Reverting to type

With ever-increasing competition between the national newspapers, it is crucial to maintain a clear and up-to-date visual identity. Dave Farey tells us what the papers say. Dave Farey is masthead and typeface designer at HouseStyle.

Aren’t newspapers brilliant? You can read one and throw it away, do the same the next day and the next. Train carriages come to resemble newspaper graveyards as commuters bustle off for another working day, leaving behind a forest’s worth of newsprint detritus. So are newspapers brilliant, or are they rubbish?

Daily newspapers, in the way we recognise them – broadsheets with news and advertisements – have been around since the 1780s, and the popular press tabloids began in earnest just over 100 years ago. The daily sales of the UK national weekday papers stand at more than ten million, with an average of three readers a copy.

In content and presentation, newspapers today really do have to adapt to reflect the major and minor social and political movements of their perceived readership to achieve brand loyalty and increase circulation. News items and features need to be well written and interesting – they have to be readable, literally.

There is also the discretionary, but valuable, aspect of a visual language for newspapers, as nine times out of ten they are running the same stories. As a generalisation, the red-top tabloids – The Sun, The Mirror and their immediate competitors – do not concern themselves with individuality. In fact, confusion helps them in their mammoth marketplace. But to some degree, for the middle market tabloids – the Express and the Mail and all the broadsheets – an identity is essential. Mastheads, newspapers’ emblemic totems, are the most obvious way to proclaim identity, but there are other tools available.

A newspaper doesn’t need a major overhaul to be more typographically articulate. There are many devices a designer can use, either to gain attention or to guide the reader, as scanning a paper to find the item of individual interest can be time-consuming. For example, pull-out quotes from both news and features are used to particularly good effect in The Times. Incidentally, The Times and The Telegraph are currently the only papers that have their own exclusive typefaces for headline and text, which both enhances and disciplines their typographic design and individual profiles.

Coupled with a paper’s readability, there is a requirement for legibility – smooth reading – in newspapers. There has been an massive resurgence of typeface design and digital development, both in quality and quantity in the last decade and, particularly over the last two years, this has been incorporated into newspaper technology. Enlightened editors are now expecting their design directors, art editors and design consultants to maximise legibility.

Various mastheads and the space around them have been radically and adventurously tackled recently, none more so than the Financial Times, where the full title for its Saturday edition was dropped and replaced with just FT, with the resultant space used to promote the three separate sections. Designer Andrew Burns explains: “Using the masthead in this way gave us the opportunity to tell readers immediately what is going on, and also to take a ‘weekend’ approach to a normally conservative paper. So far, the readers’ comments have been excellent.” The Monday to Friday editions will also take on a new look from 20 March.

Last Sunday saw the launch of another paper which shares some of the Financial Times’ characteristics, in that it is pink and has a financial base. Design director Ally Palmer, in launching Sunday Business, has decided that elegance and modernity are the correct typographic balance, exemplified by using the Arepo and Interstate styles for headlines and sub-heads, and the Charter family for text. This is a fresh approach for any new paper, apart from the specific market it is aimed at.

The Guardian has for a number of years had a consistent and “reader-friendly” look. Current design director Simon Esterson ensures a continuity between readability and legibility, exemplified a few years ago by the introduction of lateral headlines, using the slightly wide Neue Helvetica and the Nimrod family for text. By using white space as much as type for headline emphasis, and with rigorous but not overbearing rules between text columns, the layouts work perfectly. With the same attention to detail, Esterson spent three months researching compatible text and headline styles for the G2 features section, and discovered and implemented, in August 1997, the new family of Miller. By leaving the columns unjustified and minimising the headline sizes, G2 provides a typographic balance with the main Guardian paper.

Unlike The Guardian, the dramatic restyling of the Independent, in September 1997, missed the mark. It shouldn’t have, because the three typefaces used, Trajan Title, Gill and Times New Roman, are among the most ubiquitous typefaces currently used in any typographic combination. A new redesign is promised soon.

Express design director John Tennant makes a specific point concerning format: “We do not have a consistent number of text columns on editorial pages because of the varying sizes and placing of ads. So we experimented with different width columns and various text faces and decided upon a proportionally large, fairly light but clean style, first used by the Baltimore Sun, which we tweaked and is now labelled Express Text.” Other recent typographic changes introduced by Tennant and his assistant Shem Law include the use of the Bureau Grotesque family for features, particularly the sports section, which Tennant describes as “authoritative yet friendly”.

Tennant stresses the importance of experimenting with layout style, and having the confidence to chuck it out if it doesn’t work. This is reiterated by Gary Philips, design editor at The Observer, which was revised during 1997. “We needed to rebuild with a sense of direction and planned the relaunch as an improvement and not just a change,” explains Philips. By commissioning Paul Barnes to design Ironbridge, a headline typeface, along with the Bell Gothic family for the masthead and partial headings (and occasional use of Bureau Grotesque), the visual image is powerful in combination with the robust single weight of Clarion, used for text. Intentional or not, one result since relaunch is The Observer’s claim to have more women readers than any Sunday broadsheet.

The supplements to the weekend editions are where the most variety of innovation currently occurs, with Philips restyling The Observer’s Life section using a combination of Scala for the text and Din for headlines, and with generous column widths and white space. It’s a surprisingly refreshing combination of typefaces. Equally, the redesign of The Times Saturday magazine in January by David Curless has been invigorating, with a new page format, but standard typefaces – Helvetica Bold Condensed and News Gothic for headlines and Sabon for text. It certainly shows a considered use of type and typography that is effective; just compare The Times magazine with The Telegraph version.

The past 18 months have seen a continual increase in pace for developing newspaper profiles through typography, and there is now a new confidence for change. The typefaces are either available or can be designed speedily and newspaper technology has steadily adapted. But editors and designers are aware of the new challenge of the Internet, so it’s not just newsprint that will provide the next competition. But that’s a whole different story.

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