From really northwest to regular northwest America, this newspaper designer is making the most of her opportunity at newspaper that loves its design
By Brad Needham
One of the things that frustrates me about trying to promote newspaper design is that it is often so hard to find out who is responsible for all the amazing designs I see. I would love to shoutout all the amazing talent behind the stellar newspaper front pages from around the world. But I can’t just turn to the masthead or page 2 and see, Cover Design by … as one might in a magazine. That’s why I was tickled when I posted a Spokesman-Review arts cover on my Instagram account and I got a response from the paper. They told me they would pass my message onto their designer (including the comment about wondering if the reverse text was readable in print). And then Caitlin Miller, the designer in question, contacted me on Twitter to tell me, yes, indeed, the text was perfectly legible!
The page just popped for me. The contrast. The big display. Smokey Robinson‘s eyes and the joy in his face, which is especially notable in a never-ending pandemic.
I have long been a fan of the Spokesman-Review’s design, particularly their front page. I think it’s one of the consistently best designed newspapers around. They give it their all and achieve solid, and sometimes outstanding, results. I hope I have the good fortune of talking to an A1 (1A?) designer one day (nudge, nudge!). Side note: I love that the Spokesman-Review posts, every day, its front page, other section fronts and historical pages on its website (link to Sept. 23 front page). The more we can celebrate print the better, and they have a lot to celebrate.
Being such a fan, naturally I asked Caitlin if she’d be willing to talk to me. And she said yes! While she’s not been in the industry long, she’s making a splash. And unlike most U.S. designers, her career started further north than this high-kilometre Canadian has ever lived or worked (and I lived/worked in Fort McMurray and Fairview, both Alberta, as well as Prince George and Fort St. James, B.C., which are pretty far north).
Caitlin talks about her growth as a designer. And she talks about working within the framework of your newspaper. Some papers, like the Spokesman-Review, really pride themselves on design. Other papers, particularly in the present print media climate or smaller papers, don’t go big on design every day. Caitlin now gets to work with a team that loves design, one that submits a pile of pages to the Society for News Design‘s design competition every year. And I bet that passion for design is contagious!
Here is our chat. I have sprinkled a few more of her eye-catching Spokesman-Review designs throughout the questions, and end with some pages from her pre-Spokane days in Alaska.
How did you get into newspaper design?
I fell into it. What got me into print news was a semester working at The Sun Star as the managing editor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Certainly, no design experience! My job in that position was strictly editing and guiding writers (albeit at writers’ own discretion of accepting my edits, but that’s working at a college paper for you).
I kept my eye on the local paper as a possible job prospect in Fairbanks for a while. After I graduated, I was working at a hotel and would read the paper daily, including checking classifieds. Finally, a copyeditor position opened. I knew the former editor-in-chief of The Sun Star was working as an editorial assistant at The Daily News-Miner and hit her up. Funnily enough she had deleted my number from her contacts, but when she figured out it was me, she was supportive of my interest and put a good word in. I applied the next day, and a month later I was hired. I learned newspaper design on the job and taught myself a lot of what I now know, but I knew I couldn’t grow staying in Alaska, which is how I found myself at The Spokesman-Review. It’s a never-ending learning experience, and I love that.
However, I knew that I always wanted to work in newsprint. It’s a bit of a family legacy, with my grandfather and his father working in it, respectively in different aspects.
What do you like about newspaper design? And what makes it different?
First, I like that I’m using both sides of my B.A. I hold a degree in English and art and being able to interact with both design and words is satisfying to say the least.
I was meeting with a writing mentor at a coffee shop one day, and as we were catching up, she had asked me where I was working, and I answered that I was at the paper and explained my job. We found ourselves in conversation about the benefits of a physical copy (versus web) reading of a newspaper. She opened my eyes to the beauty of page layout; she gave me a reader’s perspective, a perspective I’ve never interacted with before as a designer despite my own reading of papers. But things always look differently from another’s eyes, don’t they? Through her gaze, we discussed the way readers interact with stories, how a jump from the front page to an inside page, or a refer/tease, could bring a reader to stories they wouldn’t have likely known about otherwise. Not everyone thumbs through all the pages of the paper. How many of us non-sports people don’t give sports a single glance? Or maybe a parent only bought the paper to keep record of a story on the front page related to their child. Suddenly, that parent finds himself or herself on Page A5 reading about a column on a local event involving a nonprofit that seeks to benefit cancer awareness.
