True To Me Too: What does an editorial designer do?
Rumsey Taylor: At The New York Times I work on a team that’s close to 20 or so designers and some of them are devoted to products and some of them are devoted to news. I’m part of the group that’s devoted to news, which is to say when specific stories are published we design those on an ad hoc basis, that’s what I spend a lot of my time doing. I’ve worked on products before, but I spend most of my time on stories.
What do you do for these stories?
It depends. The way the process works is we receive an unedited draft of what’s going to be published and we start by reading that. I can’t speak for all the news designers there but I try to be as influenced as I can by the story. I try to come up with a way of expressing that story with design in a way that is appropriate to whatever is being reported or told. The design for each of these will vary based upon the tone or the direction of what that story is. We read through it and then we start discussing what sort of assets will be associated with that story: videos, photography, sometimes there’s an interactive component where we’ll pull in comments or responses from our readership. On my end I start producing static design compositions where I’m just sort of flushing out what this will look like with those assets and a developer might start building a staging site independently and then we get together close to the publish date with the producer, the editor, the writer, and it all comes together in the end. There’s maybe 6 or more people working on a specific story, not exactly independently but they all have specific roles, and the closer we get to publish all of those come together in a knot.
When did you become interested in this and how did you go about pursuing it?
As long as I’ve been a designer I’ve always been interested in publications. For me it’s an opportunity to work with type a lot. In school my concentration was in type design, so I’ve sort of entertained an interest in that ever since then. Since I was a teenager I’ve been writing for publications on and off so I have a familiarity with that process from an editorial side. It’s very frustrating when I read publications and I don’t think the design is great or there’s something compromising the legibility of something that is meant to be read. I have an interest in that because I want to have a hand in making something that is engaging for the reader. I’ve always been interested in The Times in particular because the journalism is great and they publish so much.
There’s this great quote by Tibor Kalman, he had a design studio in New York called M & Co., there’s a story about him that I’ll paraphrase where an assistant showed him something and Tibor looked at it and said “this is great but the font isn’t boring enough”. I always thought that was great advice because he’s implying that in order for something to be read the type has to be ignorable in a way where people can get straight to the part of what’s being communicated. It’s so easy to over design things and especially to go overboard with the type so that you’re creating an obstruction for the reader. I think the designers role in that sense is to remove those obstructions as clearly as possible and make the entry way into the experience of reading something as accessible as can be.
You mentioned you studied type design, what is the recommended or required educational background for an editorial designer is?
It’s hard for me to comment on that without sounding somewhat hypocritical. Although I do have a masters degree in design I don’t think that is absolutely necessary in scoring a professional gig in design of any sort. In my case I had to get extra education because where I went to college they didn’t offer that as a program, if they had done that I very likely would have studied that earlier. With what I do what really matters is published work. There’s a lot of designers that will sort of do speculative mockups of actual publications but it’s not realistic. I think what matters is doing something that is out there, instead of sending someone a link to your portfolio of images, sending a link to something that’s actually out there. In my case when I was starting out I wasn’t really an actual designer yet and I didn’t have an real work out there so I started making it on my own. When I look at other designers, work like that is very potent because it demonstrates you’re familiar working within a set of constraints, that you’re familiar with the technology behind something, instead of it being a superficial graphic design it has a utility behind it.
Should an editorial designer know how to do the coding and back end programming as well as the front end design?
I’m biased but I think it’s very important. I do acknowledge that not all designers will have that same preference, in fact there’s a lot of designers who don’t have that capability. In my case I am a decent front-end developer, which is to say I can create an HTML mockup with CSS styles, which is just a living version of a static design. It’s important because with interaction design you have to think of the flow of something or the fourth dimension, how you get from one page to the next, what the hover or visited link styles are like, page transitions, and so on. Designing something static is just like this one thing that’s just sort of frozen in time but when you think about the interactions, you think about the lifespan of something, the transition from one thing to the next, I think the developers role in all that is to invest a static design with life and the more experience a designer has with that the more depth they add in anticipating how something will look when a user is reading or interacting with it.
Do you think younger designers should be working on both front end and back end skills?
If they’re looking to work on the web it’s important to speak the language. Once you’re employed as a web designer you are going to be collaborating with producers and developers on a daily basis and the more you know about their roles and their job then the better you will be at creating work that is implementable. Without that knowledge there’s the risk that you’ll make something that risks being revised once it becomes developed because it’s not realistic. You’re sort of bullet-proofing your work. You know what’s realistic.
What makes a good editorial design portfolio? What are employers looking for?
This goes back to what I was saying about education where at a certain level I think the portfolio matters more. I think the education matters in that it shows that you’ve gone through that exercise and you have this breadth of knowledge but the portfolio is why you are going to be hired.
