Newspaper design refers to the process of planning, selecting, organizing and arranging the typography, photographs, illustrations, and graphics of newspapers. It also refers to the look or style of a newspaper. Newspaper design is highly conventional, so historians have noted visual features that comprise different stylistic periods. These styles are closely related to how publishers, editors, and journalists define the role of journalism in society (Barnhurst & Nerone 2001). Changing technology also profoundly influences newspaper design.
Visual newspaper design as a specialized profession within newspaper publishing is a recent occurrence. Before the 1960s, the organization of printed elements depended on journalistic custom and editors’ and typesetters’ daily production considerations.
History Of Print And Newspaper Design
The newspaper in the sense that we know it today – as a regularly occurring publication for the gathering and dissemination of news and opinions concerning current events – first made its appearance in Venice in 1536. By the end of the seventeenth century in England, newspapers had become essential reading for citizens participating in government by public opinion in the new democracy taking shape there.
The conventions of book design developed in the sixteenth century, and early newspapers followed them into the nineteenth century. They were visually dominated by text type, which was meant to be read like a book, from top left to bottom right. Initial letters (drop caps) or text-sized headlines often started the page or signaled a new story. The newspaper title, now called a nameplate or flag, was set in larger type, centered at the top of the page like a book title, establishing the practice of designing flags to carry a publication’s identity. Following eighteenth-century calligraphic trends, some newspapers designed more decorative flags.
Nineteenth-century industrialization saw the rapid rise of a literate middle class and the development of mass consumption. With the press’s role in politics now secure and business’s need for advertising space expanding exponentially, the number and size of newspapers exploded. New technologies supported this growth. Machine papermaking allowed editors to increase the size and number of pages in newspapers. Power-driven rotary presses and machine-set typography replaced vastly slower hand-production methods. These advances created space for experimentation in content and design, ever-larger staffs, and competition for readers. Publishers divided their staff into three parts – editorial, advertising, and print production. Although complementary, each became a separate sphere that worked independently. Advertising began to drive design innovation. Early nineteenth-century ads had looked like editorial copy, set in the same type and to the same measure as editorial copy. But by mid-century, businesses sought visual advantage in their ads. Department stores and manufacturers began advertising heavily, employing more space, larger, decorative type, and illustrations. Ads became increasingly sophisticated as artists and advertising agencies were engaged. The editorial side had no choice but to adopt larger, more varied headlines. This established a visual syntax that made page position and scale communicate the relative importance of stories. Larger headlines allowed readers to scan pages and locate stories of interest.
Illustration and photography had a profound impact on newspaper design. Starting in the 1820s, illustrated news magazines, such as the London Illustrated News, Germany’s Illustrierte Zeitung, and America’s Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, assigned illustrators to cover stories, draw portraits, and capture important events, such as coronations, funerals, and wars. With artistic license, illustrators even sketched and interpreted events they had not witnessed. Illustrations were reproduced in newspapers as woodcuts and wood and zinc engravings.
The invention of photography in 1834 created even more pressure to illustrate the news, and photographers were sent to cover it. But due to printing limitations, photographs had to be reproduced as woodcut copies. In 1880 Stephen Horgan produced the first practical half-tone line screen for the New York Daily Graphic, which enabled photographs to be printed directly. Magazines initially pressed the quality limits of photographic technologies, but they were followed by large, city newspapers with the resources to experiment. In the twentieth century, the popularity of photomagazines like Life led newspapers to develop their own Sunday rotogravure magazine supplements.
By the end of the nineteenth century, all the features of modern newspaper design – display type, photography, illustration, and graphics – were in place. In the hands of respectable editors, they provided readers with different kinds of information. But these tools could also attract readers by sensationalizing the news with giant, emotional headlines and attention-getting, if often misleading, images. Even good newspapers fell victim to the temptation of large circulation. In 1898, most of the American press printed accusations that a Spanish mine had blown up the US battleship Maine in Havana harbor, killing 266 Americans. The resulting public outcry led to the Spanish–American war and the US invasion of Cuba. Although these claims were never substantiated, newspapers manufactured graphics to explain exactly how the mine had sunk the ship. In the twentieth century, professional codes of ethics evolved that restricted editors’ use of misleading photos and layouts, although sensationalist tabloids that attract readers through newsstand sales continue such practices today.
