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Design this

Robert Downes - May 31st, 2011
Design This! The role of graphic design at Northern Express
By Robert Downes
Graphic design has always been of supreme importance at Northern Express Weekly, helping to differentiate the paper from a glut of other publications throughout the region.
And if you’ve ever followed the flow of news racks in Northern Michigan, you can’t help but notice that the Express gets picked up very quickly at our 600 distribution spots compared to other publications.  A huge part of that popularity is the paper’s design: catchy covers, imaginative page layouts and ads that zing.
Putting it all together are graphic designers Colleen Zanotti and Kyra Cross, with an occasional assist from Kristin Rivard. 
Colleen has been with the Express for 15 years having completed the visual communications program at Northwestern Michigan College, while Kyra joined the Express in 2006 after graduating from Kendall College of Art and Design.  Kristin also attended NMC’s design program and joined the paper in 1998.
In the following interview, Colleen and Kyra offer some insights into what it takes to make the Express ‘picture perfect.’

NE:  What is it that you like about graphic design as a career?
Zanotti: Making things look good.  Our job involves giving design to the written word -- making articles more interesting, helping the writers get their points across and the reader navigate the page.
Cross: I’ve always been interested in all areas of art. The graphic design programs are always changing which keeps things interesting, and the technology is always developing faster. It was something that I quickly fell in love with. 
 
NE:  What goes into good design?
Zanotti: So many things, but in newspapers we use a modular design so people can follow a story from column to column or page to page.  They need to know where to look and what to look at. Some people are just caption readers or headline readers, so it’s important to make those look good and have a good, catchy headline.  
We also do a lot of photo correcting.  Most of the photos we get are not the greatest to work with, so we try to bring them up to par.
Cross: Page layout wasn’t something we focused on a lot in school, but it’s so important to know , along with all of the (software) design programs you have to learn.
Zanotti:  I learned layout in high school and college and then continued while working on the White Pine Press while at NMC. We learned Pagemaker (design software) at our very first class at NMC and from there it went to Quark and InDesign -- a great transition.  Today, you can do almost anything with InDesign because all of the elements you need are integrated into one package.

NE:  You almost have to be an engineer to be a designer these days because you have to know the ins and outs of this extremely elaborate  software.
Zanotti:  Right, and it’s always changing, so it’s important to keep up with all the new technology. Kids today grow up knowing computers, they start in kindergarten and it’s almost intuitive. At that age my tools were a boxof crayons.

NE: Some publications seem to fail because they look so amateurish.
Zanotti:  There’s a lot of stuff out there where the design isn’t that important to the people putting out their products -- it’s more their message they’re concerned about. But I think that’s where they’re missing the boat.
I think the importance of design-to-copy is 60-40, because if a publication doesn’t look good, people aren’t going to pick it up.  On the other hand, if it isn’t a good read and isn’t interesting, the readers aren’t going to carry on.  But what pulls you in is what a publication looks like, and it’s great journalism that makes you stay.     
Think of the old-time newspapers where it was just all type and no illustration at all -- things have evolved.  Even when I was in high school, we wrote our stories, took our pictures, set the type and laid it out -- it’s so much easier today. Technology has been a real boon.  

NE:  But on the other hand, do graphic designers ever feel threatened by technology?  At the Oakland Press, for instance, the graphic design of the paper is outsourced to Asia.  Technology can also be your worst enemy.  Is that a concern for design students?
Zanotti: I think the Oakland Press may have so many papers in its chain that in order to save money they’re outsourcing.  They’re making a profit, but they are also losing that local connection. 
Cross: I think that concerns about technology go with a lot of things.  These days everyone’s a photographer, everybody’s a designer, but they may not know what looks good and what works. 

NE: What are some of the challenges you face?
Cross: Here at the paper we don’t have a ton of time to spend on layout. I would like to spend more time working on stories, but we have deadlines to meet.  And that can be a good thing, because if you didn’t have a weekly deadline you could spend all your time coming up with different layouts for stories and take forever. So we have a standard layout, a template or a style to get the job done on time.

NE:  How do you keep up with design trends?
Zanotti: I have a monthly subscription to a software teaching tool called Linda.com and subscribe and read many industry publications. 
Cross:  I read a lot of publications and blogs. From fashion, design, and architecture.  Looking at different layouts and advertising design. I also love to talk to other designers and artists. The information and inspiration is never ending. 
Zanotti:  When you’re a designer, you never stop noticing what works on everything from outdoor billboards to books -- the colors, the layout, what other designers have created.

NE:  What makes a good cover?
Zanotti:  A great  image and complimentary typography.  A catchy headline helps -- it can make it pop.  People, certainly, are grabbers on covers, and like with an ad, sometimes less is more.  

NE:  Do you think newspapers are going to be around for awhile?
Zanotti:  I do.  I was talking to my niece the other day who lives in Italy, and she says that in Europe, everybody still walks around with a newspaper in their hand.  People like having a newspaper because they’re tactile -- they enjoy looking at it and feeling it.  So I don’t think newspapers are going to go away -- people still like to have a hard copy.
Cross: I think it would be really sad and strange not to see the paper.  I read online magazines, but I still have subscriptions to real magazines and I keep magazines around and continue to look at them; with online magazines I look at them once and they’re gone.
There’s also a lot of satisfaction from creating something that’s real.  I was talking to Colleen about how she’s been here 15 years and has worked on 52 issues a year -- imagine that, having that much work out there -- that’s a lot of work to be proud of.  And I’ve been here 6 years for 52 issues, and it’s like -- wow -- that’s great that I’ve got that to show and have been part of that.

To put that last paragraph in perspective, Colleen Zanotti has completed an estimated 780 issues of the Express and approximately 31,200-plus pages, based on an average 40-page copy, while Kyra Cross has completed 312 issues and 12,480 pages...
 
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