Richard Curtis: One of the Original Designers of the Look of USA TODAY That Revolutionized Newspaper Design In the 1980s

From a USA TODAY obit by David Colton and J. Ford Huffman headlined “USA TODAY’S Richard Curtis, a visionary of storytelling, dies at 75”:

Richard Curtis, one of the original designers of the look and feel of USA TODAY, including the bold use of color photography and graphics that revolutionized newspapers in the 1980s, died on Sunday.

The managing editor of USA TODAY’s graphics and photography department for 27 years, Curtis always said his goal was to be “distinctive” in a crowded and emerging media world….

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

“Today’s readers – especially younger generations – see the narrative as the addendum and visual journalism as the core,” Curtis argued, while always cautioning that the strength of visual journalism “is the reporting that goes on behind it.”

That uber-visual approach, which many say was an influencer of online news to come, was widely copied by others.

“It’s amazing how many color weather pages debuted in newspapers in late 1982 and ’83, isn’t it?” Curtis joked in a Poynter Institute interview with George Rorick, who helped design USA TODAY’s groundbreaking full-page Weather Map….

A graduate of North Carolina State University’s College of Design, where he remained active in later years, Curtis was a veteran of newspapers in Baltimore, Miami and  St. Petersburg, Florida. He was a 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 journalists who worked with him,” said Nicole Carroll, USA TODAY editor in chief, 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.”…

Staffers who worked on the front lines with Curtis say his storytelling mantra never varied, whether it was a dramatic full-page look inside the Statue of Liberty for its centennial in 1986, or the small “Snapshot” charts of American ephemera such as hotdog consumption, by the billions of pounds, every Fourth of July.

“Explain and educate by illustration,” remembered graphics reporter Joan Murphy. “He challenged us to make each one 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 will not run,’” said former Page One designer Dash Parham, now at Air Force Magazine.

“He made all of us better journalists 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, former Sports managing editor at the paper. “We were making it up as we went, thinking outside the box, and innovating and no one was better at it than he was.”

“Criticism from the journalism world was not kind,” recalled John Walston, former deputy managing editor at USA TODAY. “But working side by side with Richard I knew that every design, every graphic, every photo was driven with news in mind. He never flinched from that.”

By 2000, with online ascendant and the newspaper’s 80s-era look starting to feel dated and even garish, Curtis oversaw a reimagining of USA TODAY. He added more white space for ease of reading, reduced blocky boxes and primary colors, and generally went for a more sophisticated, “less ink” approach.

Most important, Curtis chose to go with a consistent typeface throughout the paper, from the boldest headlines to tiniest sports agate….

For all his design intensity, Curtis was also remembered as an approachable North Carolinian favoring plaid, button-down collars, a love of cars from vintage Porches to go-karts and for playing classical music in his office while marking up proposed layouts. His studies at N.C. State were interrupted by a two-year stint in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, where his father had served in World War II.

Winner of numerous design awards, Curtis worked on local and national efforts to combat hunger, and he and his wife endowed the Richard Allen Curtis Fund for Design Students at N.C. State, where he was chairman of the university’s Board of Visitors.

Nanette Bisher, a 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 by deadline.

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

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

Colton is a former executive editor of USA TODAY; Huffman is a former deputy managing editor in the USA TODAY Graphics Department. 

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