08 november 2012

USA Today goes all-in on digital

OUR IDEA OF HOW A NEWSPAPER SHOULD LOOK changed in 1982 with the launch of USA Today. Sure, people would soon nickname it ”McPaper” because of its brief, easy-to-read stories, but USA Today became an influence to just about every other paper on the planet. Before the end of the decade, newspaper readers throughout the Western Hemisphere would expect to see full-colour photography, information graphics, and wall-to-wall weather forecasts in their local daily.
You cannot, however, make a living based on merits of the past, especially not if you’re a news media, and the redesign with which USA Today celebrated its 30-year anniversary – on September 14, 2012 – must be seen partly as a response to dramatically declining circulation figures over a period of more than ten years.

WHAT THE RELAUNCH ALSO SEEMS TO SIGNAL is a change of strategy, in which digital platforms are getting the key role while the printed paper begins to look like an ageing and increasingly troublesome patient. A patient which the publisher,
 Gannett, must feel compelled to keep breathing as long as it has got enough readers and advertisers. And I guess it still does; every night, the presses turn out 1,7 million copies of USA Today (more than half of these end up in hotel corridors all over the world).

SEVERAL CONSULTANCY COMPANIES WERE INVOLVED in USA Today’s grand-scale relaunch. Maybe that is part of the reason why the result appears strangely schizophreniac. Parts of it, such as the website and the mobile app, boast great functionality – and novelty as well, although not quite as revolutionary as back then in ’82 – while the tablet app seems much more middle-of-the-road and the printed product is a genuine setback.
Not least when it comes to the typography. The modern and consistent typographical look, which had been distinguishing USA Today since its latest facelift in 2000, leaves way for a typography so conventional – and treated with so little refinement – that the paper now almost looks like a caricature of an old-school American local daily.
But why, is the obvious question?

The only plausible answer I can think of relates to the aforementioned strategic choices, but in a strange, backwards-logical way: The printed paper seems now to be conceived as a platform for ”traditionalists” who – the concept makers apparently presume – prefer things to look the way they did 50 years ago.

The wisdom of this conception can certainly be subject to discussion. In any case, addressing traditionalists is no excuse for bad typography, and there is a lot of that in the new USA Today. 45 days after the relaunch, it was announced that the body typeface had now been ”darkened and enlarged” as readers were complaining that it was difficult to read. A small improvement; still, the new typography looks very old to me.

SELLING THE NEW USA TODAY CONCEPT to the client must have taken quite a lot of eloquence. Controversial solutions are nothing new to the masterminds behind the overall strategy. Wolff Olins’ portfolio includes the London 2012 identity program, just to name one example.
In the case of USA Today, the main target of criticism has been the new ”logo” – that is, if the coloured ball, which has replaced the iconic yet kind of outdated globe, deserves this designation. The big idea was to create a logo ”as dynamic as the news itself” (I’m not kidding, this was what they wrote in the press release) by allowing all kinds of roundish shapes to replace the ball – on page A1 as well as on the section fronts.

This idea is exactly as stupid as it sounds. For two reasons: a) The circle is a generic shape which may just as well let you associate to hundreds of other br
ands (Blaupunkt, just to name one) … and b) it will completely dissolve and dilute the brand if the logo may be a golf ball one day and a poker chip on the next.
Not surprisingly, after one month with changing ”logos” executed with varying degrees of professionalism (creating a good logo takes not only talent and skill, but time as well, as every graphic designer knows), the publisher Larry Kramer declared that variation would now be restricted for a while … ”to establish the logo”.

THE WEBSITE IS THE MOST SUCCESSFUL PART of the USA Today relaunch. The blue ball has been downscaled to a size where no one will be tempted to mess around with it, it looks better in RGB colour than on print, and is basically an improvement as the old globe didn’t work well at all in screen resolution.
In general, space has been used intelligently, with a fine balance between visuals and words. With its simplicity, usatoday.com has a distinctly 2012 feel, and of course, the design is responsive. The horizontal scrolling strikes me as a fresh, iPad-ish feature, and you might wonder why USA Today refrained from implementing this navigation tool in its tablet app which now seems almost redundant. Not least considering that both products are free.

08 oktober 2012

Now you see her, now you don’t

AS I USUALLY SEE MYSELF as what you might call a ”visual” person, I am always intrigued by the things I don’t see. The human brain has a fascinating ability to filter the important information from the not-so-important parts. An ability which allows us to perceive only what we need to navigate safely through life, and reflect upon only what we find meaningful.

What can be particularly fascinating is the way the brain lets us completely ignore even powerful visual signals if the information does not seem relevant to us. Every parent can recall the surprise when you realized that your local supermarket contained a huge diaper section – one which you had never stumbled upon during the years before your first child was born. And you’ll probably agree with me that this is not because diapers are discreetly wrapped.
Another example is the fact that once you have bought a Toyota, suddenly the roads seem crowded with cars of that particular make (of course, you can substitute ”Toyota” with any car name). How could you have missed all these Toyotas before?

