January 26th, 2009
The Times of London made some major changes this weekend: a redesigned magazine, new newsprint sections, and a new A5 listings mag. Oh, and this week an Obama photo special in which they liked one picture so much they used it twice! The only thing which didnt change much was the main paper.
Saturday is the big battleground in the UK press now. Monday to Friday circulation seems to be in terminal decline, but people still seem to want newspapers at the weekend and for now Saturday sale is still strong for most of us. So its not surprising that a lot of editorial talent and energy is being devoted to the Saturday offering. Of course the Times is one of the Guardian’s main competitors, so it’s impossible for me to give an objective assessment. But there are certainly a few things here worth noting.
I’ll get to the magazine later. And I can’t say much about Playlist, the A5 listings mag, as we lost our copy on Saturday and I’ve failed to turn one up in the office this morning. From memory, it’s very much in the mould of the Guardian guide, but thinner, and with less regional editions which probably limits its usefulness as an entertainment guide.
The most interesting developments are in the newsprint sections. The old range of tabloids has been replaced with a sport tab, a broadsheet culture review, and a fat magazine-like lifestyle tab called “weekend”. They all make use of the new weights of the Times typeface which were introduced in Times 2 at the start of the year — a chunky new bold and a skeletal ultra light.
This vogue for very wide ranges of weights is one of the most curious results of the digital type revolution; nowadays no famiily is complete without an extra-thin version. Most of these fonts could never have existed in the days of metal type as they would have defied the laws of physics. And although this works in some sans serif families, I find most very light serifs pretty unconvincing. Of course I’m guilty here too, having commissioned 8 weights of Guardian Egyptian for the Guardian redesign, including a hairline. But being an Egyptian, the Guardian font has very little contrast even in the mid weights, and as it gets lighter it is able to drift gracefully towards monolinearity without losing its character. The Times ultra light is obliged to to preserve some contrast, plus the ball terminals etc of the more familiar weights, and struggles as a consequence. The bold is great and really works here (and in T2), although it’s a shame that it’s so hard to see any remaining DNA of Times Roman in this typeface (update: Simon Esterson disagrees). Weekend and the review make maximum use of this range of weights of the serif, and hardly use Gotham (the Times’s sans) at all, rather Guardianesque, in fact! (Update: I obviously didn’t look close enough because there’s no Gotham in these sections at all, the tiny sans is set in Stag Sans from Christian Schwartz).
Type aside, the section design follows the precedent established by the new Times 2, with a very magazine-y feel. In fact there’s hardly a magazine design trope that isn’t here: colour coding, varied text sizes, multiple measures, empty columns with hanging quotes & captions, complex rulework, display quote marks etc etc . Its all very nicely done, as you would expect (I’m not sure who’s repsonsible for the design but in design editor Jon Hill, and Times 2’s Alex Breuer, the Times now has two very talented and experienced magazine designers). It’s bright and colourful and beautifully detailed, and it certainly feels like a Saturday reading experience. But in the end I have to say that — page after page — I found all the complexity rather exhausting, and I longed for some big pictures and simple pages. Weekend has 68 pages and is effectively a newsprint magazine, but lacks magazine pacing, with a flatplan which makes it feel like it goes on for ever. Even in the centre spread, a beautiful landscape photograph goes across the gutter, but is squeezed between two text panels.
The saturday review (lower case title here and U/lc on Weekend, not sure why) is probably the most pleasing section. Its a curious decision to make this a broadsheet after the Times turned its back on the format four or five years ago, but it does stand out from the mass of tabloid pages. On the most successful pages the combination of big pictures and long text really make the most of the format. But in parts (the centre spread for example) there’s a strong reminder of the readibility problems which caused most of us to change format in the first place.
And finally, the magazine. This appears to be an an overt homage to New York magazine, even down to the the swash logo. It’s certainly brave to attempt to channel a magazine which many would agree is still the best designed and art directed in the world. But foolhardy too. The Times mag lacks the visual sophistication of New York and ends up feeling clumsy and curiously downmarket. I’m relieved to see how fussy it is as the Guardian is also releasing a redesigned weekend magazine next Saturday. But ours goes in the opposite direction — much simpler and more pared down than the current design (more on this soon!).
So… There is some good stuff in the package (the typography and detailing in the newsprint sections is very sophisticated, and probably more like a magzine than any other newspaper section I’ve seen in the UK), and its always exciting to see our rivals raising their game as it forces us to raise ours. It’s unfair to judge on a first week, when there are bound to be teething troubles, but overall, I dont find much that I can get really excited about here. But with so much design talent at the Times now, I’ll be watching developments very carefully…