Despite its name, Ballroom A of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on Saturday morning, June 27, was unlikely to conjure images of Cinderella. With its pastry-laden tables and rows of trade-show booths, it had more of a carnival atmosphere than anything else. Booth Four sat at the back of the room, curtained off like a sideshow tent, and inside was a cluster of round tables, each one appointed with a spread of Association of Alternative Newsweeklies papers and a design expert poised to critique them.
Publications hoping to take advantage of this AAN Convention staple, “Design Critique: See Your Paper Through Another’s Eyes,” submitted a handful of papers for critics’ perusal prior to the convention. “Some people send comments or concerns with their papers, but others don’t send anything,” said Isthmus creative director Ellen Meany, one of the design critics on hand.
The session was structured so that participants could sit at a table and observe others’ critiques as they awaited their own. Austin Chronicle Art Director Taylor Holland was paired with design consultant Kelly Frankeny. He looked on as Frankeny paged through the Baltimore City Paper with editor Lee Gardner. Starting with the cover, she leafed through the pages, pointing throughout to things she liked or disliked. Covering the gamut from branding to typography, she’d say things like, “Your in-house ads don’t look anything like your brand” or “I think these keys help sell the paper.”
Gardner, anxious for feedback given his paper’s recent redesign, was smiling by the end. “That felt great,” he said afterward. “You think you have a good idea, but you don’t know, and it turns out we’re right. People like us.”
Pittsburgh City Paper’s managing editor Chris Potter, whose paper is in the middle of a redesign, fared less well in the critique. “At least we can go forward into that dark night with a better idea of what we’re doing,” he said, adding that his art director will probably say “I told you so” when she finds out what he learned. “We’ll have to walk with our heads hung for a while,” he said.
The potentially grueling sessions often went beyond their allotted times, and participants emerged from the booth like carnies from a dunk tank. Considering the Buckhorn Saloon festivities of the night before, it was an especially early morning, and Meany even had a no-show. But those who dedicated their time left feeling it had been worth it. As Holland put it, “Getting criticized with a hangover is always a bit of fun.”
Nora Ankrum is a proofreader at The Austin Chronicle in Texas. In her spare time she copyedits the zine Two Note Solo.