New Looks, New Newspapers

Peter Campbell

  • The Graphic Language of Neville Brody by Jon Wozencroft
    Thames and Hudson, 160 pp, £14.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 500 27496 7
  • The Making of the ‘Independent’ by Michael Crozier
    Gordon Fraser, 128 pp, £8.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 86092 107 7

Neville Brody is advertised as the most influential graphic designer of his generation, which means something in a Britain where we have at last found what we are really good at: charming money out of each other. If appetites are not refreshed, the clothes racked in Next and the produce tumbling from supermarket horns of plenty will be food for the moth and the worm. When the words and images which sharpen desire themselves need sharpening, the graphic artist (or copywriter, or director) is called in to examine the entrails for signs of which dreams will ring tills. If you are losing the style wars, and the true guerrillas of graphics are unwilling to rally to the flag, you can at least borrow their tactics. So Brody, whose launch-pad was the independent fringe of the record business and whose orbiting vehicle was the fashion/art/interview magazine The Face, found his recipes borrowed and his mannerisms aped in work with which he had no sympathy. His revolutionary war-cries and banners were misunderstood and plagiarised at the same time. In his account of Brody’s work Jon Wozencroft describes how The Face ‘combined pop consumerism with a critique of its culture ... both questioned and celebrated the growing profusion of styles in the same breath – the worst effects of “Style Culture” in the same issue that included items on “radical footwear” and “travelling hats” ’. The ambivalence this description identifies shows up in Brody’s comments on the place of design in communication. Both The Graphic Language of Neville Brody and The Making of the ‘Independent’ cast light on the relationship between writing and the medium of print. The magazines Brody has designed and the Independent are at opposite ends of the spectrum of style, but in both cases graphic design allows scanning (as against reading), and allows those buyers who read very little of the continuous text to feel that they have had their money’s worth from the paper.

The ingredients of the graphic style which Brody gave The Face included ‘abstract’ Bauhaus-like alphabets, headlines letter-spaced so that long and short words squared off, and mixed bold and light, serifed and sans serif characters in single words. He left a lot of white space, words often ran up or down the page, and big type was often mixed with very small photographs. These devices slowed readers down. Readers who persevered became initiates. His layouts were a rejection of the conservative traditions which still govern the look of most novels, biography, literary magazines and other print-for-reading – although full of references to the equally conservative traditions of alternative typography which include Blast, the Futurists and the Constructivists. He was willing to break the conventions which make meanings clear. He wanted people to pause: the magazine was a series of laybys for the travelling eye, not a text expressway. Oz had been differently illegible – Brody on the whole stopped short of printing text over pictures – but the part of the magazine which consisted of display matter, pictures and the odd caption could be ‘read’ as a whole, as could the continuous text. It was not unique in this: most illustrated magazines offer double readings – the cartoons and text in the New Yorker, for example, or the ads and the text in consumer magazines. In this case, despite the fact that the magazine printed the work of journalists like Julie Burchill who were in their way quite as aggressive as Brody, it was the visual style which made the greater mark.

In the battle for attention, shorthand versions of long messages are essential ammunition. The life-style shorthand is highly efficient: the audience tuned in to the signal knows that the item following (car, book, idea, record, shoe) is its kind of thing. Effectiveness depends on a limited number of codes (haircut, vocabulary) being used to signal allegiance to a larger, less well-defined universe of ‘style’. Dedicated readers could dress, dance, travel, listen, vote and read Face-style. Such magazines are liable to have their graphic identifiers borrowed by parasites and symbiotes. The Face, which seemed to have hit the wavelength of the high-spending young, was as vulnerable to having its style imitated as a fashion house with a hot spring collection. Advertisers copied it and other magazines, from the Tatler to City Limits, commissioned a Brody look: his was the style of the readers they wanted.

