The Designers' Toolbox: Newsroom Experience
And Ideal Characteristics of Newspaper Designers
As newspapers continue to change in order to meet economic and
consumer demands, so too do the duties of people who work for them. This is
abundantly clear in the case of people who work on the visual aspects of the
newspaper -- those who do design, layout, graphics, display and pagination.
These "visual" employees go by a variety of titles, but they have become an
increasingly important, and integral, part of the newspaper staff. Largely
regarded as a reaction to the success of the highly visual USA Today, the
emphasis on visual elements has sparked a "design revolution" Utt and Pasternack
Little is known, however, about the journalists in charge of
designing the nation's newspapers. As design has been taking on greater
importance in recent years, research examining designers and characteristics of
successful designers deserves attention.
The present study is based on survey responses from a random sample
of daily newspapers editors about the person who typically designs their Page 1
and about the editors' attitudes regarding the characteristics necessary for a
successful page designer to possess. Three areas are addressed here.
First, we asked editors the years of experience that their normal
Page 1 designer has. The designers' experience was compared with the work
experience of the newspapers' copy desk chiefs and their typical copy editor.
Thus, we were interested in examining whether newspapers are utilizing
journalists who are inexperienced relative to other news desk employees, or if
Page 1 designers are seasoned newsroom veterans who, through their experience,
have earned the important job of deciding how to display the day's news.
Second, and more pertinent to mass communication educators, is the
question of what characteristics newspaper editors look for in their page
designers. Do page designers need to know basic newsroom operation skills, such
as grammar and style? Or do page designers need to have complex and advanced
expertise in such areas as computer pagination systems?
Third, we examined whether the designers' experience levels and the
editors' priorities differed across circulation groups. Newspapers with smaller
circulations, and correspondingly fewer resources, likely will differ from
larger papers in these two areas.
Designing newspaper pages is an important, but overlooked, job in the
nation's newsrooms. Garcia (1993) notes that design, along with writing and
editing, is one of the three basic duties in the "WED" newsroom operation.
Moreover, it is the designers' job to "make the page pleasing to the eye, and
thus entice the reader to sample the editorial product" (Barnhurst, 1991, p.
In addition, how stories are packaged can give readers important cues
as to the relative importance of certain issues (Wanta, 1988). Visuals also
attract readers to an accompanying story (Baxter, Quarles and Kosak, 1978) and
away from unrelated stories (Wanta and Roark, 1994).
Understanding who these page designers are and their required skills,
then, may provide insight into an integral part of the newspaper industry.
Studies of newspaper design are limited, but those that exist have
focused on the nature of design, how design has changed, and who designers are.
In her study of design desks, for example, Auman (1994) noted that
"[d]esign desks are at the heart of an industry in great flux. ...There are no
well-marked road maps for [newspaper] managers to follow..." (p. 128). This flux
may be most evident in the various terms used to describe those who work on the
visual elements of the newspaper; they are variously called page designers,
editors/directors, layout editors, artists, art directors, display
designers/editors, and the like. Auman defined the design desk as "one or more
people who design pages exclusively as a small department separate from other
desks that gather the news and edit copy," and included layout, presentation and
display desks in her description.
Miller (1992), meanwhile, described design as "the integration of
verbal and visual elements into a coherent whole." He suggested that design
offers a "new way to think about news and the people we are trying to sell it
to. Design can help by forcing us to consider the nature of the information we
are gathering, the audiences for it, and an appropriate means of presenting it
Given that the 1991 Poynter Institute "Eyes on the News" survey found
that readers processed 80 percent of the artwork and 75 percent of the
photographs in newspapers (Garcia and Stark, 1991, p. 70), the burgeoning
interest in design appears well-founded. The Society of Newspaper Designers'
membership roster also speaks to the increased emphasis on design: from 22
people in 1979, the rolls swelled to more than 2,000 by 1987 (Utt and
Pasternack, 1989) to more than 2,500 in 1996.
