Designer behind the designs: Raina Toomey

A compilation of partial covers by Raina Toomey

By Brad Needham

Newspaper design. There is not much more anonymous. Even the front page. Many magazines will list who designed the cover on or near the masthead. That is not standard practice in the newspaper world. In the past designers could compete for awards, but even those are disappearing. The Ontario Newspaper Awards dropped its design category (though I will urge them to bring it back here…). There is a presentation category that captures print and digital at the National Newspaper Awards. But other than the Society for News Design awards (still the pinnacle of print design awards), there isn’t much left. However, often those who get into design do so to be behind the scenes. So perhaps some don’t want to throw their hats into the ring of competition and have their names up in lights. Leave that to byline-hungry reporters (we thank you for your content).

But the role of this blog is to shine a spotlight on both the publications and, when possible, people behind the designs. In this post I speak to Raina Toomey from the Postmedia Production Centre in Hamilton. It is the primary print production centre for Postmedia. I have long heard Toomey’s name. And unknowingly, I have seen her work (because it’s so anonymous). It was only luck that I stumbled upon something designed by her when I was doing a post on COVID-19 papers. She was responsible for what was probably the page of the year, in at least Canadian newspapers, on the anniversary of the declaration of the pandemic, March 11, 2021.

Ottawa Citizen, March 11, 2021

I was happy to hear that she would be interested in talking to me about more of her designs. I love to look at a body of someone’s work, rather than one piece, to see themes and differences. I asked Raina some questions about her career in design. I found that she and I had a lot of similarities. We both started in editing. We both love simplicity in design. We both work in media production centres. Without further ado …

How did you get into newspaper design?
I studied print journalism in college because I loved writing and, at the very wise age of 19, decided it was journalism or teaching and I didn’t want to be a teacher. (I shake my head at myself now, of course.)

In my second semester of college, I started working part-time as a copy runner (essentially, a gofer) at the Ottawa Sun, took on freelance work for them and did my job placement there in the fourth semester as a reporter. That was when it firmed in my mind that I really hated reporting and talking to strangers at some of the worst points in their lives. I was hired as their TV editor, which involved a mix of interviewing, writing features and basic layout. That evolved into the new position of production editor for the Today section, laying out and copy editing the Sun’s arts and life pages. Being the Sun, that meant a lot of bells and whistles and splashy design.

Readers’ time is valuable. Effective newspaper design informs as much as it attracts.

Raina Toomey

From there, I moved to the Sun’s news rim as a copy editor, then to the senior slot editor, slotting and drawing the news and business pages.

After 17 years at the Ottawa Sun, I made the move to broadsheets and the Ottawa Citizen as a copy editor on the news desk. By the time I left the Citizen four years later, I was their A1 editor and had worked on a number of special projects, including design and being a builder of their content management system.

I transferred to Postmedia Editorial Services in Hamilton, where I am the production editor for the hub that produces the chain’s 10 major market publications (nine broadsheets, one tabloid). The position offers a lot of variety, and I’m somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades. My specialties involve developing efficient print workflows across the chain, newsroom technology, planning and newspaper design. I work on everything from day-to-day production – layout, editing, clearing pages, design of pages that break away from the ordinary – to the design and production of special coverage such as the Olympics and elections, to rolling out and training staff on our content management system and other technology.

What do you like about newspaper design? And what makes it different?
I love the flexibility of newspaper design, in that it goes beyond pure esthetics. Newspaper design demands a special skillset that blends news sense with creativity. It needs to draw the reader in, while remaining true to the subject matter. It must be more than visually pleasing; it has to be readable. Yes, use a pullquote, but only if it draws in the reader in a contextual way. Info boxes, numbers packages, sidebars all have to be treated as part of the whole and add value. Readers’ time is valuable. Effective newspaper design informs as much as it attracts.

Ottawa Citizen, March 28, 2020: a text-driven cover.

What was the most fun you have had with a design?
I think the most fun I’ve had with design is when I’ve been forced to make something out of nothing – where the art is lacking or of poor quality, but the story is important and needs to make a splash. I am not fond of using clipart unless there is no other option, so it is satisfying to devise a type attack or interesting play of lacklustre art that manages to make things pop.

