I’ve designed thousands of pages and graphics for USA TODAY in the quarter century I’ve worked here.
That seems like a lot until you do some back-of-the-envelope math. We’ve published nearly 250 national editions a year, multiplied by 40 years: that’s 10,000 newspapers. We should hit that milestone soon.
Since 1998, I’ve watched and helped our redesigns evolve, put them into practice, and warily hit typeset buttons, knowing that any tiny (or huge) error on my computer screen would soon be printed on thousands and thousands of front pages.
Now you know what I do. Now I’ll show you what we’ve done.
The very simplest way to look at the evolution of our front page is by just looking at our logo and the grids we designers have worked with and, sometimes, without.
Even with my long tenure, the years I’ve spent designing pages and graphics feel a bit like an epilogue to what publisher Al Neuharth and photo and graphics chief Richard Curtis pulled off in 1982.
There were, of course, many more people involved in the paper’s birth 40 years ago, but Neuharth’s audacity to push for and create a national newspaper and Curtis’ plans to fill it with color and graphics led to a new era in print journalism.
It’s interesting to see where the first style guide started on the left (below) as well as a nearly cooked prototype beside it.
George Rorick, the person largely behind the full-page weather map, can’t be forgotten either. Rorick, Curtis and Weather Editor Jack Williams worked for months to develop our widely copied weather map and the content around it. The map is on the seventh page of the first edition, above.
The “out of the box” thinking that created the weather page rippled through many of the paper’s early designs – most famously the Challenger disaster, below. I can only marvel at what they accomplished with the technology that was around in 1986.
By the turn of the century (how often do you get to write that), USA TODAY had become a newspaper with more than 5 million daily readers and growing staff of respected journalists. Still, jokes persisted that our succinct stories lacked depth because, apparently, they weren’t long enough.
I won’t debate that here, but I will say I’ve read some of those early front page stories: They were short and packed with information.
It’s with that backdrop that Curtis and our committee took on the first major redesign of USA TODAY. The goal: Convey the big, national newspaper we had become with room for longer stories and restrained use of a muted color palette.
The paper got narrower. As many newspapers started saving money by getting skinnier, it was a difficult dance being printed at 36 sites around the world and making sure USA TODAY wouldn’t be squeezed and stretched beyond recognition. Cutting more than an inch from the width helped. A few sites, though, continued to print at the old size and were comically large and distorted for a while.
Our design tools got more limited. Some redesigns come with user manuals. (More on that later. Where’s the scowl emoji when you need it?) We had a serif font with bold and italic. Each section had its color. That’s pretty much all you needed to know.
More room for innovation. Less space and fewer tools doesn’t seem like the recipe for creativity, but it often frees you from worrying about fonts and color and allowed you to focus on what best told a story. Of course, it didn’t stop us from grumbling.
As you can tell from the pages above, the Life designers, primarily Gabi Campanario, Ramon Padilla and Lori Sloan, did get some dispensation from just using purple because, well, they really know how to design.
So did J. Ford Huffman, Dash Parham and Mike Smith on the front page. Our crew has made some great pages in the last couple of years (more on that later), but in my opinion, two pages from the first two decades will forever be part of USA TODAY history: the Challenger disaster (above) and the day after 9/11.
The page started with Page One Night Editor John Siniff’s headline “Act of war” and ended with Huffman’s strong crop on a horrific image.
More than 3.6 million copies of the paper – the most in USA TODAY’s history – were sold the day after 9/11 as we all looked for answers. We did what we could for readers, including this small sample of graphics.
Hundreds of editions published before Jeff Dionise, who largely took on Curtis’ role after he retired, and I tinkered with that redesign. It was time. Well, in our opinion.
Dionise often talked about the power of USA TODAY logo on the original page. With the way Curtis centered it, I created a strong design grid. Dionise said that each day when he picked up the newspaper, he knew the most important story of the day would be under that big blue rectangle.
So we brought that strong rectangle and grid back – for a little while.
Shortly after we tweaked the USA TODAY design, the wheels were in motion for a more audacious (yes, that word again) design.
For our 30th birthday, we traded in our rectangle for a blue circle and… (wait for it) a 169-page style guide. To be fair, the rebranding was considered a huge success.
On the eve of our new look, Neuharth stood at my desk with then-Editor Dave Callaway. He scanned the front page (below) and said to Callaway that he was surprised we hadn’t done this sooner.
The design and all its guidelines weren’t a simple transition.
We all struggled to vary degrees to figure out how to stay true to the somewhat euro spirit of the new design while evoking the urgency of our news.
The one thing that seemed to immediately grab our readership’s attention was the way the design told the news through the circles at the top of each section. It helped that Stephen Colbert essentially challenged us to create some very non-circle shapes after our inaugural edition. We met the challenge.
In the years that followed under Dionise’s watch, Sam Ward, Alejandro Gonzalez and Veronica Bravo developed a wealth of creative solutions to illustrate the news within, around and through the circles.
I can’t remember the day or his exact words, but a couple of years into our new design Callaway, a newsman through and through, essentially said it was time to bring the breaking news energy back to our paper.
1A Editor Andria Yu, Executive Editor David Colton, Dionise and I were glad to comply.
Headlines got bolder, pages got more colorful – for good on most days – and the content became more focused on the biggest news of the day.
I moved over to the graphics department shortly before the 2016 election, so I’ve been an infrequent contributor and more of a fan of the work of design editor Jen Herrmann’s crew.
In some ways, I feel as if we’ve come full circle (I actually didn’t catch that pun until this final edit), albeit with different design sensibilities and much better tools than our predecessors.
Today’s top editors Nicole Carroll and Holly Moore and 1A Editor Jodie Lau have encouraged designers such as Tiffany Clemens, Bill Campling and David Anesta to really communicate news – from full-page graphics to large, emotional photos.
To me, this was really started with bold ways we began in which we covered the 2016 election other breaking news that year. Here is some of their most recent work.
The USA TODAY logo, as you can see above, mutated slightly in 2020 to its current incarnation just before the pandemic became a pandemic.
The more horizontal design has allowed our design team to tell even bolder visual stories each day without competing with the logo. And there has been no shortage of big stories.
As a current member of the graphics department, I also can’t help but show off some of our other recent work from inside the paper. This is only a small fraction of the work our team led by Javier Zarracina has created the past couple of years and is symbolic of the four decades of great work dozens of artists have created – in print and online.
In exercises like this, many of the pages we show off are our strongest pages on the biggest news days. Regardless of whether it’s a big news day or not, we’re still getting to the point of the news each day.
We generally aren’t using the bulleted semi-sentences of 1982 (not that I don’t see a place for that), but we’ve redoubled our focus on making the key information surrounding stories quickly accessible on line and in print.
I have three screens at my workstation. They are literally filed with PDF icons of print pages from the past 40 years that still I haven’t used in this story. Maybe I can work a few of them in 10 years from now.
Happy 40th, USA TODAY.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism