Newspaper design: 5 tips for small papers

Smaller newspapers often have to live without the help of someone capable in newspaper design on staff. That should be a cause for concern because good design enhances the content and improves the reader’s experience with the paper. That means it is a good business decision.

Here are the top five design tips for small newspapers, i.e., the ones without a designer on staff:

  1. Plan your approach for design. Don’t just let it happen each week. Set up typographic guidelines that set the rules for body type, headlines, standing typography, color use and so on. If you don’t have guidelines set, then each issue will look as if it had been put together by a committee. Consistency is important in newspaper design.

Plan to surprise your readers each issue with something that’s a little different.

  1. On the other hand, plan to surprise your readers each issue with something that’s a little different. Much of the paper should follow the rigid guidelines you set up for the normal presentation of the news. But each issue should have a story or two that requires a unique approach, e.g., a different grid size, more white space framing the package, multiple photos (played large), information graphics or maps, and so on. If you set up the “normal” pages with your guidelines, you should have time to let your creative juices flow on those special packages or pages.
  2. Create a design stylebook with all the settings and illustrations of those settings for everyone who has anything to do with the look and feel of the paper. This will not only help assure that your paper looks good in a consistent way, but it makes it easier for new staff members to create good page layouts. Make it easy to edit (InDesign file, three-hole punch, etc.) as your design will (should?) be constantly evolving.
  3. Be bolder than you think is acceptable normally. Most small newspapers use headline type that is too small, too little white space, too few graphic devices. One of the most important design principles is contrast, that is, emphasizing certain elements on the page by size, placement or color. Too many smaller papers tend to be too gray, dominated by multiple columns of body type, relieved by too little white space and too-small headlines. Think bigger. Think more.
  4. Don’t be afraid ask for help. You don’t need to add a staff position for a full-time designer. But it would be a smart investment to find a good consultant to help you set up your guidelines and stylebook and train your current staff to create effective and attractive pages. It’s a relatively small, one-time expense that will pay off many times over.