January 23, 2007

Headline views: Pickton trial perfect for page one design debate

On Monday, the design of newspapers was the topic.

And why not, especially when there's a story as big as Robert William Pickton's trial? How do and should newspapers design headlines to get your attention when the news is as explosive and gruesome as this?

The Vancouver Sun's page-one design marking the first day of the Pickton trial was pretty dramatic.

It's a page that's hard not to notice and even harder to forget. It has the words, "Day One," in bold, 2-inch, upper case letters. Under it in smaller letters, "Pickton on Trial", and below that are the pictures of the six women Pickton is accused of murdering. You could see everywhere around town (I did on my commute to the CBC) and it garnered quite a few comments from non-newspeople.

Of course, there were questions about what is tasteful and what is not. Word choice, font size and the use of negative space all add up to some impression - it could be seen as salacious or, depending on who you are, as careful. And to get a handle on this, I spoke with a number of designers and journalists from across the country who know a thing or two about a good headline.

Gordon Preece, art director of the Winnipeg Fress Press, said, "When you look at a page like that, there's no doubt that their box sales and source sales will be up and when you see a strong headline there's no doubt what this is about."

Preece admired the clarity of the "Day One"." He said, "It is very clear typographically and the white space does add a tone of respect."

Preece also said it's hard to explain how one font size can seem respectful and yet a headline just a smidgeon larger can appear blaring and insensitive.

But ultimately, "There times you have to go big or go home."

Neil Graham did not agree with the choice.

Graham is a journalism professor at Langara and used to be the managing editor of The Province.

He said, "If you don't like this one issue, this cover will turn a reader off in general and while there's a lot who will follow the trial, there are a lot people who don't want to hear about any gore."

He prefered The Province's cover which also gave space to a shoplifting story and sports.

Tony Sutton, the man responsible for the makeover of the Globe and Mail in the 1990s, said Monday's page lacked a vigour. "Not sure what the excitement is about with the Sun's front page. Yes, it's tabloid in appearance, but has no tabloid vision or excitement - the page tells me nothing that I don't already know and it tells me it badly."

"Now, imagine what a REAL tabloid, such as the London Sun, would do with the story: it would get an exclusive angle that its rivals wouldn't have; it would give it a real headline and its presentation would make me (and you) pick it up and turn the pages."

Well, I had a chance to hear what The Vancouver Sun thinking. I visited the broadsheet's headquarters and met up with Stewart Muir. Muir is the deputy managing editor and the one responsible for the front page look that day.

Here's what he had to say. Listen, 7 min 41 sec.

January 15, 2007

Jesse Read on making double-reeds


From time to time, Vancouver by Design looks at the "other arts." Those are the skilled artisanal crafts and design traditions that are over-looked by most mainstream design journalists. And this week, my interest in the Other Arts lead me to the office and practice studio of Jesse Read. Read is a bassoonist and director of the School of Music at the University of British Columbia.

Read is also a masterful reed-maker, particulary double reeds used to play oboes and bassoons. Learning to cut a reed is a mandatory skill for reed players and Jesse took the time to give me a primer on reed-making. Listen, 7 mins. 6 secs.

Also check out Read's latest album with guitarist Michael Strutt, Stroll In The Cool.

January 9, 2007

Original BC Place roof engineers split over design issues

(This Vancouver by Design column originally aired On The Coast on CBC Radio One in Vancouver)

One of the original partners in the design company behind BC Place's roof told Vancouver By Design he left the company precisely because of a dispute over the design of such structures.

Horst Berger was one half of Geiger Berger - the company which designed the stadium's air supported roof; it collapsed last week after tearing.

Described by local engineers, as "daring, innovative, and pre-eminent" in the field of fabric roofs, Berger ended his partnership with David Geiger in 1983, the same year BC Place was completed.

Berger, 80, spoke to VBD by phone from his residence in New York state. When told about the tear and subsequent deflation, Berger said, "I'm not surprised."

"The air-supported structure depends on a mechanical system and that is it's Achilles heel."

Membrane roofs like the one on BC Place require pumped in air to keep the dome inflated and further require heaters to melt the snow.

Berger says, "You can not possibly design it [an inflated roof] to counteract a snow load. And I'm a conservative engineer. I want my design to last a thousand years."

But Geiger Berger's inflated roofs are entirely dependent on building owners following maintenance and operation protocols to keep the them up.

"And that's why I broke up the partnership," says Berger.

According to tent designer and engineer, Gery Warner of Tentnology, a large tent design firm in Vancouver, engineers specialized in the field of membrane or fabric roofs considered David Geiger, who is now deceased, as the "air-supported guy and Horst Berger as the tensile structure guy."

In tensile design, cables are used to hold the membranes up. Air-supported membranes use cables to keep the roof from billowing up - this cheaper technology was actually the brainchild of David Geiger.

But Berger says, "The structures are too unstable. It has to be air-tight to perform. Once there is a tear, it loses stability and the roof fails."

"That's why you haven't seen new ones being built."

After his breakup with Geiger, Berger started his own engineering firm with a focus on tensile structures like the sail-like roof of Canada Place in Vancouver, which Berger designed while at Geiger Berger. Berger points to the Denver International Airport, which he designed, as an example of the comparative robustness of tensile design. Denver has experienced record snowfalls this winter.

It is still unclear why BC Place's roof has failed though snowload and high-winds are possible causes.

Technically speaking, the present deflated position of BC Place's roof makes it now a tensile structure. However, in that position the roof will not be able to used its heaters to melt any accumulating snow and as of Tuesday night, the forecast is for up to 5 to 15 cm of snow.

Geiger engineer Kris Hamilton, based in Bellingham, Washington, says the roof in its inverted condition can sustain a snowload of 12 pounds per square feet. Under the building code, structures in Vancouver are required to endure snowloads greater than three times that amount.

BC Place general Howard Crosley told CBC Radio reporter Terry Donnelly the roof will not be damaged by the expected snowfall.

January 2, 2007

Fashionable men's New Year's tips

Just wrote my first menswear column for The Georgia Straight on how to dress up for New Year's Eve. Too late for this year but it contains sound advice for the other 364 days.