Newspaper design is something that most people take for granted. Readers don’t even notice how their daily paper looks – until it changes; then they notice right away, and usually they complain. Newspaper readers are the most conservative audience on earth.

So a redesign will be undertaken only when there’s something wrong with the previous design – or when some change makes it no longer appropriate. New management may want to establish its presence by stamping its own image on the paper; or a newspaper’s circulation may be falling, so as part of an effort to reverse that trend, management decides to try changing the way the paper looks. In those rare instances where a brand-new paper springs into being, it’s the design, just as much as the choice of stories and the editorial voice, that sets the tone.

When a new design is needed by a daily paper, it may be done by the paper’s own staff, keeping all the work in-house; or it may be done by calling in outside designers, to give a fresh perspective. Quite often the process is some combination of the two. No matter how it’s done, there has to be cooperation and coordination between the designers and the people who will implement their design – the editors and the production staff of the paper.

When a newspaper brings in outside design talent, it’s usually a professional consultant who specializes in newspaper redesigns – someone who makes a practice of analyzing the paper’s strengths and weaknesses, listening carefully and asking questions, defining what the paper’s owners want to accomplish, and then creating not just a new design but the tools that the newspaper’s staff will need in order to carry it out and maintain it in the long run.

The number of people who specialize in this field is small, and some of them have contributed to this book. They nearly all work collaboratively, with the local staffs and with each other; they have to, since every project is different and each one involves a different conjunction of people, place, and ideas.

A big influence on newspaper design, at least in North America, was the advent of USA Today in the early 1980s. Newspapers have traditionally been based in a particular city, however far their reach might extend; in some European countries, the major newspapers of the capital penetrate the entire country, making them in effect national newspapers. In the United States, which is large and sprawling, the closest thing to a national newspaper was The New York Times, which emanated not from the political capital but from the cultural capital. You could find The New York Times in most major cities, and its voice was listened to by everybody, even those who disdained it. The idea behind USA Today, however, was different: to be national not by weight and prestige but by universal coverage, without a focus on any one city or region, and to be distributed throughout the country.

USA Today made its position by aspiring to be national, rather than local to any one place, and by following through on its universal distribution. But it affected the look of other newspapers because of its design: colorful, visual, designed for the eye. USA Today was one of the first American newspapers to fully embrace the possibilities of color; it became famous for its “infographics,” the charts and maps and visual aids that turned the words of the news into images that a reader could quickly grasp. A whole generation of newspapers struggled to either incorporate that style or respond to it.

But that was twenty years ago. The design of newspapers has absorbed that lesson and moved on; even USA Today has evolved. Full-color printing and sophisticated visual collage are common on the pages of most newspapers today; infographics are old hat (if still difficult to execute effectively). Look at the front pages, the interior pages, the supplements and sections, and you’ll see a rich visual stew, a range of typography, photography, tables and charts, dramatic juxtaposition, “entry points” to the news, headlines and subheads and decks and pullquotes – all serving up the news and its accompanying entertainment to the newspaper’s regular readers every day.

It’s interesting that some of the most dramatic new design has come in newspapers that began fresh with the intention of becoming national papers – USA Today, or more recently Conrad Black’s National Post in Canada. It’s not surprising, though: since they were start-ups, they had to establish their identity from the outset, and they used design to help do that. Both of those newspapers represent a fairly conservative political approach, but there’s nothing unique to the right wing about good design: at the other end of the political spectrum, The Guardian in the UK and Libération in France both set standards for dramatic and careful presentation of the news.

Despite the importance of photography and various kinds of graphic images, the fundamental visual identity of a newspaper is set in its type. The text type is what we actually read, when we read a story; the display type is where we get the gist of what’s there to peruse. The secret history of newspaper design – a history that’s in plain sight, but that most readers know nothing about – is in its typography.

Newspaper typefaces have evolved as a special subset of type design for more than a century, from the “legibility faces” of the 1930s to the finely graded weights of a digital typeface like Poynter Oldstyle (designed to compensate for subtle variations of paper and printing, so that sections printed on different papers or presses will have the same visual texture when they’re set side by side). Like every other kind of typography, newspaper type has been changed enormously by the changes in typesetting technology of the last twenty years: from hot-metal type to phototype to several distinct generations of digital type, and from Linotype machines to Atex systems to distributed networks of Macs or PCs running a page-layout program like QuarkXPress.

