Type is a strange thing. Even as you read this you shouldn’t be aware of the chosen font or the shapes of the individual characters or their size and the space between the lines. All those things have been taken care of so the experience of absorbing the information can be as pleasurable and seamless as possible. However, now that it has been mentioned you can’t help but be aware of it and wonder just why it is important.
Like many things, typesetting and type design have undergone a transformation during the past 20 years. The advent of desktop publishing—and, in particular, the arrival of Apple’s Macintosh computer—was a quantum leap for the publishing industry. In fact the Mac is what gave me the opportunity in 1986 to work in an industry I had not even considered until then, when as an unemployed musician I found a job at a new music magazine, Cut, in Edinburgh, Scotland. A local publisher owned a new Mac Plus and quickly we saw the potential to produce a magazine with limited up-front cost.
Viewed from where we are today, this was a primitive machine; but its biggest problem was the limited amount of type available. There were Times, Palatino, Helvetica, Optima and a few others. All perfectly functional, readable fonts, but not the inspiring selection we needed to create a youthful music publication. Instead we resorted to using Letraset, a dry transfer type, for headlines. This was a painfully slow, laborious process, but working with it gave me a crucial insight into the subtleties of handling type and the importance of such arcane matters as word and letter spacing.
As the Macintosh became more powerful and design and layout software such as PageMaker and Quark Xpress became more sophisticated, those of us using it to create pages for publication were able to control properly our designs and reduce the time it took to move an idea to final artwork. Nowhere was this ability more in evidence than in editorial design; with newspapers, in particular, this transition was noteworthy since until relatively recently decisions about layout were often in the hands of those who were neither designers nor journalists.
But the single most liberating aspect of this technological revolution was the sudden availability in digital format of hundreds and hundreds of hitherto inaccessible typefaces. After decades of plodding along with the usual suspects, an immense vista of typographic opportunities opened up. This had its drawbacks. It is easy to date the design of a publication to the era of the explosion of digital type: It will be the one that excitedly uses 25 different fonts on a single page, where one would suffice.
In his book, “From Gutenberg to OpenType,” Robin Dodd, an associate lecturer at the London College of Communications, takes us back to the time of Gutenberg’s movable type and then sweeps us forward through the intervening eras of typesetting strategies and opportunities, carrying us into the time we now inhabit when a plethora of typefaces are at our fingertips with the click of a mouse. It’s a remarkable journey, as it reminds us of the generational similarities of this thing called “type” and lets us see how all that we work with today has deep roots in very different technologies that have been used to bring us images and words through the centuries.
The Guardian’s Changing Look
For more than 200 years, newspapers have given us the first rough draft of history, providing a mirror to changing tastes and social customs, as well as changes in industry and technology. Recently, The Guardian in the United Kingdom published its 50,000th edition. A newspaper that began life in 1851 as a regional publication in Manchester, in the north of England, is now one of the most modern and groundbreaking in the world.
To mark this moment it published in both print and online, of course, a selection of its most notable and memorable front pages. From the death of Napoleon—the news was published several days after the event—to the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy, from the 1969 moon landing to 9/11, the accelerating pace of newsgathering was apparent.
To my designer’s eye, the most marked change was the way in which the paper’s design—and particularly its typography—had developed during the past 20 years. In the mid-1980’s, The Guardian bore a distinctly old-fashioned look that had barely changed in four decades or more. It looked, like almost all newspapers at the time, a bit scruffy, a bit dirty and messy, like it had been hastily put together with little thought for its appearance. In the late 1980’s it introduced a radical redesign. By the late 1990’s it underwent a sophisticated development that was striking for the way in which it took the paper’s trademark use of Helvetica, one of the world’s most common typefaces, and made it feel completely contemporary. Continuing with its reinvention in a Berliner (midsize) format in 2005, The Guardian is one of the few newspapers whose modernity of design allows it to sit comfortably alongside such icons of 21st century design as the iPod.
Of course, printing developments have played a part in this, but without doubt the most important underlying factor in this transformation is the attention given to typography.
The newspaper commissioned two type designers, New York-based Christian Schwartz and Paul Barnes, from London, to create a complete family of typefaces. Guardian Egyptian, as it was named, has 96 different “weights,” or varying forms—from the classic form seen in the nameplate through to a special “agate” weight for such elements as stock market listings and sports results. All were created for use exclusively by The Guardian.
This was not in itself a revolutionary development. Newspapers, particularly the larger-circulation ones, have been doing this for many years. The New York Times famously created a font that became so common that a version is installed on almost every computer in the world. While this must please its original designer, it has had another, less-welcome effect for the newspaper itself: Any publication, no matter how small, could produce something that looked in some way similar to a title that is regarded as one of the most prestigious in the world.
