By: Edmund C. Arnold

Veteran Newspaper Designer Arnold Offers Advice

“We’re all great architects,” I told a group of fellow newspaper designers, “but we’re lousy carpenters.”

The setting was the meeting of some 30 American and two European designers. Eleven years earlier, most of us were in a similar group that had asked each one of us to design a page that we expected would be typical in 2000. Now we reassembled with pages we foresaw for 2020.

It was a great occasion of exciting blue-skying. Most designers had capitulated to the Net. They concluded major stories with bar codes that could be scanned to connect to more coverage on the computer screen. Others foresaw printing with magnetic ink to facilitate such scanning. Most all agreed that agate matter – classified, markets, and box scores – would be carried only on the Net and that newspapers would be significantly reduced in size and volume. One even came up with an 8 1/2 by 11 inch page for reader convenience.

An even more telling comment was: “Suppose in 1898 a bunch of designers of carriages were given our assignment – what will carriages look like in 1920? They could think about hanging these newfangled electric lights on the surrey with the fringe on top. Maybe it could be decorated with this shiny stuff called chrome or have canoe-shaped fronts. Maybe the horse could even be put in the back to offer a good clear view for the driver.

“Little did they know that by 1920 horse-drawn carriages would be obsolete. Would our industry find itself in the same sad situation 20 years from today?”

One of us made a sage observation: “We are slaves to terminology. Because we’re called newspapers, we think that we can exist only on newsprint. Journalism is not dependent on its carrier.”

All this made for truly exciting speculation. That is when I, by far the oldest member of the group, pointed out that while we are engaged in great architectural concepts for our craft, we were overlooking the details of hammer-and-nails. We are forgetting – or deriding – the basic principles of typography.

Take, for example, the column width on a typical newspaper page. When I designed the Louisville Times and The Courier-Journal as the first metropolitans to adopt a six-column format throughout the paper, that specification was chosen to give the “optimum line length” for body type. (That old, old – but still totally valid – formula is: The optimum line for body type is 1.5 times the length of the lowercase alphabet.)

Using the 9-point type that was then becoming the most popular size, that worked out to a 14-pica column. The minimum line – the shortest that can be read with comfort and efficiency – is the optimum minus 25%. The maximum is minimum times two. That translates to the narrowest column of 12 picas and the widest of 24.

But look at what’s happening now. The highly touted redesign of USA Today still puts six columns on a page – even thought the web width has been drastically reduced over the years. And when columns are narrowed to create “windows,” areas into which other typographic elements are inserted, we see columns as narrow as six picas. In my morning paper today I noted two instances where a column accommodated only one word! In one case, that word was spaced out to five picas.

A constant violation of the maximum formula is cutlines that run clear across a page, three to four times wider than the reading eye can comfortably consume. I point out that these formulas were not concocted by some journalism doctoral candidate who needed a topic for his dissertation. They were discovered as long ago as the age of Giambatista Bodoni, a printer friend of Ben Franklin. And they’ve been validated in many studies.

Another typographic axiom is “Avoid Condensed typefaces.” This has been blithely ignored by USA Today and a host of its followers. Another rougher rule of thumb has also been trashed, which is that body type from 7- to 10-point needs one point of leading (interlinear spacing). Much as I admire and enjoy Al Neuharth’s newspaper, I find it less than comfortable or easy to read when it combines the two evils: squeezed-up typeface that sits practically on the succeeding line.

In what many considered the era of the highest level of newspaper design, the keyword was “functional typography.” Any typographic element that didn’t do a useful, necessary job with efficiency was eliminated. The resulting white space gave a bright, open look that pleased readers.

But what do we find today? Column rules, jim dashes, second and third decks, overlines on pictures rather than catchlines below the photo, paragraphs far longer than the ideal of a dozen or so lines – they’re rearin’ their ugly heads all over the landscape.

In the dying days of the great old Chicago Daily News, a nonjournalistic designer restyled the paper. His favorite device was 6- or even 12-point rules that he inserted into so many places that it seemed you were looking at the page through Venetian blinds. When asked if he didn’t fear that this would be a distraction, that the reader wouldn’t like it, he dismissed the subject.

“Sure, I expect readers to complain. But this is the way it is, and they just better get used to it!” They didn’t. A great newspaper died.

It seems to me that in this time when we are losing far too many readers, we can’t afford such disregard of the readers’ wants and needs. Though we must expend a helluva lot of thought to the future of our craft, we can’t afford to ignore the present details that have such a huge effect on readability and readership.

Arnold’s career as a newspaper designer began in 1954, when he was editor of Linotype News. He has designed more than 1,000 newspapers around the world, including The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Kansas City Star, and a new daily, El Mundo, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Arnold is the author of 26 books, and has been chosen for two major lifetime achievement awards, one from the American Press Institute, and the most recent, presented to him last month, from the Society of News Design.

Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher.

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