Designer profile: When newspapers start to resemble their communities

The Villages Daily Sun goes above and beyond in visual journalism, print specifically. Colin Smith and Adam Rogers tell us more.

By Brad Needham

Print might be on the way to becoming an afterthought for some newspapers, but not the Villages Daily Sun in Florida. It is proudly and heavily visually designed for print. They don’t even have an Instagram account. I know because I posted a front page on my Instagram account once and couldn’t, for the life of me, find their Instagram handle. Yet shortly after I posted it, they found me! An editor sent me a note saying they don’t have Instagram and they are a print-first publication (but they do have a Tumblr account!). As a longtime mostly print journalist and print designer, I love that. So naturally I asked them if I could talk to a designer. Not only did they oblige, they sent me two! And they each sent pages. And a visual philosophy.

I am so thankful to have heard back from both Colin Smith, the senior project designer, and Adam Rogers, managing editor of innovation. I had a lot of fun reading through their thoughtful answers, looking at their stunning pages, and feeling like I’m not alone as a print lover in a digital world.

The first thing they sent me was their design and visual philosophy document. It is fun to read. Here is how it begins.

I knew right away these were my kind of people. They have designed a newspaper to reflect their community. Not just in content, but design. Amazing. How can you not love a philosophy like this?

We’re not just filling pages, we’re a daily friend offering news, information, community moments, support and, most importantly, surprises on every page.

The answer? You can’t. You must love this, or you’re on the wrong blog. This blog is for all the print that’s fit to print.

I will turn it over to Adam and Colin. Eds. note: these responses are from early September.

How did you get into newspaper design?
Adam: It was something I sort of stumbled into as a student at Youngstown State in Ohio. My degree is in TV and video production, but I was minoring in multimedia design. That led me to a page design opportunity at the student newspaper The Jambar where I ended up working for four years and decided to focus my career efforts on print design.

Colin: My academic background is urban planning and architecture. I started news design at my college paper, then it became my first job out of college. I’ve been in the industry ever since.

What do you like about newspaper design? And what makes it different from other design?
Adam: I really like that you have the opportunity to start with a fresh canvas every single day. With 365 editions each year, you can experiment. See what works, what doesn’t and learn from it. And I feel like whether its design or general knowledge of the world, I learn something new every single day.

Colin: Philosophically, I like being able to tell stories to wide audiences on a daily basis. I especially love working on redesigns — the chance to weave visual worlds for our readers to explore. On a personal level, I like the frequent, immovable deadlines of daily news production — it’s perfect for a procrastinator like me.

What was the most fun you have had with a design?
Adam: I would have to go back to a doubletruck presentation I worked on during the 2016 election showing all of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s connections to each other and to the state of Florida. It involved some colourful photo illustrations of the candidates riding flamingos. Honestly, Colin Smith and I had a lot of fun throughout that entire election cycle creating illustrations for a variety of topics along the way.

Colin: The Daily Sun has definitely been the most fun at I’ve had at a paper. I love redesigns, as I’ve mentioned, and this was at the first paper where (aside from the nameplate) nothing was off limits. It’s a paper that wants to have fun in a community built for having fun. That’s opened up so many paths visually. The editor has been a huge part of that evolution. She really has helped push me in directions I would have never thought exploring at other publications, and I think it’s really made a unique product in the process.

Do you rely on one design principle more than others (white space, text as design, colour, cutouts, etc.)?
Adam: At the Daily Sun we focus a lot on just being consistent. We have built a beautiful core structure for our newspaper that highlights our colour palette and carefully selected typography. From there we make strategic decisions on when to break from the templates. And when we do, we usually go pretty big.

Colin: Great question. When in doubt, I go to the grid. Barring that, then I tend to focus on clean typography and common alignments. I don’t like to modify my type too much, so generally it’s one colour and one alignment. And you can’t go wrong with a beautiful dominant image. I tend to shy away from cutouts mostly because, after 20 years, I’m just tired of doing them (although I will if I must, but it’s not my go-to move). And I’m always a sucker for a symmetrical layout.

Tell me about a design idea you loved that was rejected or just wasn’t working so you had to abandon it.
Adam: I joke a lot about having a pile of abandoned pages that I burn for warmth during that one week of winter we get in Florida. And that’s true to some extent. After a decade it’s tough to narrow it down to one that stands out. Our projects and pages grow and evolve so much during our design process that I’ve learned to not to get emotionally attached to an idea. We try to put the our readers and the storytelling above our own egos.

Wherein most newspapers follow an assembly line model, our process is more circular, with reporters, editors and designers working in concert to iterate and elevate our content in ways that surprise our readers and surpass expectations.

Colin: Too many to count, honestly. I used to revise and revise and revise before showing a page/project/redesign, but that philosophy doesn’t work at a paper where we have a very deliberate style we’re going for. So now I do a quick mock-up, get input from the editor to see if I’m going in the right direction or not, then I either refine what I’ve done or archive it and try something else. Honestly, I’ve never flat-out thrown a design away. If something doesn’t make the cut, I’ll usually file it away possibly for use later. Generally if I’m really excited about a design, I’ll find a way to get it used. Although I’ve had print/web designs implemented then discarded after I’ve left a paper, so I guess that’s stung a little more. But such is life.

