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.

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.

By Brad Needham

Up until March of 2020, newsrooms had always been buzzing, busy places. Reporters on calls. The clickety-clack of typing. Editors and designers shouting across the room. Editorial decision-makers making decisions. All in one place. How could it be done any other way? It was about collaboration and community. The community within the newsroom preparing news for the community without. And then on March 11, 2020, the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Not an epidemic. And unlike some of the other pandemics in the past 50 years, this one seemed to capture the attention of everyone. Maybe it was that the NBA postponed its season one year ago today. The NHL followed suit shortly thereafter. Two organizations driven so much by money cancelling their primary revenue streams. Money talks.

But by March 11, or very shortly thereafter, what seemed unthinkable for a newsroom, producing a daily (or weekly) newspaper from anywhere but a newsroom, became a reality. One year ago today or shortly thereafter, newsrooms started shipping computers and keyboards and monitors and mice home. And setting up VPNs. Soon setting up Zoom accounts for all staff.

It was a pandemic. One that caused mass panic. You couldn’t even find toilet paper in most places. I know because I searched high and low trying to find some for an editor who said she couldn’t find any. I found a four-pack and brought it into the office. I went to 10 stores, a little scared in every one. This was pre-masks. Or knowledge.

But was it such a big deal? One that warranted panic buying of toilet paper and canned goods? Hindsight is usually 20/20. In newsrooms one year ago today, discussions were being had about tomorrow’s front page as well. What do we do? Is this bigger than the flu pandemic of 2009? Or the SARS pandemic of 2002? Newspapers are always worried about blowing things out of proportion. So do we play this big, they would be asking? Do we downplay it? Do we talk about soup? It had to be on the front page. But how big?

I’m going to look at some of the papers from March 12, 2020, and then at some from today, March 11, 2021. I admit I was expecting big anniversary covers. That was going to be the focus of this post. Some papers did. Most papers didn’t. It also happens to be the 10th anniversary of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which also caused a nuclear disaster. A devastating tragedy that left 20,000 dead. It is a tragic anniversary, so I acknowledge it here before looking at the pandemic papers of 2020 and 2021.

March 11, 2020 (March 12 in the newspaper world): WHO declares a pandemic

National Post, March 12, 2020

Of all the pages I looked at from March 12, 2020, the National Post cover was the one I felt most hit the mark on the type of play this should get (or should have gotten in hindsight). This was a significant day, and while it was just a declaration, the disease would have spread and wreaked havoc around the world regardless, this was a key moment. This week last year was when everything changed. This page uses a single-word headline, all caps: PANDEMIC. I’ve talked about this in previous posts. It seems so simple. But It was certainly discussed ad nauseum. And to complement that are striking, bold images. And equally important, they blew out the entire page. For a national newspaper to blow out an entire cover it needs to be a significant story. The editors at the National Post felt this was. This was a scary day, and life changed after this. But this is a beautiful page, despite the devastating and deadly outcome over the next year.

Globe and Mail, March 12, 2020

Another national newspaper in Canada also gave it big play. The Globe and Mail, while not as bold as the National Post in this instance, gave the pandemic top-of-the-fold play. And as is typical of the Globe, it uses white space to its advantage. They chose not to blow out the entire front, and while I wasn’t in the room, I can imagine the discussions. First, the Globe targets a different audience. They want information on the front. They often use their real estate to its fullest, having some pages inside without art, or very small art. On top of the pandemic, Harvey Weinstein was also sentenced to 23 years in prison for sex crimes. It was assumed the legal system would go easy on him, as it has with most powerful men charged or convicted of similar crimes. But it didn’t. On many days, this would be a black line story, across the top. It was a significant verdict. The Globe decided it must still make the front. I respect that. And the page is still well executed. It gives the pandemic centre stage, but acknowledges other key news of the day.

Another major Canadian newspaper, the Toronto Star, went a different route. While, other than a throw across the top (also recognizing the importance of the Weinstein verdict) the cover is all about COVID-19 (coronavirus), it’s less splashy and focuses on an intensely Toronto angle: the NBA’s suspension of its season, a.k.a. the end of the Raptors’ season. The cover design itself isn’t outstanding, but it had a clear focus on the news of the day. And looking back at it, you wouldn’t feel they missed the mark. It’s a solid cover. Strong news value.

