Tracy Collins hired 40 of the 63 designers on his staff in one fell swoop last summer, getting many of his new employees directly out of college.

They joined him at Gannett’s Phoenix Design Studio, where an average of 14,000 pages are produced each week for nine daily newspapers.

Tracy Collins

That’s a heck of a lot of pages, and a pretty young staff.

The Phoenix studio is one of five U.S. design centers that produce Gannett papers -- the others are Nashville, Tenn.; Des Moines, Iowa; Asbury Park, N.J.; and Louisville, Ky. This hub system for design is becoming more common as news organizations downsize, consolidate and seek more bang for their buck—Cox Media, McClatchy, and Media General have all pursued similar strategies.

The conversion hasn’t been pain-free for Gannett, Collins said in an in-person interview. But design directors like him continue to fine-tune the process, seeking coaching strategies that will develop their designers' skills quickly by offering them regular feedback in highly visible ways. In Collins' case, that means giving the designers a forum to talk about what they're doing and constantly raising the bar for what he expects.

“The young designers might have worked on their school paper, doing three pages each issue,” said Collins. “Now, they come in at night and have 20 or more pages to design and watch over. That’s a big load.”

It's also an accelerated learning curve.

“We used to hire some entry-level people and say, ‘Guess what? For the next 18 months, you’re doing inside pages until we slowly groom you to be a cover designer,’ ” Collins said. “Now, some of these folks are on the job six weeks and they're doing Page A1.”

The huge influx of hires was needed to meet Gannett's schedule of moving the design of nine papers to Phoenix over eight months last year. The company offered jobs to designers at the individual newspapers, but only a few chose to make the move to Phoenix. So Collins went on recruiting missions to universities.

“I called in every favor from university professors that I had helped in the past, saying, 'Who could you send me?' ” he recalled.

Collins said that “we were really short of folks for a long time – until school let out for the summer. Most of our new staffers joined us in June and July.”

The arrival of the new designers came as a reprieve for the existing Phoenix staffers, many of whom had been working seven days a week.

“I often joke with the young staffers here, saying that they won the lottery,” said Collins. “They had people fawning over their skills – even if their skills maybe weren’t as advanced as what we would have considered five years ago. But they are coming right along.”

Here are principles from Collins for training, feedback and team-building:

1. Showcase good work.

Collins started a weekly newsletter for the studio to help the designers understand what was expected and see good work. For the newsletter, he selected a few pages that really stood out and wrote about why they worked. (See examples below.) “I wanted to show a standard so that people could understand what they could aspire to,” he said. “I would hear people all excited, saying ‘Oh, I made the newsletter with my page.’ ”

The studio newsletter comes out once a week.

2. Set clear standards.

Collins worked with other Gannett design directors to create standards for each group to follow, while making sure that papers in different cities kept their own design identities.

"A paper in St. George, Utah, did not want to look like a paper in Jersey City,” Collins said.

Working together, the design directors created a stylebook that standardized the smaller typographic elements (14 points of type and below), while allowing individual papers choices about larger type elements. Those larger elements give papers a chance to be “a bold, black sans-serif newspaper or a laid-back, serif-type newspaper,” Collins said. Next, he added, design tweaks are made "once papers come into the design studio to strengthen them and to try to best reflect the local community."

The front-end system used by the design studios has also been retooled to meet production needs. “If I am working in Salem, there is a tag on the story that will set it up in Salem’s design,” said Collins. “If the story is to be shared with the Palm Springs paper, a different tag will convert it to their style.”

3. Raise the bar.

As his designers' skills improved, "the critique part of the newsletter was almost becoming too unwieldy, because I could pick 45 or 50 pages that had met the bar where we had initially set it,” Collins said.

The answer: raise the bar. When Collins did that, the number of pages dropped to 15 or so per issue. This was good.

Raising the bar meant clearly defining what designers had to do to meet Collins' new expectations -- a design had to be not just a really good idea, but also a capable execution of details.

