Reprinted with permission
from DESIGN,
the Society for News Design's
quarterly journal

 

Spring 2002

 

 

Interview by Steve Cavendish

 

 

Cavendish: How did you get started in journalism?

Harrower: I actually started out as a songwriter, and wasted 10 years -- the ’70s -- desperately trying to score a record deal. Nearly did, too.

But the music thing got frustrating. And record-company weasels are even worse than newspaper-publishing weasels. My in-laws were pressuring me to get a straight job. So I thought, “Hmmm. What can I do that doesn’t require any real talent or training?” The answer was obvious: become a feature writer.

My earliest feature stories were either brilliantly offbeat or ridiculously loopy, depending on whether or not you were, say, my editor. But the layouts sucked even worse than the stories did, so I ended up saying, “GIMME THAT PAGE! Geez, any nitwit can design better than THAT.”

Which was highly unusual back in 1980, by the way. Not nitwits designing pages -- but the idea of writing and designing your own story at the same time.

Cavendish: So we can draw a straight line from your in-laws to the fifth edition of the book. Are they getting royalties?

Harrower: Hmmm. Perhaps my wife is funneling cash into their secret slush fund. I shall have my accountants check it out.

Cavendish: Do you still have your first layout? What was it on?

Harrower: Ahhhh. (He roots through his files). Here it is. Notice how I single-handedly hogged the entire features cover with three “idiot’s guides” to wine-drinking, pipe-smoking and classical music (see page at right). Ironically, when I wrote those stories, I remember wondering if I could expand them into book length.

That was 20 years ago. And today bookstores are bloated with “idiot’s guides” and “Wine-Drinking for Dummies” books. I blew my big chance. I guess I thought writing a book was, like, too complex.

Cavendish: Wow. LOVE the sepia-toned blocks. How long did it take for you to go from writing to design as your main vocation?

Harrower: Well, for years I was writer-editor-photographer-designer at a small weekly. Then, at the Rochester Times-Union, I became an editor-designer. At The Oregonian I started out as editor-designer, but ended up columnist-editor-designer. So actually, there were only a few years at “The O” where I focused mainly on design, in my role as Prototype Boy. And I felt pretty marginalized, actually. I always preferred being hyphenated, like writer-actor-director Woody Allen -- except for that bonking-your-stepdaughter stuff.

So even now, when I teach design classes or workshops, I approach newspapers more holistically than pure designers do. I’m more interested in smart editing ideas than cool fonts and colors. Which reminds me of a classic Richard Saul Wurman quote. Want to hear it?

Cavendish: Sure. Lay it on me.

Harrower: Wurman, a brilliant information architect, has spent years exploring how the media display and deliver data. He once said something like: “Writers worship the god of eloquence. Editors worship the god of accuracy. Designers worship the god of looking good. But no one worships the god of understanding.”

No kidding. If you really want to see designers worshipping the god of looking good, check out the feature-page judging at the big SND contest.

Cavendish: Which brings up an interesting story: You were a feature-page judge for the “big SND contest” a few years ago and were berated and quite nearly assaulted by another judge for not giving a gold medal to a particular page for that exact reason: you thought it was pretty but the content just wasn’t that great. Why do so many designers belong to this “cult of looking good” instead of having a more holistic approach?

Harrower: Actually, to set the record straight: I was nearly assaulted by another judge for not giving a gold medal to a particular page because I thought it was UGLY. And the content wasn’t just not great -- it was nonexistent. This was a feature cover with, like, a 6-inch tall doodle of some naked crocodile-woman, a tiny chunk of text – and the rest of the page was blank.

This other judge was shouting, “This is the future of newspapers!!!” He was DISGUSTED that I could not see the GENIUS of that page. I was later quoted in Design magazine as saying, “If this is the future of newspapers, then newspapers have no future.”

What was the question again?

Cavendish: It had something to do with designers and cults and pretty things.

Harrower: Ah. Yes. If the question is, “Why aren’t pages designed in smarter, more reader-friendly ways?,” I would answer:

–- Because that requires more time and collaboration. We don’t have time. And we suck at collaboration.

–- Because “pretty” is easier to fake than “smart.”

–- Because our rewards system gives you points for looking good, not for being reader-friendly. Just as reporters are rewarded for writing those 200-inch Pulitzer-Prize entries.

To me, that’s the big problem. There just aren’t enough models of how to present stories in smarter, more effective ways. Pages like that don’t necessarily win SND awards, for instance. Maybe the SND contest needs some new categories. I’d love to see awards for “Feature Pages That Readers Might Actually Find Useful.” Or for “Best Save of a Sports Page With Crappy Art.” Or maybe “Best Packaging Of An Unreadable 200-Inch Sunday Centerpiece About Some Child With A Horrible Disease.”

Cavendish: I know you used to be a pretty voracious magazine reader. What are you reading now?

Harrower: I used to read about 50 magazines a week, back when I had a daily column to fill. But I’ve cut way back in an attempt to attain a more Zen-like detachment. I still read “The New Yorker,” “Entertainment Weekly,”“Harper’s,” “Utne Reader,” “Rolling Stone” -- you know, the classics. And “The Week” -- a terrifically smart weekly newsmag.

Right now I’m reading a badly designed but clever magazine called “Mental Floss.” It’s an amazing compendium of oddities for lazy intellectuals -- the stuff you would have learned in college if you hadn’t been so hung over. Like this gem, for instance:

Nikola Tesla, the early pioneer of electricity and radio, fell in love with one of his pet pigeons. “Yes, I loved her as a man loves a woman, and she loved me,” he wrote. “When that pigeon died, something went out of my life.... I knew my life’s work was finished.”

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