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It's not just the size, design matters too

Four weeks after the launch of the new-look Times, Neville Brody, founder of Research Studios, explains why it is vital for publishers to get the look right when they move into a new compact format.

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The change from broadsheet to compact is, for newspaper owners worldwide, now a fact of life as many titles experience falling circulations, increasing consumer desire for smaller products such as mobile phones, and a need to engage with a younger and more female demographic.

The newspaper world is characteristically a conservative one and it was taken by surprise when The Independent launched a compact to run alongside its 19-year-old broadsheet in 2003. The move was dismissed by many pundits as an act of desperation from a newspaper that was bottom of the broadsheet league, until The Times followed suit and gave credence to the concept that a broadsheet could change format without losing credibility.

Now it is clear that compact can build readership, can give the opportunity to reinvent or refocus and also to address new prospective readers. But what happens when the decision is made to use a compact format? How do you translate a broadsheet newspaper into a significantly smaller space? To make the change successfully requires vision and planning but it's not always easy to see the big picture -- especially if it has become 50% smaller overnight.

Primarily editorial teams need to understand that there must be a real rationale for format change, that editorial content needs to be adapted and this includes sectioning and layout. And that a newspaper's content doesn't only represent the actual words that are used, the headlines, the paragraphs and the photos -- it's actually just as much about how these are laid out on the page and how the reader navigates their way through the publication.

They also need to understand the fundamentals of how readers are changing. The internet literate reader will expect the sort of navigation that he or she finds on a good website -- clear, articulate, no nonsense. And the huge consumption of magazines in the UK market in particular also sets a standard of how readers expect a newspaper to look.

One thing that all successful owners and editors agree upon is that design is just as vital as size. The way a newspaper presents itself from a visual perspective speaks volumes about its social and political stance and therefore about its readership. Design can attract or repel readers. It can say "I am masculine", or "I have a centrist point of view". In other words, the look of a title can literally speak volumes to the prospective reader.

I have been involved in redesigning two major UK newspapers -- The Guardian and The Times. Both experiences taught me that the journey involved in downsizing, and the reasons for undertaking this in the first place, can spell success or failure for a title. Get it right and you can boost sales, but get it wrong and you have scored a massive own goal.

Research Studios has just completed a year-long project to redesign The Times. Taking on the smaller format had been a very successful move for The Times with consistently growing readership over 22 consecutive months.

However, despite this success, from a presentation point of view it looked as if the paper had been squashed into compact. Although work has been carried out on various aspects of the main paper, it still felt unresolved. Essentially, it was as if the paper had moved to a new address and not unpacked the crates yet. The move into a new, smaller room was fast, probably too fast, without successfully condensing or restructuring the content and structure resulting in cramming and compressing.

The Times already had 90% of the tools it needed in order to create the dynamic, streamlined, breathing and exciting paper it is today. There was a rich language of possibilities to be drawn from and a huge wealth of strong and defined elements already existing within the visual and structural voice that could provide the basis for a strong and fluent language.

Taking all this on board, our approach was more structural than decorative, and certainly more fundamental than surface. We believed strongly that the visual elements and devices used by the paper needed to be revisited from the ground up. Essentially, this meant that a clear overview and town plan had to be created at the initial stage in order to group and define specific and similar areas of content.

Before the redesign, similar areas were treated differently within the paper, using different tools and devices to articulate similar types of content. The end result was that you couldn't see the wood for the trees, and this led to a greyness of page and a confusion of intent, a fragmented voice.

Working together with a small team at The Times, led by deputy editor Ben Preston, we set about the process of pruning out clutter and choosing related groups of visual definers that instantly give the paper a more orderly, approachable feel. This had a liberating effect and presented a dynamic range of layout.

When everything needs to shout, nothing is heard and with the new changes in place it was obvious that the visual tone of the paper had changed positively -- focus groups were coming up with comments such as "It's like The Times but better."

Once there is a clear base and system, different expressions of content become viable. For example, a short article can be treated as such, and a main piece of news can be bold, or just breathe more easily.

The primary place to add detail was to the stories themselves. A clear strategy was developed about how and where to use pull quotes, where to make copy bold, and exactly what to do with headlines, stand-firsts, article information, sub-headings and fact boxes. Our approach was to allow the story to define the design, not the other way round. We felt strongly that The Times needed to be able to work in a very fluid way, being able to adjust its voice to tell stories in different ways, and to approach each new day as a new drama that needed telling in its own right.

Templates were created as guidelines for all articles, from double-page spreads with large images and headlines to small groups of stories. This had the invaluable effect of coordinating the voice across all sections of the paper, from business to sport, and from news to opinion.

The other area in need of major streamlining and articulation was the signposting in the paper. Before the redesign the section fronts were weak, and had no consistency of voice. Reviews and columns were not clear, and the weekend sections all had varied designs. Above all, the paper visually had a very masculine bias with the use of all-capital lists and section heads.

In conclusion, it is fair to say that The Times had almost all of the tools it needed in order to create a more dynamic, usable, clearly articulated and familiar language with the addition of a few catalytic elements and an evolved architecture (both page and section). It was the equivalent of having most of the words but little sentence structure, a kind of pidgin Times.

Globally, there are around 15 conversions to compact format each year. The story will be similar to the one outlined above for all of them, regardless of the language that is spoken or the size of the circulation -- they all face the same challenges to a greater or lesser degree. However, one thing that they must all keep in mind is that, after all the risk reward ratios have been calculated, both size and design matter.

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