WELL, HERE’S A NEWSPAPER FRONT PAGE with a photograph you cannot miss. Or can you?
As a matter of fact, I could. And that’s what prompted me to write this blogpost.

Like most couples I guess, my wife and I go by the Law of the Jungle when sharing our morning paper: Each of us tries to grab the section that looks most interesting. Yesterday, I was attracted to Martin Bubandt’s wonderful, dramatic, and highly communicative photograph on the Politiken PS section front, showing Annette Vilhelmsen climbing the stairs of the Danish parlament:
Let me explain a bit about the background. Since last year, my country has been ruled by a coalition consisting of three political parties, one of which is the Socialist People’s Party which has never before been part of any Danish government. The socialists have had to face a lot of criticism because of the compromises they have accepted to stay within the coalition, and some weeks ago, the leader of the party resigned. Two female members of the party are now fighting for the chairperson’s seat. One is the lady portrayed in yesterday’s Politiken.

THE HEADLINE SAYS ”Will Vilhelmsen go all the way?” and goes well with Bubandt’s photo, a phenomenal depiction of the politician’s current situation: She’s about to climb into the unknown, a future full of uncertainty to her – until a few weeks ago, a relatively anonymous figure from the party ranks, someone few of us had even heard of – as well as to her party which may, under a new leadership, find it even more difficult to remain part of the government.
At the same time, this photo sets the scene in quite a dramatic way, resembling a renaissance painting rather than a press photograph, and elegantly twists the genre of the portrait photo by showing Vilhemsen from behind, steering our attention to her businesswomanlike authority rather than to her rather stern facial expression which, albeit she’s a new face in Danish media, we have already come to know quite well.
This photograph made me read and enjoy Olav Hergel’s article. In other words, it served both as an effective landing spot and as a strong piece of communication in its own right, leaving me a happy newspaper reader.

IMAGINE MY SURPRISE when I opened the e-paper to download this brilliant section front for educational purposes, and I saw the frontpage, only to realize that when reading my morning paper, I had not noticed the main photograph! How can you miss a photo like that?
I checked the rest of the page contents and yes indeed, I had read the main headline (not about Vilhelmsen), as well as the skyboxes, several of which had made me look up the particular stories they were promoting. But the photo, also by Martin Bubandt and with a bold, interesting composition as well as a suggestive content (although vaguer in its communication than the section front photo) … well, I simply hadn’t seen it.

The reason for this may be I’m just a dumb newspaper reader, or I was distracted by something else at the time. However, other factors could be blamed as well. Like the page design – I’m pretty sure I would have seen this photo if it had been placed above the fold (see below) – or maybe the relative shallowness of the visual communication? This photo’s looking good but perhaps doesn’t say a lot?
ou be the judge.
First of all, I think it’s an interesting example of how our mind – or at least 
my mind – works.

23 september 2012

When less isn’t more

THE LESS-IS-MORE DICTUM is having a comeback in graphic design. Braun’s design master of minimalism, Dieter Rams, seems to be the subject of every second magazine or newspaper article these days, and Rams-inspired ”good-design-is-as-little-design-as-possible” solutions are popping up all over the place.
We see the tendency within web design. A lot of websites which used to be very complex, and look complex, are now designed with the small screen of a smartphone in mind – which means that they will appear simple, often to the point of crudeness, on a regular computer screen. In many cases however, the ”less” is nothing but a facade which will in fact only force you to make a few extra clicks before you get to the ”more”.
Simplicity is also the common denominator of three remarkable logo redesigns which were launched this fall: the new logotypes of Microsoft, eBay, and USA Today. All three of them stirred a debate, and the returning question was: Is this even design? Does it make sense at all to talk about a logo when what you see is just four squares, or some coloured type, or a circle?

THESE CREATIONS MAY NOT LOOK LIKE A MILLION, but I am pretty sure they have cost one (and probably more) as they bear the signatures of some of the world’s biggest names within branding and graphic design. Pentagram’s Paula Scher designed the Microsoft logo. EBay’s new identity was created by US-based brand strategy and design consultants Lippincott. And USA Today has been working with Wolff Olins which must be getting used to having their work scrutinized as they were also the masterminds behind the branding of the 2012 London Olympics, including the Games’ much-discussed symbol and typography. A design concept which was not characterized by its simplicity, but rather by its diversity:

A LOT OF THINKING has obviously been done and an awful lot of words must have been used to convince Microsoft, eBay, and USA Today – three mammoth companies with worldwide reputations to safeguard – that following a path of extreme simplicity would be the right way to lead their invaluable brands into the future. Some of these words have probably been about the abundant opportunities for putting the simple shapes into use, like how the Microsoft squares can be animated, or the endless variations on the circular form which USA Today’s designers will now be expected to exert.
Sure enough, it can be a great thing for a design element to be simple and versatile. Just think of the Absolut vodka bottle, or the Nike swoosh, or – sorry, Microsoft, but the comparison is inevitable – the Apple.
However, what’s important is exactly what distinguishes the three examples I just mentioned: The shape has to be recognizable – and unusual enough to not easily be confused with other shapes.

