Michael Bierut | Essays

The New York Times: Apocalypse Now, Page A1

If you pick up the New York Times every day, you may have been as disoriented as I was on Tuesday, October 21st. The front page looked basically the same, but slightly different, like the replacement husband on "Bewitched." Your increasingly panicked, darting eyes may have finally discovered, down in the very left-hand corner, a teasing note: "Notice Anything? More than the news is new today on the front page and in the main news sections." The full (curiously un-bylined) story was found deep inside on on the upper half of page C8. The Times had administered to itself what it called "a gentle typographic facelift."

Pay attention, this is a little complicated. Or maybe not! The typeface used for the familiar one-column "A" headline, good old spiky Latin Extra Condensed, is replaced by Cheltenham Bold Extra Condensed. The "decks" beneath the "A" head, previously deadpan and all-business News Gothic, are replaced by Cheltenham Bold Condensed and Cheltenham Medium. For those big multi-column MAN WALKS ON MOON headlines, previously expressing barely-controlled hysteria in Century Bold Italic, think Cheltenham Extrabold Italic. Sober and measured Bookman Antique, used for the more analytical stories, is replaced by...well, you get the idea. Only a single headline style from the previous design will be retained under the new regime. You can guess what it is. That's right, the New York Times is going all Cheltenham, all the time. And just like any proud cosmetic surgeon, the newspaper displays before-and-after examples of the improvements as part of its note to readers.

As one who has often been asked to describe a rationale for a design change to resistant audiences, I found the explanatory note as masterful as the new design itself, which has been years in the making under the stewardship of longtime art director Tom Bodkin. Lest anyone accuse the Times of unbecoming hubris, the redesign is characterized not just as "gentle" but "modest." Enhancing legibility is invoked as a goal (as well as adding a little dramatic heft to the poor "spindly" "A" head) but the clear aim, above all, is consistency. Clients understand (and love) consistency, and the Cheltenham family drawn by Matthew Carter is well suited to this purpose. And to give consistency the air of manifest destiny, the motley ruling coalition of Latin/News Gothic/Century/Bookman is linked to the creaky old "Victorian-era" past, when newspaper typography was composed "on keyboard-operated machines that cast lines of molten metal." Jesus, molten metal? That sounds dangerous! The Times manages to make Cheltenham — designed in 1898! — actually sound bracingly progressive. Thus the paper successfully fulfills that most frustrating common of client briefs: to simultaneously signal modernity and heritage.

And, of course, then follow claims that neither goal is satisfied. A few days later, the paper published two letters; whether they were the only ones received or instead plucked from brimming bins labeled "love it" and "hate it" is anyone's guess. Patrick O'Carroll from Seattle falls hook, line and sinker, congratulating the Times on its "subtly cleaner and sharper look." Martin Beiser from Montclair is grumpier. "You have made bland the quirky persona that made The Times special and given us the typographic equivalent of New Coke," he says, going on to add, "It's the end of the world as we know it."

I don't share the apocalyptic views of Mr. Beiser from Montclair, but I too felt the loss keenly. The peculiar combination of Bookman and Century, Latin Condensed and News Gothic, made for a kind of typographic counterpoint, giving the Times's front page the complexity of a Bach fugue. The logic -- unassailable, really -- of using a single typeface family takes us back to unison plainsong. But like the Emperor in Amadeus, someone at the Times must have thought there were too many notes.

Posted in: Media, Typography

Comments [7]

Great observation. Technical digression: For some reason, when I access your story, I cannot scroll down all the way. I can see little text hidden behind the window and I can't get it. IE6, WinXP.

Readers, just hit refresh-- it's a funny little technical hiccup a lot of css sites get, including a list apart and many MT sites using a standard template.

I'm not sure the fix, but a dig on the MT boards would probably revedal one.

What an eloquent paen to type, btw!

Looking at the new Times reminds me of the New York Sun which uses Font Bureau's cut of Cheltenham for headlines (retiring to the less elegant ITC version for sub-heads). The Sun uses typography and design to create nostalgia for a paper that disappeared 50 years ago and to which it bears no relation. The sanitized old-fashionedness of the design gives the paper just a whiff of authenticity, like old books scattered around a stage set. This seems appropriate for a conservative newspaper that came out of nowhere. The same can not be said for the Times which has an authentic and inspiring connection to the past. The beauty of the former design was that it kept the past current without effort.

Although the design of the Times was clearly not broken, at least the fix was relatively painless. And one thing we can be sure of is that in twenty years another art director will come along and invoke the paper's heritage by reinstating News Gothic and Century Bold Italic - in a thoroughly modern way of course.

I loved the more comprehensive overhaul of the Wall Street Journal. Not sure about this one.

Dispensing with News Gothic (or some sans serif face for subheaders) is a mistake. The difference between header and subheader(s) is made less distinct and, in all caps at small sizes, Cheltenham is less legible than News Gothic.

I wonder how designers at the paper feel about it. I'm imagining a lot of snobbish backroom complaining: "The lowercase x-height is ghastly!" "Now we need four lines for what used to take three!"

Zippy the Pinhead comments on the Times makeover here. Thanks to typographi.ca for the link.
Michael Bierut

Michael, I don't know what's funnier: Zippy the Pinhead's comments or you referencing Zippy the Pinhead...

Does anybody know why? I can't believe that this is really true!
But often the things are not as they seem to be in this coloured world...

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