Richard Turley | Essays

Off the Grid

G2: Off The Grid
Photo: Martin Godwin/Guardian

So there we were. Standing in a vast field at the Worthy Farm, the home of the Glastonbury Festival, armed with a laptop, rain pouring down, sodden jeans, welly boots welded to our feet, the ground turning into molasses before our eyes. Our mission: to produce a special edition of the Guardian newspaper's G2 daily features section, reporting on all aspects of the festival. We had three days, from the start of proceedings on the Friday, till around noon on the Sunday, by which time we had to have sent our pages back to Guardian HQ. But how? How do you capture the feeling of your senses being numbed by the heavenly punishment of dirt, music, art, people, performance, rain, insomnia, cider and exhaustion whilst being simultaneously kicked out of the sleepy trudge of day to day life? And from my point of view as G2's art director, could the design do justice to an event of such magnitude?

I wasn't sure. But then it started to make sense. It might have been standing at the end of Arcade Fire's mesmerising set, screaming the chorus of "Wake Up" alongside tens of thousands of muddy, ecstatic fellow festivalgoers, all brought together by that unique bond of shared experience. It might have been experiencing the stage invasion during Iggy and the Stooges, where the audience and the performer were one and the same. Or the stomach-buckling version of "I Wanna Be Your Dog" that followed, finishing with Iggy standing in front of the stage repeating "I am you. I. Am. You" like some messianic incantation to the hordes at his feet. It might have been repeatedly falling over in the mud. It might have been being lost and insignificant in the ocean of people of all ages, denominations, races, classes. It might very well have been the cider. Whatever or whenever it was, there was no other decision to be made. We were going off the grid. We were going off the grid in a big way.

Well, in truth, we were off the grid way before anyway. Designing 20-odd pages of a newspaper supplement from the middle of a field was already a challenge to technology, patience and the normal processes of producing G2. Usually, and quite rightly, newspaper design is bound by the conventions of its production and structure, by the fast turnaround of ideas that precludes against overtly expressive design, and by the formal traditions, craft and Victorian ideologies of the newspaper. News designers live very much on the grid, working from templates, tied by the rules of preassigned headline, text, caption sizes, precise spacing. It is an exacting, dictatorial, inherently rigid view of the world of design. The grid is the imperious king, with whom you do not mess.

So how do you capture the spirit of Glastonbury with design? Friday began with a meeting in the backstage bar over terrible coffee and bacon sandwiches discussing possible content and ideas for the issue. After that, it was to the laptop in our home from home, an already mud-lined static-caravan with rain pouring at an alarming rate through the strip lights. After clearing a space through the notepads, food wrappers, cola cans, and assorted detritus and pretending to look busy, it was clear I had nothing to do yet. No copy had been written, no pictures taken. So off I went for a wander through the mud and queues to find the real Glastonbury and to develop of plan of attack.

G2: Off The Grid
Left to right: Laura Barton, Patrick Barkham, David Levene, Amy Fleming

Over the next few hours, the plans began to form. To reflect the intense, animated, spiritual, blissful yet peculiarly organised chaos, the obvious course of action was to embrace it. To express this visual assault, each spread would be dominated by imagery, having full-out photographs as backgrounds, with text boxes sitting on top of images. This, whilst fairly pedestrian outside newspapers, is a reversal of our normal working methods, where pictures are worked around the text.

In terms of the feel of the pages, we needed energy. There would be no grids at all, but we would retain our standard fonts to keep the typography familiar for the readers. Our headline weight display Egyptian, black out of white. Standfirst in the light display. Body text would be in white boxes for legibility, in our 8.25/10.5 text weight, but set off the baseline. (You still want people to be able to read it; this isn't Raygun).