Toronto Sun, March 12, 2020

I admit I don’t often go to tabloid covers (by tabloid I don’t just mean size) for the design, even though they are often very creative. The Toronto Sun deserves credit here. It doesn’t take that big of a story for a tabloid to blow out its cover. But this has a take on that iconic COVID-19 image. The Earth as a coronavirus, with its telltale spike proteins, the claws that “act as grappling hooks that allow the virus to latch onto host cells and crack them open for infection,” as so well said on the Scripps Research website. Tabloids will often blow things out of proportion, but I’m not here to talk about that (all love, no hate, remember?). I am here to say well done to the Toronto Sun. This a bold, colourful cover. It captures the essence of the day, even if we were uncertain as to what it meant then. Believe the hype. It was worth the strong words and the design. And of course the ad. Who knew how relevant that might be for time spent in solitary confinement for the next year.

I won’t go into each of these with individual posts. My favourite from a design perspective is the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It still looks different than other days, and is clearly taking the declaration seriously. The New York Times is the New York Times, here because of its stature in the journalism world, not for its design. I included the Vancouver Sun because it does have a heavy focus on the pandemic, but also adds a lighter touch: Happiness is warm soup in new coronavirus era (told you there was soup). It almost seems laughable a year later, but surely the editors wanted to present a mix of information. And the Winnipeg Free Press presents a standard newspaper cover. Much like most of this year’s that I have looked at.

March 11, 2021: one year later

When I decided to do this post, I was prepared for covers to be blown out again. It’s been one year since the declaration that changed our lives. Alas, it mostly wasn’t to be. Of course it comes the day after the U.S. Congress passed a $1.9 trillion (TRILLION) pandemic relief package. Money talks. Especially when it’s in the trillions. So there was news to share. And maybe editors were never planning on commemorating the day at most papers. I looked at hundreds of newspaper covers today* (thank you to Freedom Forum for its daily gallery, which I look at almost every day). Two stood out, and both deserve praise. In order of how much I love them (no shame in finishing second here!).
* One additional page of note landed Saturday, a big day for blowout feature pages in Canada, so I am updated to add the March 13 Toronto Star.

Ottawa Citizen, March 11, 2021

It’s … beautiful. This is what I was hoping to see today. This is the kind of page this blog is about. It’s simple. It’s clean. It’s not gimmicky. It uses white space wonderfully. A big headline. A little bit of the story. And it captures the moment from last year. Was this declaration a big deal? Yes. Yes it was. Huge points for the Ottawa Citizen today. To the designers, decision makers, editors and all involved (some direction provided by editors in Ottawa and then further conceptualized and executed by the talented staff in Postmedia’s production hub in Hamilton), well done. As print journalism struggles, it’s comforting to see that someone still cares.

The Arizona Republic takes a bit of a different approach, but the design is still lovely, and really captures the importance of the day. It still gets the story about the $1.9 trillion (trillion!!) aid plan, but also offers a look back to one year ago today. It uses striking imagery right across the top of the page. It’s not an obvious image. You need to really look at it. Which is a great strategy. And the headline is playfully done, unlike a standard headline. Different sizes, different alignments. Strong word choices. So again to those in Arizona, bravo. It’s often a well-designed paper, and today was no different.

A few days after the anniversary, the Toronto Star ran with this cover. It focuses on the people affected by the pandemic. They blew out the front cover for the story (a tear-jerker, particularly if you are wistful about that last week, and the days before). Similar to the initial pandemic cover, the actual design is more basic. A collage of photos. But that it blows out the front page with essentially snapshots is bold. As a reader you know there is a story behind every photo. There are billions of stories over the course of this year. But here the Star shines a light on 10 photos, and more people. I tear up thinking about “The last days of normal.” So points for headline as well. It was. Nothing has been the same since, and may never be. This cover captures that emotion (as do the stories inside).

By Brad Needham

Behind every successfully designed newspaper page is a talented designer. And often a slew of other people. As part of this blog, I plan to feature designers. I want to find out what makes them tick. What gives them that creative spark. Newspaper pages can be like art. Sometimes designers have oodles of time to bring these designs to reality. But sometimes it’s a day. Or less. Either way, I applaud them.

