The New Frontier

As I embark on General Assembly’s User Experience Design Immersive, I reflect on how my career in print has prepared me for the future

The seed was planted at a very early age.

My father was an early adopter of desktop computing technology, and in the early 1980s, I was exposed to the Amiga, Atari ST, Apple II and Macintosh, all with their state-of-the-art GUIs and desktop publishing software. I can still hear the rhythmic, see-sawing buzz from the dot-matrix printer, and feel the perforated edges of the pin feed paper as I folded and tore them away. The earliest work I remember doing is a spreadsheet. This was all before grade school. Between me and design, this was, what they call in romantic comedies, a meet cute.

As a kid, I got visual stimulation from television, video games and toys. I would always marvel at the design of my Transformers action figures, many times more interested in displaying them than playing with them. Movies, which were a touchstone of my upbringing, grew into a rigorous intellectual passion of mine as I got older.

Away from the television, I would spend long road trips in the backseat or quiet summer nights at the dinner table playfully sketching on the front and back sides of scratch pads and found paper. During those stretches, time seemed irrelevant. I was held captive by my own imagination. I would mainly draw typographic designs for pretend video game and movie titles. Some of them even had pretend sequels and threequels.

Then, in the early 1990s, my father bought a first-generation Epson Stylus inkjet.

I couldn’t be stopped. That seed from my early childhood sprouted like a beanstalk.

My father only knows how much money we spent on ink cartridges and paper to feed my habit in those days. Over time, I filled innumerable binders with my own full-color magazine mock-ups. I would download art off CompuServe or use a flatbed scanner to scan images.

Trips to the local newsstand were always stimulating for me. I would bring magazines home for inspiration, and one, Entertainment Weekly, would quickly become my muse. At 13, I ordered an EW subscription that continues to this day.

This is the story of how I fell in love with print and began my journey toward a career in publication design.

But for several years now, print and I have been growing apart. Times have been tough.

As passionate as I am designing for print media, it’s an industry that has been in accelerating decline, becoming less and less a part of people’s everyday lives. It’s lost its cultural relevance. It’s less convenient, immediate and ever more expensive and inefficient to produce. Add to that shrinking circulation and advertising revenue, most newspapers have been shedding talent — and job opportunities — for years. Magazines are not immune to the shifting trends, and in some cases, are in worse shape than newspapers. Some good people have been trying to turn it around, but as Tommy Lee Jones’ Texas sheriff Ed Tom Bell is advised by his old friend Ellis about an unstoppable force in Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country For Old Men: “You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”

So, what attracted me to newspaper design, specifically?

School newspapers. Particularly in college, I saw how design could strengthen journalism.

I wanted to make a difference, to aid in the cause of good journalism, of informing the public, of justice, of speaking truth to power, but also to create and contribute to work that could be seen by a majority of the public — poor, working-class, middle-class — and affect their lives in an important way.

Leaning into that mission, I’ve spent the better part my career improving the experience of reading a newspaper. Whether it was to design a presentation around a single story or to streamline an entire publication toward efficiency so that it could be produced faster and navigated easier, I’ve learned to make it more engaging and user-friendly.

Before I considered user experience design as a career option, I realized that I had been practicing many of its principles for years.

Even though the technology of the printed page is analog, there’s inherent UX questions that need to be answered throughout any newspaper design: What’s best for the reader? What’s their goal? How do we force the page to recede into the background so that the content comes to the foreground? How do we make the experience of reading a newspaper more pleasurable? How do we make the information easier to access and absorb? How do we engage without noise?

To some degree, having a seat on print’s downward spiral has only put in sharper relief for me why design matters, why it has value and how it relates to UX design. Amidst the chaos of a restructuring industry, I was given the opportunity to accomplish a massive number of redesigns, on about 50 different publications, in a very short period of time, approximately 2 years in total, for dailies as varied as New Orleans’ The Times-Picayune, The Birmingham News, The Grand Rapids Press, Newark’s The Star-Ledger and the Staten Island Advance. On those compressed timelines, I quickly learned to focus on what matters: Legibility, readability, clarity, flow, hierarchy, navigation — all of these, when methodically researched and implemented, produce a pleasurable experience. I learned when its at service to the content, the best design practically disappears.

I see UX as the next frontier in design. I want to learn from it, grow from it and contribute my talent to it. This inspired me to enter the User Experience Design Immersive course this spring at General Assembly.

Specifically, I seek to:

  1. Innovate. Learn new philosophies, skills and software that are relevant to new and emerging platforms.
  2. Present my ideas better. Become a better communicator to sell the strategies behind a design.
  3. Learn to be more assertive, direct and better at negotiating solutions.
  4. Be part of a thriving industry that is more relevant in people’s lives.

But more broadly, I’m hungry for new opportunities to keep growing as a designer and renew my purpose as a professional.