I believe this is the main problem with the Microsoft squares. Thumbs up for the software giant’s ambitions of creating a whole visual universe which consists entirely of squares put together in different combinations, live tiles and all. It’s certainly a bold and interesting strategy. But I am skeptical as to whether a square made out of four smaller squares – a window, if you will – will be a characteristic enough shape to make people automatically associate it with a particular brand.

I HAVE SIMILAR RESERVATIONS about USA Today’s circle … which, one could fear, may be looking forward to an even more complicated existence than the Microsoft squares since the USA Today branding concept, as conceived by Wolff Olins, dictates for the circular shape to be interpreted in all different kinds of ways (thank you, Charles Apple, for the above examples). An alluring idea, but like TV host Stephen Colbert predicts in this hilariously funny clip, having to generate meaningful variations on the circle theme every day can become a nightmare for USA Today’s graphics department (even though the designers seem coy and optimistic at the moment, as illustrated below … and yes, that is Colbert to the left).
Moreover, the ironic paradox is that all these variations might eventually dilute and dissolve the so-called ”logo” until it is no longer recognizable.

THE FOUR COLOURED LETTERS that form the new eBay logo seem less controversial, partly because this redesign appears to be just surfing the Dieter-Rams-wave rather than trying to be unique and original, but most of all because a logo is probably not that important to a company like eBay. The old one was fun and cheap (a bit like the old Microsoft logo, by the way), and that’s certainly two good things to associate with eBay, and qualities which the new logo is lacking … but I find it hard to imagine that this redesign has the potential to scare away anyone looking for a good bargain.

COULD THIS LESS-IS-MORE REVIVAL be related to some kind of megatrend in our society, some new puritanism or even prudishness? I think we see many signs pointing in that direction, and if I’m right, I find it rather sad. Life should be fun. To quote one of our gurus from my academy years way back in the eighties, the American architect Robert Venturi, who has devoted his career to putting fun into architecture (one of his books is called Learning from Las Vegas):

”Less is not more. Less is a bore”.

09 juli 2012

You call that ugly?

”YOU CALL THAT A KNIFE?”, Crocodile Dundee scornfully asks a mugger who confronts him and Sue Charlton (Linda Kozlowski) in New York. Or, actually, he doesn’t, as everyone can hear and see if they watch the clip. Anyway, this is how most of us remember the scene, and the important part comes when Dundee totally disclaims the assault weapon – ”That’s not a knife” – and then draws his own, somewhat more impressive, blade with the words ”This is a knife”.
A classic scene from the 1986 movie and one which came back to my mind recently when I read about the measures being taken in Crococile Dundee’s home country, Australia, in order to prevent cigarette companies from using visually pleasing effects, such as logotypes and distinctive colours, to promote their products.
In order to make the packaging as unappealing as possible, the Australian Government’s Department of Health and Ageing issued the Tobacco Plain Packaging Regulations with a long list of rigid restrictions to every possible aspect of designing a pack of cigarettes, including the use of font (Lucida Sans) and colour (Pantone 448C).
And it was these two details that made me respond just like Dundee:
”You call THAT ugly???”

MAYBE I FELT A LITTLE BIT OFFENDED as well, due to the fact that the Pantone colour in question, as reproduced in my newspaper, comes pretty close to the colour we chose for the new promo boxes on the redesigned Kristeligt Dagblad frontpage (10 cyan, 12 magenta, 36 yellow). Certainly much lighter, but taken from the same part of the colour circle as the new Australian cigarette colour.
During the design process, none of us had been thinking of this colour as particularly ugly; on the contrary, one of the reasons for choosing it was that we, as well as our client, found it pretty.
Much more important, however, were its two other qualities: It pairs nicely with Kristeligt Dagblad’s dark blue signature colour – and it provides a characteristic yet non-offensive background to the polychromicity of the varying visuals inside the promo boxes.
So: Ugly? I think not.

DIGGING DEEPER into the story, I learned that neither colour nor typeface have been picked haphazardly. On the contrary, thorough research lies behind the choices, which had even been fine-tuned on the basis of user responses.
For instance, a hint of green was added to the initially dark brown Pantone colour – in order to avoid unintended chocolate associations.
Still, I think the researchers, as well as the designers, have been missing the point.
There are no ugly colours.
Some people like some colours, others don’t, and certain colours are often linked to certain phenomenons, like brown to chocolate. But any colour can be used beautifully, and all colours can be mistreated.
As long as you are dealing with one colour, it makes little sense to talk about ugly or beautiful.