I hope to run a profile every month, of either an established designer with a deep portfolio, or an emerging designer, with a few great portfolio pieces and a boatload of potential.

In the first instalment, I bring you the great Tammy Hoy, a Canadian Press and Pagemasters North America designer. Disclaimer: I am the managing editor at Pagemasters and I have worked with Tammy for eight years. That is not necessarily why I’m featuring her, but it’s why I know very well the depth of her talents. But I will be writing what I know! So early on, dear reader, you may notice people with connections to me! I hope to find designers to feature from further afield as well, but Tammy is a great choice regardless. A quick look at her website, tammyhoy.com, anyone could quickly see a whole lot of visually mastery.

In these features, I will do a Q&A, and let the designers do most of the speaking. So I will stop talking for now. Without further ado …

A collage of newspaper pages by Tammy Hoy.
A screen grab from tammyhoy.com showing designs by Tammy Hoy.

Designer profile: Tammy Hoy, Pagemasters North America/The Canadian Press

How did you get into newspaper design?
It was a series of unlikely but fortunate events. Back in 1994 I was studying Illustration and design at Sheridan College and my roommate mentioned a job ad that he saw for freelance newspaper design work that was posted in the wrong department at our college (That department being animation and not design). I was really excited and I hoped it might be a great opportunity to get some real-life work experience while still at college. I called the number on the ad and they asked me if I could make it to 1 Yonge St. within the hour. I told them I could be there in two.

 I was so nervous. In my interview I was told that they needed a front-page illustration for a new section on technology; and they needed it by tomorrow! It was a sink or swim situation. I told them, I’ve got this.

It was a super exciting opportunity, but the worst part of it, ironically was the technology at the time. Envision this, I had to produce an illustration overnight using one of the first versions of Photoshop. I had no scanner because at the time they were a couple thousand dollars. We did not have cellphones so I couldn’t transfer any kind of image or reference material to my computer. I literally had to draw something with a mouse and make it look high tech. And on top of all this, it would take an hour to apply a filter. Layers were not even invented yet! Needless to say I did my best with what I had. And they liked it!

I can certainly see that I’ve grown but they’re not bad considering this was the ’90s, an era when rotating logos with flames were in still in fashion.

 In the coming months I completed several of the front pages for this section and invested in a scanner so that I could add some imagery to some of my future art. I loved every minute of it. I continued on that year to complete my degree in Illustration and Design at Sheridan College.

That same year my mum saw a job ad in the Toronto Star looking for an artist to work in the newspaper industry. I jumped on it. I started out in the graphics department at The Canadian Press and later began creating full-page newspaper designs, motion graphics and various other artistic material for Pagemasters North America, a subsidiary of The Canadian Press.

What do you like about newspaper design?
I like that once you build a good working relationship with your editors the sky is the limit in terms of what you can create. Within the confines of the newspaper’s style there are so many unique opportunities to express yourself. 

The goal being to work with the editor to create something a little unique that also goes well with the story. It’s also rewarding to meet extreme deadlines because you get to see your work published the next day or a few days from the day you put it together. There really is no time to fuss over things or overthink.

I love it because it’s also a beautiful collaboration between typography and art. The trick being to combine both, to create something really special.

What advice do you give when teaching people about design?
Think outside the margins and use white space to your advantage.  While margins are there to maintain consistency, you don’t always want your page to be completely bound by a grid. Fronts and special feature pages are a great opportunity to go outside the lines a little. The best pages are ones that surprise you.

I’m in my happy place when I have lots of room for art.

Play with the space to create a flow. Your eye should travel through the page elements, typically top to bottom. Think about things like the crop of a photo. Would an extreme vertical or extreme horizontal work better?  Cutting out a photo is a great way to add interest to a page. Mixed media can also be really interesting. Adding hand-painted art, collages, art with different shapes are all great ways to deviate from your standard rectangle.

Do you rely on one design principle more than others (white space, text as design, colour, cutouts, etc.)?
I really think a good page will make use of many elements, but if I had to pick only one thing, I would say I prefer designs with larger graphical elements. If you are able to push some of your text to the next page take advantage of that and make your art big. Make your headlines pop, use that white space to your advantage. Add some cutouts. I’m in my happy place when I have lots of room for art.

