Jessica Helfand | Essays

Annals of Typographic Oddity: Mourning Becomes Helvetica

It isn't often that The New York Times runs a 6-column headline on the front page. This kind of editorial real estate is typically reserved for something cataclysmic — a coup d'etat, for instance — and looks goofy and disproportionate sitting next to banal features like, say, the metropolitan weather forecast. (Especially this week, when early results from the "Super-Tuesday" primaries here in the US offered anonymous speculation that John Edwards would drop out of the race. Indeed! Neither coup nor etat.) Big, black, bold and italicized in ALL CAPS, this belt-and-suspenders approach to typography is perhaps all the more striking because it looks so lame. All the news that's fit to print? Or all the news that prints to fit? Headline writing is neither an art NOR a science, but the real question is this: despite the tremendous developments in display type over the past quarter century, haven't we progressed further than this?

Posted in: Media, Politics, Typography

Comments [14]

Because the New York Times headline treatment is used to signal the "importance" of the day's news, and because that importance is inevitably relative, occasionally things escalate to a point where the paper seems unable to back down. This happened during the Clinton/Lewinski impeachment proceedings, during the 2000 election debacle, and, of course, after 9/11.

As a daily reader of the Times, when these strings of 6-column headlines start up, it's like watching Joe Dimaggio's hitting streak. You get up every morning to see if they do another one.

During the Clinton impeachment, I remember distinctly having the sense that they made an error by escalating to 6-column heads too early, which stuck them there for days on end, afraid to back down. The headline deployment in the Iraq war, by contrast, was much more disciplined. I suppose the Times is more at ease modulating headlines about war than about fellatio.
Michael Bierut

As large respected newspapers go, sadly we haven't progressed further than this. Around the mid 20th century it seems the Times typographically froze in place and has only wiggled slightly since. I suppose the perceived authority and dependibilty of this approach on the part of the Times staff may be partly to blame.

And all caps Cheltenham Bold Italic? Yikes. Someone please put this old soldier out of his misery. (It's ironic to note that the headline in reference features the just re-drawn Cheltenham of Matthew Carter)
Eric Olson

It must have been a really slow news day, or they just needed to sell more papers. It would be interesting to see if there is an increase in sales when they six-column headline is used. As Jessica points out, this treatment is usually reserved for cataclysmic events and that's usually when most people want to read the latest news.

Maybe that the Times has discovered that this particular treatment, akin to the old day's paper merchants screaming 'read all about it', trigger such a reaction in people to cause them to buy the paper, off the street sales, because of the implied importance of the information. Possibly the average reader doesn't necessarily read the words but inteprets them as a must read/must buy simply because it's an all-cap, six-column wide headline.

Typographically newspapers are slow to change that which they've been accustomed to. They aren't about good clean design (just look at USA Today) that works, they are about maintaining the status quo, keeping the look that makes them the NY Times, or whomever, and probably fear a change of any kind.

I disagree with you Eric, but I'll grant that it's just a matter of taste. The "wiggling" of the Times' format since the middle of the last century has included a jump from eight columns to six, the arrival of color, a seismic repackaging of the paper in six sections, and more tiny tweaks to their signature blackletter flag than even I am aware of. I always thought that the Times' fealty to its extremely sophisticated (if motley) palette bristled with energy; it's like those beloved New York streets where limestone townhouses and beaux arts embassies live cheek and jowl with modernist office buildings. The alternative is the planned blandness of suburbia which New Yorkers are required to despise, and now we have it in our hometown paper: we've replaced West 43rd Street with the Cheltenham Mall.

Surely headline writing is either an art or a science, if not both. (Who here could resist "Mourning Becomes Helvetica?") What has been so bizarre about the Times since its facelift isn't just the absence of News Gothic, Latin Antique Condensed, and Century, and the waning presence of Bookman (the most articulate and recognizable voice in the paper), it's the effect this has had on the cadence of the headlines. I can't help but think that editors who have grown accustomed to thinking in certain patterns -- Possibly Ambiguous Cheltenham Headline / Longer, Explanatory Note Below in News Gothic -- haven't yet come to grips with their new and profoundly less sophisticated templates. The disconnection between editorial and typographic voices has become palpable; I wonder if anyone else here has conducted an informal breakfast table review of Times headlines of late, and also found them awkward, cryptic, and procrustean?
Jonathan Hoefler

Regarding the "wiggle" I referred to, Jonathan I'm pleased you pointed out the details I overlooked. I'm no expert in newspaper design, but I wonder if applying the improvements (new designs) in headline typeface design has little to do with current newspapers. They occupy a much messier and more complex area than traditional graphic design. They're almost unrelated.

As for the caveman style headlines, I actually get a kick out of them sometimes. "Kerry In Big Victories Across Nation". What?
Eric Olson

I guess I should ask Jessica if she'd expand on her original question a little: haven't we progressed further than what? I'm also curious what kinds of typographic developments you're thinking of; can you elaborate?
Jonathan Hoefler

It's interesting that when Japanese graphic design group Delaware were approached by Experimental Jetset to contribute to Emigre 57 -- the 'Lost Formats Preservation Society' issue -- they chose to do a piece called 'We Love the New York Times', casting all their song lyrics in the style of an issue of the Times.

Perhaps the NYT's typographic quirks have the quaint, reassuring charm of other great 'lost formats' like the audio cassette or the grandfather clock and should be 'preserved' by cranks, collectors and otaku.

