If you’re looking for

Design for Readers

…you won’t find Ed’s monthly column here anymore.

The column is now on Ed’s web site at

 So, if you click there

it will take you…


Previously posted columns follow

Why run a headline on a curve? In this package, it helps add interest
and it works naturally with the illustration. The lower curved headline echoes the design at the top.

Why we need to ask why

When we were kids, many of us drove our parents to distraction with “why” questions. The classic, of course, is “why is the sky blue?”

You can be sure there were others:

  • Why is it dark at night?
  • Why is the water wet?
  • Why is up?

We were full of “the whys” back then.

As designers, we can take a good lesson from that. We can remember to ask “why.”

As in:

  • Why am I putting this in a box?
  • Why am I jumping this story?
  • Why am I using this color?

Sound design demands that every element on the page needs a reason to be there. If its existence cannot be explained, then it’s extraneous—and therefore bad design.

There are basics to good design, such as contrast, unity, focus and the like. Every element on the page needs to contribute to sound design approach.

You see, design isn’t “playing with the page.” It isn’t “Let’s see how this looks.” It isn’t “Throw a tint behind that story and see if it works.”

Good design is a discipline. It’s a cabinet maker using his measuring tools, remembering to “measure twice…cut once.” It’s that same cabinet maker using his plane to smooth the surface of a dresser.

And it’s that same cabinet maker running his fingers along the grain of the wood, using his years of experience to feel for those places that are still a bit rough, still a bit unfinished.

When he finds those spots, he’ll work to remove them. Because they don’t belong.

One of our tasks as designers is to use our experience to find those elements that don’t belong—and remove them.

We do that every time we ask ourselves “why.”


Run your intro stories in your new text type, using your new headline font.

Ready your readers

You’re all ready to launch your redesign. You’ve been working on it for months, you’ve checked and double-checked all the items, everything is in place and your launch is set for next week.

Perhaps it’s time you tell your readers. After all, it is their newspaper, and they will want to know what you are doing to it. Many readers are negative toward change in their paper, but most will give you the benefit of the doubt if you tell them you’re redesigning—and why.

Here are some suggestions:

CREATE A PLAN: Map out a strategy for informing your readers. What packages do you need to tell the story of the redesign? What graphics? What photos?

STORY IDEAS: Plan on running at least two or three stories, including one on the day of the launch. Place all of these stories on the front page…and keep them short. One story can focus on the new elements, another on the placement of content—and perhaps content you’ve added. Be sure to run at least one story on the redesign process itself, to let readers know this was a planned and professional process—not just something cobbled together on a whim.

TEXT TYPE: Run the intro stories in your new text type format, so readers can see how much better it is than the current text face.

HEADLINE TYPE: Run the heads on intro stories in your new display face, so readers can get a taste of the new look.

VISUALS: With each story, plan on a photo of a new element or a screenshot from a mockup. These will help readers see what’s coming their way with the redesign.

ASK FOR FEEDBACK: Most readers will welcome the new design—and leave it at that. Some will be unhappy and they will let you know it. That’s fair: it is their newspaper and it’s good that they feel strongly about it. At the end of each story, ask for reader feedback when the redesign is launched. Tell them you want to hear their thoughts and their opinions. If you don’t solicit feedback, odds are you’ll only hear from those who don’t like change. But if you do welcome feedback, those who like the new look will take a few minutes to let you know.

SET UP AN EMAIL ADDRESS: Create a special email address where readers can write to offer feedback on the redesign. This provides a secondary benefit: keeping your editor’s email from getting clogged with redesign emails (although some readers may still direct their emails there).

SET UP A PHONE NUMBER: Some readers might not want to take the effort to email you with their comments—but they might offer a quick comment on a phone line. Set up a line that will record those comments. Of course, you can always give them a line to call where someone can chat with readers about their reactions.

LOOK FOR TRENDS: There may be a common thread woven throughout the feedback you receive. Sometimes it’s the smallest thing, like readers not liking the size or format of captions. If you receive enough negative reaction to an item, you may want to change that item. That means you have to…

BE WILLING TO CHANGE: If readers react negatively to a certain element or approach, take a look at it and see if you can’t change it while keeping it consistent with the overall design plan. When you make that change…

MAKE IT PUBLIC: Let your readers know you have listened to their feedback and that you are changing the elements they find troublesome. It’s just good customer relations to do so.

