Tag: The Straits Times

TODAY redesigns for the information age

Cover of the first redesigned issue on 28 May.
Cover of the first redesigned issue on 28 May.

Just 10 days after The Straits Times unveiled their redesign at the end of May, TODAY announced they had spent the last nine months undergoing a redesign led by internationally-acclaimed newspaper designers DaniloBlack. I recently caught up with TODAY’s night editor Razali Abdullah to find out what went on behind-the-scenes.

What prompted this redesign?
It’s been three years since the last redesign, and it seems like a long time. In the last three years, a lot of things have happened. The way people consume news has changed, more people now are reading news from their smartphones and mobile devices than three years ago. And three years ago, the iPad wasn’t born! For us, it wasn’t just about changing the look and feel, but also the content. We wanted to re-engage our readers and attract new ones. The redesign is more than just an overhaul of the look, we wanted to relook the way we produce content. We needed new tools to showcase new content.

What are some of the main changes in this redesign?
First we have the floating column — the white space between stories that also serves as a place where we can put value adds to stories. This design element is a tool for us to include nuggets of information. This device forces our sub-editors to think of what to fill it with.

We also have new sections such as “Youth”, “Education”, “Silver” and even “China & India”. Having these sections ensure that we constantly have content dedicated to these segments.

Cover of “T”, the culture and lifestyle section of TODAY.

We have different colour schemes for different sections. And the new suite of colours that the designers have come up with is very refreshing.

A lot of readers also said they couldn’t find our sports pages, so we added a green background to differentiate the section. Plus headlines in sports are now in uppercase, which adds to the drama and the emotion that sports stories bring.

The body text has also been increased by a point because we have received feedback that it was too small in the old design.

Of course, the biggest change is in the masthead, for both the main paper as well as the “T” section.

We used to divide the paper into eight columns, it is now nine to give us the floating column. As our ad sizes have stayed the same, this means there is also more white space between ads and editorials, which reduces clutter and helps readers navigate through the paper better.

Does this mean TODAY will no longer do innovative ads that intrude into editorial?
We will still do creative advertising, where advertisers who want association with certain types of content can buy into the environment.

What were some issues with the previous design?
We wanted the new design to take the paper forward. We wanted devices that can serve as a window to cyberspace, so we now have boxed elements about what’s trending and what’s hot in cyberspace. Knowing that space for stories will be less, we needed new tools to flesh out various points in the story. So the reader has various entry points, as not every information is contained in the story. The old design didn’t have such tools.

One thing about the floating column is it gives readers a lot of breathing room, something the old design didn’t have. In the past, we tried to cramp too much into the space we had, often at the expense of pictures and infographics. There was a reluctance to cut text and you could see it in the old paper. Design wasn’t really a key thing then.

A photo essay in the Sports section of TODAY about Singapore Olympic weighlifter Helena Wong.

With the addition of the floating column and more white space, did you have to sacrifice the number of stories as well as their length?

Yes, the stories have become shorter but readers get more bite-sized information in the sidebars and info boxes. We have fewer stories but the trade-off is the quality of the stories has gone up as only the best ones will make it. The story selection is tighter now.Also, there is more real estate for photos. A common gripe from our photographers in the past was they would shoot an event, but we’ll crop their picture into a face cut. That doesn’t happen anymore.

Did you consider becoming a bigger paper to fit the design and the content?
I think the advertisement ratio is very important because it keeps us profitable. It’s what has kept us afloat. We broke even in four years, which is very rare if you look at newspapers around the world. If we open up more pages or become bigger, it means the paper’s ad ratio will drop.

What were some of the main guiding principles in this redesign?
We wanted it to be more reader-friendly. It’s got to be easy on the eyes. I wasn’t involved in the initial discussions. My involvement began when DaniloBlack came back to us with two sets of designs. That was when the editors picked the elements they liked from each design and we reached some sort of compromise. One of the designs was more contemporary, while the other was more cutting edge. The final design is a nice blend between the two.

Why work with DaniloBlack? How was the experience?
We wanted to freshen the paper up, we needed a design that will tie all our products together — newspaper, mobile app and website — and DaniloBlack is perfect for this. They don’t just do print design. They design apps for tablets and all kinds of digital applications for some of the world’s biggest papers.

