I read the news today, oh boy

An investigation into the future of Designing News by one of its leading exponents is an important, timely book with a wealth of examples

Francesco Franchi is only six years out of university, but he’s already a big name in the world of publication design. His art direction for IL – Intelligence in Lifestyle, the monthly magazine of the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, saw it voted European magazine of the year with the judges describing it as “always in the zeitgeist, but never losing sight of the reader”. The Guardian’s Mark Porter said that his work was “like Monocle on steroids, but infinitely more exciting”.

Franchi’s calling card is his insane sense of order, best seen in his dedication to The Grid. On top of that, he is renowned for world class infographics – a vital part of the move toward visual journalism.

The cover of his first book, Designing News, is original and tasteful, but the newspaper-style design is somewhat misleading, given the strapline: “Changing the world of editorial design and information graphics”. This, the book very much delivers on, albeit with a few speed bumps along the way.

Of the three long chapters inside, the last is the most accessible, with familiar case studies by some of the world’s most celebrated editorial designers. But first, let’s consider chapters one and two, where Franchi seeks to illuminate the extraordinary transformations in news design that have taken place in recent years. It’s great to bring intellectual rigour to the editorial design process, but the opening chapter is text heavy, and frankly, hard going. The translation to English is immaculate, but throughout the book there’s a tendency to use ten words where five will suffice. This is frustrating because the underlying arguments are well-researched and elegantly referenced.

Among his many ideas, the central thesis (and it does sometimes feel like one), is that “the information filtering system has moved from pre-publication to post-publication”. With endless content now coming through the firehose, publishing constraints of time and space have gone forever. Franchi is not wishing the genie back in the bottle, but rather, talks about how the presentation and design of news streams can add value, save the reader time and build trust in paid-for media.

He discusses the fact that media is in an age of confrontation between two opposing forces. On one hand, there is editing, a top-down logic, where everything is fitted to a predetermined agenda. Then there is the network approach, where bottom-up logic is the force that drives sharing, commentary and ultimate acceptance of the story. Although Franchi sees both co-existing, he suggests “the more complex and varied a society’s experience, the more the social network will achieve credibility”. So Twitter wins then.

Regardless of the digital reality, Italy has a strong affection for print. Italian Vanity Fair is the most profitable Condé Nast title outside America, Italian Rolling Stone often puts its parent to shame, and let’s not forget that this is the country that gave us Grazia.

Given the level of reflection required, a printed book does seem to be the best format for Franchi’s work. But as it’s all about news, some of the content is inevitably out of date. Most obvious is the 2011 Independent redesign, which was eclipsed a few months ago by Matt Willey’s extensive overhaul [CR Jan]. Likewise, several of the tablet and responsive design observations feel a bit old hat.

On the other hand, many of the digital details are given a substance and timelessness only print can deliver. A fine example of this is from Khoi Vinh, the influential digital thinker behind the New York Times website. A few years ago Khoi underlined the importance of a new kind of ‘editorial experience designer’, a figure who can “build a great digital product out of great editorial”. I was impressed with his blog post at the time, but then just forgot about it. However, Franchi’s book is so well researched and indexed, I now know the post is from October 27, 2011 and available at subtraction.com, where you, dear reader, can enjoy the whole story.

Chapter two continues with observations on the redesign process, theories on editorial organisation, and the iPad dilemma. There are bigger case studies here, including a wonderful in-depth account by Paul Barnes and Christian Schwartz on how they created the new fonts for The Guardian.

Chapter three is devoted to ‘Rethink’, with the big draw being a bunch of marquee-name contributors across many disciplines, bringing a welcome breadth of tone. Bloomberg Businessweek’s Richard Turley, arguably the greatest cover designer in the world today, starts his piece; “I never meant to design a magazine that gets featured in books like this.

It feels like an accident.” Porter’s definitive account of The Guardian redesign builds a brilliant picture of how the original print design has become “the foundation of an identity project with a much wider scope”.

Snow Fall from The New York Times [CR Nov13] is a sophisticated, multimedia feature combining text, motion graphics and video into one seamless experience. Every commentator was cooing over it last year. There was much debate, many imitators and the suggestion that long-form digital content was going to be the way forward. My suspicion is that not many people actually looked at it. I certainly didn’t get past the splash page.

So it’s handy to see it all nicely explained and laid out in one place, even though nothing moves and the pictures are small. In fact, if I have a complaint about the book in general, it’s that too many images are small and similarly sized. Which, along with quiet signposting, makes me long for the drama of some BIG PICTURES.

Which brings us to Franchi’s own case study, IL’s ‘Infographic thinking’. The story features brilliant graphics, terrific typography and strong covers, including the ‘cyber sex’ visual that inspired a Time Out cover last year. But again, they are shown so small, I longed to cut the copy and let these mini-masterpieces have the space they deserve.

None of which should put you off. This is an important book and an invaluable asset for both designers and editors. It’s not cheap at 45 quid, but there’s nothing else like it out there. At least not until Franchi delivers Volume Two…. 1

Andy Cowles is a media brand strategist and creative director. He blogs at coverthink.com and tweets from @andycowles1. Designing News by Francesco Franchi is published by Gestalten; £45. gestalten.com

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