THE POINT WHERE IT GETS INTERESTING, and complicated – and where it can get ugly – is once you start combining two colours or more. And I can think of a lot of ugly combinations with Pantone 448C, but yellow/black is not one of them. True enough, this does not look like your average cigarette package, but the colour combination in itself should prevent nobody from marketing it effectively.
The basic idea is to make it uncool for users to leave the package lying on the table the way smokers often do with Camel, Marlboro, and what have you. And it feels safe to assume that few smokers would want to expose this package for other people to see it, but don’t you think the main reason for that would be the offensive use of photography, rather than Pantone 448C?

THE TYPOGRAPHY COMES CLOSER to doing its job – making the design unappealing. However, this has got very little to do with the choice of Lucida Sans. Describing this particular typeface as ”clumsy” and ”one of the least graceful sans-serif typefaces designed” is plain stupid, if you’ll excuse me. On their field studies, I guess the researchers must have run into a graphic designer with an idiosyncratic aversion towards Lucida Sans. In any case, the harsh verdict appears to be purely a matter of taste.
Once again, the secret lies in the pairing. To judge from the illustrations, it looks like Lucida Sans will be accompanied by at least three different styles of some Helvetica-like sans serif. And that is an ugly combination.

If you’d like to read more about this, I found some interesting reflections on the story – and a couple of intriguing alternatives to the package design – here: http://www.weareasilia.com/blog/focusing-unattractive

25 juni 2012

Kejserens nye lørdagstillæg

I LØRDAGS, EFTER SEKS UGER med Politikens stort anlagte og kraftigt markedsførte nye kultursektion i tabloidformat og på hvidere papir, spurgte jeg min hustru om hun egentlig læste den.
Næ, svarede hun.
Det gør jeg heller ikke, konstaterede jeg.
Og gav mig til at overveje hvad årsagen mon kan være.

Lørdag er den perfekte avisdag. Her i huset, hvor vi modtager hele fire af slagsen (altså om lørdagen), har højdepunktet i flere år været Informations lørdagstillæg Moderne Tider. Den går jeg ligefrem og glæder mig til, når weekenden nærmer sig. Og skulle jeg af en eller anden grund være forhindret i at læse Moderne Tider på udgivelsesdagen, bliver den gemt til en særlig god stund.
Modsat forholder det sig med Politikens lørdagssektion KULTUR. Den er begyndt at ryge i bunken stort set uden at blive åbnet. Og nu kan det ikke længere forklares med at jeg skal vænne mig til den.
I det følgende vil jeg derfor vove mig ud i en lille sammenlignende analyse.

I dagens anledning bladrede jeg igennem KULTUR. Jeg læste ikke nogen af artiklerne, for det fik jeg ikke lyst til. Jeg opførte mig med andre ord som en helt almindelig avislæser.
Med Moderne Tider gjorde jeg som jeg plejer, hvilket vil sige at jeg fik læst en del af artiklerne – og satte mig ind i hvad resten handlede om.
Dette sidste er vigtigt: En af hemmelighederne ved godt avisdesign er, at det hjælper mig med at vælge hvad jeg vil nærlæse, og hvor jeg kan nøjes med at scanne ”landingspladserne”. Det handler både om form og om redigering: Rubrikformulering, indledninger/underrubrikker/resumeer, udhævede citater etc.

Sammenligningen mundede ud i en liste på fire punkter, hvor de to lørdagssektioner adskiller sig fra hinanden:

1) Bredde
Informations Moderne Tider handler, som navnet antyder, om kultur, men i bredere forstand end begrebet defineres af Politiken. Sektionens kulturfokus er underforstået. Det signaleres primært gennem titlen, der som bekendt er et filmcitat. Og står ikke i vejen for, at Moderne Tider fx også kan indeholde et essay om Habermas’ syn på mødet mellem religion og politik, eller fem sider om en tidligere ministers forsøg på at påvirke Helle Thornings skattesag – eller nørdede helsidesanalyser af forskellen i spillestil hos FC Barcelona og Real Madrid.
Hvis lixtallet skulle gøre mig stakåndet, kan jeg slappe af med madanmeldelser og opskrifter … eller med den privatlivsbrevkasse, som Information heldigvis ikke holder sig for fin til, og som har det forfriskende lille twist at læsernes spørgsmål altid besvares af to personer (opgaven går på omgang på redaktionen, hvilket har den tiltalende sideeffekt at man med tiden lærer avisens medarbejdere at kende). To, der tydeligvis ikke læser hinandens svar på forhånd, hvilket gør dem mere underholdende at læse.