I like the idea of your design direction matching your community, i.e. a heavily designed community begets a heavily designed newspaper. Tell me more!
Adam: If you were to visit The Villages (which everyone really should some day) you would see that the developers put a lot of time and thought into the small details. We like to say that the community is designed to take you back in time, but you can’t always hit on exactly when. We’ve taken their fun but meticulous sense of design for the community and have made the newspaper reflect that. From the colour palette down to our use of woodcut and victorian flourishes, we have pulled inspiration from all corners of the community.

Colin: I believe the true power of newspaper design is the ability to create a visual microcosm of the community that is filled with all the surprises, delights, familiar places and new experiences that one expects from a journey in their city or town. I believe the areas of the paper should capture the personalities of a place (quiet cafés and loud clubs, bustling streets and quiet leafy suburbs). Visually, The Villages is a master planned community with several strong visual identities. On top of that, residents here have very active lives and fascinating stories to tell. There is always so much going on, and so much life to capture, that it really puts the onus on the Daily Sun to be as energetic and vibrant as our readers.

Visually the editor challenged me to come up with an overall design that was both nostalgic and thoroughly modern. That’s why you’ll see Victorian text flourishes paired with vibrant citrus colors to create something that blends a fondness for the past with an optimistic vision of the present. The goal was to create a kinetic vibration throughout the entire publication that is both familiar and yet also completely unique to our community.

I’ve been told the idea your covers are based on (lots of small bits of information) carries on on the inside. This concept and a few others seems to make this paper stand apart from others. Can you show some examples and tell me why you decided to do that?
Adam: That is very true. While The Villages may be a mecca for retirees, they break every stereotype for seniors imaginable. We are blessed to have a very active and engaging community to cover. Our readers are very busy and we want to respect their time. So we implement of a lot quick hit information and alternative story formats that make the news quickly and easily digestible. We use this approach in every section in concert with traditional longform presentations.

Colin: Adam probably already went into this, but just in case he didn’t, here you go. Even though the vast majority of our readers are retired, they are still quite busy. Between social gatherings, planned events and daily excursions we owe it to our readers to get as much information into every page as possible. Since Villagers come from around the U.S. and the world, we try to get as much into each edition as possible. Our high ad stacks make it difficult to get a lot of traditional articles on a page, so instead we run a collection of briefs, photos and alternative story formats along the tops of inside pages (we call them attics) with a longer read below it.

It might be like picking favourite family members, but if you had to pick a few favourite pages, what would they be and why?
Adam: First I would go back to a 2013 page on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. I worked on this page with the help of executive editor Bonita Burton and it evolved from a traditional centrepiece that we just kept pushing bigger and bigger. Our design and typography has changed a lot since then, but this did land me my first SND Award of Excellence and I was truly humbled. Then I would say a 2016 front page information graphic that was part of our multi-year “Redefining Justice” investigation into Florida’s death row. It really pushed my organizational skills and I spent a lot of time making sure the information we were presenting on a complex topic was digestible. And then more recently an inside page on the atomic bomb that was part of a yearlong series we did on the 75th anniversary of the Second World War. I really like working with historic photography and finding ways to present it in striking ways.

Colin: Ooh, that’s a good question. I mean, I’ve been redesigning our paper for so many years it’s hard to pick just a few. But if I had to:
+ Redesign/Template-wise, I love our A2-A3 world map — I really had a fun time drawing the map, and the page has so much personality. We used to have a sea monster on the page, and I do miss it.

+ We have some templated local front pages that really have a lot of visual oomph that I’ve enjoyed putting together, too. 

+ When I’m not redesigning the paper, some pages I’ve worked on that I really like have been a Christmas cover with a Santa sleigh based on an 1800s patent application (we’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that one, re-running it pretty much every year).

+ An oldie but a goodie, but I also really had a ton of fun designing our 2016 election coverage and doing those illustrations. 

Tell me a little about your process. How do you come up with ideas?
Adam: For our bigger projects, we huddle up a lot to brainstorm. Sometimes it’s really simple to just run with your first idea, but we talk a lot here about not stopping too short. One thing Bonita says to us a lot when approaching a page is “what can we do that we’ve never done before.” And then the brainstorming kicks off. Even if it’s not a huge project, just turning to one or two other people in your pod or in the newsroom can help elevate an idea or a page. We’re sort of all in this together.

Colin: Ideas for stories is pretty simple. Generally main stories are planned weeks in advance and special projects are planned months in the future. The bigger the project, the more the lead-time for visual discussions — from data visualization to the need for photo reporting and illustration. Actual designing for special projects doesn’t begin until about two weeks in advance, with final design beginning in earnest a few days before publication.

As far as the ideas, it’s a back-and-forth process where the narrative is weighed with how we’ll tell the story visually and one, the other or both are adjusted until we’re happy with the final result.

And that’s a wrap from Colin and Adam. But what fun. It seems like the Villages Daily Sun would be any print designer’s dream job. Thanks to both for all their insight.

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