In a survey of 109 Associated Press Managing Editors, Auman (1994)
found that design desks were implemented as part of a reorganization both to
attract and keep readers in light of stagnating circulation, and to "make
editors, reporters, designers and photographers more effective and to
effectively use all available tools to tell stories." More than three-quarters
of the respondents said design desks improved coordination among staff and
improved the look of their paper.
Utt and Pasternack (1989) suggested the design revolution occurred
because of a combination of reasons: new technologies for creating graphics
became widely available, and the advent of USA Today sparked a greater concern
about appearance. Barnhurst and Nerone (1991) suggested that cultural changes
from the Victorian style to modernism (which emphasized order and simplicity),
competition with other media, and increased attention to issues of journalistic
professionalism helped to focus attention on design. Moreover, they argued, the
"window on the world" metaphor that is often invoked to describe the press
Such visuality has clearly impacted the look of newspapers. In their
survey of 93 daily newspaper editors, Utt and Pasternack (1989) found that
nearly 50 percent used USA Today for design ideas, and 90 percent believed
newspaper appearance was crucial in a competitive market. In addition, 57
percent of editors said they used front-page color in 1989, as opposed to 35
percent in 1983.
One study of design trends in newspaper front pages from 1895 to 1985
showed that while illustrations accompanied stories 5.7 percent of the time in
1895, by 1985 that had increased to 21.5 percent (Barnhurst and Nerone, 1991).
Furthermore, the number of column and lines per column decreased, as did average
headline size (although the width of headlines increased), leading to a more
tidier, less dense front page. Kenney and Lacy (1987) found that graphics and
photos comprised 27 percent of the newspapers' total front page area.
As newspaper design has changed, so have designers' responsibilities,
although their authority within the newsroom is not always clear. In a survey
of large daily newspapers, Hilliard (1989) found that the authority ascribed to
people holding positions equivalent to graphics editor or graphics director was
generally about that of news editors, and slightly less than city editors, in 35
percent of the responses. More than half the respondents said the graphics
editor did not hold veto power over the news editor, but more than
three-quarters said that decisions about whether text or graphics would be the
primary means of presenting information were shared between the graphics editors
and the copy or news editor. A similar survey showed that 43 percent of
graphics managers wielded "a great deal of influence" in editorial decisions
(Gentry and Zang, 1989, p. 90).
While the newsroom authority of designers varies, design elements are
still sometimes likened to "fluff" and derided as "not news." Nokes (1993), for
example, suggested that color should complement, not overwhelm, the news, noting
that "It was a sad day when designers entered the newsroom" (p. 7).
Fitzgerald (1985) observed that while 95 percent of graphics
department managers and editors said the look of the paper is very important
(according to a Society of Newspaper Design survey), editors believed graphics
staff members were unfamiliar with what comprises news. And, according to the
editor of the London (Ontario) Free Press, "Designers, when totally disconnected
from the process, tend to forget that what we're publishing is useful
information" (in Auman, 1994, p. 139). Nonetheless, Auman (1994) found that 95
percent of design desks were created after 1985 -- 54 percent in 1991-1992 -- so
it appears that designers are here to stay.
As designers have become more integrated into the newsroom, the
skills they need have evolved. A survey of graphics editors found that most had
commercial art backgrounds, while a few were photographers, reporters or editors
who had crossed over into design (Hilliard, 1989). Another survey conducted the
same year found that 54 percent of graphics editors were former photographers or
photography editors, while 21 percent were former artists or art directors and
17 percent came from copy editing backgrounds (Gentry and Zang, 1989). Further,
most had held their position as graphics editor for less than three years
(Gentry and Zang, 1989).
A 1993 survey of graphics editors found that about one-third came
from art backgrounds, one-third from news/journalism backgrounds, and one-third
from art/journalism or other fields (Utt and Pasternack, 1993). Auman (1994)
found that designers had acquired a variety of experiences before taking on
design, including copy editing, editing with layout, reporting, and graphic
artist. Moreover, survey respondents (Associated Press Managing Editors
members) said that would-be designers needed both layout/design and news
judgment skills to succeed. A recent survey of integrated editors (those who
work on both the written and visual parts of the newspaper) found that 61
percent came from copy editing and reporting backgrounds; others had experience
with page layout as sports or features editors, or were former photographers or
designers (Auman, 1995).
