Los Angeles InDesign User Group

Design Lessons from Things We Do Over and Over

(10 Years of L.A. Times Oscars Coverage)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Los Angeles Times Community Room, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, California 90012

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Original Event Page



By Alvin Takamori




The Los Angeles InDesign User Group met in the Community Room of the Los Angeles Times on July 16, 2013. With a standing-room-only crowd just shy of 100, it was among the top two or three most-well-attended meetings ever.


Originally titled “Design Lessons from Things We Do Over and Over (10 Years of L.A. Times Oscars Coverage),” presenter Michael Whitley changed it slightly to “Repetitive Stress: Lessons from Things We Do Over and Over,” reflecting a wider focus. Michael didn’t just speak on the technical aspects of operating InDesign, but rather on the overall design model into which InDesign fits at The Times. And Michael was uniquely qualified to do that. Currently assistant managing editor and design director at the L.A. Times, he previously held top newspaper design positions at the Charlotte Observer and San Diego Union-Tribune. In addition, he is a coordinator and judge for the Society for News Design’s annual Best of News Design competition.


Even with a topic that included buzzwords guaranteed to excite, two things that made the event come alive were Michael’s witty and knowledgeable speaking style and an A-number-one visual presentation. We’re not talking about a nice template overlaid with the same words he spoke. No, this was a presentation created by a designer for designers. Not only was it visually stunning, but it augmented what he said rather than simply providing a transcript or summary of it.


Michael’s first topic was: “How we ruined our Oscars coverage, but fixed it again.” Michael explained how his responsibility as a news organization designer is to make sure all content is accurate. He began with pictures of himself doing production work for Oscar night as broadcast on the KTLA morning show. He then took us through the process for Times Oscars coverage—editing pictures, watching the show as thousands of photographs are coming in and tweaking pre-show rough layout to match awards night content. Michael explained the process of updating pages and putting them on a wall for discussion and editing, all while the thousands of photos are being evaluated and—in most cases—thrown out.


Michael then talked the group through a content analysis exercise in which Oscars coverage over time had been assessed. He talked about the ups and downs of Los Angeles Times Oscar coverage through the years. As an example, he used a picture of Denzel Washington from 2002 in which the headline, “A Change Has Come,” covered the actor’s image. Michael emphasized that designers often feel compelled to do something different every year. But, as this example illustrated, just doing something different does not equal something better, he said. He also showed a rather uninspired layout with a red headline from 2005, using it to show that his staff sometimes overreacts to their previous work, changing it but not making it better. In this case, asking themselves tough questions about what they really were trying to accomplish and what direction they really wanted to go led the design staff to revamp their cover approach completely, striving to treat the Oscars like the special event it really is.


Michael used the retrospective as an opportunity to say that designers should not be afraid to “steal from themselves,” reusing successful designs or storytelling devices but in a different way. He also advised taking a second look at flawed designs to understand exactly what failed. Although they might not have worked in the past, with a few tweaks they might lead to exactly what is needed in the present. Using images from Oscar coverage throughout the last decade, he showed a progression of cover approaches, including tweaks in font style, evolution of color choices, and a gradual rethinking of how images were best presented. Continuity was evident, but each year reflected a personality of its own.


After the break, Michael continued to give examples to illustrate that the more versions he changed, the more possibilities for improvement he identified. Michael took us through several years of Oscar coverage, with emphasis shifting from a focus on who won to a focus on Times critics’ opinions about those winners. Other memorable pages displayed photos of the backstage area, as well as one broadsheet spread with a single aerial view inside the Kodak Theatre.


Michael also talked about the importance of design details, noting changes from year to year in page toppers – different fonts to different colors to different sizes. One of the mistakes he mentioned was not keeping these functionally consistent.


As Michael said, designers seeking to “dress up” the covers of Oscars-related sections sometimes fell short. A noteworthy example of a design error was a preview edition cover showing Keira Knightley’s nose being butchered by the placement of type in a particularly obtrusive font. The following year, the Times went in a completely different direction for its Oscars preview coverage, turning instead to illustrations. A series of different illustrated covers were printed, each referencing a specific best picture nominee. Depending on which press printed each version, two neighbors might have ended up with completely different covers.