The fundamental building block of a newspaper page is awkward: a narrow column of text, usually justified. The lines are so short that it’s hard to avoid ugly spaces within the lines, and sometimes misleading or nonsensical hyphenation. (We’ve all seen ridiculous examples of words broken badly between one line and the next, when an automated program decides where to put the hyphen, and no human eye has caught the absurdity in time.) Some newspaper designers get around this by setting the text with a ragged right-hand margin, rather than justified; but this creates a busier-looking page, and in compensation the overall layout has to be quieter and more strictly defined. As a rule, newspaper readers tend to resist ragged-right text, especially in the United States; when it comes to their daily paper, they resist anything they’re not already used to. So the designers of typefaces for newspapers try to make faces that can fit a lot of letters on each line, without looking cramped, and that will look larger than they really are, while still appearing perfectly ordinary and unremarkable to the eye of the reader.

There are many more typefaces available today than ever before, and among those there are quite a lot of faces designed specifically for use in newspapers. The Poynter family of typefaces, designed by Font Bureau as a project of the Poynter Institute, offers complementary serif and sans serif typefaces that can be put to use by any number of newspapers in different ways. Matthew Carter’s Miller (which is the face you’re reading now) has been adopted by both newspapers and magazines around the world, sometimes in slightly customized forms. French designer Jean François Porchez made his reputation by designing a completely new set of typefaces for Le Monde, the most prestigious newspaper in France, and has performed the same design feat for other newspapers around the country. Gerard Unger’s type family Gulliver, which he designed as a solution to exactly the kind of problem mentioned in the last paragraph, has been put to use in such diverse ways that this one typeface has given entirely different personalities to different papers, depending on how it’s used (see “Gulliver’s travels” in this book), and several of his other typefaces are used in newspapers around Europe. Tobias Frere-Jones created HTF Retina as an “agate” face for the tiny financial listings of The Wall Street Journal, where appearance hardly matters but legibility is key. This list is far from comprehensive.

Special sections of newspapers have been with us for decades. In 1980, Anthony Smith pointed out in Goodbye Gutenberg: The Newspaper Revolution of the 1980s that newspapers were already responding to competition from television by specializing, and by publishing individual sections on different topics: sports, business, entertainment, real estate, science. Often these were once-a-week sections; the “Science Times” appears in The New York Times every Tuesday, for instance. In the late ’70s, the big news (in the United States) was targeting by Zip codes, the postal codes that could subdivide a city or region more finely than any political or administrative subdivision. (Some other countries had even more finely divided postal codes, and the United States introduced a more localized nine-digit code a few years later. But the old five-digit coding by neighborhood or postal district was what made this kind of targeted marketing practical in the first place.) Newspapers could use this system to tailor local editions to individual parts of the region they served, taking ads and presenting extra material targeted to a specific audience.

Today, we take it for granted that newspapers will have separate sections for special subjects, and different editions for different markets. In Europe, it’s not unusual for the same paper to have sections in different formats – such as the broadsheet Guardian with its tabloid cultural section, G2. Sunday and weekend editions may take a different form from the weekday edition, and in North America the Sunday magazine section is a common part of most metropolitan dailies.

The newspaper is no longer just one thing. Every paper is a congeries of information, thought, advertising, and entertainment, packed into a few pages of newsprint and sold at a ridiculously low price every day.

Newspapers get redesigned surprisingly often. Le Monde has gone through two redesigns in recent years (though conceivably they could be considered two phases of the same process); the staid Wall Street Journal and the International Herald Tribune both debuted new designs on the same day; the San Francisco Examiner, after being bought from the Hearst Corporation by the Fang family, went through several different designs before settling on one that reflected the paper’s new role and identity. A glance at Jim Parkinson’s article in this book will give some idea of how many newspapers have had their distinctive nameplates “restored” and “repaired” without the readers, in most cases, being any the wiser. A newspaper’s design is its identity, and that identity is a valuable asset; that’s why most redesigns are attempts to focus and sharpen the way the paper already looks, rather than to introduce something radically new. But the desire to keep changing things is constant, and both economic pressure and technological change are forces that overwhelm any newspaper that tries to stand still.