Indeed, designers' duties are increasing in scope and responsibility,
indicating that the skills needed to thrive in a visually oriented job are
changing. Russial (1995) found that nearly 50 percent of Editor & Publisher
classified advertisements seeking editors in 1993 mentioned page design and
layout skills, and more than 30 percent mentioned desktop publishing and
According to Gentry and Zang (1989), editors at large, metropolitan
dailies look for designers who have gained skills in college and university
programs (38 percent) and through internships and on-the-job training (40
percent). Auman (1994) found that designers spent half their time designing and
dummying pages, 15 percent on pagination, and five to ten percent on each of
writing, head/cut lines, creating infographics, photo editing, and coordinating
people/elements in a story or project on a page. Managerial experience, as well
as an ability to see the "big picture," was also cited as an important skill
Clearly, the visual components of newspapers continue to change, as
do the skills required of potential employees. As emphasis on visual elements
continues to progress, a better picture of who designers are and what they do is
needed. Such information is important not only for tracking the newspaper
industry's continued changes, but also for a deeper understanding of the trends
that drive those changes. Therefore, this study attempts to answer the following
1) How much newsroom experience do the nation's page designers
possess, and how does this experience compare to other newsroom employees?
2) What are the characteristics that editors look for in page
A mail survey, involving a random sample of 400 national daily
newspapers, was conducted in February 1994. Newspapers and addresses were
randomly selected from the 1994 Editor and Publisher International Yearbook.
The questionnaire was addressed to the managing editor -- or the equivalent
editor if a managing editor was not listed -- at each of the 400 newspapers. A
reminder postcard was sent to newspapers two weeks after the initial mailing.
Four weeks after the initial mailing, a follow-up letter and another copy of the
questionnaire were sent to those newspapers that had not responded.
A total of 227 newspapers responded, for a 57 percent response rate,
an acceptable rate, according to Babbie (1973). An analysis revealed that the
circulations of the newspapers that returned surveys corresponded closely to the
overall circulation categories of U.S. dailies as reported in the 1994 Editor &
The questionnaire dealt with several aspects of newsroom operations.
Included were several questions that asked editors about the person currently
designing their front page and their attitudes regarding the characteristics
necessary for their page designers to possess.
Editors were first asked "Approximately how many years of full-time
newspaper experience does your usual Page 1 designer have?" This response was
compared to the similar questions about the experience levels of the newspapers'
copy desk chief and a typical copy editor. The years of experience editors
reported for their copy desk chief was subtracted from the years of experience
reported for their Page 1 designer. This produced a "design/copy chief"
difference score. Similarly, the years of experience for a typical copy editor
was subtracted from the experience for the Page 1 designer. This resulted in a
"design/copy editor" difference score.
Editors were then asked how important the following skills and
backgrounds were for the newspapers' Page 1 designer: general knowledge of
grammar and writing skills, general knowledge of page design techniques, liberal
arts education, experience with page pagination software, solid sense of news
judgment, advanced technical knowledge of computers, and appreciation of the
history of the newspaper industry. The order of the items was randomly
determined. Response categories were extremely important, very important,
somewhat important, a little important or not at all important.
These survey items, then, ranged from general education background
(liberal arts education, appreciation of the history of the newspaper industry),
to technical qualifications (advanced technical knowledge of computers,
experience with page pagination software), to general newsroom skills (grammar
and writing skills, solid sense of news judgment, general knowledge of page
Responding newspapers were grouped into three circulation groups:
large, or newspapers with circulation of more than 45,000; medium, or newspapers
with circulations of between 10,000 and 44,000, and small, or newspapers with
circulations less than 10,000. Approximately 32 percent of the newspapers were
grouped in the large newspaper category, 38 percent in the mid-size newspaper
category and 30 percent in the small newspaper category.