There are probably two things they should concentrate on. This is very hard for young designers but one thing is to demonstrate an aesthetic approach. I think that the aesthetic sort of comes after you’ve had years of practice behind you. An aesthetic is a visual signature or a consistency in the work. When designers with a strong aesthetic are hired I think the expectation is that that aesthetic will be consistent in what they continue to produce. The other thing is versatility. That is to demonstrate a capability to jump from medium to medium or aesthetic to aesthetic. To be competent to produce different types of design in different types of languages. That strength is appropriate for something like studio work where one month you’ll be working with one client who has a specific colour scheme or vernacular and a month after that you’ll be working on a completely different project that might have a very different aesthetic attached to it. That versatility is valuable. Those two things are fairly hard to find in a single designer and it’s harder for younger people to sort of realize what direction they might want to head in. It just takes experience and practice.
Coming out of school students will mostly fill their portfolios with assignments they’ve done in class, it’s not real work yet, and that’s fine but I do think that they should consider building and designing their own website that is a real thing. Even if they don’t have that experience yet just troubleshooting and giving it a shot, seeing if they can change the colour or typeface on their website. That stuff matters. The work that you put into your portfolio is one thing but the design of your portfolio itself is another opportunity to really demonstrate what you can do and what you want to do.
What were some of your first jobs out of school? Did you intern? How did you end up where you are now?
I spent a long time interning when I was in college. I tried many different things, I was an intern at an alt weekly and a film production company in Birmingham, Alabama. This was at a time where I didn’t really have any idea as to what I wanted to do. I interned at places that sounded like cool places to work. I wanted to see what that experience was like and I sort of had this naive thought that if I was a good enough intern they’d end up hiring me. After I went to grad school and had more experience as a designer I took the first job that I interviewed for. That was as a designer for a company that made applications for health insurance companies and it was not the best job I’ve had by any means. The silver lining was that it gave me experience working with developers for the first time and that’s something that’s carried over to every job that I’ve had since.
I come from the South and when I was in school I thought the prospect of getting a job as a designer was a fantasy and so the first job I was offered as a designer I thought was a miracle. To produce design work and get paid for it was amazing but that novelty wore off pretty quick. Between then and now I sort of toggled between working as an in-house designer with a specific company and working at a studio, which is a completely different thing. This is sort of what I was describing earlier where from week-to-week you’re jumping from project-to-project and you have to be versatility. I realized that I personally don’t like that work as much as being an in-house designer because you’re jumping from clients and there might be one project that has a style you’re very comfortable with and that comfort doesn’t really last because it’s going to change in a way where you have to adapt to something else constantly. I was more comfortable working with a specific house style and developing that and pushing that style.
What do you do in a typical day?
Every morning begins with a stand-up (meeting) that all of the designers attend. We go around the room and everybody talks about what they’re working on currently, if they need any support from anyone else, if anything is blocking them. It’s just sort of like a transparent overview of what everybody will be working on that day. With myself and the other editorial designers we tend to work on things independently. I’ll be working on a specific story and the designer sitting next to me will be working on a different one and we’ll talk to each other throughout the day just to get feedback on what we’re doing but for the most part we’re each devoted to the stories individually. The second half of the day we’ll usually have meetings with other people on that story and slowly but surely hash it out. I think the timeline for something that I work on tends to be anywhere between two weeks to six weeks, give or take. Once I’m towards the end of that timeframe for a specific story I’ll start to work on something else. So that means I’m very busy finishing up something else and not very busy sort of initiating the next thing that I’ll be doing
What’s the most stressful part of your job?
The most stressful part of what I do is deadlines. Before I started working at The Times I was working on things that if they weren’t finished before the launch date there would be some breathing room where we could push that back a few days or we could launch with the most complete version of what we set out to do. News operates on a different schedule because everything we do is to a large extent determined by the deadline in print. I’ll be working on a story and I’ll know that it’s going to be published in the next Sunday Edition so we have to finish it by Friday. We cannot wait until Monday to put that thing up. It has to go up a few days before. There have been times where I’m working on something and there are one or two things left to do but it has to get out the door and that’s stressful because anything that goes out there that I’ve touched or with my name on it I want it to be exactly what I set out to do and I want it to represent my intentions and my idea of what’s good design. There have been a few moments where because of the deadline we have to get it out and after it’s out we continue to modify it accordingly.
As stressful as they are it’s also exciting at times. By and far the most stressful job I’ve ever had in my life was working as a waiter. There were times where I was so busy with so many tables that I had no room in my brain to worry about anything else in my life, to be anxious about anything, or worry about anything outside of the work because I was absolutely focused on getting those tables covered. That mind state is applicable to the stressful aspects of what it’s like working at The Times. Where once that deadline is looming and you have X number of things left to do, for me personally it’s the opportunity to focus, I appreciate that behind me sometimes because it motivates good work on occasion.
