by Gill Moodie (@GrubstreetSA)  There is one consistently excellent stand-out newspaper when it comes to front-page design among South Africa’s dailies – and that is Die Burger in Cape Town. So my ears pricked up when I read that the title’s chief sub, Johnn-Grant Munro, picked up the Standard Bank Sikuvile journalism award recently for lay-out and design.

Munro won for his “Ongelooflik” front page of Chad le Clos’ Olympic gold in London and the judges said:

Johnn-Grant Munro seized the excitement of the Chad Le Clos Olympics win … by not choosing the picture that dominated other papers, the one of Le Clos shouting in triumph. Instead Munro chose the moment before, an image of Clos in open-mouthed astonishment, to which he added the headline ON-GE-LOOFLIK, a perfect coupling of words to image. Die Burger devoted the entire top of the page to this one image, which ran right over the masthead area, to make for a spectacular front page.

Grubstreet caught up with Munro this week to find out more about how he works, his design philosophy and why Die Burger is such a handsome newspaper.

Grubstreet: You only do lay-out but you’re called chief sub. How does that work?BurgerOngelooflik

Johnn-Grant Munro: Well, I’m lucky to only do lay-out. I’m the first chief sub at Die Burger who’s been allowed to only do lay-out but otherwise it’s the same traditional subbing night-office…

Grubstreet: A real hallmark of your front pages is having a great pic high up and behind the masthead. Is this part of a design language you’ve developed for the paper?

Munro: You know, I’m not brown-nosing but (Die Burger editor) Bun Booyens is an editor who really appreciates design and is always looking to innovate. We started talking and working on a few things and this photo-behind-the-masthead thing came about naturally but also because we’d decided we wanted to use the space above the fold optimally and to good effect.

Also, about two years ago (US design consultant) Charles Apple visited us and gave us a small presentation on plugs. I talked to him a lot and, from there, we realised the plugs were probably one of the most important things above the fold. So we try to be innovative and build in a surprise element and variety.

And because we want to use the space to the maximum, if you use that type of big plug behind the masthead, it becomes the main photo and you’ve got a lot more space…

Grubstreet: When you say “plugs” I think my term for them in the subsrooms I’ve worked is “sky boxes” (at the top of a front page with images and teasers for stories inside).

Munro: Ja, that’s right.

Die-Burger_20130227.jpgGrubstreet: It sounds like, crucially, there’s a lot of conceptualisation with the editor on the front page.

Munro: Definitely…. I start a bit earlier (at 2pm – earlier than most daily chief subs, who tend to start at 4pm) to give me time to conceptualise when necessary… What works well is when I go in at 2pm, I go through everything (on the diary) and try build beautiful plugs. Then I take these to our first meeting (of senior editors and managers) and we will discuss it and Bun will say: “No, let’s rather plug this” or “Work a bit more with this plug” – or someone else will make a suggestion – and we take it from there.

But with big planned front pages (such as the Budget speech, where Die Burger used a Pacman motif), I will work on an idea for about one or two weeks – and continue to show it to Bun and it develops from there.

Grubstreet: The Media24 graphic design team (which are based in Jo’burg but two of the team members are in Cape Town) is very good so that must be a help.

Munro: Yes. I’m not a graphic designer and they are very approachable. Sometimes I just ask them for feedback (on my work) and it helps a lot… I must just add that the night production office – or nagkantoor – also helps a lot with very important aspects, for example, subbing, making sure all the story-telling devices makes sense, checking that all the visual stuff still works from a language point of view.

Grubstreet: To me, the key thing about Die Burger’s front pages is that you commit properly to a look or a picture – and go big and bold.

Munro: Ja, the thing is you mustn’t be scared to just plug one thing in your sky boxes.

The most difficult thing at first was deciding – according to news weight – when to go big with a sky box. So if Oscar shoots Reeva, you decide: “I’m going to go big.”

It’s a case of constant planning and talking about it. There’s no real secret.

Die-Burger_20130530.jpgGrubstreet: Do you think it’s important to Die Burger’s readers for the paper to look sophisticated?

Munro: I hope so but you know, I read something on (US designer) Mario Garcia’s blog, where he said something like: “Lay-out shouldn’t be noticed. It must just enhance”.

I really believe that’s true.

I think people do notice to some extent. We do get people commenting on our lay-out when we post a low-res of the front page on our Facebook page every day but I do think that mainly we’re there to enhance editorial and sell the paper.

I think people respond positively to good design – or they know it looks nice but they don’t know why. And that’s cool – that’s a job well done from our side. Some thing I must add is that the most important thing was getting everyone on board (in the newsroom) – from journalists to news editors – to think a bit more visually about their stories. What has played a big part is that our news editor (Aldi Schoeman) started pushing that a lot – and the staff started buying into it. So it’s a constant team effort.

Grubstreet: And it’s fun for everyone to think more visually.

Munro: Exactly.

– SA’s leading media commentator, Gill Moodie, offers intelligence on media – old and new. Reprinted from her site Grubstreet.

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