Mainstream discussions on graphic design

Mainstream media doesn’t often do graphic design, and when it does it rarely does it seriously. Preference is more often given over to art, architecture, interior design, photography and fashion.

On the odd occasion when an appropriately critical article does appear, (one that does not claim that the journalist’s 6 year old daughter could have done a better job at designing a logo), then graphic design as a discipline is not mentioned. Take this report from November 2019 about Facebook’s rebrand, which covers the topics of typography, colour, semiotics and visual identity. In the post’s category tags, technology and business are mentioned, but graphic design and typography are not. Articles around this time from the same publication about art and architecture did have accompanying discipline tags.

It was therefore refreshing to read a serious discussion in The Observer last weekend about the government’s visual approach to imparting important information to the public about Covid-19: The UK government’s coronavirus strategy: shoddy by design?

Interviewing Simon Esterson, art director and co-owner of Eye Magazine, and Eliza Williams of Creative Review—two of the most prominent graphic design publications in Britain—the piece discusses how UK government sanctioned visuals fail in communicating their desired message, and at times, send mixed messages.

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Newsprint isn’t dead, yet

Just before lockdown I had several conversations with colleagues and students about whether newspapers would survive Covid-19. At the prospect of newsagents and train stations closing for months on end, and assuming these are the prime retailers for newspapers outside of people having them delivered, I predicted the situation could be devastating for printed journalism. As people who are used to consuming their news through inkies are forced to switch to app and online counterparts, I wondered whether they would ever go back to print, post-pandemic.

Despite the fact that printed papers aren’t financially sustainable in the modern age anyway, and tend to only survive due to backers—whether wealthy media moguls or through supporter sponsorship—if their audience does shift its consumer habits then there is only so much money a publisher will throw at a loss leader.

If there is to be any saviour for news in printed form, it is likely to be due to graphic design and the impact a well considered layout with a strong concept can bring to the reader experience. If an example is needed, then you need look no further than The New York Times. In March it used playful typography to effectively illustrate an article about social distancing with circles of space created around the typography.

Wondering About Social Distancing? in print. Image: The Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas
Wondering About Social Distancing? online. March 2020

In looking at how the article appears online, there is no comparison in regard to visual impact. In the printed examples, even without reading the text the narrative is still delivered. Given there is something of the petri dish in this circular depiction, an additional layer of subconscious messaging is added that it is difficult to reproduce in templated girds used for websites. Because they are updated on a regular basis throughout the day, there is less room for such sites to be playful with the text itself. That’s not to say apps and webpages can’t be inventive, far from it, but user engagement is more likely to be delivered via stand-alone animated / interactive content and video that sits alongside the story.

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The Guardian is dead, long live The Guardian

Today sees the last copy of The Guardian in its Berliner format.

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What is about to follow will be known by those that come to this blog post after Monday 15 January 2018, when the new look Guardian is launched. But for now, only the new masthead has been revealed in a video teaser.

The teaser, and its corresponding print campaign, demonstrates some interesting references to John Stezaker covering found photographs with white squares, (and Jonathan Barnbrook’s subsequent ‘borrowing’ of this for David Bowie’s The Next Day), see Field Readings’ post Graphic obscura.

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The campaign cleverly suggests that The Guardian will still reserve space for commentary and opinions that tend not to be heard in other areas of the mainstream media, (with maybe the exception of the Channel 4 News). This, I believe, is the result of a sense of responsibility the paper feels to report accurately and critically in the face of an otherwise largely right-wing and conservative media. Its investigative journalism has broken some of the most important and disruptive news stories of the last decade, from Milly Dowler to Panama Papers. In these supposed post-truth times, long may this continue.

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Bullying tactics

It is not too bold a statement to claim that advertising is designed to interrupt our vision and assert itself into our conscious and subconscious minds. If it didn’t, corporations would not devote huge budgets to it. But recently I have observed a growth online of adverts that actually disrupt host content, in what can only be described as visual bullying. This is no more obvious than on newspaper websites that remain free from subscription.

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Above the mast—a narrow advert banner

Looking at the instances of this dominating behaviour there is a clear hierarchy of worst offenders, with banner adverts being the most benign but none-the-less annoying for the reader. Many people will be familiar with websites jumping up and down while a browser decides what advert is going to be placed in the header. This appears worse on tablets as responsive websites rearrange themselves to suit a specific device. Add to this a slow internet connection, and such visual gymnastics can make a reader abandon before everything has settled down.

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Press release

I’ve long believed The Guardian to be the best designed newspaper in the country, which is convenient for me considering some may think I fit the profile of a typical reader—feminist liberal-left vegetarian art teacher. It would be difficult for me to take if the Daily Mail fitted this design accolade.

But I like The Guardian for more than its graphic design; the fact its investigative journalism helps to keep in check those in power is equally as important to me, particularly in these days of party political impotence. Simon Jenkins summed this up well this week in From Snowden to Panama, all hail the power of the press during the breaking revelations about tax evasion.

But journalism with integrity isn’t enough on its own, just as great graphic design isn’t enough on its own. You have to be able to engage readers in your content or it won’t gain the attention it requires. And this is where The Guardian really sets itself apart from pretty much all other news vendors, (with the exception of Channel 4 News, albeit via a different medium). The marriage of purpose and presentation is given equal respect in this daily paper, and the approach is integrated across all of its platforms, from newsprint to website to app.

If anybody should need a case study to prove my point, the Panama Papers story this week should be a convincing one. Deputy Creative Director of the Guardian, Chris Clarke, tweeted the next day’s front page every evening, and there were many of his followers waiting for the reveal each night as the story broke, (and continued to break throughout the week). If the awkward adjective ‘impactful’ can be ascribed to anything, it is the design decisions the creative team at the Guardian took to grab their readership’s attention.

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Monday. Source: @chrisclarkcc

Monday’s front page was really brave, dropping the masthead from its usual position at the top to halfway down the page. All advertising was removed, and using the daffodil yellow to punch out of the grey, as Clarke’s choice of a ‘punching fist’ emoticon to accompany his tweets accurately indicated, had real visual impact to match the world leader shaking story.

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Analogue blog

I don’t know whether people still produce fanzines or not, but Kek-W is so tired of writing online that he has decided to produce one. Or rather, as he calls it, an analogue blog.

Titled Kid Shirt, this is basically a physically constructed fanzine involving actual cut and paste, which has then been scanned as a PDF for anyone to download. He sets out his rationale in the first pages:

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