Big Design, Little Money

10 tips for producing excellent pages at a student paper.

2005, Jandos Rothstein, George Mason University, Governing Magazine,

1. Tell new stories, tell old stories in new ways.
It’s nearly impossible to make a boring newspaper “look” interesting. If you are writing about the same dull campus events and quoting the same tedious university administrators, the appearance of your paper will reflect that. Good stories don’t just inspire readers—they inspire visual staff too.

2. As Good as Money: University Resources
Recruit photographers and illustrators from your art department; find and use campus production resources; look for student projects that can be effectively presented in the paper.

3. Good, pertinent photography (and illustration) is the key to effective pages.
Photograph people in front of what they are talking about. Photograph people in an environment that says something about them. Photograph (and quote) students; avoid photographing events. Don’t abuse good photographs (don’t crop them, or “junk them up”); print them big enough to be effective; take pains to make sure they print well; make them the centerpiece of your pages. Don’t print the same photos over and over again.

4. Strive for clarity, organization and contrast—as a bonus you will achieve beauty.
Bad design is often pointlessly pretty or gooped up with decoration. Instead, let the relative importance of items dictate size and placement, use a simple grid—though you may break it occasionally.

5. If your paper is a tabloid, don’t design it to look like a broadsheet.
Use just one story with teasers (or capsules), on the cover. Reduce the number of stories on a page.

6. Pick two families of typefaces, use them for almost everything.
A good family of type should have at least four weights with corresponding italics. Don’t accept fewer. Pick one serif and one sans serif family, use them for almost everything. Avoid novelty fonts—attitude doesn’t come in a box.

7. Use color, bolds, all caps, small caps and italics sparingly.
Use these only for emphasis, not for decoration, don’t use more than one emphasizing method at a time—big or bold, red or italic. Never use automatic underlining, outlining or drop shadows.

8. Tame your advertising.
If you have 12 ads at 12 different sizes it will be hard to work them comfortably into your issue. Reduce the number of ad sizes you sell to a few modular sizes that can be used to build full columns and ad lines. Insist on squared shapes, accurate sizes, and simple rule frames. Not only will your pages benefit, your advertisers will too (though a few will grumble).

9. Use “Points of Entry” to accomplish two goals: hooking readers and informing non-readers.
Photo captions, headlines, decks, information graphics, pull quotes, can all be used to summarize information, and make the paper valuable for those who don’t read every word—and may win you new readers. But beware, visual information must be as engaging as your writing. Avoid old, boring (and largely uninformative)chestnuts like pie, bar and fever charts.

10. Experiment, take risks, be bold, laugh at failure—once in a while.
You can throw the reader the occasional curveball if your design is an otherwise organized and functional environment. Break any rules you want—just remember that to effectively break rules you must first have rules.


These are three quick and easy-to-read books on design and typography.

The Mac is Not a Typewriter (1st edition) by Robbin Williams
Bill Gates Took William’s advice on superscripts in text, don’t make the same mistake. Otherwise this short book will give you all the type basics in a single afternoon’s read.

Grid: A Modular System for the Design and Production of
Newpapers, Magazines, and Books by Allen Hurlburt

The classic introduction to structuring information.

Newspaper Designer's Handbook by Tim Harrower
You will find Harrower’s style amusing or possibly annoying, but this book has lots of good advice.

Jandos Rothstein, Editorial Design, Publication Branding and Design Journalism
Copyright 2005—2008, Jandos Rothstein
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