The layouts had to have energy. If it didn't work within a few minutes (roughly the time it takes to put a few pictures on a page and some copy), then I'd start again. I didn't want to spend any time crafting anything, which in effect I couldn't anyway. The systems we use at the Guardian require stories and their accompanying furniture to be added to their Indesign pages using a bespoke tools palette. (This enables content to be pulled off the page after we have finished with them for use on the website and for foreign editions). This can't be accessed outside our office. So, knowing the rough word counts of the articles, I would position dummy text and headline boxes as I wanted them. The documents were then sent back to Izabella, our superb junior designer in the office. She then loaded the pages on to this system, sent the images to be colour-corrected, then handed the pages over to be edited and subbed before being sent to the presses.

By Saturday lunchtime, after a woozy start, things were coming together. The aforementioned revelations in front of Arcade Fire and generally having a much better feel for the festival meant the two spreads of interviews with members of the public flowed really well. A single spread looking at the ridiculous lengths people went to order to find a place to pitch their tent (under crackling electricity cables, right next to the most disgusting toilets imaginable) followed quickly after. The piling on images of top of each other was starting to come together.

Once the best images were chosen, a place for the headline was assigned, placing them crudely over the imagery. This began to give the pages some vibrancy. Then the dummy text was dropped on top, covering as little of the imagery as we could. It was all starting to look more like Sniffin' Glue than the Guardian, which may or may not have been a good thing depending on your design persuasion. Those with big Twen fetishes may chose to look away now. I was beginning to like it.

G2: Off The Grid

G2: Off The Grid
All photos: David Levene/Guardian

We worked sporadically into Saturday night. Frustratingly, the main feature's photographer had filed his images back to the main desk so we couldn't get them until the Sunday. Various musicians dropped by to give their opinions on the performances they saw for our "bands reviewing bands" feature. I can only report that they were well behaved and disappointingly professional. I am not sure what my preconception of musicians was before Glastonbury, but the one I leave with is that of very nice, if very shy, mollycoddled types who spend their lives being bossed around by fatuous, desperate press officers who insist on calling everyone "darling." As someone who read Lester Bangs and Nick Kent as a boy, this is not what I was expecting. I thought we might have been in for at least some mildly raucous behaviour, some vomiting, a groupie or two and a modest trail of destruction. But not a bit of it. Not in our static caravan, anyway.

Sunday was press day. Spirits, despite exhaustion, mud, cider and chemical toilets, remained cheery. The cover feature pictures turned up and the design was finished. It was probably the quickest of all layouts. The story that took longest to put together was an investigation into small, unannounced, secret gigs. The writer and photographer had traipsed all over the festival many times, often on totally erroneous leads. The pictures were fabulous, though, (David Levene, the photographer, had done a superb job all weekend). We needed a big double-page image to counter the volume of smaller, collaged pages, which didn't really do justice to the sheer quantity of his incredible set of images. I finally settled on a picture of the lead singer of The Horrors from a gig in a bar tent.

G2: Off The Grid

G2: Off The Grid
All photos: David Levene/Guardian

So to the cover. So far I'd been given free rein, but for the cover more opinions needed to be heard, from the editors in the Glastonbury office and back in London. Images came and went and it became very difficult not to fiddle with things, so ended up breaking my spontaneity rule. The central picture was changed a few times before we settled on the final design. Other supporting images came and went, a few discussions about whether or not to have Kate Moss on the cover ensued. We eventually settled on having her, but getting a less "celeb" representation of her. The cover went last: the volume of pictures on it meant it took about half an hour to send. There was audible relief when it finally left my outbox.

G2: Off The Grid
All photos: David Levene/Guardian

And so there it was.

Now, safely back in the comfort of our London offices, does it work? In no way can I pretend it's a seminal piece of design. A small ideological leap for one section of a newspaper, maybe, but not a great stride for design at large. Our editors here seem to love it, and I've had more congratulatory mail than for most editions.

Obviously, the nerdy graphic designer in me still wants to slam it back on the desk when I see the mistakes. But if you embrace a very loose approach to the design process, then some things are always going to be beyond your control. And when you abandon most of the rules, how do you define a mistake? What I do know for certain is that I should have argued longer for the main image in the centre of the cover. It's just too busy for an already crowded page. I should have spent longer on the cover feature, and we really should see more of the picture on the secret gigs page.