It was overall a great experience. They were very accommodating and understood our needs and were able to come up with solutions to our problems. We worked via Basecamp, they would send us PDFs of what they had done and we would revert with our comments every week or so. The final month before the launch, it became more intensive because we started to test the designs with real content, and real ads. It took about nine months in total.

Besides design, what else has changed about the paper?
The approach for the stories has changed. Because of how fresh the paper looks now, we can’t rely on the old way of doing things. A big challenge for us is competition from online sources, people are now getting their stories from everywhere. What are we doing so different that readers will come back to us? It’s the thinking behind the news selection, and how to take stories forward.

Was your redesign also reacting against your competitor, The Straits Times?
It’s not just about The Straits Times, but also about how news consumption has changed. You can get news from anywhere, what we try to do is to find our unique selling point. The old thinking was that we could not miss any stories that were published elsewhere. Now it’s not so much about missing stories, but do we have a better story?

In the last redesign, the masthead/nameplate set in Times New Roman was one element that could not be changed. Why the change of heart?
We wanted a total overhaul, so we basically told them there were no sacred cows. We wanted something fresh that could tie the whole paper together. So you see the stripes in the background of the masthead, those appear in our “Business” pages too.

TODAY’s previous logo since its establishment in 2000 (left) and its new logo (right).

Do you think the new sections are unnecessary? Some of them are just one- or two-pages.
We feel that some segments deserve a section of their own. The youth, for example, many of them are doing good things, coming up with good initiatives, that don’t get highlighted enough because they’re competing with hard news stories. The “China & India” section is also crucial because people are looking at these two emerging economies very closely — whatever happens there tend to have an impact on the rest of the world. In terms of advertising, it is crucial for us. Some advertisers want to be associated with certain sections, so we try to give advertisers a wide spread.

What is one element about the redesign you like to highlight?
For me, it’s the way information is being presented now. You don’t have to read the entire story to be able to pick out the key facts and figures: Those you would find in the sidebars, or presented as bullet points, or in the info boxes in the floating columns. We are doing a lot more value adds: Adding video links, web links to stories, providing background information to stories. It’s a refreshing change from the past where we tried to cramp everything into the main copy. For someone who comes from a design background, these are exciting times. I hope the readers like it.

Straits Times 2012 Redesign: More blue, less fuss

The Straits Times (ST) unveiled a new look last week, the second time it has redesigned within a period of just four years. The 167-year old paper overhauled its look back in 2008, but unlike the previous change where it cited the need to stay attractive as it faced pressure from the Internet, this latest redesign seems to be at the orders of its new editor Warren Fernandez, who took over  from Han Fook Kwang in February. Fernandez gave the in-house design team just six weeks to create a new look that was “more modern and contemporary”.

The result is a much cleaner-looking paper that does away with much of the fussy elements in its previous design such as special motifs for its bylines and coloured dividers. The section headers and liveries have also been reduced significant and simplified, probably to give more space for editorial and advertisements. Overall, the paper has adopted a more muted colour palette. The colour red, especially, has been dropped, and even when retained, is of a darker shade. This is probably to distinguish itself from its rival in the Singapore newspaper market TODAY, whose corporate colour is red. ST will instead be a pre-dominantly “blue” paper.

ST 2012 cover

The 2012 front page.

Another significant change is the paper’s return to a six-column grid like in its 2004 redesign. It’s also a format that its weekend edition The Sunday Times has had, which probably simplifies life for the designers. Also marking a return is a new section “The News in 5 Minutes”. Such an attempt to provide a quick overview of the news came in the form of “In Summary” in the ’80s and “News Flash” in the ’90s.

Perhaps the biggest, but also the least inspiring change, is the paper’s masthead. It’s the third time it has changed its look since 2004, a frequency which some may see as a clear lack of an identity. The latest masthead design uses a typeface that looks like it is harking back to the 1970s when it was typeset in Bodoni. That design stayed for over three decades before this cyclical masthead revamp began.