Politikens KULTUR har et snævrere fokus. Tabloidsektionen erstatter avisens sædvanlige kulturstof – og adskiller sig kun marginalt fra dette, bortset fra at der er meget mere af det.
Og nu jeg tænker over det, er jeg faktisk også holdt op med at nærstudere Politikens kultursider til hverdag. Dels nok i konsekvens af at jeg er blevet ældre og følger knap så ihærdigt med i hvilke film der er værd at se, og hvad der bliver udgivet af rytmisk musik. Men jeg oplever også at avisen har flyttet sig. Jeg synes den er blevet mere finkulturel, og mere indforstået.
Selvfølgelig kan det være mig der er noget galt med, når jeg ikke kaster mig over reportagen over to opslag om Documenta-udstillingen i Kassel eller nærstuderer seks sider med portrætter af headbangende festivaldeltagere. Men jeg har en lumsk mistanke om at en betragtelig del af de skolelærere og sygeplejersker, der trofast bliver ved med at se Politiken som deres avis, tilbagelægger turen igennem det nye tillæg med lige så få stop undervejs som undertegnede.

2) Tilgængelighed
KULTUR er præget af visuelt lir. Det virker næsten som om sektionen er formgivet med henblik på at den skal vinde internationale designpriser. Hvilket den helt sikkert også kommer til, for juryerne ved den slags arrangementer har jo ikke en kinamands chance for at vurdere om indholdet rent faktisk kommer ud over rampen. Avisdesignkonkurrencer er i realiteten plakatkonkurrencer, og Politikensider er smukke plakater.
I mine øjne er der imidlertid for meget af det, der for tyve år siden – af en Politiken-medarbejder  (!) – blev kaldt ”layoutisme”. Det ser smart ud, men ofte skal man faktisk anstrenge sig for at finde ud af hvad en historie egentlig handler om.
Jeg bladrer gennem KULTUR og har det nærmest som en forælder må opleve det den dag han eller hun kommer til daginstitutionen for at hente sit barn, og så opdager at alle pædagogerne er gået hjem. Her lader ikke til at være noget opsyn, ingen begrænsninger, ingen kritisk styring. Alle er helvedes kreative, men hvad skal det nytte, for at citere et af de gamle Politikenkoryfæer?

Moderne Tiders visuelle ambitionsniveau er langt lavere end KULTURs, og Informations layoutere er ikke lige så dygtige grafikere som dem på Politiken.
Men som passager på skibet er jeg sjældent i tvivl om kursen, og såvel opsætningen som flertallet af billeder understøtter teksten – som der i øvrigt er mest af. Hvilket tiltaler mig, for jeg køber primært en avis for at læse den.

3) Håndterbarhed
Enkelt men vigtigt: Moderne Tider er hæftet. Det gør sektionen nem at håndtere ved spisebordet, i sofaen – og i sengen.
KULTUR består derimod af løsblade. Det er i sig selv et irritationsmoment. Som bliver endnu mere irriterende, fordi papiret – der jo blev markedsført som et af de store plusser ved den ny sektion – er kraftigt og glat, og siderne derfor glider fra hinanden.

4) Rune Lykkeberg
Informations weekendredaktør og kommentator er langt fra den eneste af de faste skribenter, der gør Moderne Tider læseværdig. Men hans – som regel overraskende, ofte provokerende, og altid velargumenterede – betragtninger over hvor vores samfund er på vej hen, er med til at give MT intellektuel kant.

Til sammenligning virker Politikens kulturskribenter ærlig talt lidt mætte og trætte.

”Kulturen lever, har det godt og bor i Politiken”, påstår kulturredaktør Anita Bay Bundegaard på en af reklameplakaterne på Nørreport Station.
Selvfedmen trives tilsyneladende endnu bedre.
Men pas på, Politiken!
På et tidspunkt kan det være at jeres læsere opdager, hvad I har indenunder tøjet …

07 juni 2012

Size matters

INSPIRED BY THE REDESIGN of the Dubai-based, English-spoken newspaper Gulf News which involves a format shift from broadsheet to berliner, an interesting question was raised the other day on http://newspaperdesign.ning.com.
Which newspaper format is more challenging, asks Sajeev Kumar who is managing the site: Broadsheet or berliner?

Sajeev mailed his question to a number of professionals within our industry, including Mario Garcia who was the design consultant on the Gulf News project. And the answers are no less interesting; here you can read them in their entirety. Lots of inspiring thoughts.
It surprised me, however, to see that all these experts more or less agree that the number of challenges which the page designer has to face does not depend on the format; they are just different challenges, my colleagues seem to think (sorry for the generalization).