Tell me about a design you loved that was rejected.
I designed a front page made up entirely of different woodgrain. I loved it! It had fine grain, big grain, coloured grain, all running every which way and just this very small little headline positioned over top.  I was a little disappointed when they decided not to run it but hey you move on. You win some. You lose some. That’s what it’s all about.

How do you 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?
Haha, it’s really not a fair comparison when you consider the technology of today versus the technology of 1994. Just for fun I dug up some of my first illustrations and pages. I can certainly see that I’ve grown but they’re not bad considering this was the ’90s, an era when rotating logos with flames were in still in fashion. My first page entitled “A journey of discovery” is very apt. Life sure is about learning and improving as you go.

What would you say is the biggest change you’ve noticed since you started designing (new rules, time, etc.)?
I would have to say it’s the technology. When I started at The Canadian Press none of us working there even had an email address. Can you imagine? The company was super excited because they had just upgraded to colour computers and shortly after that they upgraded to 28.8 baud modems. That’s right, we were using dial-up connections to send graphics back and forth from home to work.

When it came time for the yearly federal budget we would travel to Ottawa and lug mountains of equipment to produce graphics. We had giant tube screen monitors tied to dollies and full-sized hard drives packed up in crates on wheels. We would show up at 6 a.m. to set everything up! The cleaners would be vacuuming around us as we transmitted the files back to Toronto.

Today the material is released digitally and graphics are created on the fly from home or from the office. The speed at which photos, graphics and pages are created has increased exponentially and they’re available on the web almost instantly. Pages are built in databased systems so they can be edited,  proofed and sent to print at lightning speed.

How do you design when there is no obvious art?
This is a great question. Having great art with a story is awesome but having mediocre art or no art can sometimes be a lot more fun!  It’s the perfect time to turn a negative situation into an opportunity.

If I am short on time I will sometimes have a look at stock art. Rather than just picking something generic and slapping it on to my page, I try to create something new by combining several pieces of stock art or by playing it up with some creative typography. For a page on old games becoming popular again, I used various pieces of stock art combined with some of my own hand-drawn elements to create a scene depicting a game of croquet with the headline displayed through the wicket.

 For a local story on a new intersection where all the art galleries were moving to, I decided to create something from scratch. I took my phone outside and photographed the street sign at an intersection outside. I came back to the office, cloned out the street names in Photoshop and carefully imposed the new ones in. It was something unique and went really well with what the story conveyed.

So draw something, pick up your camera, go outside and shoot something. There really are so many options and it can be a lot fun to try something new.

It might be like picking favourite family members, but if you had to pick up to three favourite pages, what would they be and why?
That is hard but here you go:

Tarnished Gold
This was a page on the spectre of Harvey Weinstein haunting the Golden Globes. Instead of running a typical photo of Weinstein I felt the page would have more impact if I drew just an outline of him and displayed it as a shadow.  I used a complementary gold colour to represent the Golden Globes. The little profile pictures at the top also draw the reader in. I felt this was a good way to illustrate a sensitive topic.

Donald & me (front and spread, Yes I’m trying to squeeze an extra page in here)
I really like this package  because of the graphical elements. You really can’t miss the stars and stripes when it comes to Donald Trump, so I used them to guide your eye through the feature without (hopefully) overpowering the pages. I also made the decision on the front to make the message of the story larger than Trump himself. Part of being a designer is to remain objective. 

Orange wine
This is one of my favourite pages because the wine looks like it’s jumping right out of the glass and almost off the page. There is so much movement and colour.  Working the display text into the splash was a challenge but I am happy with the end result.

Thanks, Tammy! And now a couple more that I love

When I was perusing Tammy’s website (did I mention Tammy has a website? And not just with newspaper designs) it brought back a lot of memories. All of these pages I’d seen come to life in my time at Pagemasters. I agree with all of her choices. The Trump package is amazing. The orange wine splashing around the page. But since I am supposed to celebrate design, I wanted to share a couple more that I loved for various reasons.

The Secrets of Wonderland page has always left me in awe. I mean, sure, the art is great. A perfect starting point. But having the text come in around those fingers, making it look three dimensional is gold. It’s also a bold use of a cover. One article, one monster piece of art.