Early twentieth-century newspaper designs were cluttered. They utilized rules between columns, above and below headlines, and after stories. As late as the 1950s more than a dozen stories might appear on the front page (Barnhurst & Nerone 2001). In production, advertisers first staked their claim on space, then section editors dummied or mocked-up the remaining “news hole.” The production side set the hot metal type and locked it into the press, often changing editors’ layouts to meet deadlines and fill space.
Professionalization Of Newspaper Design In The Twentieth Century
The professionalization of journalism in the latter half of the twentieth century produced more thoughtful design. Studies of the ease of identifying letter-forms (legibility) and understanding words (readability) contributed to a more functional approach (Zachrisson 1965). Editors began to make typographical decisions based on observing how readers scan pages and process reading material. Social changes, such as the increasing pace of life and the availability of alternative media, influenced newspaper readership. Edmund C. Arnold (1981) and Mario Garcia (1981) were among the first to argue that designers must address young readers and semiilliterate adults who were turning from newspapers to television news. Of chief concern were the lost advertising dollars chasing them. With the invention of cable television and the Internet, their insights became more profound.
Functionalist ideas about design began to emerge in the 1960s as hot metal type gave way to photocomposition and letter-press gave way to offset lithography. Photocomposition used paper type and half-tones that could be cut and pasted together in any configuration, and made it easy to change the size of type and pictures quickly. New technology also altered production. In hot metal printing, typesetters and page makeup artists were closely aligned with the press operators. With photocomposition, responsibility for design shifted more onto the editorial and advertising staffs. Printers simply created and printed the offset plates, effectively removing them from the design process.
Grid sheets for pasting-up paper type and photos replaced rigid columns of type. Every newspaper created its own grid with standard columns and gutters. Grids served more as guides than a straightjacket, providing a standard horizontal and vertical template necessary to lay out large newspapers on a daily basis. A key question for visual designers became how to violate the grids creatively, while still adhering to their overall parameters.
Modular design simplified newspaper layout by packaging headlines, stories, photos, and graphics into rectangles and squares. With fewer modules per page, readers were meant to be attracted by a cleaner, less daunting look. The more staid look of modular design was enhanced by the reintroduction of color, which had died out during the Great Depression. Color added a powerful form of emphasis and was easy to print with offset.
With the advent of electronic publishing and computer layout programs like Quark XPress and PageMaker, more backroom jobs were eliminated in favor of editorial designers or visual journalists who resided in the newsroom. As a result, by the 1990s design had become central to the planning and news-gathering processes rather than an afterthought. Editors, writers, and photographers were asked to “think visually” and to imagine new possibilities for creating photographic and graphic information. Designers helped them conceive, plan, and develop story packages that are central to today’s newspaper marketing strategy. Photojournalists provide a caption explaining what and who appear in the image, an early step in framing the preferred meaning. But newspaper designers crop, scale, and adjust light and color balances in Photoshop. Other digital manipulations transform photos into photo-illustrations, and designers must indicate such alterations in print.
Maps were the world’s earliest news graphics. Other graphics include diagrams that explain how a system works, tables that array data and lists, and graphs (Tufte 1990). Designers believe infographics facilitate readers’ comprehension by presenting numerical information, processes, and procedures more succinctly and clearly than text (Harrower 2002). Today, drawings and photo-illustrations are mostly used to visualize what cannot be photographed live: courtroom proceedings; fashion or product designs; personal memories and accounts; impressions, sensations, feelings, and other intangibles. Feature sections such as lifestyle, travel, health, and food use the most illustrations, following a longstanding pattern of innovation in newspaper design (Barnhurst 1994). Editorial or opinion content provided an early and continual location for political cartoons, appearing as line drawings, the same way comics do.
Stylistically, photo treatments have changed with the times, first appearing in black and white, then in color. Posed portraits gave way to candid images before designers entered the newsroom, and today designers use photographs from sources outside the newspaper. Citizens’ ability to take and send mobile phone photos electronically has added a new dimension to photojournalism.
Due to media convergence, newspaper design is evolving rapidly. Major newspapers have designed web pages to make their content available online. Their sites often contain more information – through sidebars, links to other sites, slide shows, and even video – than the newspaper itself. It remains to be seen whether such innovative design and packaging strategies can significantly slow or reverse the loss of newspaper readership. Some believe the emphasis on newspaper design has been a misdirected, futile attempt to save paper media, and that the future of news is electronic.
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