This ubiquitous availability of many common fonts creates a problem for the modern newspaper. Twenty years ago it would have been hard to meet anyone who had an interest in type, let alone knew what a font is. Now everyone has their favorite typeface (among the tens of thousands available); scrolling down a type menu is as much a daily occurrence for many people as discussing the latest episode of “The Sopranos” at the water cooler. And this means that anyone with basic layout skills and proper software can create a reasonably good-looking newspaper. But newspapers, particularly those selling their product at the high end of the market, need to retain a certain exclusiveness, and typography is one of the key elements in doing this.
Newspapers have for many decades been conservative products as they’ve made changes slowly, carefully and at times painfully. But now a genuine and urgent desire exists for change as these publications fight for a diminishing share of the market. In a marketplace where content and quality once drove consumer decisions, the newspaper now competes visually in a design-savvy, 24-hour free-information age. More than ever, there is a need for distinctive, exclusive, high-quality type, and at the same time a greater focus on the skills involved in handling typography.
Many typefaces are free today, and many others are relatively inexpensive. But most of these fonts are not designed for newspaper use, so it is up to newspaper designers, art directors, type designers, and design consultants to find a suitable type. Trying to choose the right font for the right publication is far from an exact science; it can have as much to do with instinct and feel as it does with theory and study.
Today, however, most newspapers are just one strand of a “multichannel” news operation alongside the Web (and, increasingly, mobile phones and PDAs). While the content of online and offline newspaper editions can be closely connected, the two are utterly different environments for which to design. The typographic limitations of the Web are extreme. Designers can use any fonts they like, but if those fonts are not on the reader’s computer (and they almost certainly won’t be) they will default to one of the handful of “Web-safe” fonts installed on the overwhelming majority of computers—Arial, Helvetica, Times, Courier and a few others.
The only way to ensure text appears as the designer intends is to create it as a graphic, which slows down the speed the page loads and is unrealistic with dynamic content. Therefore, most newspaper Web sites feature a few elements that mirror the graphic identity of the printed newspaper; everything else is presented using Web-safe fonts. Even then, there is little control over the way the page will appear since different Web browsers treat fonts differently, and some “users” will specify that particular fonts are to be read at specific sizes. This is why so many newspaper Web sites—and indeed all of those with dynamic content—have a generic feel.
All of this emphasizes how so much of a newspaper’s identity hinges on the typography. There are some developments taking place to address this, with fonts being designed for Web pages to address the “softness” of on-screen type, but it will be some time before these are prevalent.
Whether offline or online, typography is but one element in a redesign process. At the heart of any change must be the publication’s content and basic structure. From a purely creative point of view, however, type can be the catalyst, and it often is the most inspirational part of the entire process. By combining and mixing fonts from different type, designers can produce surprising results. Using fonts that were never intended for use in newspapers can turn out to be the answer to a difficult creative problem.
In some ways the type designer has become the rock star of the newspaper design world. They are regarded as slightly mysterious but highly creative people who spend too much time locked in their studios worrying about details few other people would ever notice. Without this attention to detail—and the obsessive nature that designers bring to this task—progress would be stymied.
The process of creating new type is complicated, and the inspiration can come from many sources. “I tend to create my typefaces with some historical context and background,” says Portuguese type designer Mario Feliciano. “Looking at type history creates a connection between what I do and the real world.” And the process has an inherent logical structure. “I normally start with a lowercase ‘n’ and, with the ‘n,’ I can make ‘m, i, l, h’ and ‘u.’ These letters give the basic rhythm of the typeface,” Feliciano explains. “To get more personality I move to ‘o, e and a.’ Using the uppercase ‘H,’ I start testing the first words, make corrections and move to the ‘b, d, p, q’ group and a few other uppercase letters: ‘I, E, F, T’ and ‘L.’ Then comes a delicate group of letters: ‘M, R, S, s’ and ‘g.’ When all these letters are designed, then most of the personality of the typeface is designed.”
Designers worry a lot about the “Starbucks effect” in the newspaper designs they produce. There is awareness of how much the world’s sense of distance is shrinking in this era of instant communication and access to information. When a new design is launched in Mexico City, for example, by the next day everyone in the industry can see how it looks and what typefaces have been used; within hours bloggers will have viewed it, analyzed it, and launched discussions about it. Twenty years ago it would have taken weeks, months or years for that design to be seen and evaluated in the visual community.
In this environment, homogenization of newspaper design can emerge internationally, but if it does one can hope that it will be with design standards raised across the board. If this happens, the people who benefit will be the readers.
Ally Palmer is a founding director of Palmer Watson Ltd. He has been a consultant since 1998 and has a record of creating internationally acclaimed designs for newspapers across the world. Before becoming a consultant, he was an award-winning art director with The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, and The European. In recent years he has been involved in launches, redesigns and relaunches across Europe and in South America, Africa and Russia.