Advice from Ed Henninger: Don’t accept ‘I don’t like it’

Ed Henninger

By Ed Henninger, Newspaper Design Consultant

I’ve been consulting since June, 1989. Thirty years is a long time and it’s time for me to retire and shift my attention to Julia, family, grandkids and guitar. 

Over for the next few months, I’m offering some of my best columns from the past few years. 

This one focuses on helping your designers do a better job. 

He was not going to make this easy.

I was in a conference room with about a half-dozen editors and staffers. We had recently begun a redesign of their newspaper and I was showing them the first set of mockups.

As I was talking them through some of the initial ideas, the editor interrupted, sniffed and said: “I don’t like it.” There was a collective rolling of the eyes from others in the room, as if they had all known this was coming.

“Does that mean,” I asked, “you don’t like certain elements…or you don’t like any of it?”

“The whole thing,” he shot back. “I don’t like any of it.”

“Oh. Just what is it about what you’re seeing that you don’t like?”

“I just don’t like it. And I thought you said during your first visit that we have to like what you’re doing—that it’s our newspaper and you have to satisfy us.”

“Yes, I did say that. But ‘I don’t like it’ doesn’t help me…or the process.”

“Well, I don’t like it.”

“OK… Let’s see what others have to say.”

I then turned to the publisher. Given the editor’s outburst, he had the same nonplussed look on his face as others in the room.

“Tom, do you like it?”

“Well, yes, I do. Very much. I think it captures what we’re trying to do—get a contemporary new look while not shocking our readers. I especially like the headline type face. It’s traditional but not stodgy. It’s clean…and I love the italic.”

Now…finally…we were getting somewhere.

Later that day, the publisher told me that the editor was not going to be very helpful because he had redesigned the paper himself about a dozen years before and he did not want to see his design pushed aside for a new look—especially one from an outsider.

The problem with “I don’t like it” is that it doesn’t help the process at all. It’s just a sweeping negative that refuses to look at elements and judge the merits of each.

Instead of “I don’t like it,” or its opposite, “Wow! I love it all,” help your designers by offering them your best thinking—especially on the elements that make up the design:

  • “I think the headlines are too big.”
  • “That dark blue probably won’t work well on our press.”
  • “Do you really want that much space between packages?”
  • “That byline type face is too heavy for me.”
  • “Is the text too tight? Don’t we need more space between lines?”

These are statements and questions that get to the heart of the matter. Each of them is helpful because each of them goes to a specific element and offers an objection or suggestion your designer can address.

So, if your designer comes to you with an Independence Day feature front, it’s OK to ask her if she really wants to run that headline in Caslon Antique. Then it becomes her task to tell you why Caslon Antique is the right choice for the package.

The point is, asking her specifically about the headline type face—and perhaps other elements you question—helps to narrow your discussion and can lead to design improvements.

“I don’t like it” isn’t helpful at all. So, ask. And ask again. And ask some more.

And, whatever you do, do not let the designer get off easy by saying: “I don’t know…I just like it.”

ED HENNINGER is an independent newspaper consultant and the Director of Henninger Consulting. E-mail: edh@henningerconsulting.com. Phone: 803-325-5252.

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