Frank Ariss was summoned by the Minneapolis Tribune in 1967 to freshen up the newspaper’s traditional Gothic-style masthead. “Knock off the flicks,” was how he put it.
But for Ariss, that wasn’t nearly ambitious enough. He returned to newsroom executives with a modern, uncluttered design for the entire paper — transforming not only the gray and staid Tribune, but in the process changing forever the way that American newspapers look and function.
Ariss, of Pepin, Wis., a design artist and professor for more than 50 years whose work included corporate reports, greeting cards and even a British postage stamp, died Monday at Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire, Wis., following surgery for a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. He was 76.
“He dabbled in everything, from silversmithing to painting, but what he loved about design is that you were doing things that people would use and designing something that you could reproduce,” said his wife, Mary Rolph, of Pepin.
Born in Birmingham, England, Ariss grew up in war-torn London, where he played in the rubble of bombed-out buildings. He received a doctoral degree in design from the Royal College of Art in London and joined the faculty at the Norwich College of Art in the United Kingdom.
He first came to the Twin Cities in 1966 as a visiting professor at what is now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Soon he began working on prototypes for the Tribune that so impressed news executives that he was hired to redesign the paper — something he had never done before.
Ariss developed a grid to lay out the paper so that elements aligned vertically and horizontally. Not only did it yield a cleaner look, it made it easier for papers to move later to computer pagination.
The Tribune’s new look was unveiled in 1971. Gone were the old Roman and italic headlines, letters trimmed in serifs; in their place was lean Helvetica script. White space separated columns and paragraphs.
The most striking change was the masthead, which now placed “Tribune” in thick overlapping Helvetica letters, alongside a stylized logo that Ariss said represented a sheet of newsprint rolling off the press.
“I learned more that first year than I did in four years of college,” said former Star Tribune design director Michael Carroll, who had taken classes from Ariss and was hired to help him with the paper’s redesign. “We got calls from all over the country from papers wanting more information about it.”
Michael O’Donnell, a journalism professor at the University of St. Thomas, said that Ariss’ redesign was considered “revolutionary” when he was in graduate school in the 1970s.
“Frank was probably 15 to 20 years ahead of his time,” he said. “His basic grid system became gospel. He really created a foundation that all designers have built on … brought it into the newsroom and made it worthy of thought.”
Aside from stints in California, Ariss stayed in the Twin Cities for most of his life and ran Frank Ariss Design, with such clients as General Mills, AT&T, the Guthrie Theater, Jaguar and the BBC.
After living for years in a Nicollet Island townhouse, Ariss and Rolph moved to a riverfront cabin in Pepin where he engaged a wide range of interests, including navigation by sextant, book collecting, astronomy and reading history.
Besides Rolph, he is survived by sons Tristram, of Canterbury, England; Nathan, of Brighton, England; and Crispin, of Hopkins; a daughter, Charlotte, of Minneapolis; a sister, Brenda Briden, of Cotin-in-the-Elms, England; six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
The family plans a celebration of his life and will establish a memorial fund.