|When CNN.com posted its first reports of the terrorist attacks on September 11, its front page was startlingly emptied of all graphics. Lisa Strausfeld, a New York-based information designer who was caught in London frantically calling up the CNN site, describes the effect. There were only text and links on a white background. No images, no CNN banners, nothing, she says. The emotional impact of that was pretty strong. There was no question about priorities, so there was no need to create any hierarchies of information. It was as if, she adds, there were no need for design.|
The next day, The New York Times, better known for its meandering, three-line headlines, turned out an unusually blunt, two word summation in 66-point type: U.S. Attacked. The difference between the newspapers design treatment and that of CNN online represented two ends of the news delivery spectrum. On one end, the stately newspaper, anachronistic yet with information hierarchies sufficiently refinedover centuries of useto be prepared for any eventuality. On the other, the harried web site, scrambling to fill the void between the immediacy of TV news and the detailed coverage of the newspaper. CNNs abandonment of its conventional design parameters on September 11 indicated just how much net delivery is still evolving.
Catastrophic events like those of September 2001 have a significant effect on our news-receiving habits. Its interesting how high Internet traffic was in the two weeks after September 11 with respect to news, says Brian Smith, research director of the Gartner Group, which recently produced a report based on a nationwide survey of news intake. As people form new habits of news consumption, their experience in these times is essential. Printed news, though widely predicted to be on the wane, has not gone to its deathbed as might have been expected five years ago. In times of crisis, in fact, newspaper readership also peaks. The last two heights of newspaper circulation in the last century, says David Gray, president of the Society for News Design, were in 1945 and 1918,the years marking the end of the two World wars.
The newspaper medium has what techies would call platform-independent portability. You can fold it, take it anywhere you like, and the cost is very small, says Smith. And while newspapers can no longer be first with the news, they are good at creating and perpetuating a sense of community. The New York Times sustains a must-read status among certain peer groups that is self-fulfilling: A story about designer hotels in Manhattan may not be thrilling news, but it gains importance through the sheer number of people reading the article, and subsequently talking about it. On the Web, by contrast, this notion of shared reading is surprisingly taken no further than the one-way email this article to a friend button.
|Newspaper typography presents a microcosm of the state of the medium. Recently designed typefaces like Gulliverwhich is used in USA Todayand Times Classicwhich began appearing in the London Times in 2001both have the conservative traits of a classic newspaper typeface. Yet behind their traditional appearance, both typefaces carry a number of subtle innovations driven by distinctly 21st century demands. Gulliver was developed by Dutch type designer Gerard Unger as an ecological typeface to enable publishers to save paper by offering high legibility in smaller point sizes. To newspaper publishers, its more attractive aspect was that it provided a means of switching to narrower page widths without losing significant amounts of textthus saving paper and money. Times Classic was designed as an economical face by the British type team of Dave Farey and Richard Dawson, specifically to take advantage of the new PC-based publishing system at the newspaper, while meeting the production shortcomings of its predecessor Times Millennium. It also promised the newspaper the kind of distinctiveness once conveyed by its forerunner Times Romanbefore the desktop computer made it one of the most ubiquitous faces in the world.||
The new Times Classic appears as section headers in the London Times ('weekend'). Gerard Ungers Gulliver saves space and paper for USA Today ('Showdown weekend').
|The subtext of such subtle improvements is that newspapers are, as Gray puts it, like Governments and schoolspart of the infrastructure, and hard to change. Mario Garcia, who has worked on the redesign of dozens of newspapers worldwide, notes that much of his work is driven by the need to make this relatively ancient news medium a reading experience attuned to 21st-century habits. I think there is a more impatient reader, he says. Newspapers are not the sole providers of news anymore, and we have to make them more appealing. Type sizes are getting larger, he notes, citing a recent redesign of the St. Petersburg Gazette which took body copy up to an unprecedented 10 points. (The standard in the 1980s was 7.5 points, he says.) This trend corresponds with an aging readership with ailing eyesight. Garcias team recently broke convention with a free newspaper in the Dominican Republic, El Expreso, which adopts a small, half-tabloid format providing a high-speed read of the daily newsin theory piquing the interest enough to prompt the reader to purchase its larger, traditional parent newspaper, Listin Diario. Launched in May 2001, El Expreso proved extremely popular, with a 120,000 print run and advertising sold in advance for its first three years. In Garcias view, more newspapers need to accommodate the reader who wants to get through the news in seven to eleven minutes flat.|
The online newspaper, despite the seemingly limitless possibilities of type on the Internet, slavishly apes the appearance of its printed sibling. The welcome screen of most newspaper sites is simply a flat copy of the front page. Gray blames the lack of innovation online on fear and laziness. He adds, Its what the people in charge of the newspapers are used to. But early failures to capitalize on the medium may also have encouraged newspapers to slip into these default interfaces that cautiously reiterate their analog brand identities. Smith notes from Gartner Group research that unlike TV stations, which viewed their Web sites as loss leaders, newspapers dabbled unsuccessfully with pay-as-you-read business models. The result today is that TV news sites have a far greater share of online visits. For the papers, lack of success, it seems, has led to a lack of research and development. The TV news sites, on the other hand, seem content to view the Web as a relatively low overhead, cross-promotional tool, and are settling for the heavily branded screens that increasingly clutter computer and TV screens.
