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June 2012

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Design Evolution: Adapting in an Ever-Changing Industry

Heart Health Graphic
Peter Hemmel, BJ '92, illustrates new advancements on medications and alternative treatments that help reduce your heart risks in the February Heart Health Package. He worked with his photo team, prop stylist Philip Shubin and photographer Dan Saelinger to illustrate this idea. Graphic courtesy of Prevention.

As Trends Surface and New Technologies Emerge, Alumni Build on the Basic Principles of Design Learned at the School

By Caitlin Bandel
Strategic Communication Student

Spaceport America, the world's first commercial spaceport, would eventually launch customers into space from the New Mexico desert - or at least that was the idea. As design director for the Albuquerque Journal, Rachel Conger, BJ '96, faced the challenge of presenting the concept in print and on the Web.

Story Links

"All of the basic elements are things that I learned at Mizzou in my design classes and through my work at the Columbia Missourian," Conger says. "I carry them with me no matter what job I've found myself in because they translate."

Rachel Conger, BJ '96
Rachel Conger, BJ '96, designs layouts in her office after sketching story ideas during the Albuquerque Journal morning budget meeting. Photo courtesy of Rachel Conger.

The design industry continually changes to reflect culture and trends, while adapting to the newest technologies. Designers are pushed to evolve in their work. Four alumni share how they stay current in an ever-changing field by relying on the core skills they learned at the Missouri School of Journalism.

The Role of a Designer

Conger faced a blank page. Because the spaceport was a new concept, it lacked graphics, photographs and an established cultural understanding. There were so many unknowns. How could she present something that the world had never heard of? How much background information should be included? She knew she had to create a design that connected the spaceport's significance with the building progress in New Mexico.

Spaceport America
At the Albuquerque Journal, Rachel Conger, BJ '96, uses reverse typography and visual illustrations to simplify a complex story about the future of Spaceport America. Graphic by Cathryn Cunningham and Rachel Conger, courtesy of The Albuquerque Journal.

"We just wanted to get as much of the information on the page as clearly and concisely as possible," Conger says. "We wanted the design to look just as snazzy to capture the whole idea of shooting citizens into the sky just for fun."

Rachel Conger, BJ '96
Design Director Rachel Conger, BJ '96, works closely with the editors, photographers, reporters and graphic artists to design pages at the Albuquerque Journal in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Rachel Conger.

Conger researched this new idea before developing her early sketches. Associate Professor Jan Colbert had taught that content-driven design should reflect and complement its story. Design is not merely aesthetics; design is content.

"A person who doesn't understand the content can't design it, they can only echo it," Colbert says. "One must be able to explain the connection between the design and the content."

The Genesis of Design

Peter Hemmel, BJ '92, creative director at Prevention magazine, always looks to the story for design inspiration, just as Colbert taught him. For a recent story, Hemmel, in collaboration with his photo team, a prop stylist and a photographer, took on the task of designing a story on two approaches to medical treatments. Hemmel simplified a complex topic using two heart illustrations. One heart composed of aspirin pills represented medical advancements, while a heart made up of acupuncture needles symbolized alternative treatments.

Peter Hemmel, BJ '92
Peter Hemmel, BJ '92, meets with the editor-in-chief to approve all concepts for an issue and carries many other responsibilities as the creative director at Prevention. Photo courtesy of Peter Hemmel.

"My relationship with my design and photo teams coupled with our relationships with the editorial team and, of course, our editor in chief are essential to get the visual storytelling right," Hemmel says. "We are acutely aware of how our design and concepts are viewed outside of our personal bull pen."

Heart Health Graphic
Peter Hemmel illustrates new advancements on medications and alternative treatments that help reduce your heart risks in the February Heart Health Package. He worked with his photo team, prop stylist Philip Shubin and photographer Dan Saelinger to illustrate this idea. Graphic courtesy of Prevention.

Hemmel says that the staff at Prevention considers the possibility that a great idea in theory might not always translate to the intended audience. Thus, it is imperative that design be an essential part of the planning process.

Chris Spurlock, BJ '11, approaches design much like Hemmel. As an information data specialist at The Huffington Post, Spurlock develops infographics for digital platforms that allow readers to quickly grasp complicated facts. The data are a part of the bigger news design package but remain a critical element in many of the articles reported at The Huffington Post.

"I just try to make sure what I am doing is going to stay within the context of what they are already planning for the story," Spurlock says.