The Where to shop next page speaks to me for a different reason. I have long been a major fan of the Virginian-Pilot. This is a page that just sticks so true to the Pilot’s design philosophy, I thought it needed to be called out. As an outsourcer, Pagemasters is occasionally and misguidedly criticized for shoddy work from those who don’t actually see what we do. All these pages prove otherwise, but this one is so close to the flavour of the Pilot, its long and storied history of design that I wanted to shout out Tammy for capturing it. You wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from a page that ran in 2011 or 2015. It just screams Pilot. So I shout Tammy’s praises from the rooftop. And to boot, a bold headline, fun art treatment, colourful. The pictures lead the eye all the way down the page.

If you are a designer or know of a designer who wants to be featured, click here to send me an email!

Top half o the New York Times Feb. 21 cover.

By Brad Needham

Once in a while, on a day you wouldn’t expect, a front page comes along that leaves readers awestruck. It’s a page that does something to convey a story or an idea so big. Through a design, through a graphic, through an image. Sunday’s New York Times front page was such a page.

At a quick glance, the reader wouldn’t even know what they were looking at. The Gray Lady was even greyer as the primary graphic on the page was black and white and at first indiscernible.

It doesn’t get you at first glance. But when you look deeper you see it. The graphic is made up of nearly 500,000 dots, each one representing an American who has died from COVID-19. On the front page of the New York Times, about half the page taken up by almost 500,000 tiny dots. In newsprint almost certainly blending together becoming unrecognizable as single dots as the death toll starts increasing at an alarming rate. The page goes from grey and white to almost a block of black. That is part of what makes it so powerful. How in itself it tells a story. The dots blur together.

New York Times cover, Sunday, Feb. 21.

It goes to speak to the power that still resides with newspapers and why I celebrate them. Of course it’s easy to celebrate the New York Times, though more often than not it’s for the reporting, not the design. It may not be as grey as it once was, but its front page is still usually pretty busy. Even this one has other stories. Imagine if the entire front was simply this graphic?

In a New York Times Insider article about this page, Nancy Coleman explains that a similar version of the graphic ran online in January. Despite that, I didn’t see much about it on Twitter or other social media. But when I searched for front pages on Sunday, this page was everywhere. And that’s quite a feat for a newspaper page.

“The prominent real estate in the print edition conveyed the significance of this moment in the pandemic and the totality of the devastation,” she says in the article.

Because there is still nothing like it. The power of the front page. Where real estate is finite.

It may sound like a contradiction, but the graphic is both painfully simple — dots — and thoughtfully complex. What often gets lost in newspaper design is what happens before the execution. Someone is conceptualizing. They are either given a story or idea and told to come up with something or they come up with a concept and run it by their editors.

A huge shoutout to New York Times graphic editors and the graphics co-ordinator who worked on this (Lazara Gamia, Lauren Leatherby and Bill Marsh) as well as those who made the decision to run this in print. The insider article, linked to above, is a must read for those who wonder what goes into such decisions.

… unlike the previous approaches, Sunday’s graphic depicts all of the fatalities. “I think part of this technique, which is good, is that it overwhelms you — because it should,” Mr. Gamio said.

From the NYT insider article

Here is some of the reaction from Twitter, just a sampling as there was a lot more.

Any time the front page of a newspaper makes such an impact in the digital world, and not for something stupid, it deserves to be called out. So thank you, New York Times, for such a powerful page. A devastating milestone captured not only for today’s readers, but beyond.

A look inside an edition of a Society for News Design Best of Newspaper Design books.

By Brad Needham

For years people have been saying it. Print is dead. Newspapers are dying. Perhaps the end is nearing, but newspapers are not dead yet. And as long as they’re around, I want to celebrate those making an extra effort. Print design, newspaper design, has shaped my career. It’s a passion. There is not much like it, so I, for one, want it to survive as long as possible. They’ve long been sending out a please resuscitate message, and I’m happy to do newspaper CPR as long as necessary.

Where it all began (for me)
In 2003, fresh out of out university, I had just lied my way into a job in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Am I a good designer? I taught design at Mount Royal as a TA, I said. It wasn’t completely untrue. I landed the job, and thus I packed up and moved to northern Alberta in February to start my first daily newspaper job at the Fort McMurray Today.

