Stop press…

Hold the front page! The red tops are undergoing redesigns to help them survive the digital era, but will these changes mean a loss of impact? Will they alienate readers? And will they make any difference to circulation and share values? asks David Benady

Sensational news for red top readers. Tabloid newspapers have finally woken up to design and are updating their old-fashioned formats as they switch to full-colour production.

In a challenge to the old view that red top readers do not want high quality design, the papers are being forced to rethink as they compete with the design-rich worlds of the Internet, mobile phones, glossy magazines and TV.

The Daily Mirror is working with Barcelona-based Cases I Associats, one of the world’s leading newspaper design consultancies. It turned The Independent tabloid and has redesigned more than 100 sports and other newspapers across Europe and South America, including Lance! in Brazil and Argentina’s Olé. The Mirror is rolling out the design changes gradually. So far it has used colour to differentiate sections of the paper while introducing new fonts and graphics. It could take months before the new look is complete.

Cases director Chico Amaral says, ‘Society is changing very quickly, but the press industry is a bit behind the times. We have learned a lot from the Mirror about how it communicates. We do very structured, rational design, whereas it has a very emotional approach.’ Cases has introduced a new font called Biro, an updated version of Clan, in headlines and standfirsts. Less serious stories are given colourful, italicised headlines to differentiate them from serious news pieces that keep the old black-and-white format. Sports pages use headlines and graphics in yellow and green (suggesting outdoor sport) and The Mania football pull-out section has been redesigned to look like a vibrant Brazilian or Spanish football paper.

‘It is quite encouraging, but it is still slipping back into some of its old habits,’ says The Guardian creative director Mark Porter. ‘Sport is not entirely successful, but there’s a glimpse, just out of reach, of something good,’ he adds. However, he warns that it will be down to the paper’s editor, Richard Wallace, to ensure that the design changes are used consistently. ‘Editors must genuinely buy into the culture change,’ he says.

Newspaper design consultant Simon Esterson likes the Mirror’s fonts, which are different from the usual tabloid typefaces, and the graphics, which he says have become ‘more active without being cold’. But he adds, ‘This is not a revolution, but an evolution. I don’t think anybody in this country has grasped the problem and stepped away from vernacular tabloid design. This is not some great moment where the popular press has embraced graphic design. The Mirror has avoided the question by doing a nice professional tidy-up of what it was doing before.’

However, some Mirror readers interviewed by Design Week have balked at the soft pastel yellows in the sports section, and at headlines that start off in one colour and finish in another.

Speculation is mounting that design changes will also be introduced at The Sun, which has just switched to full colour and has made a few tweaks to headlines and graphics. The paper declined to comment, but it is thought that News International art director Al Trivino, who designed The London Paper, will oversee any changes.

For designer Fernando Gutiérrez, revamping tabloid designs could detract from their ‘brashness and directness’. He says colour is there ‘for a reason’ and it must enhance the impact of the news. ‘Newspapers are to be read and looked at, but I don’t want to be blasted with colour,’ he adds.

In a separate development, bloke’s rag the Daily Sport is relaunching to ape lads’ mag Nuts. Consultant art director Julian Bovis says the new-look Sport is ‘like a daily lads’ magazine, but a lot more bitty and fun’. The paper is looking for a younger male audience and will concentrate on its core areas of ‘girls, sport and funny stuff’. It will dispense with ‘all that girly features nonsense that blokes don’t care about’, Bovis says. ‘We want to clean up our act a bit – we’ve made the lasses less desperate and more girl-next-door types. We want them to look happy to be in the paper, rather than needy or sleazy,’ he adds.

True to the Sport’s no-nonsense approach, Bovis dismisses lengthy trial phases and endless dummies. He slams the Daily Mirror for spending ‘nine months fiddling’ with its redesign and adds, ‘It seems to be taking a softly-softly approach to news design with a more “feminine touch”, but I wonder if this is a little patronising to female readers. You don’t see the Daily Mail using these tricks, and it knows better than anyone else how to attract a female audience.’

While The London Paper is bringing strong design values to a tabloid format for the first time, the Daily Mail ‘still looks like it was thrown together by an inky-fingered printer in 1958’, according to Porter.

Some believe high quality design hugely improves people’s lives and red tops – along with housing – is one of the last areas where it has yet to make its mark. But introducing softer designs and more colour could make the tabloids look less immediate and hard-hitting, and make them resemble magazines or even comics, rather than heralds of daily news. Everybody deserves nice design, but it shouldn’t get in the way of a good story.

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