Despite the inherent conservatism of newspaper readers, and the way designers often have to slip their changes in so that nobody notices that anything is different (ideally, they just notice that somehow, inexplicably, the paper seems to be looking better), the design of daily newspapers over the last fifteen years has changed quite a bit.

Technology and economics have driven this change. Changing methods of composition and printing, changing competition (from television and now the Web), consolidation of ownership, and most importantly the advent of color, have shaped the newspaper we see and buy today. Even the staid New York Times features large, full-color photographs on its front page; and if its news pages have labored mightily to appear just the same as they always looked (even the recent advent of a new family of coordinated headline faces was simply meant to make the Times look more like itself), the paper’s other sections have blossomed into quite dramatic visual entities – a process that has been seen at many other papers too.

There is more international influence on local papers, as more design trends jump from one country to another – partly because of the way the same consultants get hired to work on redesigns all over the world. (Also because so many papers these days are owned by a conglomerate based in another city or even another country.) National prejudices and preferences certainly do define how a country’s newspapers will look, but often enough there’s more variety of approach between different newspapers in the same city than there is between comparable papers in different countries.

In North America, the gradual switch in printing facilities to the 50-inch web press, which is narrower than the older presses, has led many broadsheet newspapers to adapt themselves to a narrower page size – which in turn requires adjustments to the design.

Newspapers tend to come in one of two general formats: broadsheet or tabloid. While there is no precise definition of either term, the broadsheet format is bigger – the broad, long page, folded horizontally in the middle, that we think of first when we think “newspaper” – and the tabloid format is smaller in both dimensions, usually not folded except along the spine – in theory “half size.” For a long time, tabloids have been thought of as rougher, cruder, more popular and vulgar than broadsheets; “the tabloids” is virtually a synonym for “the popular press,” and often for the right-wing popular press (akin to the “shock jocks” of recent radio). The British tabloids are notorious for their gigantic, one-thought headlines, their “Page Three Girls,” their xenophobia, and their obsession with football. American supermarket tabloids cater to simple tastes and credulous readers. A French tabloid’s headline I once saw, displayed on a folding wooden sign-board, stole a march on the British tabs by declaring, “Elizabeth n’est pas la vraie reine!” (“Elizabeth is not the true queen!”). There have been attempts to snatch the tabloid format away from the simple-minded right wing – for example, an abortive attempt to start a left-wing popular tabloid in Britain in the 1970s – but the real change in the nature of the tabloid has been more recent and more pragmatic: it’s simply an economical, practical format in which to publish a newspaper.

It used to be – and in North America it still is – that the real distinction between broadsheets and tabloids was class. You can see this in New York City, where so many people ride to their jobs on public transit of one kind or another. The New York Times is a broadsheet, ample enough to read in comfort on a commuter train coming in from the suburbs; the more working-class New York Post and Daily News are tabloids, easy to fold once vertically and hold in one hand while standing on a crowded subway train. There may be plenty of working-class riders on the commuter trains, and a surprising number of men and women in business suits ride the subway (including the current New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg), but the distinction is real – and the physical difference between the newspapers is practical.

But that smaller, narrower, more portable tabloid is gaining ground, especially in Europe. Perhaps it’s the influence of alternative weekly papers, which have almost always chosen the tabloid format, but for whatever reason, tabloids seem to be defying expectations. As Simon Esterson points out in “Kit of parts,” tabloid is the preferred format in Spain, and British newspapers as diverse as The Guardian and The Times have gone to tabloid for their “second” sections.

The newspaper of the future? Some pundits have predicted that it will be smaller, in tabloid format, with full use of color, and more closely focused on information and ideas – what makes a newspaper different from a Web site or the TV news. It’s intriguing to try to guess what format might be favored if we really achieve “smart paper,” a single sheet that can morph into any page you want; even if you don’t hold the entire daily newspaper in your hand at one time, the same need for design and presentation of the news is present, although in a new form. And those who think carefully about the best ways to give us our news, and the entertainment and punditry and advertising that go with it, will do us a service and will probably be in demand for a long time to come. 

[Copyright 2004. Originally published in Contemporary newspaper design: Shaping the news in the digital age: typography & image on modern newsprint, edited by John D. Berry (West New York, N.J.: Mark Batty Publisher, 2004).]