When thinking of musical/visual homage to the ephemeral daily, the fake-newspaper packaging of Jethro Tull's Thick As A Brick also comes to mind...

Or Pink Floyd's lyric "the lunatics are in the hall/the paper holds their folded faces to the floor/and every day the paper boy brings more".

I fell there is something noble, admirable - almost compelling - in the NYT's unwavering devotion to its retro typography.

American newspapers have been copying each other for years now. It's like everyone is afraid to step out of the box - almost as if the very idea of being a "newspaper" puts these design handcuffs on you. You would think that survival alone is a good enough reason to try some different approaches to displaying their information. Newspapers certainly aren't making any in-roads with the under-35 crowd, which doen't say much for the future of these publications. At the very least, newspaper design should try and catch up - with that, I mean that everyone is inundated by all types of media these days, viewing many things at a certain level of design sophistication. A consumer pulls up a newspaper - and it's instant retro time. Probably not a good thing...

Obviously, newspapers compete in a decidedly kinetic arena: I'm always amused by observations about how the design of, say, the CNN television screen references the computer interface, but how does a newspaper compete if, indeed, it competes at all? Does a bolder dateline indicate a more user-friendly point of entry for the reader? (Maybe.) Is this enough? (Maybe not.)

I'm over-simplifying to make a point, and being a classicist by nature, I'm not sure I want to see the front page of The New York Times looking like a CNN TV screen anytime soon. Still, I wonder: I'm with Jonathan on the lament over the waning presence of Bookman, and am reminded as I write this of the excellent redesign of The Los Angeles Times from the early 1980s (interested Design Observers may be surprised to learn that this was the work of one Sheila Levrant de Bretteville) that urged headline writers to fill the line, meaning quite simply that the headline rags are incredibly smooth and the overall visual gestalt is unusually handsome. The paper still bears the imprimatur of this considered effort in art direction, and I would have to say that in an age of speed reading, the notion that elegant typography actually slows you down is, I think, a good thing. (I might well have titled this: A good rag is hard to find.)

Would a six-column headline on the front page of The New York Times be less effective if it was set in sentence case? Or if it dropped the italic in favor of a simple bold? Or is the belt-and-suspenders approach to the six-column hed part of its intrinsic appeal — an appeal that rests on what, in any other situation, serious typophiles might readily classify as, um, bad typography?
Jessica Helfand

It's very strange to read a discussion of newspaper design that's chiefly about typography. I'm a typeface designer, and I've contributed to more than a hundred newspaper redesigns, and I don't think I've ever had a discussion with a newspaper that's been about typography.

Typography is the visual manifestation of an editorial concept, not vice versa. To Bill's point, it's certainly true that newspapers do resemble one another altogether too much, but no more so than networks in the same market, or corporations in the same sector. But newspapers do try different approaches to displaying their information, and profoundly different approaches at that. When a newspaper redesigns, it's not because they want to replace Helvetica with Gotham Condensed, or because they don't like their H&J, it's because they want to package the information differently. How many newspapers now feature jumps above the flag? How many now run weather and lottery stats on page one? How many have changed the way paid listings are integrated into editorial sections? Most dramatically, how many broadsheets have gone tabloid in the last five years? These are enormous reconfigurations which reflect new ideas about editorial organization, and attempt a direct appeal to new readers. It's just not accurate to characterize newspaper design as anything but dynamic.

Nothing in the "newspapers vs. other media" debate could have prepared us for the last two years, in which newspaper reporting has been so much more compelling than television (to readers on either side of age 35.) The immediacy of television coverage was undeniable on September 11th, but in the subsequent weeks it was newspapers that drew readers in. While CNN endlessly repeated the same footage of devastation, it was Bill McNulty's group at The New York Times who put together the front page graphics that offered real analysis, and made complex information accessible. Here's how the terrorists all got together, one double-page timeline explained. Here's where downtown businesses are relocating, detailed a brilliant map. I don't think I ever noticed a diagram on page A1 of the Times until the autumn of 2001, but those two months of information graphics had a range, depth, and intensity that would make Ed Tufte proud.

Even more compelling than this kind of analysis, though, was when photojournalism took on television with the reporting of "embedded journalists" in Iraq. All the cable networks ran continuous streams of live video -- dusty deserts seen from Humvees, troops hanging out by tents, infrared of the occasional rocket, etc. But it was newspapers that encapsulated each day with a single compelling image. Ambiguous expressions beside the fallen statue of Hussein. Diagrams of aerial bombardment. Iraqis lining up for water. Press conferences with empty chairs.

To either point, I'd recommend a visit to the front page gallery at Newseum.org. I suspect there's enough material here to justify both sides of the discussion.
Jonathan Hoefler

Not design-related, but yes headline-related:
Are newspaper headlines copyrightable? Tarzan, cavemen around the world benefit.

And what about Blog headlines?

A 6 column headline about a still undecided presidential primary? Can there really be any question of the popular media's liberal-democratic bias?

On the subject of headlines, an editorial in today's New York Times reflects upon the irony of the split screen: to watch Condoleeza Rice's testimony before the 9/11 panel yesterday was all the more surreal on CNN, where a crawl offered news in real time — much of it openly contradicting the perspectives in Rice's statement.
Jessica Helfand

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