A letter writer told Deseret News Forum readers last week that the paper's new design was no substitute for good prose.

No editor would argue that point with him. Not many, however, would agree with his characterization of the design changes as "hip typographical tricks" and fewer still with the implication that design was an end in itself.It's fundamental in publications design that graphics only complement content, that design has to be both functional and attractive. That's as true of the press as it is of toothpaste tubes. Many newspapers are making bold changes in packaging to go along with changes in content. Editors are aiming to make the product more contemporary and useful.

As a Gannett editor once admonished, "Keep your readers in mind. You're doing all of this for them, not for the approval of your professional peers."

- MAGAZINES ARE DOING the same, many because they are repositioning themselves in a volatile market. A major design overhaul at Time magazine this year went hand-in-hand with a redirection of editorial policy.

In the past decade a lot of newspapers have hired graphics journalists who understand both design and the mission of the paper. At the Deseret News this person is Cory Maylett, who led the redesign effort. The News took his design concepts to a consultant. The repackaging effort was further sharpened through focus groups that looked at the designs and contrasted them with those of other papers.

Redesign is often stimulated by new possibilities through new technology. The Newspaper Agency Corp. is using new offset presses, which have more color ability than in the past and far sharper definition of type and pictures. The News has new electronic photo processing equipment. Contrast today's picture reproduction with that of only five or six years ago, when pictures, particularly wire photos, sometimes looked as if they'd been printed from cardboard.

The Deseret News has long been the design innovator locally. Several years ago it went to modular makeup, in which every story is packaged as a self-contained whole rather than interlocked with others. Now the pages strike me as even more open and inviting, more legible and more consistent in design than before.

- I'M WITHHOLDING JUDGMENT on the most apparent change, the "unjustified" type (ragged-right margin). Perhaps I'm too traditional. Many papers have been using unjustified type in stories that need special treatment, such as series and features. The New York Times does so regularly. Ragged-right fans like it because of even word spacing, little hyphenation and much more white space. But traditionalists sometimes find total ragged right design gimmicky. In design seminars it is an emotional issue.

It's fashionable for critics of new page designs to disparage the most innovative and successful new concept, USA Today. This first real national daily is often called McPaper, or junk food for the eyes, and disparaged as Print TV, as if there were something inherently wrong with being visually exciting and compelling. Overall USA Today's leadership in newspaper design, especially in the use of color and charts, graphs and sidebars, has been highly positive. Like the early Time magazine, and like today's graphics-minded journalists, USA Today recognizes that it's not so much what's on the page but what gets off the page and into the reader's mind that's important.

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Hugger-mugger

The letter writer's call for sharper writing and editing hit home with me because he used as an egregious example a paragraph from one of my recent columns. I had written what in the trade is called a "hugger-mugger" sentence, that is, one that was disorderly. "Hugger-muggers" often result from a writer's cramming too much information into a sentence, leaving the floundering reader to ask, "How's that again?"

Usually writers or editors can straighten out hugger-muggers with a period or two and a bit of rearranging.

Deseret News editors are first-rate craftsmen in the often unappreciated work of helping writers do a creditable literary job. In fairness to the editors who handled my column that day, I should report that they are usually reluctant to tinker with my copy. The Deseret News has pledged to let me have my say undisturbed by editorial reaction, so unless I make a ghastly boo-boo editors usually leave my work be.

Whenever I get the chance I remind the editors, however, that everyone's writing is improved not only by rigorous self-criticism but also by reading by other eyes. This is especially true of copy written for newspapers, much of which is produced against deadline pressure.

My favorite example of a hugger-mugger sentence is this one, which appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune some years ago. I have kept it as an example of tortured writing and even included it in an editing textbook:

"Some old timers adamantly declare that Dingle, which resting at 6,000 feet elevation sometimes has three feet of crusted snow in May and this year had, to everyone's consternation, strawberries unfrozen on vines in mid-October, was at onset called Cottonwood."

Whew!

No editor's reworking of this sentence can fully redeem it, because the writer doesn't tell us the connection between the town's name and its climate.

But a simple rewrite can help a lot. The one I offer below at least straightens out the sentence tangle, improves the relationship of ideas and gets rid of the self-conscious words:

"Some old timers firmly declare that Dingle was at first called Cottonwood.

"Because the town rests at 6,000 feet elevation it sometimes is covered with three feet of crusted snow in February. In mid-October this year, however, strawberries were still unfrozen on their vines. This unusual situation surprised everyone."

It's good to get reaffirmation that subscribers truly are readers, that they want good writing and care enough to complain when they don't get it.