspaper and you’re not looking at the front pages of the San Diego Union Tribune every day, what are you doing?

The newspaper consistently does a great job of creating visually-interesting story packages and dynamic front pages, even with a broadsheet format.

The broadsheet is the traditional size of a newspaper, typically with long, vertical pages. And most in many cases across the county, it’s how you picture your parents’ newspaper.

Headlines, text, photos, you know the drill. Newspapers have looked similar to this for the last 50 years. And quite frankly, it’s a bit boring. What sets one newspaper apart from the rest?

But then came the rise of the alt-weekly, or alternative newspapers. You know them as papers like LA Weekly, the Village Voice, and Willamette Week. These papers adopted a different approach to covering the news – offering unique viewpoints, investigations, magazine-style profiles, and a sometimes-snarky take that appealed to readers wanting something other than the mainstream. And from a physical standpoint, they took up a tabloid size – a more square, boxy shape that emphasizes large pictures over text.

The success of the alt-weekly had led other traditional newspapers to take on a similar tabloid format. The Oregonian, for example, recently switched from a broadsheet to a tabloid format, which allows it to create dynamic front pages that help increase pickup on newsstands. Slowly, other newspapers have followed, emulating the alt-weekly’s artistic cover stye:

B9yX_xzIgAA65wz tumblr_ln3b6kcZlC1qa5y9j VillageVoiceCover_October_2011_FINALThey’re dynamic, they’re exciting, they’re fun, and they’re powerful. Tabloid-sized newspapers give the reader the most important story in an engaging way – like the cover of a magazine. Also, tabloid-sized papers typically don’t need to be folded, so their entire cover can be displayed on a newsstand.

With so many options with a tabloid-size, why even keep a broadsheet?

But in my opinion, the problem with broadsheet isn’t because of the size, it’s because the people who design it are stuck in the past. They see a traditional size and think it should be laid out traditionally.

I disagree. And so does the staff at the San Diego Union-Tribune.

CA_SDUTThe designers at the UT consistently show that you can still use the front page to create a unique layout, even with a long, vertical size. They’ve realized that it doesn’t have to be “Banner headline across the top. Square photo. Boxes,” like every other newspaper of the past 50 years. They are embracing the idea that the borders of the newspaper are just like the frames of a canvas; you can fill it with whatever you want.

Take a look at the issue above. The lead story about the corruption charges against FIFA officials could have been your standard “mugshot” story. Instead, the UT went a different route – they created an illustration of a hand holding a red card, and used the space inside for the headline. Even the placement of the headline is very unique – it runs to the right of the actual text, against the rules that we have always been taught.

(By only nitpick is that the word “probe” in the headline isn’t covered up by the finger. It would have made it perfect)

When it comes down to it, the rules that journalism designers have been taught are largely arbitrary. Some of them are necessary – such as AP Style rules to create uniformity and rules about diligent fact-checking – but other design rules just box in journalists from being creative. If we followed rules to the letter, like “headlines must always look a certain way and be a certain length,” we deliberately take creativity out of our hands.

And for what? Readers don’t know the rules anyway. Find out whether a rule actually has a purpose (like double-checking sources) or whether it’s “just always been that way.” If it’s the latter, why follow it?

Design rules were made to be broken. And as the San Diego UT has shown, breaking those rules will help you break the mold.

c551b4193d6393ab17b91e231ccefef6-1 Sand-Diego-U-T

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