Design Comes to the Newsroom

A radical change

In many ways, Ariss’ design took direct aim at the myths and traditions of newspaper makeup.

To begin with, he replaced the Fraktur nameplate, a vestige of the days when Ben Franklin was a printer, with a simple but striking logo and the word “Tribune” in overlapping block letters of Helvetica Heavy. The logo cut was a typical Frank Ariss design: a combination of simple shapes that communicated at several levels. The logo was little more than two arcs and three lines contained in a square, but Ariss had plotted the angles to mimic a newsprint web coming off a press cylinder, or alternately, the curve of a broadsheet page as held by a reader.

The headlines were subdued in size and weight, with no 72-point extra-bold banners screaming across the columns. Ariss again used Helvetica, the modernist typeface designed in Switzerland only 10 years before, to replace a mishmash of serif, sans serif and italic typefaces the Tribune had employed in its display type. Each page had an open, airy feel because Ariss didn’t cram type into every available area. The words “white space” soon became a mantra for news designers.

Ariss redesigned not
just the paper but
also the rulers and
dummy sheets based
on a grid that used
the height of a line
of type as its basic
unit. As part of his
work on the project,
Mike Carroll drew up
new rulers and grid

Ariss redesigned not just the paper but also the rulers and dummy sheets based on a grid that used the height of a line of type as its basic unit. As part of his work on the project, Mike Carroll drew up new rulers and grid sheets. PHOTO BY MICHAEL CARROLL

Where traditional-looking newspapers used narrow rules to separate columns, Ariss called on a full pica of white space to do the job. Instead of indenting the first line of each paragraph, Ariss used a blank line for separation. The headlines, set flush left, deliberately fell short of the entire column width, another means of introducing white space. The headlines were written in sentence case, with only the first word and proper names capitalized, rather than the common practice of using title case. Headlines from different stories butted next to each other in adjacent columns. A digest of stories from inside the paper ran across the bottom, along with an index and almanac. And the front-page lead story was placed on the left, not the right as called for by newspaper mythology.

As radical as the Tribune looked on the surface, the true genius of Ariss’ design was in the underlying structure. The column was still the basic horizontal unit of measurement, but in his prototype, Ariss divided the page into six columns instead of the standard nine.

“No one told me a newspaper couldn’t be six columns,” Ariss said.

Ariss saw that narrower columns worked against readability and burned up space with the odd word and letter spacing necessary to justify the column. Ariss set his body type at nine points on a line height of 9.5 points. This “ledding” of 9.5 points became the vertical unit of measurement for the page. It was his most far-reaching innovation. Every element — headlines, columnists signatures, pictures, captions and stories — was measured vertically in this basic unit.

Mike Carroll drew up dummy sheets to scale, matching the full-size page in proportion, another innovation. Up until then, news editors had used rough dummy sheets printed on letter-size paper that in no way represented accurately the proportions of the newspaper page. Carroll’s new dummies, painstakingly drawn using a Rapidograph pen with grid lines spaced to scale, allowed the news editors to sketch out pages precisely. All this in turn sped production.

“With the grid system, he put everything on the grid so lines of type would line up and headlines would conform to a certain number of lines of type,” Carroll said.

In 1978, Allen Hurlburt devoted several pages to the Minneapolis Tribune in his book The Grid: A Modular System for the Design and Production of Newspapers, Magazines and Books. Hurlburt wrote that this “graphic engineering” approach, as Ariss called it, set up the Tribune perfectly for computerization of its production process. Hurlburt noted that the redesign “led to significant time savings and economies in type composition, makeup and press handling.”

The entire redesign project took 18 months.

“Working on it for a year and half so close to it,” Carroll said, “I probably didn’t really realize the revolutionary nature of it, but when you laid it out on table next to other major newspapers, you realized it was quite a radical change.”

Get to the edge

To a journalism student and newspaper lover in the 1970s, Ariss’ redesign of the Minneapolis Tribune offered a startling vision of how news could be presented. It immediately became a topic of discussion in design textbooks and in publication design classes.

Ariss had brought modern design, with its emphasis on function and rationality, to a visual medium that was mired in the 18th Century. Ariss’ sensibilities were in line with Bauhaus philosophy of embracing industry and methods of mass production.

“The Tribune project was more than a design in the way that most people think of design. You’ve got to be able to make the bloody thing. It has to be reproduceable, and it’s the one difference, and the only difference, between art and design.”
Frank Ariss

Ariss also would agree with the Bauhaus ideal that the designer must have hands-on experience in the materials he wants to use. Ariss had set type by hand at the Royal College of Art and had worked with the printers and bookbinders on its staff.

“They knew their business,” Ariss said. “These were people who in a sense taught me, but there wasn’t much we could learn. You just needed to bloody well do it.”

Ariss would agree with the Bauhaus sentiment that it is harder to design a first-rate chair than to paint a second-rate painting — and more useful.

When Ariss talks about design, he emphasizes the practical aspects and stays away from grand philosophical statements.

“There are many designers who are pretty good with the glib talk,” Ariss said, “but when they put it to paper, it doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work on both levels. What they’re trying to tell me in pictures isn’t coming out, and secondly, you’d never be able to print or make the bloody thing.

“You have to roll your shirtsleeves up, and it becomes a project. It’s the second-rate designers and artists who are full of glib statements.”

As he talks about design, Ariss seems in tune with the industrial designer Raymond Loewy, whose philosophy was distilled in the phrase, “Most advanced, yet acceptable,” although Ariss would never allow himself to be pinned down to any one school of thought.

“I drive myself to the edge of a project,” Ariss said. “If I don’t go far enough, I’m just regurgitating what I did yesterday, two weeks ago, two years ago, two centuries ago. On the other hand, if I go too far, I fall off the edge and it becomes incomprehensible. So the thing I find I’ve always tried to do is get to the edge, the parapet. If you go too far, you’re losing contact with the person you’re trying to communicate with, whether it’s the newspaper reader or the annual report reader, or the person walking around an exhibition, or even the postage stamp you’ve designed, and I’ve done all of those things.”

Ariss could be mistaken for another huge ego on parade if his self-esteem weren’t leavened by a healthy dose of self-examination, something that has come to him in part from teaching. Ariss has taught at the Norwich College of Art in England, at the Kansas City College of Art, in the architecture department of the University of Minnesota and at the Minneapolis School of Art, now called the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

Teaching keeps him honest with himself. He recalled times when he has told students something he believes “with every conviction and ounce of truth in the world.”

“And as it comes out, you realize it’s not exactly what you believe in anymore,” Ariss said. “You don’t know what you believe in, but you know that’s not exactly it, either by a short measure or something else.”

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