Massimo Vignelli died this week after a long illness. He left a legacy of icons and promoted the belief that everything could be designed better, including newspapers. In the 1960s most newspapers adhered to the same basic formats, maintained by heavy-handed make-up editors with little interest in the fine points of design. Massimo’s format in 1968 for a new weekly broadsheet, The Herald, was a revolution in type and image.
So unique was The Herald it out-shined the few well designed newspapers, the defunct New York Herald Tribune (redesigned in the mid-sixties by Peter Palazzo) and The New York Times whose feature sections (redesigned by Louis Silverstein) were distinct from the news, which continued to adhere to the 19th century eight-column format for many years longer. The Herald was a modern gem; clean and crisp with a very limited type palette and generous use of white space.
As a weekly The Herald did not contend with the same design challenges as the dailies, like advertisements. Massimo railed that typical partial page ads were blights around which inelegant wrap-around layout contortions made reading more difficult.
He was adamant that advertisements be kept away from editorial. So he created modular layouts based on standard-size units, and idea that was adopted years later by other dailies. Yet, in truth, he didn’t have to deal with ads — The Herald wasn’t accepting them in the beginning.
“It takes people with vision, courage and strong intellectual drive to generate a new newspaper with new style of content and new visual aspect to convey it appropriately,” Massimo wrote in his book Vignelli From A to Z. “To design a newspaper means to organize the information in such a way that it will facilitate the makeup of the issue…and in the end, to convey the information to the reader in the clearest way possible.”
Massimo’s format was built on a grid of six columns of 17 modules in height. Each module contained a certain number of lines, each line a certain number of letter spaces, making it easy to calculate the depth of each story based on a given amount of words. Every design component was allotted a strict measure. Titles were allocated one module high, the rest were for picture and stories. Every page or two constituted a section of the whole paper, and all pages were structure in clear horizontal bands, which gave a strong, easy-to-read look.
The Herald was pristine in every way. Yet critics argued correctly that daily newspapers demanded more typographic variety so the reader could perceive the hierarchy of stories. The Herald was typeset in only one typeface (Times Roman) and a lead story was given the same importance as an off lead. Perhaps it wasn’t the perfect newspaper design.
But it was a radical alternative. It prefigured his signature designs for other specialty newspapers and magazines he later designed, including European Journal, Skyline and IDCNY. And it inspired designers around the world to revisit and redesign the traditional paper.
(A version of this story appeared in Design Observer on September 15, 2010)
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