USA Today‘s new design editor, Abby Westcott, might disagree with me, but I think USA Today has made a big change recently in the way its front page looks.

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The paper has broken out of the formatted, heavily-policed look its had nearly since it first hit those funky-shaped newsracks in 1982.

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USA Today redesigned two years ago — you might recall I was less than complimentary at the time (here and here and here) — but I still think the look of the paper seemed a bit bottled up… “blue ball” logos notwithstanding.

But then, two months ago, USA Today brought in Abby from Gannett’s Asbury Park design studio.

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The result has been some of the best-looking pages the paper has published in years.

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Abby took a few minutes to answer some questions for us…

Q. What’s behind this new look for USA Today? Is this simple evolution or was this a deliberate effort to change visual direction?

A. I wouldn’t say this is a new look. It’s more of an evolution based on the redesign by Wollf Olins in 2012.

Bringing in someone new offers a fresh eye on what already exists as the visual identity. I am using the elements and page structure that already existed and trying to use them in a different way. The redesign was clean, simple and smart, so I’m leaning towards making visual decisions to reflect those things.

Most of my design influence comes from the Asbury Park Design Studio where I worked for three years.

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The style I picked up there is definitely influencing the work I am doing at USAT, and has crossed over to produce something fresh.

The push for this visual “evolution” began with Gannett’s launch of the Butterfly initiative in October 2013. Butterfly is the code name for a long-term project linking Gannett’s community papers and USA Today. A condensed version of USA Today appears seven days a week in 35 Gannett newspapers — so far — including papers in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Rochester, N.Y., Palm Springs, Nashville, Louisville, Green Bay, Florida Today and elsewhere. Including Sports, the insert ranges from eight pages to as many as 22 pages on Sundays.

The circulation of USA Today has doubled because of this, so a large focus has been pushed to Butterfly, especially the Saturday and Sunday editions.

Q. It’s certainly different, after 32 years of a highly formatted front page. What’s the process? Are you sketching up ideas and getting them approved?

A. Again, I see this more as an evolution.

The process all starts with a conversation. During the week, I work with the executive editor, David Colton, who gives me the freedom to use my discretion for the visuals. For the weekend editions, I get input from my page one editor, John Siniff, and photo editor, Chris Powers. As soon as I met these two, I knew we had a unique chemistry that would produce something different. We were all brought in to work on Butterfly and are on the same page with what we want to see in terms of visual storytelling.

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If we know we don’t have any strong cover images, I come up with several concepts and run them past John and Chris. As a team, we decide which one works the best. They have both been essential to making the evolution of Butterfly happen, and have been extremely open to the visual direction I have been offering.

Q. Clearly, you’re getting support from your editors. Tell me a little about how the approval process has gone. 

A.I don’t think I have received any negative reactions. All I have heard is extremely positive feedback from everyone.

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Q. Are you doing your own illustrations or Photoshop work for your centerpieces? Or do you have to put in a rush request for art?

A. Because I work on the weekend editions in advance, I have the freedom to execute my own illustrations and Photoshop work for enterprise stories.

I recently started collaborating with the graphics department on a yearlong mental health series and I’m looking forward to continuing this process to have more cohesive print and online packages for enterprise stories.

Q. It’s not just the design that’s changed, it’s the headlines.

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Are you coming up with the headlines, too?

A. The headlines are courtesy of John Siniff. He comes up with great headlines. Sometimes, I offer input if I have a design idea that doesn’t work with a particular headline, or if I want to do a typographic treatment that needs different words.

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I really like the conversational style of the headlines John writes. They are engaging and make you want to read the story.

Q. Tell me about the blue dot. The samples you sent me have only one blue-dot illustration.

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Do you recommend ideas that dovetail with your design? Or is that done separately?

A. The graphics department designs the blue dot. It usually runs in the national edition that dovetails stories.

Since Butterfly isn’t the “front cover” of the community Gannett papers, we scaled back the masthead and promos so they aren’t as loud.

Q. How many page-one designers work at USA Today? Do you do page one five nights a week, or do you switch off onto other sections from time to time?

A. On a typical night, we have one lead designer for the national edition 1A, and one lead designer for Butterfly cover.

Jim Sergeant leads our design team. I design the Butterfly cover five days a week, but am focusing most of my energy on the weekend editions. If I want to spend extra time on weekend covers, I can ask another designer to pick up pages for me.

We also work with several contacts in all of the studios for Butterfly who I hand pages off to when I leave.

Q. You also sent me a number of gorgeous photo pages.

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I don’t recall seeing a lot of that before in USA Today. How often does the paper do this? 

A. I am actually really excited about these photo pages. Not a lot of papers are running them anymore, so it’s a rare opportunity to get to design these.

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Chris Powers and I work on photo pages for Butterfly once a week at the minimum, and occasionally a few other times a week when there are larger page plans. We have full pages to work with and is a great way to get this kind of content in.

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Q. You’ve been at USA Today for just over two months, now. What has surprised you the most about the place?

A. I was surprised by everyone’s openness to my ideas. I have been given a lot of freedom to explore things.

Q. So, what’s been your favorite tourist stop in D.C. so far?

A. Of course the Newseum is one of my favorite stops.

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Yards Park is also a really great area if you wanted something a little less frequented.

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A 2008 graduate of Ball State University, Abby interned at the Daily Times of Noblesville, Ind., before launching her career at the Times of Wilson, N.C. She moved to the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal in 2009 as copy desk chief and then moved again to the Asbury Park Press in 2010.

That paper’s design desk, of course, was folded into the design studio in 2011. Abby spent two years designing features for the studio before being named lead designer for the Rochester, N.Y., Democrat & Chronicle a year ago.

She moved to USA Today in March.

Find Abby’s portfolio here and her Twitter feed here.