Reprinted with permission
the Society for News Design's
Interview by Steve Cavendish
Cavendish: Speaking of the Edge, how did it come about and is there any chance we’ll see you doing The Edge again? There isn’t really anything like it: a daily column written and designed by one person.
Harrower: The Edge was my ultimate revenge fantasy: payback for all those years I was stuck in boring meetings, being Prototype Boy at The Oregonian. I started imagining how fun it would be if somebody would actually print the kind of newspaper material WE wanted to read -- we, of course, being smartass Boomers with short attention spans. So I ended up creating this inch-wide column down the left edge of the Living cover, six days of the week, which became a journalistic funhouse filled with quotes, puzzles, odd factoids, Unabomber haikus and Web wit.
And yes, it even won some SND award because it was very design-y, very dependent on type trickery and illustration. In fact, just the other day I was trying to explain the Edge to some visitors from Prague. I was showing them some sample columns, including one of my personal favorites, Mr. Grumpy’s Puzzle Time. Now, I realize that I am the only person on the planet who finds Mr. Grumpy’s Puzzle Time amusing. The idea was this: Mr. Grumpy would give you a puzzle, like:
My father has no son. My mother has no daughter. My sister has no brother and my brother has no sister. Who am I?
And Mr. Grumpy’s solution would be:
You’re a doofus, that’s who you are. Get a life, ya chump.
Hmmm. Maybe that’s a bad example.
Anyway, I quit doing The Edge after three years. It got relentless. Filling a column six days a week was too much like real work. So I decided to kill The Edge -- literally. My plan was to give the column a fatal typographic virus: at first the text would start appearing glike this, ba dlyspa ced, and then it would start ge ttin gwor se andwo rse, until finally the thing would become complete gibberish for a day or two, at which point the editors would mercifully pull the plug.
That was the plan. But my bosses wouldn’t go for it. They claimed the Edge was “too popular” to kill. What a stupid reason to keep doing something!
Their new metaphor became “Saturday Night Live” -- you know how new writers and comics rotate through the show, replacing old ones? Some are good, some are bad, but the show goes on. So, in that spirit, I left. And The Edge rolls on without me.
Cavendish: OK, let’s change directions. What are some papers that are really well designed but maybe don’t get the recognition or credit they deserve?
Harrower: I stumble upon little bursts of brilliance everywhere. But is there one paper that really pulls it all together, day after day? Uhhhhh … no. My ideal newspaper would be a blend of El Norte, The National Post, Correio Braziliense and USA Today. Hey, talk about a paper that hasn’t gotten the recognition it deserves: Over the past decade, the design IQ at USA Today has risen about 20 points. I think they do terrific stuff.
You know what’s interesting? Every year, I conduct dozens of design workshops, and at each workshop, I critique dozens of different papers -- papers like the Lawrence Locomotive and the Santa Fe Gringo & Greaser. Now, you’d think I’d discover countless obscure-yet-wonderful little newspapers from towns like Bozoville or Soggy Bladder.
Sadly, you’d be wrong. There may be 10,000 newspapers currently published in America, but 9,900 of those are understaffed and underdesigned. The best-written, best-edited and best-designed papers are the bigger ones most of us know about. And I guess it makes sense: If you’re a brilliant editor or designer at a tiny paper, it’s only a matter of time before you get wooed away by greater fame and fortune.
On the positive side, though: Newspapers, overall, are more handsome than they’ve ever been. Better color, better type, smarter packaging. Compare today’s typical newspaper with one from 10 years ago and it’s clear that the bar’s been raised.
Cavendish: Any one thing really bug you about how newspapers are designed?
Harrower: Yes. It’s when food sections jump recipes. If I catch you jumping a recipe,
I will hunt you down like a common dog.
Cavendish: What do you think about the 50-inch web? Good thing or bad thing?
Harrower: Remember, it’s not how big your web is, it’s what you DO with your web that — oh, never mind. Actually, size DOESN’T matter. Everybody runs around with their hair on fire when they first realize they’ve got to reduce their web width, but it turns out to be a non-issue. Nothing changes, really. Things look and fit the same, more or less. The only place the narrower web genuinely makes things worse is at all those poor Gannett papers where they’re forced to use that godawful 7-column grid, and the text becomes ridiculously skinny.
Cavendish: I’ve seen the glowing testimonials on the back of your book. Got any that didn’t make it?
Harrower: You mean, because they were too cruel, or too flaky? Apparently, the publisher asked a bunch of folks to submit blurbs, and Harris Siegel, of the Asbury Park Press, gave them several options, like:
“Whether you are in the newspaper design field or just play a designer on TV, this book is required reading.”
“Until I write a book, this is most definitely the book of record on newspaper design.”
“After reading this book you can have just about any job in the newspaper design field -- especially mine.”
That Harris is a pretty funny guy, for a designer. But I think he’s played a little too much hockey without a helmet, if you get my drift.
Cavendish: A longtime fan of yours wants to know, “How did a guy like him luck out and meet a woman like his wife Robin, who is just wayyyyy out of his league?”
Harrower: You know, there was this memorable moment, a couple years after “The Newspaper Designer’s Handbook” was first published. I was talking to students at Northwestern University. One girl introduced herself and said, “Is Robin your wife?”
I said, “Yes, do you know her?”
She said, “Well, you dedicate the book to her. And you have a picture of her HERE” -- she thumbed through the book -- “on page 104. And then you thank her again in the acknowledgements.”
I said, “Wow. You’ve really read the book closely.”
The girl gave me an intense look and said, “You must really love her.”
I was stunned. I said, “Yeah, I’m crazy about her.” But I was amazed and confused that a total stranger would actually be studying that book, forming opinions about my private life. I mean, is that what people DO when they read journalism textbooks? Speculate on the author’s love life? It’s sweet, but it’s kind of creepy, too.
Kind of like your last question.