dot-font: The News from Paris
In many countries in Europe and elsewhere, daily newspapers are moving from a larger format, what we usually call broadsheet, to one of the smaller formats. In the USA, we tend to lump these all together as tabloids, but to designers and journalists in Europe there are several terms, of which tabloid is only the most common. To simplify this terminology, and to get away from the sometimes-pejorative overtones of "tabloid," they tend to refer to the smaller format as "compact."
Last week I was invited to speak, along with type designer Jean-Francois Porchez, about the typography of newspapers, at a conference in Paris called "Des journaux en petit format," or "Small-format newspapers." It attracted editors, designers, and production heads from a number of French-language newspapers that are either in the process of converting to a smaller page size or thinking about it. I can't give you any kind of complete or thorough report on the two-day conference, since for practical reasons I had to miss the first day (at the very moment when Pelle Anderson, creator of the multi-city free paper "Metro," was kicking off the conference with his talk on Thursday morning, my plane was in its final approach to Charles de Gaulle Airport); but even so, what I heard (and I hope what I said) was an interesting glimpse into a new future in how newspapers work.
The reasons for switching to a smaller page size are various. The change might save money, but not necessarily; and in fact it will cost money to make any change, even if the resulting newspaper can be printed on the same presses. The biggest reason to switch seems to be convenience -- not for the publishers but for the readers. Although there is no audience more conservative than newspaper readers ("They changed my paper! And now I can't read it"), the study cited by one of the speakers at the conference showed that among the readers of that paper in Belgium (the "Gazet van Anterwerpen"), there was general approval of the change -- in fact many of the readers polled said, "What took you so long?" Surprisingly, this result was true across the board: among old as well as young readers, among men as well as women, and so on. Despite all the theories and worries, in this case it was a change that was welcomed.
But such a change has to be well prepared for. Not only do the readers have to be warned, and given an explanation of why it makes sense, but the staff of the paper has to be involved in the decision as well. And both audiences -- external and internal -- have to feel that their voice has been listened to, and that they have an interest in the outcome. Otherwise, they'll just dig in their heels, and resist.
Does Size Matter?
I heard much discussion of different kinds of newspaper formats: broadsheet tabloid, berliner, demi-berliner. The free newspaper that I was often handed as I walked out of a Metro station, "20 Minutes," has a page size that's as small as many magazines; this reinforces the idea that it contains the full gist of the day's news in something that can be read in just twenty minutes. "Le Monde" uses the in-between size called "berliner" -- a size that "Guardian" in London is planning to convert to soon. (Two other major British papers, "The Times" and "The Independent," have switched from broadsheet to tabloid in the past year, after first going through a transition period where they actually published the same newspaper in both formats every day. (One of the Belgian papers also published simultaneous broadsheet and tabloid editions for several months; as the speaker pointed out, it was a small price to pay if it smoothed the transition.)
An important point to make -- to the readers especially -- is that a change to a smaller page size does not mean a change to smaller type (except possibly in some of the headlines), nor does it have to mean shorter articles or less content. For the designers, however, it does make for a more concentrated, magazine-like page layout; there's more opportunity to have a page contain only one article, instead of several. The rhythm of the newspaper, from front to back, is different with a smaller page size. That takes some getting used to, and some thinking through, for the people who put the paper together every day.
The other big question is how the advertisers will react. I know that in London, it's been a big source of controversy, with the advertisers saying that they're paying the same for a smaller ad, and the newspapers saying that they're getting exactly the same proportion of the page even though the absolute size is smaller. Interestingly, the same Belgian study addressed this question, and found that the impact on readers of proportional ads was essentially the same across the board; there was not, in fact, any justification for lowering the price of the ads just because they covered fewer column inches (or column centimeters).
Arranging The Page
Although my part of the talk was a fairly general overview of newspaper typography, using images pulled from the book I authored, "Contemporary Newspaper Design," Jean-Francois used this opportunity to run through a bunch of current newspapers, bought at a newsstand just a couple of days before, and critique their design -- starting with the worst. He zeroed in on the hardest thing to isolate: the difference between design ideas that sound good and ought to work, but turn into a flabby melange on the page; and those that really do help to visually organize the information that newspaper readers are looking for. Daily newspapers do tend to be something of a hodge-podge, by their very nature; but that's exactly why some clear organizing principles are needed when they're being put together. Sometimes, though, as Jean-Francois pointed out, a newspaper can be too "modular," without enough variation to give life and variety to the pages. There has to be some contrast and visual tension on the page, otherwise everything just mushes together.
Jean-Francois commented on one of the images from my presentation: a prototype front page of the "Los Angeles Times" that had been marked up by Roger Black, who was design consultant for a redesign there, with Roger's detailed notes about things that needed to be tightened up or corrected. Jean-Francois wanted to make the point to the audience that successful typography was a matter of infinite attention to detail, not just high concept.
Riding the Metro
The conference was held at Bercy Expo, a brand-new conference center on the banks of the Seine, and to get there in the morning I rode the newest line on the Paris Metro system. Line 14, which runs from Gare Saint-Lazare to Bibliotheque Francois Mitterand, has gleamingly modern stations and is the first line in Paris where all of the signage is done in Jean-Francois Porchez's Parisine typeface, which he designed for this purpose in the 1990s.
Not surprisingly, this pleases Jean-Francois, but it also makes life easier for the people who ride that line. His typeface is in use for signage and supplementary material in many parts of the Metro, but since no subway system ever replaces all of its signage at once, most lines have a mixture of new and old (and older, and older still) in their lettering. The presence of Parisine on the walls and in the cars and on the maps does make it clear how much difference a typeface can make.
Read more by John D. Berry.
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