SOJ Insider | J Ford Huffman

Thinking outside the box

J. Ford Huffman challenges students to see design differently

By Patty Irizarry

All journalism is visual, according to J. Ford Huffman, former deputy managing editor in the design department of USA TODAY.

In March, SOJ alumnus J. Ford Huffman (BSJ, 1972) spent three days at WVU and the School of Journalism talking to students and faculty about the importance of page design and composition for news publications.

Associate Professor Joel Beeson described Huffman as a “legend” in newspaper design. In early 1981, Huffman helped design the first prototypes of USA TODAY and, at the paper’s start in 1982, was a content editor of the life section. More recently, he is known for his work designing the front page of the Sept. 12, 2001, issue of the paper.

“It seems to me that all journalism is visual,” said Huffman. “I have never been asked by someone if they can read my newspaper. Instead, they ask if they may look at the paper.”

During his presentation to Beeson’s introduction to visual journalism class, Huffman pointed out a study done by the Poynter Institute in the 1990s that showed how people read the newspaper. The study showed that readers look at the art before they read the headlines, cutlines and text. Huffman said that 25 percent of the text is seen but only 12 percent of the text is actually read. Huffman said that a visually compelling presentation can help direct readers to the text.

“You have to look at the world in different ways.”
                         - J. Ford Huffman

Huffman challenged the class to participate in an exercise with construction paper and colored markers. The students were instructed to fold their papers in half, tear the papers on the fold two times and tear the middle of the papers to form a ‘C.’ When the students opened their papers, they saw that they had made frames. Huffman then asked the students to look everywhere in the classroom inside their frames. The exercise was meant to help students see things from a different perspective.

“We have to see things through the eyes, ears and mouths of the people,” said Huffman. “You have to look at the world in different ways. If you do that, you will be a better journalist.”

With the students holding the colored markers that Huffman brought, he explained that part of his thinking process, in terms of page layout, is seeing things through different colors.

“In order to train your mind to think differently, look at things in different colors,” said Huffman. He advised students to jot down their ideas in a notebook as inspiration for future projects.

Huffman brought some examples of layouts from USA TODAY that he had designed.

One September 2007 page displayed an illustration of a vintage cardboard home being crushed by a red vise. The story that ran alongside the illustration was about the housing and mortgage crisis.
It was a simple illustration, but USA TODAY’s editors felt that the realism of the image was a powerful way to draw readers into the story.

Huffman retired from USA TODAY in December 2007 and is currently working with The Washington Post to help transform the graphics and visual display throughout the A section and is a consultant for other newspapers.

Huffman reminded students to view the world and their careers with an open mind.

“As journalists, see things the way you always have and see things differently,” said Huffman. “Take every opportunity you can.”


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