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September 2, 2010 / Gina D.

Don’t fear the re-design

Redesign. Sounds scary, right? I say “MEH.” I’m sure I’ll be tarred and feathered and “pffffff”-ed in many design circles for divulging this, but in my experiences, redesign is easily overthought (I won’t get into the “readers do/don’t care” tar pit here). Truth is, once some basic decisions and design choices are made, well, it’s pretty formulaic from that point on.

Sure, it takes a little time, and there’s lots to do: Fonts? Check. Templates? Check. Style guide… Uh… I’ll get there.

Scared yet? Written me off yet? A brave new world full of paginators-by-necessity could be just around the corner. How much time do you think they’ll have to spend with a physical paper style guide? If they even want to…

Exactly.

Fact is, the simpler, the better. The less moving parts, the better. The more constancy, the better. And while you’re working on all that simplicity, just keep everyone in the loop.

Someday, I’ll dig up all those how-to e-mails I’ve written over the last couple of years and build some kind of über-style guide/instruction manual — probably online. More likely, I create a Facebook page and/or Twitter account to feed through tips and style points, cautionary design “tweets” maybe and such. “Watch out for pancaked layouts (insert twitpic of offending pages here)…”

Meanwhile, I have found the “piecemeal” style guide to be more practical — and efficient. Feels a bit like internal transparency, sprinkled with some common sense and prioritizing.

  1. Keep it simple: Don’t design 10 templates when three is really enough. You don’t want to completely discourage independent thought; you just want to equip the lowest common denominator with the tools for successful pagination.
  2. Assume people (designers, paginators, whathaveyou) understand basic points like “toppers go on top.” (Do you really need to explain this?)
  3. Equip designers/paginators with the basics (headline styles, spacing, font usage, etc.), then build from there.
  4. Explain the little things — directly on the template, if possible — so designers/paginators will see the instructions/examples every time they use that particular item. It follows logic: information delivered at the point you’re actually in need of it is clearly more useful. Buried in the middle of some book you shelved… somewhere…? Uh… no. Sure, eventually they’ll learn to ignore your note/example/whathaveyou. So move it around quarterly-ish, if you think that will help deter it from totally becoming “white noise.”
  5. When you change something, big or small: E-MAIL BLAST. (I advise collecting “small” things into a single e-mail blast.) Keep it simple. Keep it focused. If you find yourself rambling (but useful), consider putting a “short version” on top of your e-mail to ensure your basic point(s) get through to the less-engaged because — I promise you — they’re out there, and might even be the majority.

To be honest, I’ve never been given enough time to actually make a complete visual style guide. Came close once. Don’t think I’ll ever really get there.

I’ve been given one a couple of times. Know how much I actually referred to it? A few times for my first few weeks on the job; but, to be fair, it was my first page design job. Ever. Past that? Well… Let’s face it: Design is a evolution, and the minute you put out a definitive style guide is exactly when you’ll find a better way to do something — and then you’re stuck.

Not that I’m advocating for constant change. That’s just crazy talk. But keeping up with the visual needs of three daily newspapers just doesn’t offer me much opportunity for such things, so I have to make due and find other means of communicating with our designers/paginators, or at least save it for the big stuff.

Best redesign prep out there: Keep things simple, then tell everyone to take a chill pill and to expect bumps. Change is never easy, but it generally doesn’t need — or come with — a three-volume instruction manual, either.

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