The fate of the newspaper: Exclusive interview with Jacek Utko

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Newspaper designer Jacek Utko suggests that it’s time for a fresh, top-to-bottom rethink of the newspaper. (At this point, why not try it?) In his work, he’s proved that good design can help readers reconnect with newspapers. A former architect, Utko took on the job of redesigning several newspapers in former Soviet Bloc nations, starting from basic principles.

The TED Blog interviewed Jacek Utko over the phone yesterday to get a deeper look into his approach to newspaper design and his thoughts on the future of news media. Here’s a snippet:

Many people think that newspapers have to survive because they have a mission for society, for democracy. Most of them say that newspapers should stay because, if newspapers die, nothing will replace them. But that’s not actually true. It’s already slowly being replaced by the Internet. Blogs, for example, are an opinion-making medium. They’ll probably become more powerful than the newspapers were.

Read the full interview with Jacek Utko, after the jump >>Exclusive interview with Jacek Utko, (4/2/09):

utko1small.jpgDebates on the fate of newspapers seem to get quite emotional.

Yes. You can see discussions on this in a lot of blogs and forums. Many people think that newspapers have to survive because they have a mission for society, for democracy. Most of them say that newspapers should stay because, if newspapers die, nothing will replace them.

But that’s not actually true. It’s already slowly being replaced by the Internet. Blogs, for example, are an opinion-making medium. They’ll probably become more powerful than the newspapers themselves were.

I think we should all accept the thought that, one day, there won’t be any printed newspapers. There will be niche products for smaller groups — exclusive things that are reminders of the old times. But I don’t believe the general newspapers, in the state that we know them now, will survive.

When will the newspapers finally die?

The Western world has the most complicated situation. People have stopped buying newspapers. The papers in America will die in five, maybe ten years. Who knows? But there are some parts of the world where newspapers will be successful for the next many years. There, newspapers can easily make money.

utko2small.jpgThink about Asia — regions in China or the Middle East — where Internet coverage is not yet so high. Newspapers there are just becoming an interesting medium for advertisers. But the success we’ve had in Central Europe, doubling circulation in some countries, would be impossible to repeat in Western countries. Newspapers will die in some regions and blossom in others.

Does your background in architecture affect what you design?

My work is more structured than work by designers with more artistic backgrounds. As I said in my presentation, you must work with both function and form. You must always ask why something looks the way it does: What is the purpose of this object or building or product?

You can see my architectural background on the pages I create. You can see the navigation scheme, the structure. I like to play with what you might call the architecture of the page.

Having been an engineer helps me talk about the business and marketing issues. I treat these as other problems to solve. I don’t think about “Art,” about doing something cute. I’m always thinking about solving problems, and design is one of the tools for this. I can easily talk about business goals, research, data. For me, that is quite natural. It’s definitely an advantage that I’m not a typical artist or graphic designer.

What is the “egotistical” approach you mentioned in your talk?

It’s politically correct to talk about teamwork and convergence between editors and designers. It’s an old issue, the idea that we would merge the two departments and make journalism more visual. Now, I do agree with this philosophy that says visual journalism requires more teamwork.

But, in my personal experience, the best things I’ve ever done are not the fruit of teamwork. They were the fruit of closing myself in a room, not speaking to any editor. I would think of a good headline myself. This would produce the award-winning covers.

utko3small.jpgCommunication with the readers in a personal way is important. When you use teamwork, the message becomes not so clear anymore. There’s a compromise between 20 opinions, and you can see that compromise in the outcome.

Yet I don’t do the work just because readers love it. I do it because I like it. I have to find some personal satisfaction in this work. Making front pages like this brings me a lot of satisfaction.

Talk about this conflict between the design end and the editorial end.

The conflict is diminishing, but it has been very strong in the last years. Writers don’t like you. They treat you as an enemy, because they believe in words, and they believe you’re cutting the words. They don’t believe that people don’t want to read more text.

People need entry points to text. People look at headlines. People avoid long stories. There are many proofs for this, such as eye-tracking research. Editors often don’t understand this. They don’t treat a designer as someone who is a marketer of their text, who is trying to sell their text better.

This is also the designers’ fault. Some designers are not journalists; they only think about their pictures looking good. But readers do look at papers for more than just beautiful art. They look for the content.

utko4small.jpgThe future of media is where people realize that how content is sold to the reader is equally important. During consultations, much of my time is spent not just working on visuals or illustration or infographics. It’s spent on displaying the content better, working on elements of text like ledes, intros, sub-headlines, middle intros, quotes, pullouts, boxes. Making it more digestible, more friendly.

Magazines are also facing trouble. Thoughts on that?

Newspapers will always be the first to have trouble, while the magazines will remain. The experience reading magazines — especially ones with beautiful pictures — cannot be replaced on the web.

Magazines like Newsweek — news-opinion magazines — can be replaced on the web because you can find this content easily. But, tell me, how can you represent an artistic approach, such as is used in magazines, on the web? Looking at pages in a sophisticated monthly, with cultural graphics and beautiful photos — this model still makes sense. People will buy it. Web design doesn’t yet give you this experience.

What would you have said, had you gotten two extra minutes on the TED stage?

I don’t know about two. Now, if I had five more …

OK, then, let’s say we gave you five more.

There’s one interesting thing I would have given another whole presentation about.

Newspapers, just before death — since we agree that, sooner or later, they will die — just before death, they blossom, design-wise. Never in history has design and visual journalism been as good as it is now. This happens not only in Western Europe and America, but even more in countries in Latin America. Asia is waking up; they will do beautiful stuff in the near future.

People perceive newspapers as boring pages with letters, but I can find so many examples around the world of sophisticated, artistic, beautiful work. They’re not dying because they’re not good. They’re dying because of more general reasons connected with technology and behavior.

Just before newspapers die, they come to highest possible level of development.

Is there something you dream of redesigning?

When you look at existing media, you see newspapers with long traditions, design untouched for years, like the New York Times. That would be a challenge. Working with a special, old-style design for a paper which, at the same time, is a high-quality product. For sure, they have to change something to survive.

I’d like to work on finding tools for web news presentation that could compete with the design of newspapers. So far, web presentation is light years behind newspaper design. You don’t feel the importance of news on the web. Every day is the same. Stories are sold in the same, templated way. Just one day in the year — with Obama’s inauguration — you could feel the difference. The other 365 days look the same: flat, bland, boring. That’s the huge disadvantage of web design. I’d love to explore and find new web tools for designers and editors to present their stories in a more appealing way.

I would love to be engaged in some kind of think tank on what will be the future of media. Will there be anything like newspapers in the future? Or should we forget about it and just think about the web?

What will be the next step? A plastic screen with WiFi that we all carry around, with a touchscreen? Or will we only use mobile phones? Some people say laptops are already history, and that the future is on mobile phones. It would be amazing to try to find a prototype for that future.

Watch Jacek Utko’s 2009 TEDTalk >>

Image: TED / Asa Mathat