Newspapers will die. Can good design delay the inevitable?
Jacek Utko, a Polish designer who has reinvented newspaper design, talks to Khaleej Times about the fate of newspapers.
Hi Jacek. How do you see yourself? Meaning, how would you introduce yourself to a stranger on a commute?
I'd say I'm a consultant, solving problems of newspapers and their websites with design thinking. And if I have a bit more time, I'd add: Four of my newspapers were named the World's Best Designed Newspapers, and two were named European Newspapers of the Year. In one case my consultancy brought 100 per cent growth.
When you meet people, do they always understand what a newspaper designer is? How do you explain to people what you do?
I am telling stories. With text and visuals. I am not an artist. I serve readers. Digest information and make it easier to understand. It's a mission. When you are a young designer you don't get it. In reality, only content-driven designers that are journalists at heart will be happy in this profession.
You were in Dubai recently for the Arab Media Forum. Could we get some feedback from you? What did you think of the newspapers in the Middle East? The design versus content balance. We're also wondering if you managed to pick up Khaleej Times... :)
Generally your papers to me resemble a website's newsflow. Busy, newsy, same size of stories, no rhythm and surprise element... Of course some pages are great, from time-to-time I see great infographics, or photos. But generally speaking, the concept of a newspaper is competing too much with online news. This war will be lost. It's just a matter of time. And one more thing: you have amazing architecture, world class. why not make your media like that? Your newspapers and websites. I guess you have enough courage and resources to do it.
You say the death of newspapers is inevitable. Will all designers migrate to an online space then? What happens to all that talent? What will you do?
We are now migrating to the digital subscription model. It might happen that Monday-Friday newspapers will be not printed anymore at some point. But the weekend will be strong. Those are the dynamics in other countries that have experienced crises earlier. In Europe that's the obvious trend. You can learn from that - to not make their mistakes. You are lucky to have a bit more time. So we may end up with online news 24/7 and weekend, magazine-style printed newspaper. It may also be that even everyday paper, the experience of touching, smelling, flipping through pages, will still have value for readers in a world that becomes more and more virtual.
It applies to some niche newspapers in Europe right now. For instance, business papers still have demand from readers to deliver them the same news in the printed version. It just feels different, a more luxurious experience. And they want to see it on paper, it helps them to perceive information better, see all at a glance. Newspaper format is still better when it comes to hierarchy, newsy fever, sense of urgency, long read articles...
So I will be doing both. Using both platforms at their best.
You mentioned in your TED talk that your approach to designing pages is like designing posters. You want the pages to look like posters. How often would you say you accomplish pages looking like posters?
Only on special occasions. When the story is big enough - to send a strong message - as part of the paper's identity. I was doing it once a week or less often when I was an art director making everyday covers.
Was this was your formula to design Het Parool, one of the best designed newspapers in 2016, according to the SND?
The idea behind designing Het Parool was to make an eclectic newspaper. To merge classic, timeless typography with modern graphics and layouts. To come back to the roots and restore the feeling of a traditional, black and white newspaper. And at the top of it, add a layer of ultra modern graphics, new layout ideas. Graphics that almost resemble art. And the second main idea was to have two newspapers in one. This newsy, busy, traditional one in front and a modern, magazine style, lean-back experience, with lots of white space and longer texts at the back.
How important is the typography in your designs and how do you see the role of typography in crossplatforms projects? (crossplatforms: newspapers across digital/print media)
Typography is key, the most important thing. It took me some years to learn it. You master it when you get older :) Type is usability, microtypography, navigation, contrast, legibility, it's all essential when it comes to the comfort of our readers. We can now use consistent fonts across all platforms, which is a game changer. Now we can really create a brand experience. With no limits. it's a great time for designers.
Do you get a lot of praise from colleagues/ family/ friends? What's the sharpest criticism you have received?
Yes, many awards, many successes equals many congratulations. But real praise is from readers when the newspaper or website is growing. That makes me really happy. I am very business-oriented in what I am doing.
What do you see lacking in newspaper design across the board? Where is the specific scope for improvement?
Newspapers are flat and boring. Not creative journalism, no creative design. They look like (they did) 30 years ago. Only fonts and colours change. Pure marketing and decoration. I want to see innovative storytelling. Presenting information that is easier to digest for readers. Giving extra effort so it doesn't look like the same website but one day later. Generally there's very little innovation in print right now. We wait for a slow death. And that's a huge mistake. Because it's in our hands if we die or at least when we die. It's not only in the hands of Facebook and Google. We need to keep print alive for several more years to make a digital transition. Otherwise we will experience an income gap: money from print will fall down, and money from the web will not be there yet.
You mentioned inspiration, vision and determination. What inspires you?
Three things. One is art and design outside newspapers. Great magazine, book and poster design, amazing advertising, trends in fashion and architecture. I want to elevate products I am working on to a completely new level, upmarket, high-end experience. Second is great journalism. To give my work some intellectual capacity, the quality of content and storytelling that makes the paper more timeless and more respected. And third is technology. I am crazy about all new tech things, innovation, fresh ideas. I want to work for the future, not in a dying museum. So I am adopting news trends, tech discoveries in online design. But also, it has impact on my print work.
Content and design, you say, are the yin and yang, like form and function in architectural terms. Are they as important, even in a digital age, even on websites?
Absolutely. Design was never more important than now. Everywhere, every branch, every product. And design thinking, even more. To solve problems with this kind of creative approach. Content is the core of it. Even when all platforms disappear, and designers will not be designing interfaces anymore, because you will not have to click to watch or read a story; it will be enough to say or even think of it. In this kind of sci-fi future content will still be key. We will consume content, just in some other form.
But forget the future. Look at Facebook now. We are all sharing things. But who is producing it? People at the beginning of this chain are very precious. And always will be.
To be good is not good enough, you say. Then what is?
To be good is not enough... when you dream of being great. I believe you should always try as hard as you can. Most people stop when they see their work is good. But good is too little. Don't stop. Make it better. Push harder. Then you will see amazing results.
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