March 12, 2008

Of Mice, Men and Enginerds

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Every day, millions of scissors take to the pages of local papers as avid readers rescue interesting content from the eventual fate of their morning paper. The provocative article favorite astrology clipping or picture of Jimmy’s last soccer goal are saved from the recycling bin and forever immortalized on the kitchen fridge or the office bulletin board.
The name of the paper is nowhere on the clipping… In fact, the scrap of paper is often as small as an index card and the headline has been half ripped off, yet you still instantly recognize which publication it comes from.
Ultimately, newspaper designers have accomplished their number one task if they’ve established this instant recognition. It’s a hard-won battle. How do you teach a new staffer in under a month every single minute detail of design right down to how far below the photographs the six-point size small-caps Helvetica Neue bolded photo byline runs. (The correct answer rounds to roughly .05 inches).
There are many tricks we use to maintain a consistent look, and to be honest none of them are really exciting enough to write on this page. What does deserve proper mention is one area where The Sun has been lacking consistency: info graphics.
Its 1:30 in the morning and you’ve just finished designing the front page. It was designed three hours ago, but needed to be redone because the University president just announced he’s cutting tuition by 50 percent for all students whose parents earn less than $75,000 a year, by 30 percent for all families making less than $150,000 a year and by 20 percent otherwise, unless of course you make over $300,000, in which case it’s only 10 percent. There are no photos —just lots of numbers— and the page is “text heavy”. What do you do?[img_assist|nid=28783|title=Design Graphic|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=|height=0]
If you’re an insomniac engineer who spends his late nights designing news pages, like I might just be, you immediately bust out Microsoft Excel and make a pretty bar graph, showing decreases in tuition for all families. It runs, is eye-catching, fills a boring, “texty” page with color and everyone’s happy. Except people earning over $300,000.
Well, two days later, another designer needs to pull off the exact same trick, and because our department has so many awesome, talented staffers, he succeeds, and the chart looks great. The only problem is it looks nothing like the last chart.
Many would not consider this a problem–isn’t variety the spice of life? Repeated imagery is for boring Steinbeck novels!
Unfortunately, this sort of “variety” degrades that consistency principle we all hold near and dear. As a result, the vast majority of professional papers have a strong set of guidelines for graphic designers in order to make the page elements consistent, no matter how complicated they may become.
So how did I decide to tackle this problem? Well, as I admitted four paragraphs ago, I am an enginerd by day, and we math-minded automatons tend to hold numbers in high regard. Ask a physicist how color is defined, he’ll start talking about Max Planck, the photon and sine waves. Ask a computer scientist and the word “hexadecimal” might be thrown around. Ask a designer, and he’ll say CMYK.
It just so happens carnellian, official color of Cornell University and Campbell’s Soup, has an exact CMYK definition: 13 percent cyan, 100 percent magenta, 100 percent yellow, and four percent black.
Ask a physicist how length is defined and he’ll mention the traversal of a photon, in such and such an amount of time in an “inertial rest frame”. Ask a computer scientist how length is defined, and he might mention how amazingly thin the MacBook Air is. Ask a designer, and he’ll tell you it’s in units of picas!
It also just so happens, that The Cornell Daily Sun has a series of spacing rules (pica rules) that are just as strictly enforced as proper grammar in each and every issue.
And so the task was this: design consistent, professional graphics, with uniform colors, length scales, fonts and lines. With a calculator in hand I figured out everything right down to the percent increase in black ink that would be applied to the shadowy side of a 3-D bar graph. The results are pictured here for your praise or slander.
So how could all this rigid, brain-dead reproduction contribute to the exciting life and times of a Sun designer? Well it seems easy and devoid of thinking… until of course it’s two in the morning and news is screaming for an “info graphic.” Then the pre-made elements feel like a godsend. They also do not limit creativity. What about when you need to run four side-by-side pie charts, one of which has a category expanded into a fifth sub-chart, AND, by the way, it all needs to fit into a spot on the page shaped like that annoying Tetris block that always made you lose the game?*
After a bit of critical feedback, staff training and a restful spring break, these graphic elements will begin making their way into the news and sports pages of The Sun , along with dozens of other “info graphics”. The hope is that we can enhance content, page design and SASRship (short attention span readership), all without ever having to confuse the reader with rapidly changing styles. And ultimately, perhaps this will allow us all to embrace our inner enginerds…

**Did you ever notice that those really convenient long thin Tetris pieces never came when you needed them? I swear the game was rigged!