“It’s not just that you built a good package with a nice piece of art and clean typography, for example, but how the alignments in the package have been fine-tuned,” Collins said.

He began to feature pages that were relatively close to the bar and might have been singled out for praise in the newsletter six months ago. This time, Collins pointed out little details that would have made those pages better.

“I really dissect these pages and I probably go on ad nauseum,” said Collins. “I think all of [the designers] must think that I’m immensely anal-retentive. But I am also starting to see people pay really close attention to detail and to alignment and to organizing their page designs.”

4. Push planning and conversation.

“We sometimes have to force the conversation a bit,” Collins said. “I’ve had to ask some newspapers to institute Sunday enterprise meetings, for example, where they could then invite the designers or the creative directors to talk about how we might be able to put together a more successful package.”

There are drawbacks to the long-distance relationships among the newspapers. Collins sometimes misses the chance for face-to-face collaboration, especially when he recalls  photo discussions where everyone was able to gather around a table covered with pictures.

“It can be difficult to teach young designers about how a photo can and should be treated—especially when they can’t be in conversations with photo editors,” said Collins. “In many cases, the time for conversation is limited. The photo directors at the newspapers are also out shooting photos.”

To bridge such distances, Collins said that “we occasionally use Skype. Not all of the newsrooms are set up for it yet -- it’s part of our learning curve. But there is a real value in being able to hold up a picture and talk about it within the context of a design.”

Advance planning has become a priority for Collins this year.

“We try to send out examples,” he said. “Saying, 'This is how we worked as a result of the conversation and this is what we got as a result. We would like to do that more often with you.' ”

For example, Collins noted that Josh Awtry, editor of The Coloradoan in Ft. Collins, Colo., comes from a really strong visual background, and his planning reflects that background, leading to better results that Phoenix is now trying to replicate.

“I have had other editors in our group call and say, ‘I want what they are getting,’ " Collins said. "So, we start to reverse-engineer the process, to show people how it happens.”

5. Encourage honest, collaborative feedback.

Collins' tips in the newsletter are pragmatic and conversational, going into detail, giving real examples and encouraging people to be honest with each other. Here's some practical advice from a March newsletters about what doesn't work:

Working with people too busy or too polite or too chummy to tell you when something sucks. We are a collegial bunch. And I like that a lot. But you owe it to your friends/co-workers to tell them if something sucks, or even just doesn’t work clearly. It’s for their benefit. For the good of the studio as a whole. Wrong answer: “Cool. Let’s go get coffee.” Right answer: Honesty. Even if it works, tell them why. That part helps you both.

He also calls on designers to share their processes and secrets of successful pages that make it into the newsletter.

6. Share advice and reward excellence.

Collins was determined to find interesting ways to pass along the best advice he received when he was just getting started, and that helped shape his career.

He instituted a monthly contest for designers, naming the awards after three people from whom he had learned a great deal: The Mario award is named for Mario Garcia; the Rodrigo is for Rodrigo Sanchez, creative director of El Mundo’s magazines; and the Zeffer is named after Joe Zeff.

Collins recalled a critique that Garcia gave him in 1994 at the American Press Institute: “Mario said, ‘There’s nothing here that’s going to knock your socks off in the design. But the design works perfectly with the story that had to be told, because it paces the reader through the story.’ And I thought, Yes! We actually thought about that when we were doing it.”

Garcia used the example as a lesson that design needs to be such an integral part of the storytelling that it's seamless to the reader, Collins said.

“That meant so much,” he said, adding that "I have cited this so many times to my staff. It was one of the most influential moments in my career and it gave me a true north compass in trying to develop as a designer.”

At Collins' request, Garcia composed a letter of congratulations to the winner of the first award,. Photos of the three influential designers are posted prominently in the Phoenix studio, and winners also get gift cards and a trophy.

7. Be specific.

Collins' monthly awards go beyond mere recognition, telling the winners -- and those reading -- why their work was singled out.