Chris Spurlock, BJ '11
The Huffington Post's Data Information Specialist Chris Spurlock, BJ '11, interprets complex data and tries to design it in a way that readers can understand. Photo courtesy of Chris Spurlock.

When he designs, he knows he is successful when the reader reacts to the article before noticing the design.

Top 10 Challenged Books
In the interactive display chart of the Top 10 Challenged Books in 2010 readers can click on the books to read excerpts and reasons for the ban challenge. Chris Spurlock, BJ 11, worked with the book editor at The Huffington Post on the graphic. Graphic by Chris Spurlock, courtesy of The Huffington Post.

"You want people to not say that the graphic looks great but you want people to look at X, Y and Z and interpret the information," Spurlock says. "They are focusing their attention on the purpose of the story without getting distracted by the graphic."

Spurlock views design and graphics as part of a story, but his inspiration comes from a variety of sources. He has found that designers in the infographic design sector tend to be generous with their insights. These professionals often share the computer codes used to write interactive graphics as well as share insights through blogs.

Taryn Wood, BJ '08
Senior Designer, Taryn Wood, BJ '08, manages of the gossip section of The Daily. Wood gathers photos, designs covers, assigns layouts and makes sure the pages function properly. Photo courtesy of Taryn Wood.

Taryn Wood, BJ '08, MA '10, is the senior designer for the gossip section of The Daily, an iPad-exclusive publication. One of the interactive features of this platform helps Wood show side-by-side photos. Readers can tap the screen for a close up or to compare different periods of time, such as was done for a story on actress Lindsay Lohan.

"We have the added advantage of reader engagement with the product," Wood says.

Fusing the Past and the Present

Designers can't be complacent about their field, given new media platforms and software programs. For some, relying on the skills they learned in the past enable them to confront the changes of the present.

When Conger was studying design at the J-School in the mid-1990s, she started as a paste-up person at the Columbia Missourian. She attended classes during the day and often times worked the night shift, slinging scissors and using the X-ACTO knives and pica poles as she waited for the pages to print out in vertical halves onto paper. The paper was rolled through a hot wax machine, and then Conger would paste the content on lined dummies.

The Daily: Lindsay Lohan
The Daily: Lindsay Lohan
Taryn Wood, BJ '08, uses a tap and zoom feature that allows readers to focus in on a celebrity's features, in this case Lindsay Lohan. At the Daily, an iPad publication, Wood and her design team design layouts that compare before and after transformation of celebrities for the gossip section. Graphics by Taryn Wood, courtesy of The Daily.

"As a paste-up person, I really started to wrap my head around the bigger concept of design because I was physically connected to each piece that I had to stick down on a page," Conger says.

This traditional, hands-on method still influences the way Conger conceptualizes design and plans her projects, although her work is now completely digital.

Conger sketches possibilities for the newest assignments during the Journal's 11 a.m. budget meetings. She visualizes headlines, prioritizes the information and adds other design elements. Conger then translates her ideas from paper to the computer screen.

Wood remembers her introduction to the just-launched iPad platform during her final semester as an undergraduate. By the time she completed her master's degree two years later, she was designing extensively for the iPad.

Today, Wood characterizes her design experience as multiplatform and stresses the importance of knowing the strengths and weaknesses of Web, mobile and print.

Wood designed a biographical vertical scroll page about Steve Jobs' life after he died. The interactive features included popup images, videos and swipeable timelines of eras in his life as well as significant quotes with custom typography.

"It was really the ideal mix of tradition print layout principles, interactive elements, good photo editing and research as well as a collaboration of editorial content with design to create a great package," Wood says.

The fundamentals of telling a story serve as foundation for the ever-evolving field of design.

"Take those core things that the journalism school teaches you - how to listen to people, how to take notes, how to turn something that may be ordinary into something extraordinary," Spurlock says. "This can translate everywhere."

Caitlin Bandel Caitlin Bandel was a senior studying strategic communication at the Missouri School of Journalism with minors in business and Spanish. She was an intern at 3interactive, an online media agency located in Columbia, Mo. During her time at the University of Missouri, Bandel had been a member of the Chi Omega Fraternity and the American Advertising Federation student chapter. Following graduation, she plans to pursue a position at an advertising agency in the Midwest.


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Revised: June 1, 2012. Copyright © 2012 The Curators of the University of Missouri  |  Contact the J-School