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.

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