Since when did USA Today become our national design ideal?

In a New York Times Magazine article on new textbooks, author Robert Reinhold describes California’s history series as “…filled with colorful charts, graphs, time lines, maps and photographs in a format suggestive of the newspaper USAToday.” There it is again. Since when did USAToday become the national design ideal? Everywhere you look you find the USAToday analogy hauled out to explain a design format. Making ideas ‘accessible’ is the operative term in the information age, yet often information is drained of significance in the name of accessibility.

Some things are designed for reading; the scholarly journals, the literary reviews, the financial pages and their ilk are pretty impenetrable for the casual page flipper. Other pages – like USAToday, most annual reports, fashion magazines, etc – are for looking. (Surely, in the course of a project, you’ve heard someone say – only half in jest – ‘No one actually reads the copy…just make it look good.’). Then there are the gray areas, like news magazines and textbooks, that imply reading – but are increasingly about looking. If you compare the Time or NewsWeek format – or for that matter, the fifth grade schoolbook from twenty years ago – to the present incarnation, the change is remarkable. The headlines are bigger, the captions are bigger, the photographs, the charts and the call-outs are all bigger. Something had to go. And what went was the text.

The trend in typography is towards a destruction of narrative text. Running copy with narrative voice is being replaced with charts, call-outs, and opinion poll figures reducing the ‘story’ to a collection of visualized ‘facts’. Images are increasingly the major vehicle for carrying the content. It is the design equivalent to the video ‘sound-byte,’ where complex ideas are boiled down into (in the words of Nigel Holmes, Time’s design director) “manageable chunks.” Beyond the stylistic implications, this new typographic sensibility represents a change in the consumer’s relationship to information, the author’s authority, and the significance of the form. The resultant designs often have the look of information without real content.

The rationale behind the accessibility movement is that information is easier to absorb in small pieces. Visualization – exaggerated hierarchy, charts, graphs, side-bars, boxes, photo captions and call outs – is in vogue. We are approaching the critical point where the captions and ‘graphics’ overtake the body text. The result of all this designing is a fragmenting of communication. The model of contemporary typography is not the linear argument but the simultaneous slogan. For instance, an opening spread for NewsWeek story may now be as much as 85% or 90% image with only a small introductory paragraph of text.

Prodded along by all the marketing data, publishers and designers feel the need to compete with television and video for consumer attention. We have all heard that newspaper readership is down and television news has surpassed reading as the information source-of-choice for the majority of Americans. Publishers seem inclined to apply the TV ‘info-tainment’ format to major newspapers and magazines. The logic is something along the line… “TV format is fast, vapid and unbelievably successful, newspapers should employ the same techniques as TV.” This affects the nature of typographic design,’ with traditional values of readability, order, hierarchy and composition (developed to facilitate reading) being replaced with other, often contrary values contrived to attract attention (looking). You may notice more companies lightening the marketing sections of their annual reports, trying to hit the few cogent points with some sharp graphics elements, forgoing the traditional ‘story’.

This makes more sense in mass market publications like entertainment weekly or Spy, or even annuals where the message is not necessarily crucial; those products are not intended to challenge your intellect. However, when the same stylistic formats are applied to newsmagazines, newspapers and schoolbooks, the implication may be more troubling. (An interesting aside; in a typically twisted eighties’ manner, Spy, the biting, meta-magazine that ridicules the information magazine format, became one of the most influential designs for the magazines it was mocking.) The distinctions between what is news, opinion, entertainment and propaganda in magazines is already blurry. The turn toward visualization and over-simplification may make the boundaries even more obscure. US Education Secretary T.H.Bell referred to this phenomena as part of the “dumbing down” of American textbooks – i.e., removing all complex information in attempt to capture the reader’s attention. If students are unable to read and to grasp complex subjects, is the problem in the book? Is simplifying the content to fit into ‘exciting’ USAToday formats going to solve the problem?

Publications made for looking rather than reading suggest entire themes within a carefully composed photograph or coded design forms without the kind of supporting evidence demanded in expository writing. (Consider the photograph from People (Nov 91) of Clarence and Virginia Thomas curled on their couch reading the bible. How can you respond to that image? How can you reason against it?) The information format emphasizes the incredible power of the art-directed image with the decontextualized quotation, the boldface caption, the ‘scientific’ diagram, and the brightly colored map. Charts and diagrams are great for giving a general, relational, explication of an issue, but they necessarily shave away the ambiguous, nuanced or obscure aspects. While these elements may attract looking, there is not much there to read. The information has been pre-processed, pre-chewed; it can only lead to one conclusion. The design of these pages controls the reading; it siphons off all complexity and contradiction and presents a slyly fictional ‘fact’.

At the basic level, the growing USAToday style is a destruction of traditional narrative ideals. Narrative implies an author as well as a reader. The reader negotiates the process of the rational argument checking any specific point against the entire premise. The veracity of the content is measured against the author’s authority. The argument set forth is limited and understood considering the inherent perspective implied in the narrative voice. By visually interpreting the text or by advancing the idea through an image, the voice dissipates. Images and statistics do not seem to imply an inherent point-of-view; they have a kind of false objectivity. The concept of the image-as-opinion is difficult to grasp.

Cultural critics may use this shift toward the fragmented layout as an example of the continuing decline of textual authority, with author’s intention giving way to reader’s interpretation. “Design becomes a provocation to the audience to construct meaning, consider new ideas, and reconsider preconceptions (Katherine McCoy)”. Deconstruction may be an interesting tool to describe the original move toward fragmentation, but (as the conceptual design process begins to be codified and adopted as a style) when the devices of mass culture adopt typographic layering you can be sure it is not to put interpretive power into the hands of the audience. To capture a second of attention from the harried, over-informed consumer, there is a perception that messages need to be instantaneous, with about the same content level as a fifteen second television commercial (or, as Nigel Holmes puts it, “…the dentist may well get through his first appointment sooner than you thought.”) If a chart with a picture of Uncle Sam and a Russian Bear on a seesaw over an oil barrel can replace several paragraphs of text, all the better. No one has time to think about a rational argument; it is too time consuming, too boring. A sharp image and a few well chosen words can produce the same idea without the nuance but with a kind of prefabricated logic.

The actual motivation for the trend may come down to some basic economic factors on the way typography and design are produced. The Macintosh opened up so many possibilities, giving designers access to the equivalent of sophisticated typesetting terminals. Intricate settings, overlapping, run-arounds, knock outs and complex charts and graphs that were once too costly and time consuming are now possible even for the smallest studio, with the tightest budget and most constrained production schedule. Books and magazine publishers also have greater digital composition possibilities and more four-color printing forms.
Or perhaps it is only an inevitable extension of the LITE phenomena that has been burgeoning since the 70s. If beer, (or mayonnaise, or individually wrapped sliced American cheese) makes you fat, then a.) stop drinking so much beer or b.) re-manufacture the beer with fewer calories. We are more comfortable with the idea of changing our products than changing our habits. Publication design is under the same pressure. Maybe we want the newspaper ‘experience’ without all that annoying thinking. It is a type of LITE design; it tastes great and its less filling.

© Michael Rock