In the years since I left the cold, cold north — we moved out of Iowa back in 2003 — I’ve managed to throw out most of my warm clothes. No sweaters. No hats or heavy jackets. My snow boots dry-rotted years ago.
For the past 12 years, I’ve enjoyed living in relatively balmy Virginia Beach, Orange County and, now, South Texas. And, to give me some credit, I agreed to this teaching + consulting trip to Fargo, N.D., last fall, when I was toasty warm in Southern California. I just assumed I’d be able to deal with whatever mother nature threw at me.
So it was with a bit of alarm that I watched the extended forecast roll in the week before I left.
That showed a full week below freezing and lows, four out of six nights, below zero. What it doesn’t show is the wind chill. And it’s very windy in Fargo, this time of year. This screen snapshot from my phone the day I departed showed a wind chill factor of minus 40.
Minus 40. Wow.
In fact, it was closer to minus 30 when I arrived last Sunday night. Obviously, I survived.
I took my thickest coat — which really isn’t all that thick — my one pair of gloves and the wonderful scarf that was a gift from my friends in South Africa. I left my usual Hawaiian-themed shirts at home and took the warmest clothes I could find in my closet. I have a limited number of long-sleeved shirts. I took all but two with me.
The hospitality I received from my new friends at the Forum of Fargo/Moorehead was just wonderful. Editor Matt Von Pinnon met me at the airport with two things: A sign, made by his daughter…
…and a knit stocking cap. Which I didn’t actually use all week long. But Matt was afraid I’d hurt my ears walking around in the cold.
I arrived at my hotel — the Radisson, in downtown Fargo — just early enough to glimpse the area in the fading sunlight.
It looked cold outside and it was. My hotel was, in fact, the tallest building in town. This is what it looked like, later in the week.
I was on the sixth floor and I was never really uncomfortable at any time… as long as I was inside. The folks there know that, when you walk in, you’ll be awfully chilly. So they have this fire-burning heater set in the wall by the front door.
I’d walk downstairs to find folks crowded around that thing, trying to thaw out their fingers.
Bright and early Monday, I had breakfast in the in-house restaurant on the second floor of the Radisson, from which I had a clear view of the Forum Communications building.
That shows how far I had to walk in the frigid air every morning: Exactly one block. It took me maybe a minute.
Every day at 9 a.m. or so, I’d walk in the front door…
…receive a friendly greeting from both the receptionist and from this bronze kid hawking newspapers…
…and ride up the elevator to the newsroom, where they hold the morning news huddle every day at 9:15.
Interestingly, they begin every morning huddle with a trivia quiz by Jack Zaleski, the editorial page editor sitting here to the right of Matt.
Jack would read off five questions. Folks would write down their guesses on the back of their daily budgets and then compare their answers to Jack’s answers after the meeting.
I managed to hit five out of five on Tuesday. Which kind of made up for my dismal performances on the other days.
On Monday, we hooked up my laptop to the brand-new oversized newsroom flatscreen — They used my visit as an excuse to upgrade, I was told — and I gave an updated version of my Graphics for Word People talk and a presentation on basic charting.
One of the things that delighted me about this trip was how quickly and how enthusiastically the staff of the Forum picked up on the lessons I bought them. We spent some time Monday looking at spectacular pages built by papers around the world, blowing most of the stories off page one — when the news merited it, of course.
That very afternoon, we discussed how to present the story about a hotly contested runoff election. Was a boxing metaphor appropriate? Yes it was. So I fished out of my hard drive a few Chris Morris illustrations from a while back and showed them to the Forum‘s super-terrific artist, Troy Becker.
Troy put his own spin on the idea and turned Tuesday’s front page into an entire boxing poster.
Holy cow. It happened so fast that it really caught me off guard. That suggested these folks were really, really hungry for inspiration.
We also spent a lot of time talking about alternative approaches and things like quick-and-easy “big numbers” graphics. The Forum‘s design director, Jason Miller…
decided this was the way to go for Wednesday’s paper. And darned if he didn’t knock it out of the park.
He even sampled the red color out of the photo, to help the centerpiece hold together.
Later in the week, we talked about skyboxes. Most newspapers build boring, ordinary skyboxes that aren’t very effective at catching anyone’s eye. Which, of course, defeats the purpose of a skybox in the first place. We talked about how skyboxes need to be selected more wisely, cropped better, constructed more effectively and written in a more snappy manner.
And occasionally, maybe — just maybe — a skybox might interact with the paper’s nameplate. We looked at a lot of examples of cool, eyecatching skyboxes. Everyone seemed to appreciate the session.
