Design For Readers: Is your ‘designer’ a designer?

A designer can tell you why the nameplate at top works … and why the one at bottom is awful.

By Ed Henninger

Ed Henninger

During a recent phone conversation with a publisher, she told me: “We have a designer who does that.”

I had seen her paper. She doesn’t have a designer.

What she has is a person who assembles pages. And there’s a difference. A person who assembles pages finds ways to make things fit. There’s no design involved. It’s just shoehorning stuff into holes and getting the paper done—sometimes on deadline.

So … how do you tell if your “designer” really is a designer? Here are some of the things I’d look for:

TREATS TEXT with respect, never going off the baseline grid and never tracking too tightly.

UNDERSTANDS that headline hierarchy is more than just size.

UNDERSTANDS and appreciates the value of deadlines…and meets them.

KNOWS WHAT a color wheel is…and how to use it.

MEASURES in picas and points…not inches.

USES THINNER rules when rules are called for in a design.

USES COLOR with a purpose, not whimsically.

KNOWS HOW to fill space when a story comes up short…without it ever looking like he/she has filled space.

NEVER WHINES about the space he/she is given to design in.

CAN EXPLAIN a page design or a design element to someone who really doesn’t understand design.

KNOWS what is meant by the term “optical center.”

UNDERSTANDS and appreciates the value of planning.

UNDERSTANDS and appreciates the value of visual elements.

UNDERSTANDS and appreciates the value of design consistency.

UNDERSTANDS and appreciates the value of negative space.

UNDERSTANDS and appreciates the value of deadlines—and meets them.

KNOWS HOW to get or prepare a chart.

KNOWS HOW to get or prepare a map.

KNOWS HOW to get or prepare a graphic.

KNOWS HOW to get or prepare an infobox or by-the-numbers box.

COMMUNICATES design approach clearly to others.

COMMUNICATES the value of design to those in other departments—especially circulation and advertising.

INSISTS on being involved in discussions of special reports and special sections.

UNDERSTANDS that great design is not the practice of putting more things into a page…but in taking things away.

WHEN ASKED about a design decision, never says:  “I don’t know…it just felt right.”

FOCUSES on the needs of readers. Always.

So…does your design staffer do these things? If so, you are blest. If not…

Ed Henninger is an independent newspaper consultant and director of Henninger Consulting, offering comprehensive newspaper design services including redesigns, workshops, design training and design evaluations. Visit or email