The New Guardian: Intelligent Design in Newspaper

I never thought I’d call a daily newspaper beautiful.

I’ve always considered daily news periodicals to be grubby Industrial Era products — cheap paper products fabricate by clanking contraptions that melted lead into hardened cylinders faced with typeset characters and that inked newsprint streaming through rotary presses. Although those hot lead technologies were replaced by cold photolithographic typesetting late last century, most newspapers are still crudely designed commodity products — like paperback books or paper cups, not something anyone would call beautiful.

Sure, I’ve seen some nicely designed parts or sections of newspapers during the past few decades. Some nicely designed front page formats by Mario Garcia or Edmund C. Arnold. Some strikingly designed section fronts in color. Some Sunday magazines designed by people who had all week to figure that out. But most newspaper design examples looked like attempts to put a designer bib on a cow. No matter what most designers added, underneath was still a banal and profane beast &#151: the daily newspaper.

Most of the besl-designed newspapers that I’ve seen have been European. That’s probably because Europeans perhaps value good design in most products more than North Americans do and because of a fundamental difference between the newspaper business models in Europe and North America:

Transatlantic Differences

What difference? North American newspapers earn most of their revenues from selling advertising to other companies, but European newspapers earn most of their revenues from selling newspaper editions to people.

Indeed, the ratio reverses across the Atlantic. The average American newspaper earns approximately two-thirds of its gross revenues from selling display advertising to other companies or classified advertising to other companies or individuals, while the average European newspaper earns approximately two-thirds of its revenues from selling newspapers editions at kiosks and news agents (newsstands) or via subscriptions.

European newspaper’s primary customers are readers. But American newspapers’ primary customers are advertisers, not readers. Readers haven’t been American newspapers’ primary customers since the 1930s, when advertising sales eclipsed circulation sales as their primary source of revenues. Contrary to whatever they say, American publishers are in the business of designing and selling newspapers to advertisers; European publishers are in the business of designing and selling newspapers to readers.

Compare and see the obvious differences: More than 60 percent of the total page space in the average American newspapers is given to advertisements; while more than 60 percent of the total page space in the average European newspaper is given to news and information — the ostensible purpose of a newspaper.

Or try another measurement. Compare the percentages of ‘canned’ content (stories the newspaper purchases from wire service and features syndicates) and ‘fresh’ content (stories written by the newspaper’s own staff or uniquely for that newspapers by freelance journalists). You’ll find inverse ratios on either side of the Atlantic. More than 80 percent of the average American newspaper’s content is canned content, but no more than 20 percent of the average European newspaper is.

Unlike their American bretheran, European publishers design their newspapers for readers. They design to appeal to readers more than advertisers. Nevertheless, I’d never seen even a European newspaper that was beautifully and comprehensively designed. Until now.

Seeing the first Berliner-format edition of The Guardian of London was a revelation, and — one that yields another clue to the rebuilding of media in the 21st Century.


If you’re familiar with the newspaper business and have read about The Guardian switching formats from broadsheet to ‘Berliner‘ but you haven’t seen the resulting editions, then you might think the whole hullabaloo is simply about this newspaper’s new size. I did too after reading the trade press, but before seeing The Guardian in its new paper pulp flesh.

Beyond Berliner

Size matters. I hope never again to bump seatmates while opening a broadsheet’s pages on a commuter train. Though tabloid format newspapers are easier to read in motion or within a small space, tabloids, like urban apartments or office cubicles, lack luxuriant and relaxing layout space. Like computer monitors, tabloids have too small a field for for the eye. The Berliner format, 470 mm x 315 mm (16.4 x 12.4 inch), slightly taller but only marginally wider than a tabloid page, is a marvelously effective compromise.

“We believe the format combines the convenience of a tabloid with the sensibility of a broadsheet,” Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger wrote in the first Berliner format edition. He added in the Guardian online edition, commented, “But our research showed equally clearly that there were many things readers didn’t want changed – including our comprehensive commitment to news and the intelligence and seriousness of our coverage and comment.

“The main change — the format — is in response to unambiguous research that shows that readsers increasingly find broadsheet newspapers difficult to handle in mant everyday situations, including commuting to work.”

And folded inside the two-section Berliner format is The Guardian’s ‘G2’ daily features and entertainment supplement, which is in half-Berliner format (235 mm x 315 mm or 12.4 x 8.2 inch). Jemima Kiss of Journalism.co.uk commented:

“That was my first reaction: ‘Look! It’s a diddy G2!’ and regretfully miniaturisation does often have that affect on people for whatever hormonal reason.

“I wasn’t sure about the G2 size at first, but it’s grown on me in the past few days and there’s something about the size that makes the content seem more digestible.”

If you think half-Berliner G2 is a small size for reading, remember that when rotated sideways it’s the same size as a 17-inch computer monitor, rather large in the Web world.

Though size matters, the newspaper industry trade journal stories that focus on the new size miss the real important change in The Guardian — it’s comprehensive and integral redesign. guardianpaged.jpg

Start with color on almost every page (and on newsprint that’s denser and brighter than newspapers use here in America). Now, imagine that each of the editions’ 40-some pages had its own design sergeant working in coordination with that section’s design lieutenant, who all in turn are working in harmonious detail to a general design plan. Each page of the new Guardian, indeed almost each story, shows a careful effort to utilize typography, text, and color illustrations and photos to explain that story. There are deft touches throughout.