So, for Thursday’s paper, Troy illustrated the front of the daily features section…
…and they decided they wanted to put this in the skybox. Troy’s artwork converted nicely for a fun piece of art. But that day, the staff went a step further when Troy suggested this catchy headline:
So by midweek, I was completely knocked out by what the Forum staff was doing with the topics were were covering each day.
On Wednesday, however, we changed everything up. Forum Communications owns dozens of other papers around the region, including maybe 12 or 15 dailies. The ownership had asked all the other dailies if they wanted to attend a few sessions. I’m told they expected maybe a handful of additional people to show up. Instead, we had 45 or 50 responses.
This was too many people to see my presentations on the new widescreen and it was too many people to stuff into the largest conference room in the building. So for the first time in my life, I got to play Broadway.
In order to get there from the hotel, I had to walk a block in the opposite direction from the newspaper, turn left and then walk another block. The meeting place was then directly across the street.
We met in a little building that held a coffee shop, an art studio and a marketing firm. In the back of the building was a cute little venue called Studio 222. The operator, Spider Johnk rents it out for speeches, concerts and whatnot.
In fact, I had to giggle when I saw myself listed on their calendar.
Every Friday night, Spider’s Studio 222 hosts a live jazz show. So the place had a basement jazz club kind of feel to it, including vintage advertising-type art.
Naturally, I had to introduce myself to the gorgeous lady on the wall.
Folks from all over the chain came to see my presentations. On a few occasions, folks from the Forum staff came over too, packing the place pretty tightly.
Over the course of Wednesday and Thursday, I gave eight presentations there at Studio 222. I spoke on the aforementioned Skybox design and proactivity for visual journalists. I spoke on breaking news visuals and showed sketches from the old days when I covered plane crashes and shooting sprees.
I spoke on alternative story forms and techniques for scrounging when centerpiece art is scarce. And, of course, I gave my old Art of Being Brilliant motivational talk. I hadn’t done that one in a while.
And I showed folks some material I’ve not shown in a long, long time. I was especially delighted with this picture — one of the best ever taken of me teaching.
One staffer tweeted this really awesome quote — one so awesome I don’t even remember saying it.
Turns out, I was talking about the complicated blends in the water in that battleship graphic from 1995. The folks at Adobe told me the water was clearly drawn in photoshop and then placed as an eps image. But no, it was all vector blends. I don’t think they believed me until we sent them a copy of the graphic on a syquest disc.
The folks in Fargo me me feel like such a rock star. I just hope I made last week’s shows worth their time.
And, on occasion, I learned something new myself. I knew it was possible to create artwork on an iPad, but I hadn’t seen anyone actually do it until Friday, when Troy Becker showed me his cartoon work.
Troy creates two cartoons a week for the Forum‘s sports section. He uses his iPad, a stylus and an application called Sketches.
The pro edition of Sketches costs $4.99. Plus, you could pay an additional $1.99 for “more tools.” And then $1.99 for a layers version. And then $1.99 for a version enabled for use with a stylus.
So the outlay would could be as much as eleven bucks, depending on how you need to configure your app. But you get so much function for this. Note the various pen tools on the left side of Troy’s screen.
This photo looks pretty rough, but the actual artwork on Troy’s Retina screen was perfect.
Troy then uses the various pens and whatnot to trace directly over his pencil sketch. A wide variety of textures and effects are literally at his fingertips.
Once the drawing is done, he fills in the image with, y’know, 50 shades of grey. Or maybe just three or four shades of grey.
He moves the result over to his computer, where he adds the text…
…which, I might add, is made from his own handwriting.
So as I was wrapping up and saying my goodbyes Friday afternoon, I found this little gem on Twitter.
Not only did they decide to put Leonard Nimoy in the Skybox for Saturday’s paper, they had Spock’s Vulcan salute take the place of the “u” in Forum. I couldn’t get over how well this fulfilled the challenges I laid out for them in Wednesday’s session on skyboxes.
Jason told me that he designed the thing but then turned it over to designer Alicia Strnad – a comics and sci-fi fan — to write the actual text.
Alicia came up with that particular quote from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
I was so thrilled. What a great week it had been. In addition, Jason built a huge page-one bar chart for Saturday’s page one and another one for Sunday’s metro front.
I got up mighty early Saturday and took the shuttle to the airport long before dawn. The sun came up as we were sitting on the tarmac, waiting for our plane to be de-iced.
The window was too fogged to see it clearly. But Saturday’s dawn was certainly colorful enough.
I flew to O’Hare and then to Austin, retrieved my car and then drove the two hours home to Victoria. Where I was delighted to discover that a) My cats were just fine, b) My daughter didn’t host a party in my absence, and c) My own paper, the Victoria Advocate, looked pretty good during my absence.
So it was a wonderful week in Fargo. Just fantastic.