ALLOW ME TO DISAGREE. Perhaps wishing to avoid stating the obvious, my colleagues tend to intellectualize on a subject which can also be seen as very simple.
Of course you can argue that a smaller format can be very challenging because you have less space at your disposal, just like it will always be easier to make a big ballroom look impressive than a small one. But if you look at the complexity of the page designer’s task, this is a no-brainer. Having managed the transition of more than twenty newspapers from broadsheet/berliner into tabloid format, I stay convinced that the broadsheet format is the more challenging.

THIS IS PURE MATH. The sheer size of the paper, and the number of columns in particular, provide you with more design options on broadsheet. Which makes the page design more challenging – in the sense that you will have more elements to juggle. The totality gets more complex.

On a typical tabloid or berliner page, with five or six columns, there's a limited number of successful ways for you to place your words and visuals. In several of the tabloid redesigns carried out by our company over the years, we composed libraries of standard page designs for the editors to choose from … thereby saving time for the staff who would, nine times out of ten, come up with similar solutions if starting from scratch.

Working with double-trucks will give you more options, and make the design task more complex; but then again, broadsheet papers have facing pages as well and a good designer would never lay out one page – no matter what size – without taking into consideration the look of its neighbouring page.

THE FACT THAT THE SMALLER FORMAT is less challenging, design-wise, says nothing about the possible effect it can have on readers. Research comparing broadsheet and tabloid suggests that readers are spending more time on the smaller format, relatively speaking, simply because ”a page is a page” and as long as there is something on every spread that will catch the eye, both tabloid and berliner have the potential to make readers feel they get more value for money.

SO COULD THERE BE ANY GOOD REASONS for sticking to broadsheet? Well, size matters, in more than one sense, and size is not merely a matter of functionality.
Size sends signals, as any owner of an SUV can tell you, and in the case of some newspapers – like Die Zeit of Germany, to name an example – the broadsheet format sends signals of seriousness, credibility, and just the right amount of exclusivity.

Broadsheet is also a newspaper signal. You can print long articles, like those of Die Zeit, on smaller pages, but that will force you to distribute your stories on several consecutive spreads – which will make the newspaper appear more like a news magazine. In Germany, the main competitor to Die Zeit is just that: Der Spiegel, a weekly news magazine.
So another reason for choosing the broadsheet format could be, for newspapers with lots of words, if they wish to stay ”newspaperish”.

This is true for one of our own clients, Copenhagen-based Kristeligt Dagblad (the Christian Daily) which has retained the broadsheet format – and managed to increase circulation – while just about every other title on the Danish newspaper market has shrunk. In more than one sense, unfortunately. But that is another story.

PS: If you’d like to know more about how we have worked, since 2004, with developing the visual appearance of Kristeligt Dagblad, please carry on reading here.

07 maj 2012

Tabloid? Yes please, ASAP

NEXT SATURDAY, the Danish morning paper Politiken is going to close down a couple of its broadsheet sections and open some new ones in tabloid format.
To a normal newspaper, in 2012, this would be no big deal, except perhaps rather late for such a move. But to a publication which has, during the last couple of years, been nominated World’s Best-Designed Newspaper, European Newspaper of the Year, and brought home truckloads of SND and SNDS diplomas – almost always with jurys mentioning the Politiken designers’ skillful use of the broadsheet format as a unique quality – this step is quite a significant one.
After making some experiments with the format and having to accept the fact that Danish print facilities are turning any idea of a berliner-sized newspaper, like The Guardian, into an impossible dream, the late editor-in-chief Tøger Seidenfaden had drawn the conclusion that tabloid would be wrong for a paper like Politiken. Now with a new person behind the wheel, the smaller format starts looking like an option once again, and I can’t wait for it to happen.

WHY IS THAT? As a visually oriented person, I guess I am supposed to love Politiken and the way photos and illustrations are exposed on its big, big, big pages. And I do indeed love Politiken. It is a love affair that started in the mid-sixties and grew only stronger during the years around 1990 when I had the pleasure and great privilege of working at the paper myself. Politiken has got world-class illustrators, world-class photographers, and world-class page designers. And the visual staff is highly appreciated by the management as one of the paper’s key assets, and constantly encouraged to explore the possibilities and try out new ideas.
For instance, look at this great front page from last Friday, promoting a special supplement on music festivals:

NEVERTHELESS, I have the impression that all this visual hype has gone too far. In earlier blogposts, I wrote about what I see as the lack of a critical eye in the editorial department when it comes to Politiken’s use of photographs. Another observation I have made is that ever more frequently, I choose to read the Politiken e-paper on my iPad instead of the paper version, partly because it is more handy but just as much because every broadsheet page does in fact contain so little information that I can easily overview it on the 241x186 mm screen.
Yesterday, once again I sat there with the feeling that an awful lot of paper had been wasted.
The front of the Sunday B-section looked like this:

THIS FRONT PAGE promotes a two-page interview with Danish actress, author, artist, film director, etc, Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis.
It is an interesting interview, portraying an interesting person. As the headline suggests (both headlines do, in fact), she possesses an intriguing dualism, graceful lady and outspoken provocateur at the same time.
Lars Just’s photographs of her are beautiful and everybody in Denmark loves the sight of anemones as this flower signals the start of our favourite time of the year.
However, when I asked my wife, who had already read the article, what she had thought of the photos, she answered: ”To be honest, I did not notice them”.

