May 22nd, 2010
On friday, SND Italia moved to Rome for a conference in — weirdly — a building where I lived in the 1990s when I was working on Colors magazine.
The lineup was the same as Milan with one exception, Angelo Rinaldi from La Repubblica substituting for Gianni Valenti from Gazzetta dell Sport. Angelo caught me out by repeating some comments I made about Italian newspapers last year in a column for Internazionale. In the context, they sounded a bit more critical than I intended them to be, but when this stuff lives for ever on the interweb what can you do? But Angelo acknowledged that Italian newsroom culture is pretty conservative and less open to visual journalism than many other places. But he showed some interesting vintage work, like the launch design of La Repubblica by Sergio Ruffolo (apparently, based on the columns and entablatures of classical Roman architecture), some pages from a great redesign of La Stampa in 1989 by Piergiorgio Maoloni, and a fantastic Apollo 11 front from Il Messagero (will try to post some pictures when I get a chance to review them). He also offered a couple of metaphors that say a lot about how Italian editors view their papers, and go some way towards an explanation of why the newspapers seem so dense, so loud, and so crazily full of content: he compared a newspaper to a supermarket, where everything is always on display; and to the menu of a restaurant, which provides everything they know how to cook, and the customer (reader) chooses what they want to eat.
First of the afternoon sessions was current SND president Kris Viesselman who has just left National Geographic for the San Diego Union-Tribune. She spoke about her work developing new products at National Geographic, and gave some tips about how to get creativity and innovation happening in newsrooms. She showed a lot of pages from EarthPulse, a magazine which gives a picture of the world in data and statistics about all sorts of subjects from population and migration to trade and natural resources. It looked like a strong combination of information graphics and data visualisation humanised by some great National Geographic photography. Towards the end she also spoke about the Zinio and iPad versions of the magazines, in which they made a conscious decision to concentrate on photography; all the text is available but the principle is to think of the digital versions of the magazine as more of a photo gallery, an interesting strategy.
Anna Thurfjell from Svenska Dagblad said that the paper had a “near-death experience”, almost closing some years ago, but was saved by their relaunch in August last year. Circulation is now on a 20-year high, so they must be doing something right. She talked us through the details of the very elegant design, including a set of new custom typefaces form Mario Feliciano called Sueca, which looks great, but are unfortunately not available to license yet as SvD’s exclusivity has some to run.
Next up was New York Times information graphics supremo Steve Duenes. Steve told the story of the evolution of the NYT graphics desk from a few cartographers and technical illustrators to a 30-strong team of artists, designers, programmers and reporters (sometimes all at the same time!). Most people in the business will be familiar with some of the great work he showed, but it was great to be reminded of how they manage to create graphic stories from ideas that don’t immediately lend themselves to visual expression. And it was particularly fascinating to see how some of the graphic forms that the NYT adapted form other fields of data visualisation and brought into the newspaper environment (bubbles anyone?) developed in print and then digital. Steve came to the Times from a technology background and more often than not he and his team now develop interactive graphics for the web first and then recycle the elements for print, rather than the other way round.
And finally, editor Walter Marriotti and art director Francesco Franchi did an energetic presentation on their great magazine IL (short for Intelligence in Lifestyle), a monthly supplement to the Milan financial paper Il Sole 24 Ore. I’m a fan but I learnt a lot about the origins of the design, a combination of influences from the classic magazines of the 1950s and 1960s, and the best of contemporary news design. It’s a wide-ranging magazine full of serious writing and reporting as well as softer lifestyle and feature content. They use very intense typography, infographics and some lavish photography to create a really unique magazine with tons of personality; it’s a bit like a kind of Monocle on steroids, but infinitely more exciting (and with a sense of humour).
The round table at the end was a bit lacklustre; maybe everyone was tired (and the not-very-clear translation didn’t help). I gather that that the debate at the MIlan conference (which I missed because I was on the train) was much more animated and passionate. But overall, a great few days that showed there’s a real appetite in Italy to engage with visual journalism even if it goes against the grain of the prevailing news culture. We saw some great work and had some good discussion. One theme that emerged from the talks was a debate over templates. Javier Errea doesnt believe in them at all as they hamper creativity. Others felt that they were essential in some cases to keep the workload under control. I think they have a role to play, if by templating simple pages you can buy space and time to devote some real design energy to the big pages and spreads.
All in all it was a great few days and an encouraging start for the Italian chapter of SND. Personally I had a great time too; seeing old friends, meeting new ones and just enjoying the chance to be back in Rome, seeing beautiful buildings, eating great food and drinking great coffee. I was made to feel very welcome and looked after incredibly well. Grazie a tutti!