Frank Ariss

Frank Ariss in his studio on Nicollet Island in Minneapolis, May 2008. On the wall is a design Ariss did for a prototype of Harper’s when John Cowles Jr. owned the magazine. PHOTO BY MICHAEL O’DONNELL

Design Comes to the Newsroom

Newspapers looked the same as they had since World War II. Type was metal. It was 1968 and newspaper design history was about to be made. Frank Ariss and the redesign of the Minneapolis Tribune.

By Michael O’Donnell

Design Journal, Fall/Winter 2009

On a spring day 40 years ago, the editors of the Minneapolis Tribune gathered in their newsroom to see the future. Six weeks earlier, Managing Editor Wallace Allen had asked Frank Ariss, a British graphic designer, to bring a fresh set of ideas to the look and feel of the Tribune, the city’s morning daily.

Ariss began to think through how he might develop a set of design principles for a document produced anew each day, with content that was unpredictable from issue to issue, often changing at the last minute as events intervened. Ariss could see that for the newspaper editor, a day when historic events took place was not the problem; newspapers never struggled to look dramatic when a war broke out or someone landed on the moon. The real challenge, he realized, was to come up with typography and a page structure that would bring interest and order to the newspaper on the slow news day, when nothing much was happening.

Ariss took real stories and photos from a typical news cycle and built full-size prototype section fronts for the new Tribune as he conceived it. Now he was ready to unveil his work for Allen, editor Bower Hawthorne and publisher Otto Silha.

The pages Ariss showed them were like no newspaper they had ever seen.

“Smiles didn’t come easily to Bower,” Ariss said, “and when he smiled, it was almost imperceptible. But you could tell from his body, or whatever waves emanated, that in the split second he got it.”

Hawthorne left the room to fetch John Cowles Jr. , the newspaper’s owner.

“The way he walked out of that room, he was like a ballet dancer rather than that stocky shuffling editor,” Ariss said. “He was floored. You could feel a glow in the room, and from then on, it was like the hearts of two lovers beating as one.”

The newspaper of tomorrow

The Tribune project began when Ariss got a call “to go in and talk to somebody called Wally Allen, who was the deputy managing editor.”

“All he wanted me to do was knock off the flicks of the ‘Minneapolis Tribune, ’ the black German Fraktur typeface, you know, a 14th-Century gothic typeface,” Ariss said, sipping tea in his studio on Minneapolis’ Nicollet Island. “I said, Yeah, but you don’t need me to do that, and why? Because it’s not going to do anything. We got to chatting about newspapers, and then he said, Can you come back next week and meet Bower Hawthorne? And it went on like that, and then they said can you come back and meet somebody called John Cowles Jr.? I didn’t know who in the hell he was.”

Mounting the plates on the letterset presses of the Minneapolis Tribune.

Frank Ariss took pains to make sure his design ideas were implementable with the newsroom and technology of the day.

Allen recalled that the nameplate touch-up evolved into a “see how you design the newspaper of tomorrow sort of thing.”

Ariss did not show Allen, Hawthorne or Cowles a single drawing, but what he said struck a chord, and they asked him to “go away and come back, say, in a month and demonstrate your ideas,” Ariss said.

Ariss came back a few weeks later with his prototype pages, the ones that had Hawthorne floating out of the room.

Cowles was so impressed with Ariss’ prototype that he hired him full time not only to redesign the newspaper, but also to rework the company’s identity. Ariss took up an office next to Hawthorne’s in the Tribune’s building and began to teach himself the news business.

“At the beginning of that project, I didn’t know what the hell to do,” Ariss said, “not because I’d never designed a newspaper before, but simply because if I spoke to Bower Hawthorne, the editor, as far as he was concerned, in many ways a great newspaper was all the news on the front, and if you had any room, put your ads in the back. And in a sense he was absolutely right, because people were buying the news for quality.”

Ariss found a different story in the production department, where the ideal newspaper would have one size of type set one column wide, as simple to put together as possible.

“And, you know,” Ariss said, “they were quite right.” Then he spoke to the advertising people, who thought the ideal newspaper would have a full-page ad for Dayton’s department store on the front and the news in the back.

“Then you had Otto Silha, the publisher,” Ariss said. “What made a great newspaper? Something of influence in the city, a force within the city to do good. This was in the day when journalism was journalism and not pandering.

“They wanted something they could be proud of journalistically, that looked beautiful, and let’s not forget, needs to make money, because none of us are chumps. If you don’t make money, you don’t survive, and you can’t put into practice any of your ideas. But somewhere there’s a balance in all of that.”

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