What was the most fun you have had with a design?
My favourite pages are those with the most agency. In a way, this applies here, also. Those pages that I’m given a feature story or column with lots of art, I like being able to take the lead and do what I see fit with it. I like that editors who give me the content trust my judgment. They also know I’m not afraid to ask questions, so communication between us is so very important, including sending page proofs for them to see and affirm or correct where needed. Pages where I am given lots to work with, and pages with breaking news also are fun to work with. I’m really thankful for templates however, because sometime a page just needs that basic layout and nothing more, and that’s cool.
I hope I can, with the pages I provided, express the “most fun” I’ve had with design. It’s hard to explain otherwise, and these include my favourite pages as well.
Do you rely on one design principle more than others (white space, text as design, colour, cutouts, etc.)?
I do a lot of cutouts. Always have. But, gosh, do they take time. It can really depend on the page I’m working on. Feature-y pages will likely have cutouts whereas hard news pages will likely not, at least from me thus far. Colour does play a role, oddly. Sometimes I look at a page after I’ve completed it and go, “Wow! How did this work out!”—and it turns out that all the photos visually correlate by complete happenstance. I tend to avoid lots of white space, however. But at The S-R, I’m learning the benefits of it. We use it far more than I’m used to, whereas before, I was very adamant on squaring everything off and making sure everything fits tightly on a page.
Tell me about a design you loved that was rejected.
I don’t think I can answer this exactly how you want it answered, simply because it isn’t about something being rejected. I don’t think I’ve had an entire page design rejected before; however, I have had aspects of designs criticized and rejected. It isn’t a good feeling. But talking through it and learning from it is important. Maybe it’s something the design editors were avoiding you didn’t know about. Great. Now you know not to do that ever again. Or maybe it’s a learning experience between you and the more experienced designer who suggests the text be more horizontal in nature and less vertical. Awesome. Now you can take that experience and apply it to future designs that might have similar elements that could benefit from it.
It still feels crummy sometimes having your work criticized. But it’s worth it. The team effort is important, and you can learn a lot from working with others and seeing design through your critics’ eyes.
Are there any designers or publications other than those you have worked at that you are sure to look at?
If I’m in a new city or town, or visiting family, I’m sure to pick up the local paper. It’s hard not to look at design now wherever I go. This includes magazine covers — it’s interesting the crossover between the two, like siblings of sorts. But I look at both general design, and what stories they put where, such as what the designer of that paper chose (or perhaps editors — this really depends on the size of the paper!) for the lead, down the rail, centrepiece, down page, etc. It can say a lot for what the town sees as important, and a lot of time localization is prioritized over national wire stories.
It might be like picking favourite family members, but if you had to pick a few favourite pages, what would they be and why?
I’ll address my career thus far. I’ve noticed with The Daily News-Miner my favourite covers are the ones where I have the most agency. And perhaps the same can be said with The Spokesman-Review. While at the News-Miner, I have a handful of pages I love.
The News-Miner doesn’t like much for creativity, per se, but the Our Town page, a localized feature page that ran weekly, allowed me to kind of do what I want within means. And I loved it. I had a good knack of what was allowed on A1, but Our Town meant I could explore making cutouts, changing fonts, applying gradients. Many of these pages had strong interaction with local audiences who were regular followers of the editor of that page. And, I have to say, there is such satisfaction in knowing how well I did when that editor comes to and tells me the impact I made. I’ve also seen cutouts of various stories from various pages I’ve constructed framed, and that’s a whole other feeling on its own. At the DNM there are other front pages I love for other reasons, ones I’d include in a portfolio, but they certainly don’t hold an impact like the one’s that have made a personal connection with me emotionally. Maybe the emotionality of it sounds biased, but it really can help a person grow as a designer to know what they’re doing is good in some way or another.
As far as my work at The Spokesman goes, I haven’t quite hit that emotional satisfaction yet, but being at a much larger paper might have much to do with that. However, working with the Seven cover at the Spokesman (weekly entertainment feature section) really allows me to explore my skills as a designer, and there is much satisfaction in that. I really can’t wait to see where this takes me.
