Not-So-Special Section: Rethinking an Election Guide
Work on a daily page design desk long enough and you’ll long for the sweet embrace of a special section. Where your daily pages are all function, special sections often allow for more form and artistry. For me in 2014, I guess that meant making the cover of an election preview tab look like a Christmas present. Elections are a gift of democratic societies, right? Yeah, that totally tracks.
The assignment here was pretty straightforward — to design a special section for a weekly newspaper that would serve as a guide for readers and voters as they headed to the polls for the 2014 primary elections. I have utterly no recollection of the inside pages, but I do remember spending really quite a silly amount of time designing multiple options before settling on one. There was no content to fit on the cover; only promo copy, a main headline and a few other bits of text were required.
With all that freedom, surely I used the opportunity to showcase my considerable writing and design talent? Obviously. See for yourself.
This cover does have a few things going for it. It’s simple, which is usually good, and the color scheme is appropriate for election coverage, as is the star pattern. But, eesh, it’s pretty much the opposite of elegant. I feel like just a white page with the blue box in the middle would have been at least 50 percent better. What were the other finalists, you ask?
The one I chose is probably the most appropriate of the three. Design is all about trying things out and seeing what works, and these two alternates really don’t work. Also, like, they’re all just variations on a theme, which is pretty lazy, I can admit. At least my design was something we reused for the next election, right? Nope. The fall general section had a similar but different design.
I guess a computer-generated flag image with a very poorly applied drop shadow is better? One thing’s for sure, it was faster, and sometimes that’s the point.
Some Ground Rules
I’m not going to constrain myself to the old publication size, within reason. If it’s a broadsheet page, it’ll remain a broadsheet; and a tab will stay a tab. But for the purpose of this exercise, it’s not helpful to stick exactly within the size restrictions of a press that no longer is in operation anyway.
All these pages have to be realistic within the realm of a newspaper. There are tons and tons of things you can do in graphic design generally that you would have a hard time getting past an editor at a newspaper. That said, I’m going to be at least 50 percent more daring than I could ever have been in a newsroom setting. This is supposed to be fun, dammit.
I generally will keep the purpose of the page. In this first example, there’s no content, but future pages will have actual stories on them in their original form. Not every page can be a poster or a cover, so the functionality of the original page needs to be carried over to a reasonable degree (again, some imaginary section editor would need to allow it).
Making Better Choices
Nothing on those original pages was really wrong, but even it could have been better, and with five more years of work experience, I can do better.
For this updated version, I’ve taken my inspiration from the functional design of things like government documents. Within the functional design, I find lots of minimalist, utilitarian design in which nothing is superfluous or just for looks — well, almost nothing.
The first thing I designed on this page was the little bug in the upper left, and everything flowed from that. It’s sort of reminiscent of the hamburger-style menus on mobile apps, but it also feels like something you could find on an IRS form. That shape is repeated in the bottom left and scaled up for the main titles.
Because this still needs to work as a newspaper’s special section cover, the reader still understands exactly what they’re seeing and how to read it, but there are no actual sentences on the entire page. I stripped the original down to its most essential elements and took only those to the new version.
A couple of rustic fonts (Bronson Rough and Westmoreland) and some textures create a worn look of a souvenir newspaper page that’s been kept for decades, which obviously makes no real-world sense, but it looks cool, and sometimes that’s OK. This page is also shorter by a few inches so that the proportions work without needing to make the main headline cartoonishly large.
Finally, a more historically appropriate blue-and-red color scheme is introduced, even though this publication is from the future (and from my imagination).
Side-by-side, you can see that the second page functions really exactly the same but without less junk and visual nonsense.