The decision for the Guardian to reformat to the Berliner was a big deal in design in 2005. With the broadsheet style suddenly perceived as stuffy and unwieldly, and papers such as the Independent and The Times jumping ship to tabloid, the Guardian’s choice of the Berliner – which sits between the two formats – felt bold and stylish.
But no matter what great design emerged from the Berliner shift – the change was accompanied with the introduction of the Guardian Egyptian typeface and full colour printing, allowing for beautiful image reproduction – it’s difficult not to smile nostalgically at what a fuss it caused ten years ago. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would care as much about a print publication now.
“The Berliner moment is without doubt a great moment in design,” says Guardian creative director Alex Breuer. “But it’s a great moment in print design, and in the world that we’re in now and the world that the Guardian inhabits, print is a fraction of our readership. We have 130 million unique browsers a month, and most of those I pretty much guarantee have never seen a copy of the newspaper. Some of them I would say probably don’t even know the newspaper exists, because most of them aren’t in the UK.”
When Breuer joined the Guardian in 2013, its design varied from format to format, with the online and mobile versions of the paper using different fonts and styles to the newspaper and iPad iterations. As for many media organisations, this variation was down in part to the quick evolution of the technology and limited design options in some formats.
“The various renderings of the design language that existed from the Berliner were partly defined by the people who did them, but were often defined by the technology they were placed upon,” continues Breuer. “The web is much harder to do with the same degree of typographic control and accuracy as obviously it is in print but also on native platforms [such as the iPad] as well. So there was a bit of a hotchpotch of styles. We had Georgia on the website, but we had Guardian Egyptian on the app. Some places there was Arial, sometimes it was Real Helvetica. So it was a bit of a mess. The fortunate thing for me is I came in at a moment when there has been convergence in the design capabilities of web platforms as well.”
After two years of work evolving every aspect of the Guardian’s design, this year it launched a new brand language that unified its look across all formats, from the tiniest – an avatar on a social media network – to how it is presented online, on mobile, on iPad and in print. This language is also extended to subscription, membership and the bookshop, areas that can often be left behind in media organisations.
The new design required a entire shift in thinking, away from responding to print deadlines and towards a design that responds to readers’ needs and desires, which may change over the course of a day.
“In a very dynamic digital news world, tone – ie what kind of journalism somebody wants to read – changes over the day,” says Breuer. “I get the news update at 8.30 in the morning, but by 11am, I might be interested in getting some thoughts or analysis or perhaps read an interview with one of the protagonists of a story. So it seemed really important to see if we could tackle that issue of tone as well.
“We also realised that there aren’t newspaper readers, there aren’t tablet readers, there aren’t desktop web readers, and there aren’t phone readers – many people, certainly in the UK at least, read all of them, depending on whether they are on the bus, sat at home, at their desk at work. That adds an extra challenge of the scale of a piece of design as well. What are those core elements that translate across all those different platforms?”
Use of colour – an element that became a strong part of the Guardian’s identity with the launch of the Berliner – is still a big factor in helping readers navigate the paper online. But whereas this was once used to define traditional newspaper sections such as film, travel etc, it is now used to categorise the type of article, with red used for live or breaking news, blue and neutral grey for news, purple for features and dark blue for op-ed etc. “The goal being, with complex mixtures of different types of journalism, I wanted it to be as easy as possible for you to find the thing you want,” Breuer explains.
Photography still plays a central role in the design, online as well as in print. Images are used to back up news stories but also to encourage people to explore pages online, with photography used in different ways the further you move down the home page of the site, for example. “In a news area of the site, the top area, the pictures have to work extremely hard, we really want them to add value, but as we go into areas which are for slower consumption or more consideration, we’ll up the picture size and the volume of pictures as well,” says Breuer. “Our biggest picture is often right at the bottom.”
The redesign was released in beta as it progressed and readers were invited to give comments on it along the way, a process that Breuer describes as extremely useful. However, when the full site was launched many readers complained at length on the Guardian site that their feedback hadn’t been taken into account, perhaps highlighting the difficulties of this approach. Breuer stresses the value of having a constant dialogue with the readers despite the bumpy road that can ensue, though points out that the team has “confidence about core decisions” regarding the design.
Film showing how the austerity article appeared online
In recognition of the importance of design in helping people navigate the Guardian online, a member of the design team now sits with the newsdesk, helping to decide which template will work best for each story. “We do have someone now helping to curate the news, really visualise it to the best it can be,” says deputy creative director Chris Clarke. “Before it wasn’t nurtured like that, it was still very much that the paper was the heart of it. Simple things, from adding cutouts, to having a design eye and just being able to see pacing on that front page is really helpful.”
The team is also keen to use design to reflect the news events of the day. For example, slower news days will look very different visually to a day where there is intense breaking news. “We knew we had to build something a bit more complex and dynamic, because the other thing we felt very strongly is how loudly we shout about a particular story also helps determine how much people trust us,” says Breuer. “There is – especially in the American right-wing news media – a rabid shouting constantly, that everything is really, really important all of the time. We have intelligent readers, and we respect them and want them to respect us. If it is a very quiet news day, we will scale it down.”
As well as working closely with the editorial teams, digital designers now work alongside print designers, with everyone sharing skills. “The print art directors are some of the greatest designers I’ve worked with, but having a digital designer and a motion designer working close by has really helped change,” continues Clarke. “They come at it from different angles … combine it all together and you can get some fantastic things.”
Film showing how the Harper Lee story appeared online
The Guardian (like many media organisations post The New York Times’ seminal online feature Snow Fall) has been experimenting with interactive stories on its site, which bring together film, audio, animation, photography and text in a rich mix of storytelling. Whereas in the past a big story would have been led by print, now these pieces will be commissioned with a ‘digital first’ ethos. For example, a recent major feature for the launch of Harper Lee’s novel Go Set A Watchman included an illustration that was commissioned primarily for online, but which needed to be scalable for use in print too.
Print design in the newspaper has also become more inventive and flexible following the boom of digital too, with the newspaper occasionally giving the entire front cover over to a single story, boldly designed. A recent feature on climate change, titled Keep It In The Ground, for example, saw images dominate the front, with the only text being a quote from Naomi Klein. Usually a technique used by advertisers, it is a striking approach for an editorial story. The ‘takeover’ strategy was also continued online as the below film shows.
Keep It In The Ground takeover as it appeared online
While the newspaper may not be the major element of the Guardian that it once was, Breuer doesn’t see the print version going away any time soon, though anticipates that it may continue to change. “What form it will be is a really interesting question,” he says. “The frequency, the size of it, what the journalistic tone is are all interesting questions I think for all of the newspapers.”
In digital, Breuer sees the recent redesign as just one stage in an ongoing process. One of the biggest challenges facing the Guardian now is how to make the Guardian brand clear and accessible to all users, regardless of bandwidth restrictions and also issues of scale. Is it possible to enjoy the Guardian experience on a device the size of the Apple Watch, for example? Perhaps not yet, but Breuer is aware that it is essential that the brand has to be flexible in how it presents itself.
“We’re not a necessity to anybody really, so we have to always maintain the richness and quality of us as a news organisation, as a brand, wherever we are,” he says. “So it’s about how we balance that – as a challenge, it is tricky, to say the least. But fun too.”