Analysis of variance tests examined if the three circulation groups
differed on any of the above items.
Table 1 lists the means and ANOVA results comparing responses from
the three circulation groups on the experience levels of copy desk employees.
Generally, the Page 1 designers had more experience than a typical copy editor.
According to the designer/typical copy editor difference scores, the years of
difference ranged from 2.80 at small papers to 3.90 at large papers and 4.10 at
mid-size papers. Copy desk chiefs, however, had slightly more experience than
Page 1 designers at both the medium (0.99 years) and large papers (1.57), but
not at smaller papers, where designers had 0.60 years of experience more than
the copy desk chief.
None of the differences across the three circulation groups were
statistically significant. The mean years of experience for Page 1 designers
was 13.10 for larger papers, 11.72 at medium-sized papers and 12.02 at small
papers, producing an F-score of 0.79 (p<.05). The differences in years of
experience between the Page 1 designers and copy desk chiefs and between the
Page 1 designers and typical copy editors also were not significant across
Table 2 shows the means and the ANOVA results comparing responses
from the three circulation groups on the characteristics editors think are
important for a page designer to possess. The rankings of these characteristics
were remarkably similar across circulation groups.
All newspaper groups ranked solid news judgment as the number one
characteristic they look for in their page designers. The only difference
between newspaper circulation groups, in fact, involved smaller papers, which
ranked knowledge of grammar and style second and knowledge of page design
techniques third. Medium and large papers had the rankings reversed for these
Ranking fourth for all newspapers was experience with pagination
systems, followed by liberal arts education (fifth) and knowledge of complex
computer software (sixth). Appreciation of newspaper history was ranked last by
all three newspaper circulation groups.
In general, then, newspaper editors ranked general newsroom skills
ahead of technical qualifications and far ahead of general education background.
While the rankings of these characteristics were nearly identical
across newspaper circulation groups, the differences in the mean ratings of
several items reached the p < .05 level of statistical significance.
First, knowledge of page design techniques was rated more important
at larger papers than at medium and smaller papers (F = 8.49, p = .000).
Second, experience with page pagination systems was more important at larger
papers than at smaller papers (F = 5.56, p = .004). Third, an appreciation of
newspaper history was most important at large papers and least important at
smaller papers (F = 4.78, p = .009). Finally, a solid sense of news judgment
was more important at medium-sized papers and less important at smaller papers
(F = 3.01, p = .05).
Knowledge of grammar and style barely missed statistical significance
(F = 2.85, p=.06). Liberal arts education and knowledge of complex computer
software also did not reach statistical significance.
The purpose of this study was two-fold. First, we asked newspaper
editors how many years of experience their Page 1 designers had and compared
this level of experience with both the copy desk chiefs and a typical copy
editor at their papers. Second, we asked editors their attitudes on the
characteristics that are necessary for page designers to be successful at their
The findings here show that editors' responses were remarkably
similar across newspapers of different circulation sizes in their assessments of
the characteristics necessary for page designers. According to our results,
general newsroom skills, such as possessing a solid news judgment, knowledge of
page design techniques and knowledge of grammar/style, were most important for a
page designer to be successful. Technical qualifications, such as knowledge of
complex computer software and experience with pagination systems, were somewhat
less important. General education background, such as an appreciation of
newspaper history and a liberal arts education, was least important.
Experience levels of the newspapers' Page 1 designers also showed
little difference across circulation groups. Editors in our survey generally
reported that their page designers had substantial amounts of newsroom
experience -- between 11.72 years at mid-sized papers to 12.02 at small papers
and 13.10 at large papers. Designers' experience levels, in fact, were
comparable to the experience levels of the newspapers' copy desks chiefs (which
ranged form 11.66 years at small papers to 14.67 at large papers) and was
substantially higher than the years of experience for the newspapers' typical
copy editor (which ranged from 7.32 years at mid-sized papers to 9.02 at small
It appears, then, that seasoned journalists are entrusted with the
important responsibility of designing Page 1. Newspapers apparently value
experience in their page designers, so much so that the experience levels of the
newspapers' designers are very similar to the experience levels of the papers'
copy desk chiefs. In other words, the experience levels of the person in charge
of visuals are comparable to the experience levels of the person in charge of
texts. This suggests that newspapers view the job of Page 1 designer as a
managerial position similar to the copy desk chief. Indeed, the designer and
copy desk chief may be the same person at some newspapers. Newspapers,
therefore, apparently value experience in their page designer.