The hijacking of styles is nothing new. Revolutionary graphics were, briefly, the graphics of the Russian Revolution. They have worked equally well in advertising. The fragility of the connection between bold innovation on the page and winning hearts and minds for socialism is evident, but breaking the conventions of typography can still infect designers with barricade fever. Here is Brody on his experiences with New Socialist: ‘It was a challenge to make politics an interesting enough subject for people to want to read about it.’ (Does he mean be interesting or look interesting?) ‘Until its re-design New Socialist had been a rather heavy tract, laborious to read, communicating political tedium rather than strongly felt invective ... People missed the point that the left was saying “We want to be modern, we want to be part of your lifestyle.” I wanted to show that if politics had become life-style, it was surely time to encourage more people to challenge policies.’ The belief that words need to be coloured by graphic presentation (‘laborious to read, producing political tedium’), and that the design was a more direct, freer form of communication than the thing designed (‘we want to be modern’), is as good an example as any of the medium trying for message status.

If you think that a text which becomes a series of decorative signs is evidence that all print media are corrupted, and that reading is a dying skill, don’t worry. Michael Crozier’s ‘how we did it’ account of the birth of the Independent, an account which resembles a parish-magazine post-mortem on the last jumble sale, patting many backs and giving hardly a hint of tantrums, proves that grey-flannel design is alive and as servicable and inoffensive as ever. The most striking thing about Crozier’s book is the importance the founders of the paper put on design, and the way this resulted in a journalist-dominated design, rather than design-dominated journalism. The mysteries which allowed designers and printers to impose their ideas have evaporated. The final solution at the Independent was the work of a group which created a writer’s paper. People who put their powers of invention into words are usually keen to have them printed in traditional form. They want a proper book or newspaper, which has led to the look of pages changing much more slowly than their content and explains why the dropped initial, italicised passages, rules, subheadings, and most of the other essential elements of the visual grammar of newspaper pages, can be traced back to the 16th century at least.

This traditional craftsmanship, however, is used, like The Faces’s chic, to entertain readers or lead them on, not to make them sit and read. The principle of having a summary of the day’s news on the front page was, it would seem, a more important issue at the Independent than the paper’s politics, and the admirable use it has made of pictures (even when it uses the same picture as another paper it tends to get more mileage from it by skilful cropping) has gained more applause than its columnists and reviewers. The judges in the 1987 newspaper design awards ‘instinctively liked the Independent. It was our idea of what that sort of newspaper should look like; a real newspaper, reassuring, authoritative.’ The editor of the Daily Express thought it looked up-market of the Times. ‘Few at the newspaper knew at that time,’ Crozier writes, ‘but that’s partly where the market gap lay.’ The life-style signals were getting through. An advertising media director opined: ‘the layout is fabulous and it’s a good easy read.’

It is not a paper to disturb, or to engage deeply. It is surely significant that one of the first issues the paper has chosen to take a stand on is the wretched case made by Peter Levi for the wretched poems which the paper went with him in attributing to Shakespeare. Those I know who have become regular readers praise its journalistic craftsmanship in much the same terms as I would praise its design: it makes useful information available efficiently. But there is not much to make readers uncomfortably aware of things the television news had not made them uncomfortable about already. Its strip cartoon about Alex, a young City shit, can, for example, be very funny, but it does not, as the excesses of Steve Bell in the Guardian sometimes do, manage to shock you at your acquiescence in the status quo. ‘As the principles’ of the new paper ‘clarified’, Crozier writes, it seemed to journalists wishing to join it ‘almost too good to be true’:

  On economic issues it would advocate free market solutions.
  On social issues it would take a liberal line.
  On foreign issues it would be pragmatic.
  All employees would be encouraged to take shares in the company.

One can see why the media men found the result thrilling, and why journalists thought it would be an honourable and profitable haven.

