At this weekend’s Offset festival in Dublin, one of the highlights came from much-revered editorial designer Matt Willey. Now art director of The New York Times, Matt has a faultless portfolio of brilliantly considered work on a raft of top publications (and of course was one of the founders of PORT magazine). It was particularly interesting to hear him discuss his redesign of The Independent, which was the first newspaper project he ever worked on. As he doesn’t give too many talks, here’s some of the things we learned about that particular undertaking…
The importance of not compromising
“I did a lot of fighting on this. I fought very hard for a lot of things.” Matt was full of praise for Independent editor Amol Rajan for his wide-ranging vision for the redesign but explained that he came up against various obstacles on this job, especially where vested interests in the newsroom were concerned. Matt’s brief was to try to return the paper to some of the elegance and class it had when it was first founded as a broadsheet and to differentiate it from its sister title i that was proving very successful with its short format news and magazine-inspired design. Having Henrik Kubel draw the paper its own fonts and working with La Tigre on a redrawn logo were all-important victories in the process.
That cover decision
The most remarked upon element of the paper’s redesign was the shift of the masthead to run vertically up the left-hand side of the front page. Matt explained that the problem was in part due to the fact that “independent” is a long word and so to give it due prominence across the top of the page left an “uncomfortable, unfriendly, fiddly, complicated space” for the designer to work in with the main headlines and any imagery. The move to the left-hand side meant the name of the paper could still be prominent but crucially it would “give pertinence” to the news too. He thought it particularly came into its own when the paper runs very brave front pages, such as after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris where the whole front was given over to a cartoon.
Subs aren’t the same as designers
Matt was pretty forthright on his challenge with the paper’s inside pages – “it was a mess.” The crucial realisation he had was that newspaper sub-editors don’t think like designers and so there was no point setting up a framework that they couldn’t or wouldn’t follow. To get around this he implemented a set of rules that the subs had to stick to including a drive to have fewer but better images; no text over images; no doglegging of stories around adverts and a stripped-back colour palette mainly based on black, grey and red.
The importance of taking a bit more care
One of the overarching themes was to think a little more carefully about how they put the paper together each day, given that i) Deadlines are so tight in a newsroom and ii) The Independent has a particularly small staff. On top of that working in newspaper design is strange for a designer because things like paper and print quality are completely out of their hands. What Matt did insist on were a few touches that just made it feel a little more considered; so sections always began on a right-hand page to give that consistency, and subs were asked to stick to a rigid grid to keep the right amount of white space.