USA TODAY graphic and photo editor Richard Curtis dies

By David Colton and J. Ford Huffman

Richard Curtis, one of the original designers of USA TODAY’s look, including the bold use of color photography and graphics that revolutionized newspapers in the 1980s, died Sunday. He was 75 years old.

Curtis passed away quietly at home from cancer, surrounded by his wife, Jane, and family.

USA TODAY’s graphics and photography editor for 27 years, Curtis has always said his goal is to be “distinctive” in a crowded, emerging media world.

“You can view a USA TODAY page anywhere, anytime, and it looks like a USA TODAY page whether or not it has the name of the newspaper on it,” Curtis proudly told 2007 Newspapers. »

As a member of the Gannett editorial team that launched USA TODAY in 1982, Curtis helped oversee an unprecedented reliance on pared-down, full-page graphics to convey news and information. He was a tireless advocate of visual storytelling, convincing skeptical editors and reporters that more readers scanned graphics and read photo captions than sometimes read the story itself.

“Today’s readers – especially younger generations – see narrative as the addendum and visual journalism as the core,” Curtis explained, while still cautioning that the strength of visual journalism “is the reporting that hides behind”.

Richard Curtis, editor of the Design Dept.  at USA TODAY, in December 2008.

This uber-visual approach, which many say influenced future online news, has been widely copied by others.

“It’s amazing how many color weather pages made their debut in newspapers in late 1982 and 1983, isn’t it?” Curtis joked in a Poynter Institute interview with George Rorick, who helped design USA TODAY’s groundbreaking full-page weather map.

“That was pretty much the most groundbreaking thing about USA TODAY,” Curtis said. “I remember one of the first surveys we did on the newspaper, and the weather page came up as the ‘second most viewed page’ after page 1.”

A graduate of North Carolina State University’s College of Design, where he remained active for the next few years, Curtis was a newspaper veteran in Baltimore, Miami and St. Petersburg, Florida. He was co-founder of the Society for News Design in 1979, before joining USA TODAY in 1982.

“Richard had a profound impact on journalism and the reporters who worked with him,” said USA TODAY editor Nicole Carroll, who was hired by Curtis in 1995 as a graphics reporter. “He was a visionary. His work, his ambition and his spirit live on in our newsroom and in the pages of USA TODAY.

News of Curtis’ death prompted tributes from reporters:

“Richard Curtis changed the playbook for short story designers,” said Matt Mansfield, CEO of MG Strategy + Design. “His pioneering work at USA TODAY ushered in more than a robust use of color and explanatory graphics. Richard pushed news storytelling toward greater clarity and brevity. I have always considered Richard a strong advocate for busy readers.

USA TODAY weather front page for September 15, 1982/15/1982 in the first edition of the newspaper.

“He gave it his all,” said Mario R. Garcia, founder of Garcia Media. “Richard’s work at USA TODAY convinced reporters that a story could be better when words and images came together.”

Staff members who have worked on the front lines with Curtis say his storytelling mantra has never wavered, whether it’s a full-page dramatic look inside the Statue of Liberty for its centenary in 1986, or small “Snapshot” tables of American ephemera such as the consumption of hot dogs, per billion pounds, each July 4th.

“Explain and educate through illustration,” recalls graphic reporter Joan Murphy. “He challenged us to make each clear and concise, and less wordy. He was a champion of the art.

“I remember him saying, ‘If the graphic doesn’t tell a story and add value, it won’t work,'” said former Page One designer Dash Parham, now at Air Force Magazine. .

“He made us all better reporters and I don’t know how any of us, especially me, would have survived the early days of USA TODAY without him,” said Henry Freeman, the newspaper’s former sports editor. . “We were inventing as we went, thinking outside the box and innovating and no one was better than him.”

“The critics from the journalism world were not kind,” recalled John Walston, former associate editor of USA TODAY. “But working side-by-side with Richard, I knew that every design, every graphic, every photo was driven by news. He never backed down from that.

In 2000, with the paper’s online ascendancy and ’80s look beginning to feel dated and even garish, Curtis oversaw a reimagining of USA TODAY. He added more white space for easier reading, reduced blocky blocks and primaries, and generally opted for a fancier, “less ink” approach.

Most importantly, Curtis chose to use a consistent typeface throughout, from the boldest headlines to the smallest sporty agate. Using a single typeface saved designers “tremendous time” that they could use more creatively, he said.

For all his design intensity, Curtis was also remembered as an approachable North Carolina, preferring plaids, button-up collars, a love of cars, from vintage Porches to go-karts and for playing classical music in his desktop while annotating the proposed layouts. His education at NC State was interrupted by a two-year stint in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, where his father had served in World War II.

The winner of numerous design awards, Curtis has worked on local and national efforts to alleviate hunger, and he and his wife endowed the Richard Allen Curtis Fund for NC State Design Students, where he was chairman of the Board of university visitors.

Nanette Bisher, former president of the Society of News Design, remembers working with Curtis at the Miami News. One panicky morning, she was forced to substitute a black-and-white illustration because the color version could not be found on time.

A few hours later, a black-and-white copy of the cover sat on his desk, with a handwritten comment: “Your best use of color yet!” Richard”.

Curtis, she said, “was a good man and an immense talent. I thank Richard for making our world brighter and more colorful.

Colton is a former editor of USA TODAY; Huffman is a former associate editor of the USA TODAY graphics department.