The success stories of these two very different publications highlight uncomfortable trends. First, that since the advertising which determines the viability of papers will tend to choose the blander medium, diversity is in danger. A paper which gets a substantial proportion of its revenue from advertising is cheaper for the reader than one which makes most of its money from sales, and this differential is increasing. The minority magazine, which is happy to live with its naturally small readership, is also made to seem very expensive. While the glossy magazines, supported by estate agents’ advertisements, are delivered free through the door, and the already successful dailies plan to mop up the kind of advertising they cannot print during the week in Saturday magazines (the Independent has one planned), financial problems force the New Statesman and New Society into an uneasy marriage. The ambling prose found in the more esoteric sections of the Sunday New York Times, which is often no more than an agreeable way of keeping the ads apart, gives a taste of the kind of journalism which the logic of revenue and distribution may encourage. Such beasts, fat on advertisements, are not pernicious in themselves, but they do threaten their leaner rivals. To buy more printed paper when you have not got through the pile which came on Sunday seems absurd. Expense is not the only factor. Time is the hard thing to get people to part with, and buying what you do not read can be painful. Woody Allen has a funny piece about the guilt which grows to keep pace with a mounting pile of unread copies of the New York Review of Books. Brody’s attempt to make New Socialist palatable to the young, and the authoritative reassurance and ‘good easy read’ which commentators saw in the Independent, suggest that papers now expect casual readers, who should be offered a paper which has plenty of messages in shorthand.

Both these books are about publications which have made use of the freedoms electronics have brought to the print medium. Such short-cuts have made it cheap to get words into print – on any scale, small or large. The evidence of the books is that the journalistic long read is under strong evolutionary pressure. But anyone who aims at a paper which bucks the evolutionary trend by managing to hold its readers’ attention for any length of time has never had a better technological environment in which to do it. When Donald Knuth, author of a classic text on computer algorithms, found the American Mathematical Society’s standards of typesetting were falling disastrously, he wrote TEX, a computer typesetting program which allows complex mathematical setting to be generated by codes input by the author. It is now very commonly used by scientists, and has changed the look of much that is issued in the area where the concepts of circulation and publication overlap. Most of the typographic inventions we have inherited from the first half-millennium of printing can be imitated electronically.

The design profession grew up in the space between the writer and printer, and that space is, as the Independent example shows, getting tight. When journalists can achieve a neat design with only passing assistance, professional designers will tend to offer more rigorous or individual solutions. These may have few advantages: the re-design of the Guardian by a typographer (David Hillman) has resulted in a gawkier paper than the one the suave types at the Independent produce.

Printing has produced most of its own best historians – Blades, Morison, Updike. Perhaps it is a sign of the growing division between reading and designing which allows Wozencroft to contribute a footnote that manages to get almost every fact about the still living technology of letterpress printing wrong: ‘The Monotype Company was the largest supplier of type founts during the letterpress era, before lithography became the dominant printing method in the Fifties. Their machines – also manufactured by Linotype – were elaborate typewriters used by compositors to “cast off” type into galleys which were then arranged into the “formes” that would make the printing plate for “hot metal” letterpress machines. Letterpress uses a “relief” printing plate, whilst lithographic plates are photographically etched.’ The Monotype Corporation (not Company) was not the largest supplier of anything during the letterpress era, which began in the 15th century. Lithography did not become the dominant printing method until well after the Fifties: in the Sixties all national newspapers were printed on rotary letterpress machines, most mass-circulation magazines by photogravure, and most un-illustrated books by letterpress. Monotype were in competition with Linotype. The two systems were quite different in operation: the former cast type as single characters, the latter cast whole lines at a time. They cast type, they did not ‘cast it off’. Casting-off is estimating the number of lines copy will make when it is set. The forme was sometimes used to produce plates, but for most jobs during most of the letterpress era it was put on the machine and printing was done from the type itself. Newspapers and mass-market paperbacks, both of them printed on rotary machines, were the exception. Relief plates can also be photographically etched. Printing from metal type was done on letterpress (not ‘hot metal’) machines. The hot/cold distinction is used of typesetting, not printing. Filmset books can be printed by letterpress.

If the alliance between writers and printers and designers does break down, writers may have to take the kind of interest in the details of the printed page which those who played games with it did (Sterne and Joyce, for example) and which those who wanted to control the whole process of publication (Shaw, for example) did. ‘The inside design is still somehow taken for granted,’ Brody is quoted as saying of current books, ‘as if the writer had somehow already designed the page.’ It seems likely that in the marginal areas where the long serious read is now forced to find its existence that is just what she or he will soon be doing. It may not be a bad thing.