Saturday, August 8, 2009

Look and Feel

I’m told that, the head honcho of a newspaper house – which has re-launched their flagship paper with a brand-new design - has gone on record to say that, “it (the new design) is as best as it can get”. I have no intention of taking him on that point - not b'coz he is known to take serious umbrage at even mildly critical comments in inconsequential bolgs such as this one, but because I - for one - genuinely like the new design ( tho’ I have heard mischievous critics quip, “it is “DNA four years too late”). But for me what’s more interesting to debate – is that eternal question of form (design) vs. content.

Surely look matters. Especially on first appearance. And, beauty is certainly not necessarily only skin deep when it comes to a ‘thought product’ like a newspaper. Great content can be made to look even more attractive by intelligent packaging and ease of navigation is sure to please even an old school die-hard reader.

I believe research indicates that, in a digital age – a newspaper even in its printed form must have a digital look and feel – especially if it wishes to attract new (and obviously) younger readers. And, Garcia is a master of 'digital' design. So far, so good. But, how does an older paper go about re-inventing itself for a younger audience.

The challenge to my mind is not about ‘turning off’ older readers by replacing a layout which they had gotten used to over the years with a new snazzy layout that can appear to be too much of a discontinuous change. The fears on this score – I think – are grossly overstated. But, for a ‘digital design’ to really work – one has to also re-engineer and completely over-haul the content – almost to the point of changing its DNA (no pun intended). It is here many publications fall-flat – because the risks of alienating the traditional readers are too high. And without doing much to the content, changes in design remain largely ‘cosmetic’.

New publications have a clear advantage here. They have the luxury, as it were, to marry content with design – to have a total offering that also reflects the personality of the paper. And, if the 2 (content and design can match up to each other – you do have a winning proposition. In the near past, MINT did this masterfully and DNA too was very successful in its attempt to differentiate with existing products. The Telegraph and Asian Age had done it in their own times. More recently, Forbes India has worked hard at doing the same in the Business Magazines genre and, in it's own modest way, OPEN can be another good example (tho’ I am yet unsure about its chances of commercial success).

MINT went a step further. It was planned truly as a multi-media offering for the future and its design and content delivery seamlessly transitioned across platforms – print, web, phone and even video-steaming.

But, only too often – do we have a new offering in the market – which looks smart but fail to deliver on its content.

The job is decidedly tougher for an existing newspaper – especially the larger and more established ones. Here, I liked the ToI formula – which follows, I suspect, the more classical (and, perhaps, conservative) route. Both for ToI and ET – they first went about incrementally and imperceptibly changing the content (which – detractors popularly called “dumbing down”) and then tinkered with the design. So, when DNA and HT were launched in Mumbai – ToI’s response was not to the drawing board and a new designer – but, instead, they invested heavily on content to make it – arguably – the best newspaper in the country. The same was, I believe, the brief of The Hindu to Garcia when he came to work on it a few years ago. But, then there are also wagging tongues – who say that these are also the 2 terribly designed newspapers in the country.

Even the staid Deccan Herald and the New Indian Express (down South) have also tried a change of wardrobe – but I’m not sure what it has done to their circulation and readership numbers.

Change with continuity seems to be the name of the game. It is surprising how many publications tend to clone their print format even in the digital (web) rendition. There must be some logic to that as well.