George Floyd: Keeping the story in front of readers

George Floyd’s death was more than a tragedy. It was a murder. It was a catalyst for an uprising, in the U.S. and around the world. It was a wakeup call, one of many, but one that seemed to resonate with people outside of the Black community. George Floyd, who was killed after allegedly buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20. Killed by police. For nine minutes and 29 seconds, police had him on the ground, knee on his neck. Somewhere around the eight-minute mark he lost consciousness. But the knee remained. This was May 25, 2020.

His death came to be a symbol of what’s wrong, not only in America, but around the world. The systematic racism that exists and thrives.

Newspapers covered his death in the immediate aftermath and long after. There were many necessary stories, many appearring on front pages around the world. And while newspapers won’t run out of key angles to write about (assuming the editors and decision makers are keeping this story in the collective consciousness), how do designers keep the story fresh, to help keep it dynamic? Sure, a newspaper can put a story over the fold on its front page. It will get attention. But the design can play a key role in elevating the story. You can’t have readers get complacent and gloss over the story. A designer needs to pull them in, and sometimes there aren’t a lot of choices visually.

More than a year has passed since his death. In a world of 24-hour news and social media, most stories don’t get the spotlight for long. This story, the issue it thrust in front of the comfortable and privileged, needs to be there.

One year after Floyd’s murder, there were two pages that stood out for me, each taking very different approaches to their designs. But both highlight the power newspapers have, and the responsibility they have. And the power of newspaper design. It’s not just the words.

The first page that caught my eye was the New York Daily News. It was striking. A big photo of Floyd. His face instantly recognizable, brightly lit in parts and not in others. Starkly placed on a black background. The white newspaper flag adding contrast. And a great newspaper page almost always has strong words. Or strong words elevate a great page to unforgettable. This one simply says: One year. 9 minutes. 29 seconds. Black text on white on black. Those words are so significant. Anyone familiar with the story will know what it means. Anyone not will be appalled. How the words are played is significant. It was a masterful page. It captured the feeling one year later, and helped keep this story in front of readers.

New York Daily News cover, May 26, 2021

The next page took a very different approach. The similarity was that it was also on a black background. Reverse white text on a black background. But it isn’t a picture of Floyd that makes this page. It’s words. All words. It was a powerful message. When a newspaper makes a decision to run a page without art, the words have to do it all, so they have to be done well. When an issue is so consequential, sometimes words are all there is. The Star Tribune is an exceptional paper. It’s in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed. While this became a worldwide story, this paper owes it to its community to keep this story front and centre. This page was breathtaking, yet simple. So many words, but that’s why it works. In this instance. In others, it wouldn’t. But it was the right time and the right play and the right words.

Newspapers owe it to readers and to society to run stories like this, to keep these issues, issues like this, like the unmarked graves of Indigenous children in Canada, in the collective conscience. It was in the news again when Derek Chauvin, the police officer who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck, was found guilty of murder. And again when he was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison.

But these pages above, and the ones below (which I’ve shown in previous posts) highlight the power of print design. Three of them show, or somewhat show Floyd’s face, which has become a symbol of the movement and a way to illustrate the story. And newspapers try to present his face in novel ways. As long as newspapers are trying to raise awareness of serious issues through design, I will keep showing them.

Above: de Volkstrant’s stunning and masterful illustration of Floyd’s face, and of the movement it catapulted into the world’s consciousness, and the Houston Chronicle, with a powerful sketch of Floyd.

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