My favorite is the centerfold. Filling the center pages of the first section is a single, striking, color news photograph, 630mm x 470 mm (24.8 x 16.4 inch) in size. Such an obvious treat for readers. Why haven’t other daily newspapers thought of this before?

The overall result is a newspaper that looks like it was designed to interpret daily news in clarity by the staff of Dorsley-Kindersley books. How The Guardian‘s staff finds enough time to spend on such cognitive design daily, I can’t fathom. Their quotidian newspaper is a work of visual clarity and beauty.

Take a look yourself. Until Monday, The Guardian is offering free access to its digital edition of the printed edition (no doubt a good promotion for the digital edition, too.) Click beyond the front page and beyond the section fronts, and scroll into the inside pages for a peek.

The beauty of the redesign has impressed even the newspaper’s competitors, although they’re still skeptical whether it will increase sales of Guardian editions:

“It is clearly early days and there will no doubt be improvement in coming weeks and months. The paper is yet to resolve the contradiction between aspiring to be an installation in the Design Museum and a success on the newsstand. At present, it has the feel of a product that was designed by designers for designers, wrote Robert Thomson, editor of the Times of London

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“I think it is extremely elegant and serious. The Guardian turns out to be the journalistic if not the political bridge between Europe and America. My reservation is that it may be too beautiful, like a supermodel who makes dull company. G2 has lost its scruffy high spirits. But I would definitely want to be seen with this trophy newspaper, wrote Sarah Sands, editor of the Sunday Telegraph

Will the redesign please readers and lead to increased sales? On Monday, September 12, the day the new format launched, Guardian sales Guardian rose by 40 percent according to unofficial figures. There’s surely some initial novelty factor will cause an initial increase in impulse purchases at newsstands and kiosks. But a 40 percent initial increase in circulation!

There is a clue towards rebuilding media during the 21st Century.

Intelligent Design in Newspapers

guardianpageb.jpgA newspaper is more than the sum of its parts. It’s more than news, stories articles, features articles, cartoons, photos, and advertisements. Its package is more than a collection of those things, and that package isn’t a sack, bag, or container. It should be an intelligently and fully designed whole. Not a collection of parts, but a mechanism put together. Design demonstrably matters.

Newspaper people who don’t pay attention to design haven’t been out of their newsrooms in a very long time.

For instance, they might notice that many surprisingly large numbers of people have recently purchased Apple iPods, but they might fail to notice that iPods are the hugely dominant (87 percent market share!) portable music players, despite intense competition from every major electronics manufacturer in the world, because of its aesthetic design. There are dozens of models of less expensive designed portable music players that have the same capacity and capabilities of the iPod, but the aesthetic design of the iPod has given Apple an overwhelming advantage. The iPod is not only cool and hip to have because of its design, it’s satisfying to use because its design.

As Virginia Postrel, author of The Substance of Style, notes:

“Aesthetics–the look and feel of people, places, and things–is increasingly important as a source of value, both economic and cultural. We see both increasing intensity and increasing variety, or pluralism.

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“Aesthetics shows up where function used to be the only thing that mattered, from toilet brushes to business memos to computers and cell phones. And people’s expectations keep rising. New tract homes have granite countertops, so hotel rooms have to have granite countertops too. Family restaurants used to be all about price and food, but now they have to worry about their decor. We’ve gone from Pizza Hut to California Pizza Kitchen. If you’re in business, you have to invest in aesthetics simply to keep up with the competition. That’s intensity.

“The touchstone example is Starbucks. Starbucks is to the age of aesthetics what McDonald’s was to the age of convenience or Ford was to the age of mass production. Starbucks isn’t just selling gourmet coffee, itself an aesthetic good. It’s creating a whole sensory environment of sounds, smells, lighting, and textures.

“Another famous example is Target, which has used high-design products at mass-market prices to compete with Wal-Mart’s low-price strategy. Its Michael Graves line of housewares has been a big success not because Target shoppers know who Michael Graves is but because they think the toasters and picture frames look cool. Kinko’s caters to our need for slick graphics, even for such mundane purposes as finding work cleaning houses.

“On the supplier end, I talk about GE Plastics’ global aesthetics program, which offers special-effects plastics and custom services to make the company’s products more than just commodities.

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“But, more important, aesthetics is also becoming more prominent relative to other goods. When we decide how next to spend our time or money, considering what we already have and the costs and benefits of various alternatives, ‘look and feel’ is likely to top our list. We don’t want more food, or even more restaurant meals–we’re already maxed out. Instead, we want tastier, more interesting food in an appealing environment. It’s a move from physical quantity to intangible, emotional quality.

“For many businesses, competition has already pushed function and reliability so high and price so low that style is the only way to stand out. All radios or trash cans work pretty much the same. Most computer buyers don’t need more speed or more powerful chips. Once quality and price are already good enough, what we care about is how things look and feel. We’re buying not just function but pleasure and meaning.”

Certainly, a lesson for the periodical publishing business.

The Guardian‘s spent a lot on its redesign, mostly for new MAN Roland Colorman presses that can print Berliner format. (An advertisement from Llloyds TSB Leasing Limited in the first Berliner edition notes that

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