Paper perfect

Newspaper designs are difficult to judge, especially if you are seeking perfection – dailies, by their very nature, have imperfections, says David Bernstein.

Newspaper designs are difficult to judge, especially if you are seeking perfection – dailies, by their very nature, have imperfections, says David Bernstein

‘The Guardian is world’s best designed newspaper,’ whispered the winner on its front page, on 22 February. There were 389 entries from 22 countries, judged by the Society for News Design in New York, and just two awards – the other, for newspapers with circulation under 200 000, went to Rzeczpospolita from Poland.

Within hours – coincidentally – I was on a plane to Warsaw, wondering how judges compared entries with different agendas, from different countries, and arrived at the conclusion that the winners were ‘as close to perfect as they could be’.

In Warsaw, I bought the Rzeczpospolita, an accessible, neat broadsheet with a column of index-cum-summary on the front and topics treated in sufficient depth. It is clear and easy to navigate, but hardly a paradigm shift. ‘Close to perfect’? Not to me.

Nor to David Hillman, whom I went to see at Pentagram. Hillman had done the previous redesign for The Guardian (the last in broadsheet) and was a judge at past deliberations of the New York Society, where he found the atmosphere parochial. ‘The jury was, apart from a couple of token foreigners, exclusively North American. I was the only member who had designed anything other than a publication. American papers are all designed in-house.’

The fact that the only awards this year went to European papers is a credit to the jury’s lack of chauvinism, but could indicate that the winners represented a contrast to the domestic majority of the entries.

‘The big problem with all judging procedures,’ says Hillman, ‘is that you can only judge what is in front of you.’ There are two filters. The first is ‘those who enter’. The other is the particular issue entered. The variety of editorial matter makes comparison difficult. According to Hillman, once, the society had experimented by specifying a common date, but this hadn’t solved the problem.

Although we could only surmise what the judges found significant in the Polish paper, we had their exact comments on The Guardian. ‘It looks like a paper for the 21st century’. What could this mean? Hillman hazarded a guess. Television and, increasingly, the Internet have usurped the newspaper’s traditional role of providing news, leaving it to complement, augment, provide background and opinion. Is today’s ideal newspaper essentially a magazine?

The Guardian’s restrained approach, manicured paragraphs and less-than-robust typeface make you wonder how the paper would deal with a major news exclusive. I suspect that it would temporarily jettison some of its design guidelines.

But the judges are clearly preoccupied with perfection. They admire the paper’s smart headlines, sophisticated images and graphics, and vibrant colours. Does all this sit happily with news gathering? Does perfection? Hillman is clear. ‘Imperfections are a fact of life in a daily newspaper,’ he says. ‘If you want perfection – clarity, a noble typeface, imaginative use of white space and photography – look at Die Zeit. It’s a weekly.’

He has two warnings for any designer contemplating a newspaper redesign. First, a redesign can change the way a story has to be written. And, second, make sure you know the reason for the redesign. ‘If, as is likely, it is because circulation is falling and you manage to arrest the decline, the editor will get a raise. If you don’t, it’s you who gets fired.’

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