IN MY EYES, this is a complete communicative failure. Altogether, we are talking close to half a square meter of color photography and its task is indisputable: Give Politiken’s readers a visual impression of a controversial, many-faceted person.
Instead, I get anemones.

NOW LOOK what might have happened to the communicative totality if the second photo had looked like this:

OR, even more provocative and, as such, expressing the very point of the story (the headline says, roughly, ”A graceful lady who refuses to keep her mouth shut”):

THE SELF-PORTRAIT TO THE RIGHT is titled Ordinary Hooker with Career Spoiler and was Bjarup Riis’ contribution to the Charlottenborg Art Exhibition 2006, a comment on the exploitation of women. Both the subject and the photograph are being thoroughly discussed in the interview.
If yesterday’s story had been presented in such a way, I am pretty sure my wife would have noticed. Moreover, this would have been a much more congenial visual representation of the interview. But of course, there is an infinite number of ”right” solutions, not just these two stitched together by me in a couple of minutes.

MY CONCLUSION? Politiken appears to be resting on its laurels, assuming that every big photo is a good photo, and all too often allowing its photographers to run free-style without paying any attention to the story. Shrinking the format will force everyone at the paper to consider much more critically what to print and what to frame and use for decorating the walls. As I just mentioned, I can’t wait for that to happen.

06 marts 2012

The colour of money

COLOUR IS THE STRONGEST VISUAL ELEMENT OF A BRAND. Think of Santa Claus. The character you will be imagining might look different from the way I see Father Christmas, but I am positive that our two guys have one thing in common: They will both be dressed in red.
Maybe you know that Santa’s looks and red uniform can be traced back to a 1931 Coca-Cola ad? Before then, the bloke could be of any weight class and wear all kinds of clothes.
So here’s one more thing that could never be anything but red (and white): Coke.

But then what happens if different colour identities get on a collision course?

See for yourself:

THIS IS LA BOMBONERA, the legendary home ground of Argentinian soccer team Boca Juniors.
It is also one of the very few places in the world where Coca-Cola had to accept substituting their trademark red with a dull black.
Because the archrivals of Boca Juniors, River Plate, are playing in red and white. And there’s no way the Boca Juniors fans would ever allow that particular colour combination inside their stadium, except on the jerseys of their opponents.
That is how much colour means.

IN CASE YOU’RE SKEPTICAL, take a look at the conclusions of a 2009 study carried out by patent and trademark attorneys Withers & Rogers. 64% of the respondents rated colour more important to a brand than slogan, typeface or logo shape. And the survey mentions several examples of companies fighting for the ownership to a particular colour, like Cadbury’s legal dispute for more than five years with an Australian confectioner over the rights to use the colour purple.

THE IMPORTANCE OF COLOUR struck me last week when surfing the internet and spending a couple of minutes checking out Danish newspaper websites. Now these publications spend millions every year on maintaining and reinforcing their own brand recognition through campaigns, stationery, signage, etc. And each of them has its own signature colour.
Politiken is red, Jyllands-Posten is green, and Berlingske is blue.

So how come they all seem to completely forget about this when selling ad space on the internet?

OF COURSE I KNOW THE ANSWER. And so do you. It is all about dough. For ten years or more, newspapers have been panicking over the dire prospects of how to make money as advertising would leave print in favour of the internet.
This panic leads them to quite an irrational behaviour. Instead of thinking long-term and concentrating on establishing their precious, credible, centuries-old brands just as solidly on the internet as they have managed to do on print, it looks like they worry most about the upcoming annual accounts.
No doubt Irma, Handewitt Scandinavian Park, and Sydbank pay well for the privilege of taking over the websites of the three leading Danish morning papers for a while. The comparison that comes to my mind, however, is three noble old ladies dressed up as whores.

SOME NEWSPAPERS CHOOSE DIFFERENT STRATEGIES, and I am not only referring to high-brow publications such as The Guardian or The New York Times.
For instance, here’s the Daily Mail – which may have been inspired by Google: Become number one and then you can define the rules. Indeed, the 19 million GBP of online advertising revenue brought in by Mail Online last year seems like petty cash when compared to the 340 million the newspaper made on print ads, but still, it represents a 65% growth over one year. And the 45+ million monthly users ought to make this site interesting to advertisers even though they will not be allowed to dominate the front page. See the flat white box up in the corner, right below the dateline? Yep, that’s the ad.