The lack of any discernible difference in years of experience for
page designers across circulation groups, meanwhile, was surprising.
Originally, we expected that page designers at smaller papers, which are more
likely to hire entry-level journalists directly out of universities, would be
less experienced than their counterparts at larger papers. This was not the
The lack of differences here might be due to the nature of the
designer position at smaller papers. In many cases at smaller papers, the Page
1 designer is also the copy desk chief. This person also might be the only copy
editor. This person, then, could be an "integrated editor" (Auman, 1995) by
necessity, and thus may have compressed the differences between the years of
experience for designers, copy desk chiefs and typical copy editors examined
Indeed, the results of the characteristics important for designers to
possess lend additional support to this notion. Grammar and style knowledge
ranked higher than knowledge of general page design techniques at smaller
newspapers. Editing skills, then, are more important than design knowledge here
because page designers at smaller papers may do more editing of copy than page
designing -- and certainly more copy editing than designers at large papers do.
The more specialized position of page designer at larger papers also
may explain some of the differences in the editors' ratings of important page
designer characteristics. Knowledge of page design techniques, for example, was
more important at larger papers and less important at smaller papers. Many
larger papers have design desks, where journalists' sole responsibility is
designing pages. Many smaller papers, with fewer employees, cannot afford the
luxury of a design desk. Therefore, journalists at smaller papers have
responsibilities other than design. At smaller papers, journalists may design
pages, write headlines and edit stories. Thus, at smaller papers, design
knowledge is but one characteristic that an editor would expect their designers
Experience with page pagination systems was a lower priority with
smaller papers, again perhaps because of the specialization of skills expected
at larger papers. Larger papers are more likely to have pagination systems in
operation. Thus, if they hire an employee to do page design, the larger papers
would expect the employee to know how to operate the software. Experience with
pagination systems was less critical for smaller papers since fewer of these
papers utilize these computer systems.
Appreciation of newspaper history was most important at large papers
and least important at medium papers. Perhaps larger papers, which typically
hire their employees away from other newspapers, expect their employees to
appreciate the industry more than editors at smaller papers would. With
experience at more newspapers, page designers at larger papers might be expected
to better appreciate their roots in the industry. Editors also may equate
history with an advanced understanding of the business of journalism, which
again may be perceived to be more important at larger papers.
Finally, a solid sense of news judgment was most important at medium
papers and less important at smaller papers. One plausible explanation might be
that medium-size papers offer more autonomy to their employees. On the one
hand, larger papers have more bureaucracy in the newsroom and thus, news
judgment decisions are taken out of the hands of the designer and placed inside
the management bureaucracy. High-level editors at smaller papers, on the other
hand, might take ultimate responsibility for the selection of stories for Page
1. Editors here may decide what they want on their front pages, again taking
this responsibility out of the hands of the page designer. Thus, Page 1
designers at mid-size papers may be more likely to have ultimate responsibility
for the entire output of Page 1, or more responsibility than designers at either
smaller or larger papers.
Overall, however, it should be noted that the rankings of
characteristics were nearly identical across circulation groups. Thus, the
results here point only to differences in degree. For example, while editors at
larger papers felt appreciation of newspaper history was more important than
editors at small and medium papers did, this characteristic nonetheless was
ranked last by larger papers as well as medium and small. It was ranked the
lowest priority for large papers, but it was rated higher at larger papers than
at medium and small papers. Similarly, a solid sense of news judgment was
ranked first by all newspaper circulation groups, but was rated higher by the
medium papers than by the larger and smaller papers.
