Let your content be your guide with design

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Content drives design. Always.

By Patrick Armstrong
Austin Peay State University

When I first started working in the Nashville Design Studio in 2012, there was an art display that always caught my eye. It was an old newspaper rack door that said “Content Drives Design” and was located in our studio meeting space. You could not miss it. Still to this day, I reflect on it with any design work I do, and any advice I give to my students.

The photos were powerful and really told the story. But the story was the rain stopping for a period of time before more arriving. A few issues before this — when the flooding started — the content called for the photos to be full page and dominate coverage. The content booked for this page dictated this design because it was just a normal news day.

As a designer, I always love viewing bold, powerful art that encourages readers to pick up the newspaper. It’s my belief that interesting and dynamic art such as illustrations and photography will be the reason why someone chooses to pick up a newspaper or not.

It’s in an artist’s DNA to go big, be bold, create something unique and tell a story. But do we always have to blow an idea out on a page to where it’s the only art on the page or runs the full width of a page? The answer is “no.”

I personally struggled with grasping this during my professional career, as do other designers. By our nature, we are drawn to basic design principles and elements of art and design. We want to make that impact and have our work splashed across a page. But in reality, does the story and others booked for the page call for this type of presentation?

This is where “Content Drives Design” comes into play. If your student media outlet writes a story about marijuana arrests on campus; naturally you are going to do some combination of smoke, a blunt and pot leaf in the design.

Just because you all have decided to cover a controversial subject doesn’t mean you have to make this be the only story on the page or have the design engulf the paper in smoke.

Weigh its news value. Go back to the foundations of what is news. Chances are there will be other stories of importance to make the page too. As designers, we have to temper our ambitions with reality and what the content value is.

Let’s look at this another way. The second you decided to blow a design presentation out of the water and only have one story on the page, you have set the standard for this treatment in the future. Anything fitting this established criteria should receive the same treatment.

When a huge story finally breaks such as a crisis situation on campus, a historic win by a team or death of a notable campus official; the news value has been diminished to something your audience always sees.

Remember, just because you have a great illustration idea or amazing photograph doesn’t mean it should dictate the entire page. Play devil’s advocate, look at the other content in play and the standard your student media outlet might be setting. And always ask yourself if the content is driving the design.

Patrick Armstrong

Patrick Armstrong is the Coordinator of Student Publications and Marketing, and adviser to The All State student newspaper at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. Previously, he worked for the Gannett Design Studio in Nashville, Tennessee. Patrick earned his B.S. in Mass Communication from Austin Peay State University in 2010, and served as editor-in-chief of The All State for three years.