When Is a Newspaper's Design too Modern?

I am sure that every designer reading this has heard the “it’s too modern” label applied to a prototype. So have I, more times than I care to remember. Right now, I sit in the midst of several projects and two, particularly, call to mind the “modern” adjective, but in different situations. Within the last 24 hours, I have heard from the execs of a classic newspaper project asking me if our prototype may not be “ too modern” for their more traditional readers. Then in another project, the publisher is asking: couldn’t the look be less classic and more modern?

Time to pause and to try to define “modern” as it applies to newspapers, not furniture, telephones or living rooms.

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Perhaps not the most comfortable, but, indeed, modern.

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….cute and modern, but will it get you there?

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Modernly with a sort of retro look: would the girls of Sex and the City wear it?

Having presented prototypes of possible newspaper looks across six continents over four decades I know that the definition of modern can be as basic as the inclusion of color on the page. Right after USA Today launched its first issue, September 15, 1982, anything with a color logo would be “modern like USA Today.” And, by the way, we still hear that comparison made, even though it is worth mentioning that USA Today itself is NOTso modern anymore. But that is another blog post for another day.

Modern, however, could be the addition of a photo on page one for a newspaper that never had one—as in Germany’s Die Zeit when we redesigned it in the early 90s; Die Zeit always carried only caricatures and cartoons on its front page. So, when we proposed photography on page one, there were gasps followed by “too modern for our readers”.

Modern can also be a different grid for the page: I remember the old days when those American broadsheets were eight narrow columns; changing the page to a six column format would immediately get the chorus going: too modern and magazinish, a newsy newspaper should be 8 columns. Of course, nobody mentions that anymore. Good thing.

Modern can be a tabloid format as opposed to a broadsheet. I will never forget the letter from an angry reader of The Wall Street Journal Europe when we converted it from broadsheet to tabloid: “If I wanted a modern newspaper looking like USAToday I would move back to Cleveland,“ he wrote. (Of course, USAToday is NOT a tabloid, but that was not important to this irate loyal reader. He simply saw modern.)

These four newspapers were cited recently by sources whom I asked: what, in your view, is a modernly designed newspaper?

Ask many publishers about Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine’s look and they will tell you that it is classic daily, but “very modern” on Sundays.

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When USA Today appeared in 1982 (left) it defined “modern” for newspaper design; almost 30 years later, publishers and readers worldwide still see it as the icon of the modern newspaper.

When modern offends

The discussion of too much or too little modern usually comes as a result of focus groups. It never fails: marketing directors will compile focus groups results and raise the “too modern” or “not too modern” flag.

Which brings to mind Apple’s genius Steve Jobs (we wish him a speedy recovery and return to his laboratory!) Here is Jobs’ take on the testing of products: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.“

Modern, according to some who know…..

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Historically modern refers to the movement that came out of constructivism and the Bauhaus—-grids, geometric sans serif type faces, asymmetric design and so on.Most designers use modern to mean any design that that is bold, fresh, and simple. When clients use modern as a negative, they mean that the design is unconventional, beyond what they are used to. Since the conventions in the newspaper business haven’t been working too well, maybe it is time to try “modern.”

Roger Black
Designer and media consultant extraordinaire

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Modern” is all about perception, and visual sensibilities……A modern newspaper is defined by the sum of its parts, from content to design aesthetics. A modern newspaper will experiment with new ways of presenting the information using fresh ideas. With the influence of the web, television, mobile devices, social media, movies, and especially global advertising, we are moving towards a universal design style. However perception of what is modern, is still defined by culture, and demographics.Modern evolves with time. What was considered modern during the 80’s, looks fussy, unpolished and dated today. A modern design is one that does not call so much attention to itself but rather to its content, less is more. A modern newspaper is not only available in print, like a chameleon it redefines itself for other mediums.

– Lucie Lacava
Lacava Design Inc.

One can safely say that the difference between a modern newspaper design and one that is not modern enough lies in:Information layout and hierarchy is based on time (what’s new since the last time I was here). Image is king while text is context.One stream of constant information.Short and scannable articles.Read later icon. Information is displayed following a time based hierarchy, impeding other elements to compete for attention.

– Gabriela Lendo
Online Designer, Vostok ,a design strategy studio based in Madrid

Modern newspaper design is a print design that is reader friendly. The publication should help the reader to determine what the day’s news is as well as the importance of that news. When it comes as the latter the reader would normally find the lead story the most important of the day’s news. The front page of many publications will display the most important news for that edition but unlike the early days may also include a quality feature story or an in-depth piece that may run in several editions.

– Marshall Matlock
SND Contest Director;
Professor, Syracuse University’s S.I. School of Public Communications

And if you really want to be the most modern newspaper designer, perhaps you can study this website, where the authors make modern their mantra:

We are the most modernistic modern modernists on planet modern with a keen modern design eye for modern things, modernist goodies, modern architecture, mod model fashion and mostly modern moments in modern history. We eat, breath, sleep, and think modern. Perhaps we are modern overloaded but we love modern never the less. Go modern you modernists and believe in a modest modern Jetsons world where cars fly and saucer communes rule.

Classic, modern, traditional and ugly

We are only discussing “modern” in this blog today.  But designers everywhere know that many terms are used to describe on’e work at the end of a prototype presentation. One must be able to read between the lines. Classic, for example, could mean elegant.  Classic, in the lips of a diplomatic editor or publisher could mean “boring.” Watch the body language, please, and you get the message.

Traditional is another word used loosely to describe a prototype.  Of course, it could mean a design that truly adheres to firm, solid foundations or traditions.  Traditional can also be used to tell you: this has been done before, saw it elsewhere (which newspaper was that with the blue reverse logo?), and you better start thinking of versions 2, 3 and 4, because once “traditional” is spelled across the mind of the editor or publisher, there is no going back.

And then there is ugly. Which, in terms of our discussion, can be a beautiful word. The editor who tells you “I find that ugly” is a rare find. Honesty at the end of a design discussion can be the quickest ticket to the next wonderful solution. Not classic, traditional or not sure (the phrase of those who don’t wish to offend too quickly), just plain ugly.

Oh, the sound of ugly can even turn your next try at that design into something deliciously modern.

** All of Mario’s posts appear courtesy of The Mario Blog.

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