Small design changes, big visual impact

Apr 5th, 2009 | By | Category: HS Resources


For high school publication design, a little flair can go a long way.

A long way toward what?

A long way toward catching your classmates’ attention and getting them to read the paper. Colleen Dailey, student teacher at Grosse Pointe South High School, has a passion for design, and shared it with students at a Michigan Interscholastic Press Association journalism day.

Although any of her suggestions can be accomplished with a couple key strokes and a click of the mouse, Dailey advises student journalists to take a slower, more integrated approach to design. She stressed consistency, from page to page and issue to issue, and staff consensus.

Any major design changes have to be OK with the whole staff — or at least the ones who care, Dailey said. Vote on them as a staff. Your staff has to like the way the paper looks.

Dailey studied design as an undergraduate at Michigan State University and went on to graduate studies in education at Detroit’s Wayne State University. She stressed that the look must be one that lasts for a while. That will help your readers get comfortable with the paper and its traditions. Standing items such as column sigs, briefs boxes, regular columns and folio lines should be consistent throughout. Consistency gives a professional look and tells readers they’re in a familiar place.

Consistency, though, does not mean boring.

Newspaper design is almost becoming like an MTV commercial, Dailey said, “we’re the TV generation.” She suggests that newspapers load up on good photography, interesting visual elements and the most effective tool of all: white space.

Some of her tips:

Get the big picture

Dailey said that big photos — if they’re good — are coming back. She recommends making them a quarter or even half of a page. Then, design the page around the visual element. Don’t design the page first and then force the art in last.

Watch the crops and avoid the flops

Crop the photo before you decide what size and shape it should be. Where people are concerned, don’t crop off limbs — or show arms without hands and legs without feet. Get the whole head in — even if the hair is big. And please do use lots and lots of pictures of people. People love to see themselves.

Design pages so photos that lead the reader’s eye in one direction or another lead them into related stories or into the page — not away from the article or off the page. But don’t flop pictures to reverse their direction. It never looks right and it isn’t honest.


Bust up long columns of gray. There are many ways to do it:

* Use pull quotes that feature important statements or passages. Make the type significantly larger than the body type. Dailey recommends 16- to 18-point liftouts with 9-point body type. Settle on a consistent quote style — just as you do with body type.

* Fact boxes set into the story pop out interesting information and give the page another hook to snag readers who scan. Pop on a label headline, use a screen, and do it the same way every time.

* Put drop caps, or big initial letters, at the beginning of the story and, in longer stories, every 12 inches or so. They work best when they’re placed in gray areas and at significant points or transitions in the article. How big? Big. Try 48 point.

Less is more

White space can be your most powerful design element. The eye is drawn to it, and then to the elements around it. White space should be adjacent to the outside edges of the page, not trapped in the middle and surrounded by photos and type.

Shades of gray

No color available? No problem. You have black, white and 10-15 distinctive shades of gray. Learn what they are, write down the specs, and be — now you’re getting it — consistent about how you use gray.

Little things

Give the paper a striking new look, but keep tradition alive, with small changes to the nameplate on Page One. Change it from four columns to three. Run the nameplate down the left side of the page. Drop it a third of the way down and run a story across the top. Move some of its elements around. (Please, don’t do all of that, or something different each issue.)

Distinctive type

To set off editorials or other opinion pieces run it ragged right and non-justified. Don’t change the font or type size. The distinction will be subtle, smooth and clear.

Where are we?

Get your folios under control. Quill and Scroll contest judges pay attention to them, says Dailey, but a lot of students don’t. Make them all the same. Include the page number, publication’s name, date and, if you can, day. Put them in the outside corners, also called turn corners, or thumb corners.

And thumbs up to sophisticated, consistent newspaper design.

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