24 februar 2012

Photographs that ”lie”: A silly debate

HERE YOU SEE THE WORLD’S BEST PORTRAIT PHOTO, taken by a Danish student of photo journalism. Congratulations to Lærke Posselt who saw how there might be a story-telling potential in the way the wind was blowing Iranian-born actress Mellica Mehraban’s hair in front of her face during their 10-minute encounter. This adds so much to the picture, and at the same time, exactly what it is adding is impossible to express with words. Which is precisely why it is such a great picture.

THE WPP AND POY AWARDS came in just the right moment to swirl this portrait into a heated debate which had been ignited – for the umpteenth time – by a third contest. In January, a jury assembled to award the Danish Press Photo of the Year. Photographer Thomas Nielsen’s entries to the contest were refused because the jury decided they were leaving out important details, and therefore did not convey a correct representation of what had been in front of the camera.
When shooting the photos at Mændenes Hjem, a place for homeless men in Copenhagen, Thomas had been using a ”snoot” – a cardboard tube at the end of his flash which created a narrowly focused light on the subject. Some members of the jury keep insisting that the shadowy parts of the photos must have been further darkened in Photoshop and that the photoshopping was the main reason for denying Thomas the chance to participate.
As if that was important.
As if there was a meaningful way to define ”manipulated photos” – and to make a distinction between those and the rest … which would, in that case, have to be ”non-manipulated” photos.

ACCORDING TO DANISH EXPERTS on press photography, the restrictions on what is ”allowed” with Photoshop are even tougher internationally than in Denmark. Nevertheless, Lærke’s photo, which must have been shadowed even more than Thomas’ – it was taken in Gothersgade, Copenhagen, in broad daylight – managed to win not just one, but two international awards, and deservedly so. But how could you ever argue that this portrait has not been manipulated?

Now let us, for a little while, leave Photoshop out of the discussion. To me, the only important ”manipulation” in this photograph concerns the hair in front of Mellica’s face. That is what makes this photo great, in the sense that it adds meaning to the portrait, turning it into something more than just a rendering of the actress’ facial features.
The fact that this ”manipulation” was a joint effort between the wind and Lærke’s talent does not make the photo one bit less manipulated.
On the contrary, it is the manipulation that makes the photo true.

PHOTOGRAPHS ARE MANIPULATIONS BY NATURE. When you choose to focus on part of what you see and omit the rest, you manipulate. Whether the editing is made before or after the photo is taken, and whether it is done with a snoot, or with a scalpel and some retouching skills, or with Photoshop, is of little relevance if what you are searching for is ”the truth”.
An example which became famous but not so much because of what it omits, is Eddie Adams’ 1968 photo of the execution of a Vietcong soldier. The version to the left is the one we all remember, but the original – to the right – is much more complex and turns the story of the execution into a more nuanced one. Both stories may be ”true”, but they are not the same story.

ON THE OTHER HAND, you can ”lie” just as much with a photograph that plays by every rule of the average press photography contest, as you can by ”manipulating”, if this means adding or removing pixels or whatever was decided in some arbitrary definition.

In a couple of last year’s blogposts, I showed some examples, like Martin Bubandt’s photos of Icelandic publisher Snæbjörn Arngrímsson which portray a kind, gentle man as if he were a hybrid between Action Man and count Dracula. Just to recapitulate, here is one of Martin’s photos, to compare with what Snæbjörn looks like in real life:

AS I HAPPEN TO KNOW Snæbjörn (I even took the amateurish photo to the right), I also know for a fact that Martin’s photos are ”lying”. They give the readers of Børsen Pleasure a totally false impression of the man they were supposed to portray.
However, according to the ”rules”, they are not ”manipulated”. 
(By the way, it made me happy to see that Martin himself is well aware of the implications of his own photographic style. In one of the discussions among Danish photographers and other media people which followed the Thomas Nielsen incident, Martin Bubandt is quoted to have said: ”If I had been the photographer working at Mændenes Hjem, I would have brought my two generators and put spotlights on everything. Then you would be able to see everything going on there. But that would have been a personal style just as much as Thomas’ use of the snoot. So what’s the difference?”)

I’LL TRY TO DRAW A CONCLUSION. It is simple but it is not easy, as Danish footballer Michael Laudrup responded when journalists were wondering how his sophisticated game could look so simple:

Whether a photo tells the truth or not is partly a question of the photographer’s honesty. But most of all, it depends on his or her own ability to see what is true. Sometimes, that may take years of research and contemplation. In other cases, as in Lærke’s, it is a matter of talent and luck.
And no matter how many rules you try to establish for that, you will never succeed.