Throughout the night, Michael reiterated simple yet valuable advice to designers:

• Look back at your work, often. Time gives perspective.

• We often overvalue—or undervalue—our previous work.

• Sometimes designs get worse due to: (1) over-thinking or (2) wanting it too much.

• It’s OK to steal from yourself.

• Be ruthless in editing.

• Be a conduit for ideas from all the people you work with.

• Solicit feedback.

• Plan ahead before you overhaul things.

• Get out of your chair to make things happen.

• Talk with other people, including non-designers.

• Our best work is collaborative.

• When we are hardest on ourselves, we get the best result.

• It takes an expert in every discipline to make something the best it can be, not just the best idea for the design.

• Don’t let recognition (or lack of it) cloud your perception of your work.

• A good experience for the readers is the best possible result for anything we publish.


Michael ended his presentation by taking us through his relatively recent experience in creating an E-book for the very first time. He noted that, according to a USC poll, 57 percent of readers have abandoned print books. Handed a deadline to create an E-book within 30 days, at 16 days into the project his staff was seriously afraid they couldn’t pull off the task. But with dedication and some manic self-training, they pulled it off. The end result: a successful E-book and 450 pages of documentation.





Following the presentation, Michael and Les Dunseith—the former graphics director at The Times who had handled logistics for the session and secured Michael as a presenter—led the group on a mini-tour of the L.A. Times, beginning with the world-famous Globe lobby and continuing through the newsroom, including the various design areas where pages are actually created.





A registration to Mogo Media’s InDesign and Creative Suite CC Conference in Chicago was auctioned off, with Donald Tran putting in the highest bid. Both Carly Boulier and Ricardo Torres earned one-year subscriptions to InDesign Magazine for being the two people who traveled the farthest to attend the meeting.


As for the raffle prizes, Robert Cardenas won eDocker Tablet Publisher, Donald Tran (who’s going to be in Chicago in September) won Blacklining for InDesign, Beverly Houwing won access to Adobe’s Creative Cloud for a year, and David Glover (a previous multiple winner) won Markzware’s FlightCheck. On the subscription front, Diana Chamberlain won three months of Fotolia and Aliyana Franklin won three months of 123RF, while Lucy Hawkins won both the Fotolia prize (for the second time) as well as three months access to Stock Layouts. Kelly Fenn won Motion Composer and Beverlin Hill won BannerZest Pro, both from next month’s sponsor, Aquafadas. Chris English (another previous multiple winner) won TypeDNA, and Ricardo Torres won an iDML iPad app. Lucy Hawkins (again) won WidthScribe and David Glover (again) won ColliderScribe, both from Astute Graphics. Finally Sandra Torres, Beverlin Hill, Connie Schurr and Henry Proctor, each took advantage of a LA Web Professionals giveaway to their next meeting.


Two notes on winning raffle prizes. First, if you don’t buy a ticket, you can’t win. Second, the multiple winners tend to buy more tickets than the single prize winners.



Thank you


Thanks to all the sponsors, donors of raffle prizes and donors of auction items: Adobe, Aquafadas, Astute Graphics, DTP Tools, eDocker, Fotolia, HOW Magazine, InDesign Magazine, Inmagine/123RF , Markzware, Mogo Media, O’Reilly Press, Peachpit Press, Stock Layouts, ThePowerXChange and TypeDNA.


Next Meeting


The next meeting of the Los Angeles InDesign User Group will take place in Hollywood one block from the famous Chinese Theatre, September 19, 2013 from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Author Services Building, 7051 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90028. Free parking is available behind the building. Enter the lot from Sycamore.


This two-part meeting begins with “What’s New in InDesign CC” presented by Kelly McCathran, and continues after the break with a presentation by Rob Underwood on Aquafadas’s Digital Publishing System.



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