Masthead (2012)

Masthead (1973)

As a whole, there has been very little change in this redesign. If anything, the redesign seems more like an effort to shore up its brand colour and an opportunity for the new management to reach out to advertisers. After all, that’s what most redesigns are really about, an effort to stay attractive as an advertising platform. It’s why when there was a preview for the latest design, it was the advertising agencies and media professionals who were invited, and it was their positive views that were broadcasted when you read the new look ST the next morning.

For a more detailed examination of ST’s newspaper design since 1959, do check out this article I wrote for The Design Society Journal two years back.

CORRECTION: I had incorrectly said that the current masthead is typeset in Bodoni, so I’ve changed that bit. But I still don’t know what typeface it is.

The Possibilities of Visual Culture in S’pore

This is a speech I gave at the launch party of POSKOD.SG, an online magazine about modern Singapore. Thanks to the team for hosting my writing in the last few months and giving me this opportunity to write a speech that summarises what I’ve learnt about this city in the last two years of my life.

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P.ARTY Talks: Justin Zhuang on The Possibilities of Visual Culture in Singapore from POSKOD.SG on Vimeo.

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I’m a writer, and writing is how I share my curiosity about a city’s visual culture.

Generally speaking, visual culture refers to a study of the things you can see around us, ranging from the patten on your clothes, to a street sign and the form of an entire building.

What interests me about visual culture is:

  • it’s beautiful to look
  • it’s an everyday encounter, you can’t escape it.
  • but most importantly, I’m interested in what does it says about us as a society

So some of the things that I’ve written about include why the Straits Times looks so dull, the evolution of our public transport signage system and how you could tell the recent General Election was a watershed one just by looking at the posters, pamphlets and souvenirs created.

What I’m going to talk about…

About a month ago, POSKOD.SG invited me to speak at this launch party. It just so happened that I was to be visiting Nepal for the first time. I would like to have said that I was inspired by a climb up to the mountains, but sadly or not, I spent most of my time in its capital city Kathmandu. The almost two weeks in somewhere foreign, and away from Singapore, helped me re-examine how visual culture shapes my experience in my home city.

So I’ll like to tell you about new visual possibilities in Singapore inspired by my experience in Nepal. Before I go on, I like to say that this vision I’m outlining cannot completely escape a certain romanticisation. But, I’m not interested in creating a Nepal in Singapore, but rather bits of the wonderful experience I had in a city.

And, in the spirit of POSKOD.SG, I’ve broken it down to three main observations: people, places and phenomenoa.

People

I met a photographer at Nepal who told me the newly-elected government there planned to divide the country into regions so the different ethnic groups could govern on their own. But she didn’t agree that Nepals could be so neatly categorised, so she started a photography project to counter this idea that Nepalis could be cleanly divided into separate ethnicities..

This got me thinking: who was a Nepali? And just by looking around the city, it was really hard to tell. This is unlike Singapore where I just have to look at the National Day banners along the street and I’m presented with who is a Singaporean: the formulaic four people of different races: Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others (Usually Eurasian-looking).

This is a visual representation of the CMIO-model, a reflection that Singapore society is multicultural and all races are equal. But this model also pigeonholes each one of us, and cuts our deeper ties as the descendants of a Hainanese, Javanese or Punjabi. It’s not just the past that we are alienated from, but the CMIO model prevents the possibilities of an evolving society. With the sudden influx of foreigners in the last few years, we suddenly have to distinguish between a Singaporean Indian and an India Indian, and we’ve even introduced hyphenated races because an increasing number of mixed marriages.

So, a question I have is what will a National Day banner look like 50 years from now? How will we represent Singaporeans visually? I think if we’re a truly multicultural society then I’ll say we have to abandon any grand ideas that we can. And maybe that’s okay, because I feel that with the CMIO, it’s like a multiple-choice society instead of an open ended one.

Places

As a less developed city, Kathmandu lacks the grandeur and bright lights that Singapore has, and is full of what we might call traditional architecture. Buildings are just two or three-stories high, similar-looking, and so many of the streets look identical. It doesn’t help that most areas only have a general name and there are many, many small streets within without. In a sense, Kathmandu is clearly a place where the streets have no names. And unlike Singapore, there is a lack of urban planning and order. Residential and retail are all mixed up, homes and shops are side-by-side or one and the same. Once, I even ate dinner at a restaurant which was also the dining area of someone’s home.

