I’d been told many times about SND before the event actually came around. A graduate of my program here at Newhouse, a coworker at The Daily Orange and some professors all had nothing but good things to say about it — they hyped it up, had me thinking nonstop about what was to come in the weeks leading up to the judging, and gave me good reason to set my expectations high. It’s easy to be let down when expectations are set high from the beginning, but that was far from the case. SND was one of the greatest opportunities I’ve ever had as designer hopeful, and I’ll be remembering it always, hoping to return again in the near future.
At SND, I learned that news design does not have to be the greatest thing since sliced bread to be the best, despite the constant desire for innovation. News design is not about designers showing off their Photoshop capabilities; it’s about who can conceptualize the best way to tell a story, and do so in ways that haven’t been done many times or at all before. For example, one of the papers that was up for medal discussion in the news category, and which I believe received a Silver medal, used a small, compelling photo, a headline and the article below it, lots of whitespace on the page and nothing more. Most papers would never dare run an excellent photo small, but this paper chose to do so to really draw the reader in. Readers couldn’t help but look at that photo closely because it was small and the only image on the page. Yet there was nothing about that design whatsoever that was technically difficult.
I also learned, or rather further confirmed, that I do have a distinct design aesthetic. While more often than not I agreed with the judges in their choices for Awards of Excellence and medal contenders, there was one entry hovering between Award of Excellence and Silver that I thought deserved the medal that did not receive it. Part of the criticism was that, as a portfolio, the judges wanted to believe beyond doubt that the same person created every page, and they didn’t see the same stylistic approach in all of the pages. They debated for a while because they also appreciated the ability to show a wide range of design styles, but they didn’t award the Silver in part because it didn’t feel like one designer’s portfolio. I heard what they had to say, valued it and understood their decision, but I didn’t agree. I thought every page worked seamlessly together and that there was a clear stylistic link between each one. And I learned that it’s OK that I didn’t agree — designers don’t agree — and while part of me wants to agree with everything they said and did because they’re the professionals, a greater part of me is glad to know that I do have my own preferences and arguments, and that I’m willing to believe in them.
I conversed with judges about their own professions as well as about the competition itself. I learned what kinds of criteria make a certain entry a conflict: you work at that paper, you have worked at that paper or your girlfriend works at that paper, for example. I learned that judges are only allowed to judge once every seven years, so they take their once-in-a-long-time opportunity very seriously, but still have so much fun.
I also had the chance to converse with so many design professionals that weren’t judging — one team leader gave me far more valuable career and life advice than I ever could have imagined receiving. That was one of the most valuable conversations I’ve ever had as an aspiring design professional. (For that alone I am so glad I decided to go to karaoke, because I wouldn’t have had the time to have that conversation at the judging! But I’m also so glad I went because it was an all-around blast.)
There were times over the SND weekend that I was exhausted, slightly pained and worried about homework, but I wouldn’t have traded that weekend for the world. I was able to work around classes and stay through the end of the judging, and the Best In Show discussion was probably the most valuable of all the medal discussions I heard all weekend. That heated, back-and-forth debate had me changing my mind constantly about which design I thought deserved the honor, and I don’t think I ever made up my mind.
While the incredible design made the weekend something special, the incredible people made it something spectacular. It was a little strange at first being in a friendly environment with people who might one day be my bosses or colleagues, but everyone was so welcoming, funny and easy-going. Everyone was wonderful, and I look forward to interacting with some of them again sooner rather than later.
And news design isn’t going anywhere — the news world needs people who can critique storytelling in this fashion, whether or not newspapers last more than 10 years. The future will be different from the present, and innovation is key, but I believe (and hope) that the passion and appreciation for design that was shown at SND won’t waver anytime soon.