Designing the World to Catch Your Eye

14 Plympton

The excitement of the Harvard Crimson is best exemplified by its newsroom: desks crashed together, telephones screeching in the background, the ubiquitous tapping that results in electronic words which will result in inky newsprint prose the next day.

This is the nexus of a complex communications network designed to allow the Crimson to keep in touch with the world in order to tell its readers what's happening. Letters flow in by the pound while faxes spew out of the business office; the telephone is every modern reporter's best friend.

Yet my department, the design department, has received just one letter in the last four years. One--postmarked a foggy two years ago. Since then, not even a postcard.

How should I interpret this blaring silence in contrast to the uproar the Crimson usually seems to generate?

1) Nobody cares about me. I'm just a lonely font-loving layout-graphics shaman who can never hope to gain a following.

2) I'm not good enough, artistically speaking, to attract the acclamation of the Harvard student population. Well-trained minds always know mediocre layout technique when they see it.

3) Well, anyway, my Mom loves me.

Obviously, it's less painful for me to simply delude myself and believe it means the design department is doing a good job. No one's complaining, after all. At least that's what I told myself when I accepted the position.

The design department oversees a variety of projects at the Crimson. My co-editor James Cham skillfully directs the look of our weekly magazine, Fifteen Minutes. We try to make it sassier than Sassy. Design also works in conjunction with the advertising staff to train a corps responsible for daily ad design.

Finally, there's the daily Crimson. The sports, editorial, feature and arts editors all need designers in order to create a finished look for the projects they may have begun weeks ago.

Reporters need graphics to splash up a difficult-to-understand finance story. The wire editor may request a locator map so that readers will be able to see where international news is taking place. The sports department regularly holds conference with the design department to determine the best way to present the dense statistical information they receive from each competition.

On a more regular basis, though, there's the front page.

The Crimson, like any daily, must make careful decisions about which stories to emphasize and which should be downplayed. Is it newsworthy enough to go above the fold? Does the story deserve a photo that will draw attention? Should it be boxed to gain further importance? Every choice carries implications about the way in which people will perceive the news. Above all, the entire page should look "clean."

The design department's daily job is to ensure that the Crimson remains user-friendly, that readers can lead their eyes around the page with ease toward the big news of the day. And no two pages ever look alike; our pace has to equal that of the news room, as late stories die, new ones develop and space becomes scarce.

It's a thankless job (with the notable exception of that one beautiful letter), but its saving grace is its creative gratification. Authors know that words have no meaning unless they're arranged properly. Designers know that letters, words, numbers and stories have no meaning unless they're properly presented.

Designers take satisfaction in knowing that they subconsciously direct the way others see the world. It's an artist's occupation.

Indeed, one could say that the design department at the Crimson is a bunch of computer-friendly yet tortured, reflective artists. Who still like to read mail. I think I might have gotten my Visa bill last month. Maybe I'll go look that over right about now.