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March 3, 2012 / Gina D.

Print to Web: A personal transformation, Part 1

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I’ve always considered myself unconventional. It’s done nothing for my popularity, but then again, I’ve never been popular. Thank God.

As a designer, examples of those unconventional characteristics eventually manifested themselves in fairly concrete ways:

  • Not using any Apple products whatsoever to execute solid — and occasionally extraordinary — design.
  • Referring to content organization — namely, breakouts — as “graphics.” Because there was way more to it than just throwing text into a separate box.
  • Transforming Google Maps for use in print, and creating a process for, essentially, mass production of said maps — all on PCs using coding-based design.
  • Using that coding-based design alone — no Adobe Illustrator required — to create bar charts.

Those things seemed fairly unremarkable to me while they were happening. They were processes I saw simply as necessary, mainly for efficiency; they allowed me not to sacrifice good design for circumstances that were well beyond my control anyway. Eventually, though, I came to see them as a baseline for change.

In the year leading up to SND Denver, I was among those who became intrigued by the drama we saw unfolding in the ranks of the SND. In the end, I’d just call it growing pains. But at the time, the clearest message was only that the news design community was changing, possibly even dividing.

I read. I followed. And then, I spoke up.

The organization was an advocate for the professional path I had chosen early on in my career, but I hadn’t been a dues-paying member for most of those years because I often felt they didn’t represent me at all. And the debates — heated at times — seemed, to me, to be in denial of what had been a reality of mine for years at that point: consolidated design desks.

Instead, there was much too much focus on the supposition that the consolidation of design desks translated into the death of print design.

At the time, I felt I was proof that this didn’t have to be the case, and I felt compelled to say so. Over and over again.

I tried to explain that I had been living — for years — the transformations they were fearing, fighting and dreading. It was difficult, yes; but not impossible. The opportunity for good design was still absolutely within reach, I said, just maybe not as easily or as often. Through the uncertainty and anxiety all in the industry were feeling — our company longer than most and arguably more acutely — I was trying to mentor a group of people from an office 50ish miles away from them that may as well have been on the moon — to do merely good work while secretly hoping for great work.

And at some point, my virtual interaction with past, then-present and would-be SND leadership, some of its more outspoken and well-known membership, and even a few of its trolls, evolved into real opportunities: Eventually, the SND Foundation granted me — free of charge — full access to SND Denver, including its high-demand, limited-entry web design workshop taught by innovative minds behind nytimes.com and NPR.orgIt wasn’t the first time I had been given such a remarkable opportunity, but it was definitely a turning point for me.

I came back re-energized, armed with a toolkit for the future. But my daily responsibilities were demanding my focus remain on the past.

It was a struggle, every day. And every day, it got a little bit harder.

I fought the good fight, though. I built lots of templates to help paginators masquerade as designers, and I even got a few of them to use them. I zeroed in on anyone I detected had a spark of passion, and tried to do my part to shield it from becoming completely extinguished.

In then end, I lost them all. A couple of them went on to better things, pursuing their passions for family and education. Another was, in essence, traded to a team beyond my grasp.

I tried to seek out new sparks, but in trying to make up for the design abilities I wasn’t finding in others, I soon realized my own spark was dying. In doing so, I created a demand I couldn’t possibly live up to, which eventually boxed me into ridiculous deadlines that made me see the few great design projects I managed to do on my own as too hastily compiled to be any good, especially at the SND level.

This led to me to the realization that my job as Design Editor was nearing its conclusion. I even said the words “We don’t really need a design editor anymore” several times to a senior editor. It appeared I was talking my bosses into laying me off. It wasn’t the outcome I wanted, but I think I was attempting to mentally gird myself for that eventuality. I even looked for jobs, thinking maybe I could beat them to the punch. I sent my resume out at least a dozen times, all for positions outside of journalism. I even got a couple of interviews, but nothing took.

In truth, I’m sure my heart wasn’t in it. And despite the pleas of former coworkers, ones who knew I had a history of being the last to leave a place that deserved to be left… I wasn’t ready to leave newspapers.

And then, as if by magic — because it certainly wasn’t of my own doing — I was recruited. Big time.

Continue to Part 2

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