Bold over by tabloids

Always quick to cash in on a Photoshop gag, the tabloids enjoy giving Graham Taylor a turnip head and the Queen a moustache. Big, bold and brash is their message. So why, asks Janice Kirkpatrick, do ‘decent’ designers look down on a style that communicate

The hardest thing I was ever asked to design was a tabloid newspaper. Years of Guardian reading, art school pre-programming and corporate literature production made me weak. I gave the job to Stuart, who relished the tasteless task. He was good at being a “bad” designer, talking to God’s people in type they could understand. I watched him work at it, taking time to understand the system which made tabloids so chunky and rude. He learned the rules and then he broke them and added a few of his own. He was having fun. I was dead jealous of him and it set me thinking about why it was “bad” to design popular sad-style stuff that succeeded in communicating beautifully with almost everyone except decent designers.

After much huffing and sulking I’ve reached the conclusion that vernacular chunky-style isn’t bad. It is sad and very funny at the same time. Super-chunky type with hefty outlines set against round-cornered boxes filled with massive halftone says rather a lot about Britain. Because people, generally speaking, are not educated to recognise the nuances of expression inherent in delicate typefaces and careful setting. Chunky-style amplifies type in a childishly direct way, turning up the volume so that normally quiet body copy blatters forth in unmodulated tones and the strongest headlines trumpet coarsely, like a drunk’s loud-hailer.

Especially saucy paragraphs or spectacularly horrendous stories are catapulted from the page courtesy of multi-coloured graphic devices and pre-pubescent diagrams. The huge appetite we have for the stuff makes me think that Britain is more than dour Scots and uptight English, more than just a sniggering middle class mediocracy. We have a vast and tacky sense of humour that appears to be overlooked by the social scientists and the graphic professionals.

Designers permit a modicum of self-conscious wit in self-motivated work, but are decidedly uncomfortable with a right good belly laugh. We’ve never really managed to use the full gamut of moods which type and publishing permit. The tabloids are sentimentally linked with Hollywood and soaps, surviving on a diet of synthetic emotions. What does a headline set in 70 point Helvetica Black condensed oblique with a drop shadow (with an outline and a coloured background) mean, if not melodrama? There’s something terribly smug in our attitude that tacitly excludes the tabloid designers from our ranks. Why Neue Helvetica should be more worthy than Blobby Grotesque I’ll never know.

Let’s talk about printing. There seems to be something almost healthy about lobster pink photography of Gazza’s face wantonly Photoshopped on to his wedding gear. It gave us a preview of how he’d look on the great day and was honestly done with none of the seamlessly dishonest photo re-touching pervading womens’ magazines and the bedsheets. The tabloids tell it like it is: myths, half-truths and halftone which actually looks like dots.

Graphic design simply doesn’t get any more eclectic than the grammar of the tabloid, and I was really surprised that the Eighties Postmoderns didn’t grab it and make it their own. Maybe graphic designers were struggling to get their heads round how they could contribute to the Postmodern debate,or maybe they were too snobbish to consider the great British tabloid had anything worthy to contribute to the design debate.

So maybe the time has come for designers to re-examine the design value of our daily newspaper as a vehicle for design and communication. Tabloid designers don’t determine the journalism or shoot the photography, but they do make their papers speak to their massive audiences with blistering effectiveness.

As designers, we are very quick to quote from the next thing, be it betting slips, football programmes or last decade’s recycled typefaces, but, as usual, we miss the biggest reservoir of powerful graphic devices, smiling up at us from our doorstep.

Graphic design has always been about communication, so maybe we should take the planks from our own eyes and start to learn from others who do things a little differently.

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