The Scruffying of Print


The books and newspapers I read are, on the whole, designed by people pushing boxes around in expensive pieces of software. They’ve been carefully nudged, tweaked and adjusted to look Just Right. Designed, in the first order sense of the word.

Lots of the traditional print businesses are looking to print-on-demand for new business models and approaches. And rightly so – it’s exciting stuff. But if you’re going to, for example, tailor a portion of the content in your newspaper to the reader’s local area then you need to be able to automate that completely, because you can’t afford to tweak 300,000 newspapers individually.

The job of the designer becomes a second-order one — of creating templates, workflows and systems to support that — not pushing around boxes of text by hand.

Web designers are used to this. You quickly learn when making a website that coding each page by hand is impossible, and that you’re going to have to use layouts and templates. And these layouts and templates need to support headlines which are slightly longer than you might expect, or content that wraps in an unexpected place. So you design things with high tolerances and gentle failure modes which still look OK when everything isn’t quite as expected.

This is something that print is going to have to get used to. Slightly messier, with a few more bad line breaks and unbalanced columns. I don’t think readers are going to have any trouble with this — if anything people are getting used to scruffy nature of the web, and they definitely don’t care as much about design as designers think they do. It’s the producers and editors that are going to have to get used to letting go, giving a little bit less time to perfecting visual design and a bit more time to making sure the content shines through.