Remember that readers feel a strong sense of ownership of their newspaper. It’s not your newspaper—it’s theirs. They’re just letting you do the best you can with publishing it.

And occasionally redesigning it.

Both of these headlines are the same size. Which will readers see (and read) first?

It’s all in your head

Headlines are one of the tools we use to tell readers what’s important on a page. Sometimes a lead visual will take them to the more important package, but often it’s the lead headline that does that job.

Given that, it’s surprising how many newspapers lead their front page with headlines that whisper to their readers instead of using a bold, large headline that jumps off the page.

And too many newspapers follow that small, weak lead headline with other headlines that are tiny. I suppose they do that because they are trying to follow one of the principles of headline hierarchy: Give the largest headline to your most important story.

But…headline hierarchy fails when we start with a head that’s just too small.

And…there are factors other than size alone which contribute to proper headline hierarchy.

Some points to consider:

SIZE: Yep, size matters. The more important the story, the larger the headline. As your headlines fall into position down the page, they should get smaller in size…to a point. And that point is made at the bottom of this column.

WEIGHT: The heavier the headline, the more attention it will receive. A black sans serif, for example, will draw the reader’s eye more quickly than a bold serif head. See the illustration with this column for an example.

NUMBER OF LINES: A headline with three or four lines is going to take more space—and gain more attention—than one with only a line or two.

NUMBER OF COLUMNS: A 48 point headline on six columns is bound to grab the reader’s eye more than the same size headline in only three columns.

PLACEMENT: It’s a no-brainer: The headline at the top of the page is bound to get a lot of attention, even if there’s a bolder, larger headline below it.

SERIF vs. SANS SERIF: A strong sans serif headline often will draw the eye more quickly than a headline in a serif face.

BOTTOMS UP: Headline hierarchy is important. You want to apply it on every page—especially open news pages. But don’t let the bottom of the page fall away into gray. Instead, use a size that’s larger to give the bottom just the bit of weight that it needs.

Proper headline hierarchy is a key to sound news design. So, the next time someone tells you: “It’s all in your head,” you can safely reply: “Y’know … you’re right!”

How often do you check your paper’s Design Style Guide? Assuming, that is, that you have one.

20 Questions

During my consulting career, I’ve often been invited to conduct design workshops for various newspaper groups. We’ll gather editors at a central site and spend the day looking at design techniques and approaches. Then we’ll spend the afternoon evaluating the design of their papers.

Before my visit, I like to get an idea of how those editors think…especially on design issues. Following are 20 questions I email to those editors.

You may find them valuable as you evaluate the state of design at your paper. Or…you may have some better questions to offer. If you do, please send me a quick email.

Here are the questions:

  1. What is the extent of your news design training? Have you had formal training such as college courses and the like or is most of your training on-the-job? Have you been to any news design workshops or presentations? When and where?
  2. What was the last book you read on news design?
  3. How often do you refer to your paper’s Design Style Guide?
  4. What is the purpose of news design?
  5. How important is news planning at your paper?
  6. What is the extent of your design planning for each issue?
  7. How many people on your staff shoot photos?
  8. How many people on your staff create information graphics?
  9. Is page design something you enjoy doing—or would you rather be doing something else like reporting, writing or taking photos?
  10. On a scale of 1-to-10, how important do you think news design is at your newspaper? Why?
  11. Is there a newspaper your size that does a good job with design? What is that newspaper?
  12. Is there a larger newspaper that does a good job with design? What is that newspaper?
  13. What is your design plan for the issue closest to Christmas?
  14. What is your design plan for the issue closest to New Year’s Day?
  15. If you were chosen to lead a redesign of your newspaper, what would be your first step?
  16. What is your favorite typeface? Why?
  17. What is your least favorite typeface? Why?
  18. Define the term “masthead.”
  19. What do you most look forward to from the design workshop?
  20. What questions have I not asked that I need to know…and what are your answers to those questions?

I’m aware that there are many more questions that can be asked—but these are a good start.

Any questions?

3 responses to “Columns

  1. Great post, Ed.

    I publish in tabloid size. Do you have any guidelines about max/min headline size in this smaller scale?

  2. Thank you. My rule is nothing bigger than 36 and nothing smaller than 24 for real heads. Meeting listings and the like are 12. Sounds like we’re just about in the right place.

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