Speed reading: the half-tabloid El Expreso delivers the news in condensed form.
|Eight years ago, the future of news online seemed to offer limitless horizons. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) MediaLab, a research program called News in the Future was investigating how information might be taken beyond the 2-D windows that dominate computer screens. One of the more celebrated examples, Earl Rennisons Galaxy of News presented three dimensional constellations of news stories organized according to topical categories, through which readers could zoom, pan and click like pilots of news reading space probes. In 1997, Rennison and colleagues started a company to develop a commercially available browser version of the news galaxy and sold the company to Excite@Home two years later. Sadly, the project suffered from the dot.com crash that sent Excite@Home spiraling into financial difficulties in 2001.|
Similar fates awaited other experiments with news interfaces, such as the push media news of the Wired Desktop, developed by San Francisco-based designer Erik Adigard in 1997. Aside from encountering economic problems and public recalcitrance, many innovative ideas were caught in the crossfire of battles over type and browser standards. Even today, one of the central problems facing designers of web interfaces is that there is no simple, efficient standard for ensuring that text type appears in the same font on every screen. It provides yet another reason for newspapers to fall back on graphic presentations of their print pages if only to reiterate the brand.
One of the interactive screens from Galaxy of News, a three-dimensional constellation of news stories grouped by category.
News from ABCs Times Square building comes via a curving, nine-ribbon electronic billboard with ticker-style headlines and live broadcasts, using 2.3 million LEDs. It was designed by Walt Disney Imagineering with ABC and HLW International. Photo: Ida Mae Astute/ABC
|But the future of electronic typography is far from stuck in two dimensions. It becomes distinctly more intriguing when it is taken beyond the desktop computer screen into the fabric of the built environment. Though type on illuminated signs is often crude by print standards, at supersized scale its dynamic and infinitely changeable nature offers new possibilities. Eddie Sotto, a former Walt Disney Imagineer, designed the ABC television studio façade in Times Square, for example, as a prototype giant interactive screen, with the building windows sandwiched by curving ribbon-like zipper signs over which news headlines fly, and above which TV clips play on giant screens. Sotto suggests that whole façade could become a web page operated by people using their cell phones. The architecture becomes this electric crossroads between two worlds, he says.|
|Lisa Strausfeld, who as an MIT student developed rectilinear information spaces for the desktop, recently designed with Pentagram a 30-foot media wall scheme for New Yorks proposed new Penn Station. Train arrivals and departures are represented by electronic abacus-like beads, while news feeds from TV networks coupled with scrolled information bytes flow across the colossal screen. Information is scaled dimensionally, so that even from the furthest point in the station away from the screen, commuters can discern some news. Strausfeld drew inspiration from the election coverage of 2000, when, staying at her sisters New York apartment, she became accustomed to having television screens tuned to the news sluice of CNN and MSNBC all day. A lot of news is about connection and community, she says, and a feeling of being surrounded by news was something that interested me. You couldnt take in every second, but you could have it playing in the background. The media wall was all about the commuter experience and the idea that in a large public space people could be focused on one event.|
In as grand a venue as the new Penn Station, electronic news delivery would gain the communal quality of the newspaperdozens, perhaps hundreds of people are reading it at the same time. The challenge for designers in this context, and perhaps all future information-scapes, is to take the refinement of news delivery in print and enable buildings to carry news in a usable form.
One day soon, perhaps, we will be downloading news into our handheld computers from giant public data nodes, or train station media walls, to read on the train ride home. News will be embedded in architecture, furniture, even clothing. But only when electronic typography attains the portable and readable aspects of printed type will the newspaper begin to cede its four-century reign.
Peter Hall is contributing editor to font.
Architecture of news:
Lisa Strausfeld of Pentagram Design in New York created these images as part of a media wall proposal for Skidmore, Owings and Merrills renovation of Penn Station.