But for all the anxiety, the joy of actually going somewhere and designing, leaving the office with a laptop and putting myself in the middle of the environment I'm trying to describe is one that I'd love to repeat. With the advent of mobile technologies, there is no reason why journalists should be the lone adventurers. Surely design has an equally important role and can benefit just as much from seeing the story up close? Design has a voice and a value to the reader beyond making the pages look pretty. At its most cerebral, it lifts the words and pictures to aid the reader's total understanding of a story.

There is also a magic in sitting in a field one day, then having the printed version in your hand the next. Which, in a broader sense, is the joy of newspaper design regardless of whether we do a special issue. The quick turnaround and lack of time to craft and perfect is also its main strength. You don't have time to rethink ideas, learning instead to survive on instinct as much as intellect. You take more risks, because you simply do so much design that you have licence to do that — well, we do on G2 anyway.

Newspapers are going through a paradigm shift in the way they are read and disseminated. Over the next 10, 20 years or so, at a speed dictated by technology, readers will drift more and more to receiving news via digital means. News design will adapt to that. Flash or its equivalent will become the tool of choice as packages of graphics, images, text, audio and video will be put together, which will be an incredible opportunity to really affect how people receive design. These are the last gasps of print based news design. But that's not something to be sad about. Whilst we're still doing it, let's have some fun.

Posted in: Media, Music , Technology

Comments [9]

Thanks for such a fun read! Design, I suppose, is sometimes at its best (and worst) when done spontaneously. It's one thing to draft something really quick and then have the time and peace of mind to review it days later. It's a completely different ballgame when you have to develop a design and get it ready for production right there, on the spot.

Interesting thing you mention about mistakes in a process that means to ignore all the rules you usually adhere to. I think this theme can be further explored, and very well should be, in later discussions.

Thank you Richard!
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Carl W. Smith

I really wish I hadn't clicked on that Chemical Toilet link...

Great job!
Just curious: Was the idea to do this in any way inspired by The Red Bulletin?
florin preussler

No, it wasnt inspired by the Red Bulletin, I am not familiar with that magazine, but have just googled it and learnt more. There are a few companies that have produced publications from the middle of events. Actually, at Glastonbury, the english music magazine Q did a daily magazine from the portacabin next to ours which was distributed to the festival itself.
I think (not 100% sure though) that we were the first to write and design a nationally distributed publication remotely. I could be wrong though.
Richard Turley

Thanks for the insight into musicians at Glastonbury, and also for your article. I'd be equally disappointed at no raucousness.

I always enjoy seeing the work of other designers.

All the best, Richard.
David Airey :: Creative Design ::

yeah, it seems like some of the decisions you made were influenced by the frenetic nature of glastonbury... it's good to see that level of honesty in design, back in London of course you were back on the grid and would of made other choices... also i think discarding the grid maybe is too easy a solution, the structure of the grid could be used to emphasize the free spiritted nature of the images. I just don't feel that typigraphic grids= socio-political grids.... Thanks, you have inspired me to make a new project.

Looking into a design process is always fascinating, regardless of its nature... And this looks like it was one amazing ride of a process.

I think we need more situations in which the portable design studios that are modern laptops are used as they were intended!

Hi Richard. Entertaining article, and one all too familiar to me as the editor of Q magazine's Glastonbury Review this year. While you're probably right about G2's edition - which I enjoyed a great deal, by the way - being the first newspaper-based publication concocted entirely from the site, Q has been publishing a nationally distributed Review generated entirely on-site for the last four festivals.
We've also been producing the on-site newspaper you mentioned since 1997 (under the banner of the now defunct Select magazine until it folded and Q took over the project). That first year was true seat-of-the-muddy-pants publishing, from a Portacabin listing in the mud towards the south-west corner while the generator blew out every couple of hours courtesy of the torrential rain, reviewing bands via walkie-talkie and sending pages though a dial-up modem. Not days I care to recall too often.
Please knock on our door next year if you go back for more...
Andy Fyfe

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