It was there I stumbled on some books called The Best of Newspaper Design by the Society for News Design. It changed my life. The designs inside were spectacular. Awe inspiring for a young aspiring designer. No longer did I want to be a photographer and certainly not a sports reporter (sorry, dad). I wanted to do that. As I learned more about the Society for News Design (SND) I discovered they were the preeminent design society. The best designers in the world were competing to get into this book. New York Times, El Mudo, Virginian-Pilot, Boston Globe, Toronto Star. I was hooked.

I took these books everywhere (including to Red Deer when I left the paper in Fort McMurray … ssshhh). On vacations, to the cottage, on the bus. When other people were reading novels on the dock, I had my big cumbersome SND books, new sticky notes flagging inspirational designs being added frequently. Every time I did a big design, I was pretty proud. I look back on many of them now with less pride. But I was learning. At the Red Deer Advocate, the Woodstock Sentinel-Review, the Barrie Examiner (RIP). And then I got to the Guelph Mercury, the little paper that could — and did. I was offered a role overseeing the Here section, a feature section focusing on interesting local people and places. I was given time to conceptualize, assign, design. My managing editor was incredibly supportive of my ideas, even if they seemed bizarre on … paper.

That’s how it happened. Years after discovering the Best of Newspaper Design books, collecting dust on a book shelf in a northern Alberta newsroom, after dozens, maybe hundreds of pages drawn, I decided to enter. As a lark. Weeks passed. Nothing. Until one day a note popped into my inbox from SND. I had been recognized for my features portfolio. My heart was pounding. I jumped out of my desk and stormed into my boss’s office as if my house was on fire. I didn’t knock. “I … won an SND. I won!” I could barely breathe.

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I submitted five pages. One of those in a few weeks’ time would be in Best of Newspaper Design 28. It was beyond my wildest dreams. To be in these books I used for inspiration. After that I was handed the keys to a full redesign of the Mercury. I was told I could redesign an entire fairly major Canadian newspaper. One of the country’s oldest. I was humbled. With that behind me, I kept chugging along. I submitted a portfolio the next year. I thought it was stronger. But nothing. It was a once-in-a-lifetime achievement, I thought. Winning an SND award. Except it wasn’t. I won again a year later for a news page, based on the redesign. My managing editor allowed me to use all the front page real estate for a design idea. Best of Newspaper Design 30. And I won again two years later, Best of Newspaper Design 32, working with a great designer, Diane Shantz, at the Waterloo Region Record (but for a Guelph Mercury page — the industry was starting its contraction as the Mercury’s page production was brought into the Record. A sign of things to come, and why great newspaper design should be celebrated now more than ever).

A changing landscape
That was in the early 2010s. Print advertising started on a steady decline. Stories were available online for free. Newspapers, once a licence to print money, weren’t as profitable (but still doing well relatively speaking). But as revenues dwindled, newspapers started cutting staff. Some adopted a “good enough” policy (it’s true, but I won’t say who said it). It was the idea that readers don’t care about design. They don’t care if a photo is beautifully shot by a professional photographer. A handout picture would do.

Perhaps the end is nearing, but newspapers are not dead yet. And as long as they’re around, we should celebrate those making an extra effort.

Even by 2010, newspapers were in decline. A Pew Research Center report said half a dozen U.S. newspapers had closed down the previous year. Alarm bells were ringing. But we hadn’t seen anything yet. A report out of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina published in 2020 said about a quarter of all papers in the U.S. had closed in the past 15 years. And things aren’t any better in Canada. A story in the Toronto Star last year said 50 community newspapers closed over a period of six weeks. Six weeks. Compared to just over 200 in the previous 12 years. Three newspapers I worked at have closed, the Guelph Mercury, Barrie Examiner and Prince George Free Press. I can’t even begin to explain how much I learned in these roles, and what those papers meant to their communities.

To make a short story long, there are very few people left who get days or even several hours to put a section together, to conceptualize design. To sketch out designs on little yellow sticky notes, as I did at the Waterloo Region Record, and hand them to a designer to implement. I have been fortunate in my career. Awards like the Ontario Newspaper Awards no longer even have a print design category (I won once, received two other nominations and had the privilege of being a judge one year). But because I have been fortunate, I now want to celebrate those who are still doing it. Still producing kick ass designs, like the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, Spokesman-Review and so on. And I will look at these papers and more to find out why they’re still investing. Hopefully they can inspire future aspiring designers to aim a little higher.