Scott Dadich: “Troubling.” Arem Duplessis: “Unbelievable.” Paula Scher: “Rock bottom.” That’s the sort of welcome wagon that was rolled out for Roger Black at the Society for Publication Designers website this summer when his latest editorial design company was unveiled. We asked Black and Scher to engage in a little back-and-forth about the advantages and pitfalls of template design.
By Nick Mrozowski
Roger, what’s the big idea behind Ready-Media?
Roger: Ready-Media is a new design template service, but templates have been around for a long time. We had a “playbook” at Newsweek in 1985 for the page layouts that kept showing up — so we didn’t have start with a blank page all the time.
Web news sites started using a fixed number of templates for all pages with the introduction of content management systems in the late 90s.
Eduardo Danilo brought the idea to a new level at Excelsior in Mexico City in 2007, when Danilo Black designed hundreds of templates to take care of all the standard page layouts and ad configurations. This freed the small staff to concentrate on the front page, section fronts, and graphics. Now they focus on visual content instead of layout. This concept was endorsed by SND when Excelsior won a medal for the redesign.
Ready-Media makes products out of this concept. Print design. Web design. Even tablet design.
Paula, what do you think of this strategy? Will it produce better design?
Paula: Design templates are like Communism. They raise the standard of the lowest common denominator. Communism lifts poor people into the lower middle-class. Design templates can elevate things that were previously badly designed to an acceptable level of mediocrity. On this basis, it can be argued that design templates help produce better design.
I designed business identity templates for HP. They were a cheap way for people who operate small businesses out of their garages to have quasi-professional looking stationery. They were simple and believable (no little bumblebees or Comic Sans) and I guess, you could argue that they helped raise the level of design, meaning that they made something that was previously bad reach an acceptable level of mediocrity. I didn’t design them to improve the zeitgeist. I designed them so that home businesses had a better stationery option than Sir Speedy.
I have nothing against design templates. I am more concerned about over-promising what they can do. For example, I think the page layouts of Excelsior in Mexico City were handsome, especially compared to other Latin American newspapers at the time, but templates alone, do not a good newspaper make. Excelsior pales against The Guardian, both the Hillman and Esterson designs, because The Guardian relies on brilliant art direction coupled with a gorgeous format. So Excelsior lifts the bottom to an acceptable level of mediocrity, but The Guardian, by example, can inspire all mediocre newspapers to become great. I would like to see publications aspire to be The Guardian, not Excelsior.
Roger: Ha! I thought Paula was the Communist for the purpose of this discussion!
It seems that your concerns are really a matter of of taste. You love The Guardian and give faint praise to Excelsior’s daily design, or “at least compared to other Latin American newspapers.” Well, we are all Communists in Latin America, and I’m glad you didn’t make some reference to “our sleepy newspaper designers to the South.”
But take a look. Here are last Saturday’s front pages.
On the whole, I like Excelsior better. It’s more robust, richer. I has a better dynamic range, which is good when you have hard news and soft features using the same typography. At the highs, Excelsior is more elegant. At the lows, more fun. But that is still a matter of taste.
Roger, is there room for brilliant art direction in this system? Could a Ready-Media paper be named World’s Best some day? ?
Roger: Art direction is exactly the point. If a paper uses templates for 80 percent of its design, then (increasingly limited) staff resources can spend their time directing the art. In the long run, it’s the visual content, the picture stories combined with the writing that readers want out of a paper. Getting the right pictures, creating informative and clear graphics, providing strong visual narratives—these should be the goals of newspaper art directors.
This debate is about the role of design in a publication. The people who are screaming the loudest about Ready-Media are what I call artisanal designers. They are focused on a single page layout. They may even think of themselves as artists. They look at page design the way an artist looks at a painting, as a single image.
This thinking is why the SND annual competitions favor the prettiest pages, like a beauty contest. Like judging architecture from the photographs (which is the problem with most AIA competitions). But newspaper design is really a system. And increasingly the target is not one fixed-size page at a time. Now we have a variety of platforms, and dozens of page sizes every day. One-page-at-a-time design is not scalable in a multi-platform world.
Talented art directors can leverage their skills to tell news stories with images across these news platforms—if they have a great set of templates (and a good CMS) to work with.
The Guardian does a great job at this. Don’t we all wish we had their staff resources!.
Paula, what role should design play in newspapers and magazines? Can we still afford to pursue artisanal design, as Roger put it?
Paula: Actually, from what you’ve just shown, they both look fairly generic. They both have reasonable templates. You have to compare the interiors where art direction makes the difference.
I’m not sure what you mean by “artisanal design.” I have less interest in craft for its own sake than ideas. Ideas are a function of art direction. Templates don’t provide that.
In the 80’s when both you and WBMG ran very successful format design practices, magazine art direction suffered because editors thought they had bought all of the intelligence when they purchased the formats. They put any old art director in the slot, gave them no power, and most publications out of that mode wound up without much character. The cycle swung the other way because of the individualistic typographic power of Rolling Stone, the brilliant photographic art direction in the Sunday Times, and the terrific use of illustration in the New Yorker. In the 90s there was a real resurgence of magazine art direction and it lasted into this decade. I think it was a reaction to the formatted magazines of the 80s.
But, your templates can be useful to good art directors, if they can customize them easily and have the ability to depart from the format.