Do you rely on one design principal more than others (white space, text as design, colour, cutouts, etc.)?

Ottawa Citizen, Jan. 30, 2021. A simple cover with just three headshots as art.

Simplicity is important to me. I like the conscious use of white space, as well as the judicious breaking of rules in limited instances. The Postmedia design has what some have called rigid rules – headline hierarchy, how and when colour should be used in text, no text on photos, no cutouts or close crops – but that is only for the day-to-day design. Sticking to the rules in the majority of situations adds more power and impact to a design when a decision is made to deviate from the rules.

Tell me about a design you loved that was rejected.
One paper had a lifestyles section front about wedding dresses. The main art was fairly small, and restricted to above the fold. I sized the art way up, so the model went from the top of the page all the way to the bottom, approved a close-crop and extended the train across the bottom of the page. It was stunning. The editor insisted the photo be sized back down so the entire gown could be above the fold.

I feel I’ve grown a lot as a designer and a journalist since my early days, and expect to learn more – and improve – in the years to come. If I don’t, that would be a sad state of affairs.

RAina Toomey

Now, in my opinion, above the fold/below the fold is outdated thinking, even when it comes to A1. First, the bulk of the circulation for most papers is based on home subscribers, not single-copy sales at the corner store or gas station. Secondly, someone who is going to pick up a paper along with their gas and lottery tickets will not be choosing their purchase as they would decide which tomato to buy at the grocery store – they want to buy that newspaper. Lastly, this was an inside section; by default, the reader would have to unfold the paper to even read it, and would see the dress in its entirety.

Are there any designers or publications other than those you have worked at that you are sure to look at?
I love the design of the National Post’s Weekend Post. It’s very magazine-like, and showcases the way great design can maintain a consistency in style while doing some pretty out-there design. Lovely.  

How do feel now about the first handful of pages you were proud of? Still love them? Wonder what you were thinking? Wistful for times gone by?
I don’t do a lot of looking back. I consider design a constantly evolving skill. What I did years ago is indicative of where I was at that point in my career, and that’s fine. I feel I’ve grown a lot as a designer and a journalist since my early days, and expect to learn more – and improve – in the years to come. If I don’t, that would be a sad state of affairs.

I do appreciate that technology has reached the point where the designer can touch all aspects of their creation – no sizing wheel, no getting camera-ready versions of images shot for paste-up, no painstaking close crop work with an X-Acto knife.

How is it different working in Hamilton vs. working directly in the newsroom? 
In some respects, working at a hub offers more variety, challenge and flexibility than working in a traditional newsroom. While our newsroom colleagues may feel that those at the hub are separate from them, and not as invested as they are in stories that matter to their readers, that is not the case in reverse. Many staff at the hub take pride in the work they do for “their” paper or papers and feel they are contributing in a meaningful way to the papers’ success. This past year of working from home has likely offered our colleagues a glimpse of what it is like to work outside the newsroom and still be part of the important work we do as journalists.

The logistics of working at a production hub are different, and that can largely be chalked up to technology and how economics have changed the business of presenting the news.

In past years, when every large newsroom had in-house designers, print design was as much a part of the discussion for special projects as the writing and photography. Now, that kind of start-to-finish collaboration often only occurs for digital presentation. It’s possible that some newsrooms consider print design to be outside their scope, since their paper is no longer put together in-house. It is also simply the way things are as we move more fully into the digital world.

Unlike traditional newsrooms of the past, the production hub has to balance creativity and workload. Where once a designer in a large newsroom might have a week or weeks (or longer) to create something spectacular, a designer at a hub has to work under much tighter time constraints and deal with a greater volume of pages. Some newsrooms try to involve the hub as much as possible, giving advance notice and filing early when they require something with flare. They may have suggestions or a vision, or they may just hand it over without offering guidance. Other newsrooms aren’t as aware of the time needed to make something sparkle, or face staffing constraints that don’t allow much turnaround time. Everyone everywhere has to do more with less.  

It might be like picking favourite family members, but if you had to pick a few favourite pages, what would they be and why?

