Student newspapers: design with abandon (the Ubyssey edition)

By Brad Needham

There is something special about design in student newspapers. Student newspapers often push boundaries that mainstream newspapers cannot. The designers have less experience, which isn’t a bad thing. While skills can be refined with experience, enthusiasm can also wane with the restrictions major newspaper designers face. It’s why I look back so fondly at my time at the Guelph Mercury, where I had essentially free rein to do whatever I wanted. It made for much bolder designs (and a few fails!). The same could be said about my time in student newspapers at the Reflector at Mount Royal University in Calgary. I had so much fun.

There are so many reasons to celebrate student papers and the creativity behind them. One, they tend to be very good. Two, they are often bolder. Three, young aspiring journalists or designers or even those doing this for reasons not related to journalism deserve some time in the spotlight in an industry that is making that considerably harder.

But the main reason I wanted to do it? Because there are still student newspapers. Print products. Newspapers fellow students hold in their hands. So many schools have gotten rid of theirs, which is so sad, both as a lover of print media, but also as someone who hires young people to work on print products. The skills are getting much harder to come by as schools close their papers in favour of online-only publications.

So I issued a callout on Twitter to those in this realm. I was tickled to hear from Lua Presidio, the visuals editor from the Ubyssey Publications Society at the University of British Columbia. The Ubyssey is always doing exciting things. Their covers are always dynamic and bold. And the theme is generally carried on throughout the issue, not just a one-off design to blow out the cover as is often the case in traditional newspapers.

I asked Lua some questions. Here they are, in no particular order (other than the order in which I wanted to present them)! The first question presented was the last question I asked. But I agree so strongly, I moved it up. Designers, print designers especially, so often go unnoticed nowadays. Organizations like the Ontario Newspaper Awards axed its design awards, and the National Newspaper Awards pit print designers against digital designers. Thank goodness for the Society for News Design, which still loudly and proudly celebrates print design.

“We really are putting our hearts and souls into making these. I see some amazing work out there that I would love to see get more recognition.”

Lua Presidio, on celebrating design in student media

What got you interested in this, and why did you reach out after my tweet?
I thought it was a cool opportunity to showcase the work of student journalists who aren’t actually dealing with words. Not many organizations are paying attention to that when it comes to student journalism (understandably so since very few newspapers have full-time visual staff), but we really are putting our hearts and souls into making these. I see some amazing work out there that I would love to see get more recognition. (The Eyeopener and The Gateway are two of my personal favourites — amazing design teams).

What goes into designing a cover and an issue? What is the process?
The design process and what it takes varies a lot. It depends on what type of issue/project we are working on, the time frame we have to complete it, and if any breaking news arises for the day/week we publish. For regular issues it’s usually a week’s worth of preparation where we decide which article should be featured on the cover. We choose an article based on relevancy. Then, the editor for that article and I work together with the Photos Editor to come up with a concept for that cover. If the concept is around a photo, the Photo Editor will take care of it. However, if it’s around an illustration or photo modification, I am responsible for it. Usually I try to pitch out these covers to have a variety of styles and people featured on our pages, but depending on the week I end up doing a large sum of the designing of covers. If it is a bigger project like the gender issue, “Performance,” the process is very different and much longer, but still relies on the collaboration between editors.

I’ve noticed the theme from the cover carries on inside for many issues I looked at. Has that always been the way?
Generally yes. I like to keep styling consistent and when deciding on anything for an issue, cover is usually what comes last because I always want the cover to reflect the content and not the other way around. The cover should make readers want to pick up the issue, but it shouldn’t be more interesting than the content itself.

Why did you select the editions you did? What do you like about them?
I sent you three editions that I think tell a complete story with the cover.

Ubyssey Gender cover by Lua Presidio and Elizabeth Wang

The Gender issue had an extensive preparation behind it and it’s one of the issues I hold closest to my heart although looking back at the inside design I wish I had done things differently.

Ubyssey climate cover by Alex Vanderput

The 2020 Magazine “Hot Mess” I love because it’s a meme reference that was transformed into this beautiful illustration most people don’t even recognize as the meme. And yet, the sentiment of the world burning while we do nothing really captures some of the themes present in the issue. The 2020 Mag was about climate change and hot mess was a very quick, catchy way we found for describing the entire world situation.

Ubyssey May 26 (COVID) cover by Eisha Sharda

Finally, our May 26 issue is one of my favourite representations of the before and after that the pandemic has brought about. The article talked about some of the positive aspects of the pandemic, and I think the cover reflects those positive aspects well without ignoring some of the difficulties that were also brought about during the pandemic. There are other covers that I also love and could have shared, but they were some of the ones I designed myself, and I don’t love to toot my own horn that much.

Tooting horns

I have no problem tooting horns. I wanted to show off a few other covers and pages that I really enjoyed, the first by Jasmine Foong, and the next two by Lua.

Ubyssey cover by Jasmine Foong

I just find this cover visually pleasing. Plus it brings back memories. My original career path was photographer, and I was a film guy. Digital photography was just in its infancy when I was in university. I remember my professor putting the strap around my neck to ensure that his wildly expensive, heavy 1MP camera didn’t shatter on the ground at my feet. I also love this as it’s so fitting to this blog. Adapting. To survive newspapers have had to adapt. And that has led to moving money from print to digital. So while designers are working with less (time, money, updated software) they are still killing it. This cover is an example. It’s actually relatively simple. A picture. Depth of field. Sepia tone. But I love it. Confession: I love simplicity in design. If you can be simple and have it work, that’s magical. Things like white space, not coloured boxes. A simple photo, not a cutout. Text as your art, no photos. Amazing. This cover makes me wistful, and if a cover can evoke emotion, it’s working.

Ubyssey cover by Lua Presidio

This seems like a simple illustration and in a way it is. There are no features, no fine detail. But that’s why it’s so great. It’s almost featureless, which is the new trend in illustrations, and rightly so. So people can see themselves in the image. But on this cover, this is where the almost comes in. There is one feature that binds. And that is that all these otherwise indistinguishable people are Black. Despite the figures not having an identical skin tone, the reader knows they are meant to represent the Black community at UBC. That was the focus of this issue. As the editor’s note says, addressed to the Black Community: “In 2021, the push continues.” Here is the message below.

Ubyssey inside pages by Lua Presidio

This is what student newspapers are about. This is the kind of thing you can’t do at a big newspaper. There are some design rules broken. The font is not perfectly and easily readable for two reasons. It’s reverse text and the font isn’t simple. But I like it. It tackles a big subject with a non-standard but powerful (yet relatively simple) design.

I hope to do more on student newspapers. As long as they are around and people are having fun designing them, I plan to celebrate this budding newspaper creativity, in hopes that it continues on past post-secondary education and into the traditional media world.

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