Editor's Views: Well-designed page serves as roadmap for content

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Scott Angus
Saturday, December 21, 2013

Most readers know little about many of the ideas and processes that go into producing each day's Gazette.

For the most part, that's OK. The old story about making sausage comes to mind.

One aspect of making the paper that has always fascinated me, however, is page design. I think many readers would find it interesting, as well, and most would be surprised by how much thought goes into key pages.

I've always been intrigued by the philosophies, rules and guidelines intended to make pages attractive and readable. In most cases, readers don't consciously notice such things. In the end, though, a good page design makes a difference in how people read a page and how much they take from it.

While good design matters for every page, editors can do only so much with a page that's three-quarters full of advertising. In that case, one headline, one story and maybe one photo, and the page is done.

On section fronts and wide-open or mostly open pages, however, designers get to do their thing.

At The Gazette, I like to think we have high standards for page design. We're not the flashiest newspaper, but we have basic rules that guide designers in creating their pages, and they typically hear from me when they don't follow the rules.

I haven't designed a news page in years, but I did it hundreds of times as I worked my way through jobs here. And I loved it. I remember laying pages on the floor in my living room and assessing what I'd done well and what I could do better. I read all I could to learn more, and I attended dozens of workshops by some of the industry's best and most creative designers.

In the end, page design isn't about the designer. It's about readers. A good design helps a reader decide what's most important and how he or she should progress through a page. It's like a roadmap that says “go here first, and then here, and here next, and then finish here.”

Page design all starts with content. Every good page—again, we're talking mostly section fronts and open pages—needs a lead story and a lead piece of art. The rest falls into place typically by order of importance.

Beyond position on the page, a key element of that roadmap is headline hierarchy. We want the biggest story to have the biggest headline—by far. It should be obvious to a reader what we consider the most important story.

That lead story is often at the top, though not always. We then want head sizes to drop noticeably and incrementally as they move down the page. We also throw in different fonts for features and lighter stories for diversity and relief from the bold headlines on news stories.

Every good page also has a lead photo or graphic that's more than twice the size of any other art on the page. Sometimes it complements a story; sometimes it stands alone. That lead art attracts the reader's eye first and provides information in a different, often more effective way.

We've all seen badly designed pages on which headlines and photos are all the same size, and a dozen or more elements are crammed into the space in an effort to get as much news as possible on the available real estate. At The Gazette, we limit the elements to provide order and improve readability. The front page, for example, typically has three or four stories and one lead piece of art.

None of that design can happen, though, until we decide what belongs where in the newspaper. That's a decision process for another column.

Perhaps you'll look at the newspaper a bit differently after reading this column. Even if you don't, we like to think the effort we put into designing each page makes a difference in how much you enjoy and learn from The Gazette.

Scott W. Angus is editor of The Gazette and vice president of news for Bliss Communications. His email is sangus@gazettextra.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @sangus_.

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