Jacek Utko on newspaper design

Just came across this TED Talk by Jacek Utko from last year (2009) along with a few takeouts from a phone interview he did with TED.

What is the “egotistical” approach you mentioned in your talk?

It’s politically correct to talk about teamwork and convergence between editors and designers. It’s an old issue, the idea that we would merge the two departments and make journalism more visual. Now, I do agree with this philosophy that says visual journalism requires more teamwork.

But, in my personal experience, the best things I’ve ever done are not the fruit of teamwork. They were the fruit of closing myself in a room, not speaking to any editor. I would think of a good headline myself. This would produce the award-winning covers.

Communication with the readers in a personal way is important. When you use teamwork, the message becomes not so clear anymore. There’s a compromise between 20 opinions, and you can see that compromise in the outcome.

Yet I don’t do the work just because readers love it. I do it because I like it. I have to find some personal satisfaction in this work. Making front pages like this brings me a lot of satisfaction.

Talk about that conflict between the design end and the editorial end.

The conflict is diminishing, but it has been very strong in the last years. Writers don’t like you. They treat you as an enemy, because they believe in words, and they believe you’re cutting the words. They don’t believe that people don’t want to read more text.

People need entry points to text. People look at headlines. People avoid long stories. There are many proofs for this, such as eye-tracking research. Editors often don’t understand this. They don’t treat a designer as someone who is a marketer of their text, who is trying to sell their text better.

This is also the designers’ fault. Some designers are not journalists; they only think about their pictures looking good. But readers do look at papers for more than just beautiful art. They look for the content.

The future of media is where people realize that how content is sold to the reader is equally important. During consultations, much of my time is spent not just working on visuals or illustration or infographics. It’s spent on displaying the content better, working on elements of text like ledes, intros, sub-headlines, middle intros, quotes, pullouts, boxes. Making it more digestible, more friendly.

Debates on the fate of newspapers seem to get quite emotional.

Yes. You can see discussions on this in a lot of blogs and forums. Many people think that newspapers have to survive because they have a mission for society, for democracy. Most of them say that newspapers should stay because, if newspapers die, nothing will replace them.

But that’s not actually true. It’s already slowly being replaced by the Internet. Blogs, for example, are an opinion-making medium. They’ll probably become more powerful than the newspapers themselves were.

I think we should all accept the thought that, one day, there won’t be any printed newspapers. There will be niche products for smaller groups — exclusive things that are reminders of the old times. But I don’t believe the general newspapers, in the state that we know them now, will survive.