Tell me a little about your process. How do you come up with ideas?
There isn’t much to say about this. Either I have a good idea of where I’m going with something or I don’t. A lot of times I can look at the content and know exactly what is going where, but I think experience has a role in this. And other times I might spend three hours just trying to figure out and experiment with where I’m going to take a page. I may even sometimes have multiple ideas in my head. It’s interesting, working at The Spokesman is such a different experience coming from a small paper. Before, a lot of decision making was solely up to me, regarding what stories go where and what art should appear where. At The Spokesman there’s an editor for everything, including photo placement.
The Spokesman Review has some exceptional designs. How much pressure is there to continually produce great work? Do you swing for the fences every day?
The Spokesman staff is so supportive. However, while I’m fairly confident in my abilities, I certainly feel a lot of pressure! I took over the design of the Seven cover after a couple of months being with the company. Prior to that our A1 designer was doing the cover and he certainly has far more experience than I have. Chris Soprych is helpful in many ways. There are days where I just don’t have a clue what do with the art I get. Frankly, sometimes it just isn’t good enough to work with to produce an eye-catching cover. But then he shows me how he’d approach it and from that I’m able to learn different approaches. I’m thankful, and this experience is a huge part of why I wanted to join The Spokesman-Review.
Certainly, communication is important and helps relieve some stress. I’m not the only one who looks at the page or cover. And others’ suggestions can certainly make or break a page in its success. Constructive criticism is always important. And I really enjoy that so many people are involved with the process and looking at the final proof. I’m also coming from a paper prior to The S-R where I was the only set of eyes on pretty much everything, so it’s all been both a learning experience and a huge relief.
Do you have words for wisdom for young, aspiring designers?
For the young and aspiring designers, remember we do this because we love this. Remember that behind the scenes we still make a difference and affect a reader’s interaction with the paper as whole. We’re not in this for the pay. We’re in it because we love what we do, and we love journalism. But also, for those who may feel stuck at a job that you feel no mobility in, don’t be afraid to extend yourself beyond what’s familiar and apply all over. Call. Talk to editors and tell them you want the job. It may seem old school, but working in newsprint is, believe it or not, still old school. Basically, don’t be afraid to chase your dreams, bug people and be adventurous!
Below is a selection of Caitlin’s favourite designs. She explains what made each of them special. We’ve seen the Spokesman-Review pages. That’s where she is now. This is where she began. “I really feel like the Seven covers for The Spokesman-Review show my potential as a designer in contrast to what I was more so limited to designing at my former job.”
My one issue with this page is the text wrap around the columnist’s mug has a weird break that I didn’t catch until months after when I was going through my portfolio and applying to other papers. Jorgy Jorgensen played a huge part in the Alaska community and touched a lot of people’s hearts. This page brought many people joy and the columnist received many thanks from the community for making it happen. It’s really special to be a part of the community in this way, even being behind the scenes.
This cover page was the moment I realized the power journalism has in a community and how a page designer can contribute to making an impact. It was also the moment when I knew I found the right career for me. There was a lot of excitement that led up to this page: it was the weekend and unplanned; our 12-page paper needed to be expanded into a 16-page paper, ads had to be moved, everything that was supposed to go on the front page got moved inside. At the time the governor of Alaska had vetoed the state budget, an action that would in turn affect all parts of the state and everyone of all ages. Many were upset by this — Alaska had been facing years of budget cuts already. I knew when I sent that cover I did something. And sure enough, I woke up the next day and discovered that at a protest, Fairbanks residents who didn’t have posters or signs to hold, used our Override editorial front page.
I feel like these pages really captured how the COVID-19 pandemic affected people (pages above and below). We weren’t expecting there to be a Midnight Sun Game that summer. The team that usually hosts the annual tradition cancelled the game due to the pandemic, but a couple of teams from the area came together to make sure it still happened. It was really a “beacon of hope” for a lot of people in a time when so many traditions were cancelled. I think Laura Stickell’s story shows the importance of community and how coming together plays a large part in human morale. It was our sports writer’s last day with the News-Miner and she sure went out with a bang. Great story, great photos.
Want to be featured?
I am always looking for newspaper designers to talk to, whether you’re at a college paper or the Washington Post. Reach out to me through the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org.