Here’s an example from the March newsletter:

NEWS/SPORTS: Amy King had a run of terrific Page A1s for The Republic, ranging from daily A1s with breaking news (immigration plan from Capitol Hill), Sunday enterprise (the forgiving father; butterfly disease) and even secondary enterprise (the ideas that led to legislation for Arizona). Inventive typography, fun illustration, visual drama, well executed.

Runner-up: Také Uda did some strong work for Sunday and weekend editions for Reno, Visalia and Great Falls, using bold, smart presentation to sell strong enterprise work that didn’t always lend itself to great art. The key was connecting to the content (sometimes asking for key information to be broken out so he could add visual pop to the covers) and then connecting readers to that content.

BEHIND THE SCENES/INNOVATION: Given the difficulty of finding consistency in the wire workflow in 2012 as we were bringing in papers of all sizes (and the company’s wire initiative was shifting in definition), by December things were admittedly a mess. We began redefining the workflow and in February, Jodie Lau did a lot of the hard work in putting the new workflows into place — from breaking bad news to newsrooms to training them to the changes. All while juggling the loss of a key member of her team. But the hard work has been rewarded in the new workflows.

8. Hire carefully

In hiring, Collins said he looks for two things that might be the hardest elements to teach young designers: “anal-retentiveness when it comes to detail, and great typography. Those are the things that people can’t fake very well.”

“I see a lot of portfolios where I think ‘Wow, I actually know the design that you copied that from,’ ” Collins said. For student work that's OK to a certain degree, he said, noting that inspiration comes from many sources.

“But if I don’t see typographical skills throughout their portfolio, that’s a very telling thing,” he said. “If you don’t have the propensity to do it on your own, you probably won’t be easy to teach. And if type is an afterthought in your design, then that worries me.”

He also looks for what he calls the “design-studio personality” -- someone who is collaborative and will work well with both colleagues in Phoenix and with newspaper staffers over long distances.

As the teaching process continues at Gannett, the demands have been raised for designers to understand the story that’s being told and to be able to pull out and design the pertinent information, said Collins.

“We definitely have folks who understand how to interpret data and layer information," he said. "We're working on strong visual journalism. We lean on that kind of storytelling being integrated in the design.”

* * *

Here's a look at three pages Collins has discussed in recent newsletters, with an eye toward what worked, what didn't and what he's trying to teach:

A tip from Collins, as passed along in the newsletter: "ISSUE: A bad break in an art head is still a bad break. A bad break, for those of you who haven’t done much headline writing, is when you split words across two lines that need to stay together. As you read this headline with words that need to be together, it’s 'Tyson pulls' and 'no punches.' You need to design your art heads in a way that they don’t create bad breaks. Inconvenient? Sometimes. Journalism? Yep."
Here's Collins: "ADDITION BY SUBTRACTION So, it’s not that I didn’t 'get' the illustration (in the headline). I just wouldn’t have used it. And there are several reasons why: 1) What, exactly, is it? It doesn’t match anything I see in the skyline in the 'sculpture,' so there’s no visual signal to the unwashed as to what it’s supposed to be, or whether it’s random. 2) With such an intriguing photograph, with such an unusual image, it really just added competition to a complicated picture. 3) The bunching of the weight in the headline to the left seems to throw things offbalance, when the shape of the picture gives such a great shape to center to. And then in the process, we also lost the centering motif in the jump line. Pretty simple fix. And in the process, enlarged the read-in slightly. But mostly focused on centering things up and allowing the focus to be more on the art."
This page was selected for the newsletter. Here's designer Alisha Williams on the design process: "The original art was just random (weird-angled) shots of dark breweries and glasses of beer. Nothing really lent itself to the bold information of the story. I also really wanted to break the information down into digestible pieces, especially since it’s such a popular event. After some brainstorming with the editor, I suggested using typography as a 'label' without being too literal. I was lucky enough to spot this nice stock shot to keep it all compact too. I love adding small graphic illustrations to stories as entry points, and this one was perfect for it. Once I was happy with the typography and alignments, I added the line art to really tie it altogether."