Ottawa Citizen A1, Saturday, April 4, 2020

An example of the power of a type attack using shades of grey and a mix of Postmedia’s bold block line style font with the serif style we use for big numbers in display. The page also broke from style in that there was no main art, only a small close-crop of the now-familiar computer-generated image of the coronavirus. Saturday A1s usually are colourful, teaser-driven pages, so the calculated, drastic deviation from style served to emphasize the seriousness of the province’s message.

Ottawa Citizen A1, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021

While I usually avoid using clip art whenever possible, this page presented a challenge in that the only art available was largely poor-quality headshots of the suspected serial killer and his victims, and those were used with the three-page feature inside. Andrew Duffy’s incredible piece strung together suspicious deaths, fires, shootings and rumours as police spent 30 years trying to get the evidence to convict a man who has always maintained his innocence. This design broke from style by using clip art of a smoking match (to convey the link to fires and a trail gone cold) and putting large, bold type for both the head and deck on the black background of the image.

Montreal Gazette, A10/A11, May 11, 2019

It’s difficult to separate politics from religion in Quebec. In a two-part series, Andy Riga looked at the intertwined history of two integral pieces of identity for many Quebecers. The first part ran May 11, 2019, and consisted of a piece that took some time to figure out – what would be the best way to present a narrative feature in a format similar to an illustrated timeline? If styled like a usual timeline, our sans infobody style, it would be dense and difficult to read at that length. I used archival images, special formatting derived from existing styles in our design and, my favourite, white space to make key moments in the timeline stand out.

Montreal Gazette, Reopening Canada package, A1, B1-B8, June 27, 2020

Every major-market paper in the chain ran a Reopening Canada package June 27, 2020. With a mix of local and shared content, the sections required a cohesive look that would tie everything together and say, “Here is something you need to read.” Our section squares are usually set solid colours reserved for standing sections. I created a special red square with a Maple Leaf watermark to use on the section front and smaller on each page in the section. Pages were limited to a maximum two stories, features or alternative story forms, every one labeled in red – not one of our usual accent colours – to indicate the specific economic sector, such as aerospace, retail, restaurants, arts and culture, etc … Each page featured a large pullquote beside the inside square, a style most often restricted to the OpEd pages.

Thanks, Raina! Thus ends the Q&A portion …

I agree with Raina on her choices, particularly the Grim Projections page. It uses text so boldly to send an important message. Stay home. That’s it. And as I said up top and in a previous post, I love the design on the anniversary of the pandemic declaration.

Here are a couple more I really dug from the samples she sent.

Ottawa Citizen, October 23, 2014

I love this one for three reasons I always go back to. It’s a big day, and nothing captures a big day like a powerful newspaper front page. It’s simple, which I always appreciate, but especially on big news days with emotional, sensitive content. The story is the story. The page needs to capture the gravity without taking away from it. It can be hard to not go too far on a design. And the strong image.

This is another design I like for being simple and informative. A good, big, bold headline. Clear throws to the inside. A helpful map. And again, this was about an important and sensitive topic, though a retrospective kind of look, rather than the day after coverage.

Many staff at the hub take pride in the work they do for “their” paper or papers and feel they are contributing in a meaningful way to the papers’ success.

Raina Toomey, on working outside a specific newsroom

There were so many others to choose from. Raina had a number of wonderful designs (some beautiful graduation pages, capturing and celebrating graduation in a pandemic in the Calgary area, and more), and I also very much appreciate her approach to and philosophy on design. We share so many similar views. Not only that, we both work in a similar environment. While the Postmedia Production Centre is part of Postmedia, it’s still outside the newsrooms, which creates a new dynamic with editors. The same is true at PMNA, though we are an outsourcer (that said, PMNA is owned jointly by three organizations, two of which we have done or still do layout and editing for: the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star). But even with a different relationship, outside the newsroom, Raina has found a way to shine (as have the editors at PMNA).

But a special thank you again to Raina Toomey. Thanks for continuing to give it your all in an industry that doesn’t value print design as it once did. The results are evident. And I know many still appreciate it, though maybe few as much as I do.

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