The results here, then, demonstrate strikingly similar results across
all of the questions in our survey. Page designers had similar levels of
experience at large, medium and small papers, and had similar levels of
experience in comparison to copy desk chiefs and the typical copy editors. The
large, medium and small papers also ranked very similarly the characteristics
that are important for page designers to possess. The only statistically
significant differences found here deal with ratings of how important these
characteristics are. Larger papers typically rated knowledge unique to page
design -- such as design techniques and pagination experience -- higher than
other newspapers. Smaller papers typically rated general newspaper knowledge --
such as solid news judgment -- higher.
The results here, then, give mixed messages about the direction
journalism education should take in preparing students for jobs in design. News
judgment, while addressed in many journalism classes, generally comes from
experience in the newsroom, not from lectures in a classroom. Yet editors
ranked solid sense of news judgment as the most important characteristics that
page designers need to possess. Newspaper history and liberal arts education,
areas that traditionally have been addressed in the classroom, are much less
important for newspaper editors, according to the results of this survey.
In addition, while the editors in our survey ranked knowledge of
complex computer software and experience with pagination systems relatively low,
they continue to require these types of skills in their new hires (see Russial,
1995). Thus, what editors say are important characteristics of designers and
what they ultimately look for in their employees are two different things.
As page design continues to increase in importance in the nation's
newsrooms, further examinations of the journalists responsible for this
important job are essential. In addition, future research should investigate
whether university programs are responding to the increased emphasis on design
by incorporating classes that deal with visual aspects of the newspaper -- from
design to graphics and visual communication.
Page design is crucial in attracting readers to a newspaper's
contents. The role the designer plays in the overall operation of the nation's
newsrooms, then, appears to be a fruitful area for future research.
Table 1. Means and Analysis of Variance results for the three
newspaper circulation groups on years of experience of copy desk employees.
Small Medium Large F- P-
Page 1 designer 12.02 11.72 13.10 0.79 .45
Copy desk chief 11.66 12.28 14.67 2.20 .11
Typical copy editor 9.02 7.32 8.77 1.37 .26
Difference in years of 0.60 -0.99 -1.57 0.93 .40
designer and copy desk
Difference in years of 2.80 4.10 3.90 0.53 .59
designer and typical
Table 2. Means, rankings and Analysis of Variance results for the
three newspaper circulation groups on the characteristics that editors would be
looking for in their page designers. (N=227)
Small Medium Large F- P-
Solid sense of 4.63 4.84 4.75 3.01 .05
news judgment # 1 # 1 # 1
Knowledge of 4.34 4.58 4.74 8.49 .000
page design # 3 # 2 # 2
Knowledge of 4.61 4.56 4.36 2.85 .06
grammar/style # 2 # 3 # 3
Experience with 3.25 3.85 3.88 5.56 .004
pagination # 4 # 4 # 4
Liberal arts 3.18 3.36 3.45 1.06 .35
education # 5 # 5 # 5
Knowledge of 3.07 2.99 3.22 1.20 .30
complex computer # 6 # 6 # 6
Appreciation of 2.81 2.68 3.18 4.78 .009
newspaper history # 7 # 7 # 7
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The Designers' Toolbox: Newsroom Experience
And Ideal Characteristics of Newspaper Designers
By Wayne Wanta
School of Journalism and Communication
1275 University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403-1275
email: [log in to unmask]
** Paper submitted for consideration of presentation at the annual
convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass
Communication, Anaheim, Calif.
** Wanta is an associate professor and Danner a Ph.D. student in the
School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon.
The Designers' Toolbox: Newsroom Experience
And Ideal Characteristics of Newspaper Designers
A survey of newspaper editors revealed that the experience levels for
Page 1 designers were very similar to that of copy desk chiefs and substantially
higher than that of a typical copy editor. Editors also felt that page
designers needed to possess general newsroom skills, such as possessing solid
news judgment, knowledge of design techniques and knowledge of grammar/style.
Technical qualifications, such as computer skills, were somewhat less important.
General education background was least important.