How much do you take reader habits and trends into consideration when you’re designing? Do these types of analytics impact how you work?
When we work on long-form stories that have lots of media associated with it a traditional user habit is they’ll click on a link and see that the story is really long and the first thing that they’ll do is scroll down to the very bottom just to look at the photos, the slideshows, the videos, and not read any of it. If they’re engaged by any of that then they’ll go back to the top and start reading it. With that in mind you’ll notice that a lot of the things that we do the experience is designed in a way that the media is used throughout the page. It’s not just a big image at the top followed by 10,000 words of text. It’s an image at the top, then a few paragraphs, then a video, then a few paragraphs, then a slideshow, so that the page is dressed in such a way to sort of catch those users who will scroll through something without reading it and engage them so that they’ll be compelled to do so. That’s not based on analytics, that’s just sort of a strategy we employ because a lot of long-form journalism is sort of intimidating because of its length, we try to design it in a way so that it’s less intimidating.
Are there any projects that you’re particularly proud of?
I’m proud of a lot that I’ve done here because it’s the most public work that I’ve done. Having my name associated with anything at The Times is something I’m definitely proud of. I worked on a story last summer called Tomato Can Blues, which is probably the funnest thing that I worked on. It epitomizes what I was describing earlier where I’m working with developers, I’m working with graphics people, producers, and editors. It came together in a way that I feel we were all very satisfied with and we made something that is unique, which might not sound of note but The New York Times has a definite house style and I think the opportunities to push that style and create something unique is fun. That project used typefaces that you won’t see in another article throughout the site.
Do you have a dream project?
My dream project is to do some more print design. I manage a film publication, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, which started as a column I wrote for an alt-weekly ages ago but it’s been a website for the past 10 years. Just as a design exercise I’d like to take some of that content and publish it in print either as a tabloid type publication, size type publication, or a miniature book. My idea is vague but there’s a desire to make something that I can hold with my hands. The more work I do as a digital designer the more that desire grows. I would love to work with print again.
I came across your site when I was doing research on film critics, it was easily the best design film site I came across but I also really enjoyed the content and have been reading it ever since.
Thank you. That’s an example of what I was describing earlier where I had been writing movie reviews for my college newspaper and an alt-weekly in Tennessee and none of these places had websites. After I wrote something and people read it and maybe put it in the trash or whatever so the next week you couldn’t find it anywhere and that was frustrating to me. I liked the idea of having all my writing accessible in some fashion. I didn’t know anything about web design but I started making a website for all of that stuff to live indefinitely. That was the start of it, just my desire to make something.
Is there anything young designers get wrong when they’re starting out? Or is there anything you got wrong when you were starting out?
In my case I wasn’t discriminatory enough. I had no experience as a designer before I got my first job and sort of jumped into the opportunity without standing back and considering what I wanted to do or who I wanted to work with, I was just so excited to get a paycheck. I don’t know if other designers have that problem because there seems to be so many more jobs in that field now than when I started. I undervalued myself, I don’t know if young designers do that now but I think that if you want to do this that confidence can go a long way. Don’t undervalue yourself.
What are some places that require editorial design work that designers might not think about when applying for jobs?
I see quite a few things pop up every now and then with different publishers in New York. Conde Nast has a few openings from time to time, The Times in fact has lot’s of openings in digital design. I don’t know about Bloomberg Businessweek but they have fantastic editorial design. In my last job I worked with The Atlantic who is doing some very innovative work in the digital realm, they launched QUARTZ, a digital only publication, which is arguably one of the most innovatively designed publications to come around in a long while. If someone has a specific interest in working with editorial design or with publications in New York they’ll find that there’s quite a few opportunities here, they aren’t as rare as they might have been years ago.
Fortunately for web designers it’s not difficult to telecommute. I did a lot of freelance work and a lot of my clients were nowhere near me. I guess the difference is whether or not you want to work in-house or on a contract basis. If you’re open to contract work I don’t think that’s difficult to find either.
Do you have any final advice for people looking to get into editorial design?
(laughs) read. One of the reasons I like my job so much is because I have read The Times for a while before I ever applied for this gig. As a designer you will work on projects that you’re not so invested in sometimes, you might work for a publication you don’t read or on a product or a service that you wouldn’t ordinarily use. The opportunities to work on something that you use or read as a consumer are somewhat rare. If someone is interested in doing editorial design they should have a clear idea of what sort of publication they want to work with. Do they want to work with a monthly magazine? With a newspaper? Those are completely different things with unique voices. If you want to do this I think you should have an idea of what voice you’d like to contribute to.