But rather than say the city was poorly designed and ugly, I would say it wasn’t designed to be seen. While in Singapore we obsess with whether our architecture and designs are iconic, in a relatively “un-designed” Kathmandu, I started paying more attention to what was happening in and around the spaces. Instead of being in awe at how tall a building might go, I spied a family watching television on their second floor home. Instead of admiring beautiful furniture, I sat on aged chairs and enjoyed wonderful dinner and drinking milky chai.

Sure, Singapore looks visually stunning with its skyscrapers and designer architecture, but all this can only be admired from a distance between you and the city. What happens when you are living inside it? Is our city experience distracted by visual forms that keep us apart as people? With the financial power and abilities to pay for design and architecture, it’s almost as if we’ve built a city where we cocoon ourselves with our own images so that we don’t have to look at anything, or anyone else.

The Nepalis I met expressed their admiration for Singapore as a city, so I wonder if all Singaporeans moved into Kathmandu, will it help make it a Singapore city? Probably not. I suspect people love Singapore not so much because of who lives in it, but what it is: a dazzling metropolis, clean, and green — a perfect destination and model city to visit.

But do these visual attractions make Singapore a home? Do you feel at home living in this city? I find it hard to say with pride that Singapore is my home. We spend more time and money looking after our city rather than one another. The city has to be kept so clean and orderly that we would rather not use it, and we spend millions of dollars branding and building images of a vibrant and global city, instead of helping Singaporeans nurture one.

Phenomena

Finally, how do people navigate a seemingly chaotic Kathmandu? My friend described to me how he delivered invitations in the city. Remember, Kathmandu is where the streets have no name? Well, the houses often have no addresses too. To find out where someone lives, my friend needs to walk up to a perfect stranger to ask for directions. If they knew, they would point you to it, if not, they’ll find someone who would. At times, these conversations even become long tea sessions!

Sure, it’s less efficient and slower without a well-designed street system, fanciful street signage, and Google maps. But without all these designed visual culture, we end up relying more on one another. The lack of precision makes the city more interactive not only between people, but you and the city. You can’t fall back on visual aids, but you need to notice and remember details like what a store is next to, or have a personal memory inscribed to it. It’s like how you might tell people where Goodman Arts Centre is: near Old Airport Road, where the old Lasalle is.

So how can we actually create a more interactive Singapore? If you look around, the present and future city is clearly visible around us. The road signs tell you where a place is, and construction sites are plastered with what the new condominium will look like when completed. But what about Singapore’s past and heritage? We have an odd marker here and there that tells us the historical importance of a site, but it’s in each of us that a piece of personal memory is held, and collectively, it’s these memories that give life to a space.

But in order to unlock these memories, we need to be talking to one another, and it seems to me, that without the mediums of design and architecture as practiced here, people become more sensitive to the city. When solutions are not readily planned and designed for them, we talk to one another to figure things out, and its these conversations that are like archaeological digs, where the layers of a place unravel onto a single plane.

Visualising a city of possibilities

My trip to Nepal has led me to arrive at this conclusion: Everyone sees their own Nepal. Because of how chaotic and open it is, people find their own way to live in it. Their personal vision of what their city looks like, and how to map it is so much stronger.

Over here, we easily fall into the city that has been designed and planned with a certain order in mind. Want to cross the road? Look out for the traffic lights. While there is a level of comfort not having to constantly zig-zag traffic just to get across the road, it also lulls each of us into a certain robotic-ness. You don’t think as much as you should, you just follow the signs and paths drawn out in the city for you.

Maybe what Singapore needs is to aim for imperfection, loosen up and let things run a little wild. Not every piece of empty land needs a sign to remind us that it is owned by the state, not every street has to be named by committee, and not every house has to celebrate National Day by hanging out the state flag, how about letting us redesign it?

Again, I like to say that my observations are not about saying which is a better city, but I think even as we might be happy and comfortable living in modern Singapore, let’s not forget there are other possibilities that this city could take. After all, as Singapore Tourism Board likes to proclaim to the world, this is YourSingapore, go out there and make it your own.

Thank you.