Why celebrate national day? Because it makes cents!
Halfway into the interview, Design Editor Edric Sng suddenly asks (one of many times) for my thoughts on TODAY’s newspaper design and that is when I fumble. It took me a while, but I remembered another blog’s gripe about how “texty” TODAY looks.
It turns out that the paper is intentionally text-driven, or “grey” for a reason — advertisements. Two-thirds of the newspaper is made up of ads, so rather than compete with ads with colourful visuals that would cut text, Sng says, “It just comes down to the lesser of two evils.” Thus, being grey helps the news to stand out.
Ads play such a big role in this free newspaper’s design because that is its only source of revenue. This is why Sng laughs when he talks about ST’s news design constraints, “You think they have it hard? Nonsense!” he says. Moreover, the paper’s space constraints are further limited by its tabloid-size, but Sng is clear that ads are why he gets paid.
Why TODAY is still in Times New Roman
When Sng led the three month long redesign of TODAY (he takes another swipe at ST for doing theirs in six) the one thing he was not allowed to change was the nameplate. As a fledgling newspaper, it could not afford to undo the branding work for a paper still trying to establish itself. That aside, everything went out of the door as Sng streamlined a paper too thin for too many different styles. He used just three colours of red, black and grey (business section was blue for marketing reasons) and two styles, one for daily and another for the weekend edition.
The redesign’s three guiding concerns were as follows: space constraints, making day-to-day design “idiot proof” and costs. Only two people led the redesign, Sng and his managing editor, and this he says led to a more coherent redesign than ST’s, which even had its nameplate’s typeface changed a day before launch. “We don’t believe in redesign by committee (like ST)… the problem is a lot of people don’t know what they are saying.” he says.
This lack of visual journalism knowledge here is one reason why Sng is considering lecturing when the opportunity arises. Education is how to improve newspaper design here, he says, especially since Singapore newspaper’s editors are mostly “dinosaurs” who only see journalism as text. Sng thinks at least 30 per cent of stories in today’s papers can be in alternative story formats like infographics, though it is the “hardest damm thing” to do too.
Another reason for the lack of innovation in newspaper design here is the lack of impetus with just two media companies. But though the odds seem stacked against improving things here, Sng has, and maybe, embodies the solution. After listening to my gripe about the situation, he says, “What’s the solution? Passion.”
This concludes the two-part interview that The Paginator had with Edric. Read his thoughts on the importance of text to the good design of a newspaper here.
The test for how good a newspaper is, according to TODAY’s Design Editor Edric Sng, is how well it fares in the toilet. The writing must be good enough to sustain a “good long shit” and it has to be comfortable to hold. That is why he prefers the tabloid-size of TODAY, the broadsheet size, he says, is just too cumbersome for a readership that is pressed for time. He recalls how his father started stapling his copy of the broadsheet, The Straits Times (ST) last year. “It’s quite geeky, but it really works.” says the 29-year-old, and so he introduced it to TODAY too.
The former sociology graduate of the National University of Singapore first wet his toes in the media industry when he wrote part-time for Fins Magazine, a local diving magazine. Sng became its Editor even before he graduated but soon got tired of doing everything — writing, editing, designing, marketing — as it was a small magazine. He then applied to be a sub-editor at both ST and TODAY, choosing to join the latter and eventually rising up the be its Design Editor today.
He readily admits his lack of credentials but says, “Do you know why people become newspaper designers? Because they are not good enough to be designers for other media.” For Sng, newspaper designers need to balance editorial with design, “(Our) strength is at least 50 per cent words.” he says.
For someone whose job is mainly to design, Sng spends more than half the time talking about words. He bemoans ST’s headlines. “Our headlines are harder to think of than ST’s headlines. We try to be a bit more clever.” he says as he flips through today’s edition for an example.
Instead, he finds himself muttering page-after-page, “That is a ST headline” and quickly apologises, “We tried to do more last time although we seemed to have gotten quite plowed under by work… who the hell wrote these headlines?” he exclaims. An ST headline, according to Sng, is “straight” as compared to what his 12 subs in TODAY have to come up with, “We like to put sex in our headlines.” he says.
Sng is also worried about the poor writing in Singapore journalism as many writers seem to lack a soul in their articles, and to him, it doesn’t matter how good a design is if the content does not match up. He cites former TODAY writers Clement Mesenas and P N Balji as well as former-ST journalist Cherian George as writers he likes to read.
To him the relationship between text and design is crucial for newspapers, “I think designers should be very much more concious about words than what people normally think.” he explains. “The content, and the sound and style should forge how your paper looks and not the other way around.” This desire to visualise a paper’s “voice” is why TODAY uses certain typefaces and looks this way, “A broadsheet-level respect for readers but with a tabloid finish”, he says.
In the next part of this interview, The Paginator asks Edric about redesigning TODAY and finds out why ST has it easy in news design.