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Newspaper Typography Strategies

The Real-World Evidence Base
See an analysis of the use of newspaper headlines on a single topic, on my Newspaper Headlines page.
This is part of my pages on Typeface or Font Readability. In the use of font readability for people with limited reading skills, the red-top tabloid newspapers are probably more practised than anyone, and they are pretty much united worldwide in what they do:
never mind the eggheads, what’s the real world out there doing?

1. Serif fonts for close-set blocks of text.

2. Sans-serif fonts, usually, for large headlines.

3. Sans-serif or serif fonts for airy (ie not close-set) sections of text.

4. Break up the page by using a variety of font sizes, font weights, and capitalisation for different readability focus-points on the page.

5. Use fonts that have strong ascenders and descenders.

6. Use fonts with clearly-identifiable letter shapes.  eg ‘a’ rather than ‘a ’, ‘g’ rather than ‘g

7. Use ‘fancy’ fonts very sparingly and only for occasional quirky effect.

Different newspapers have different house standards for the exact typefaces and layouts they use.
If you look at the way The Daily Mail in the UK uses typefaces you could think that the typographers have been to the pub before work – that’s if you believe what you’ve been told when you went on that expert’s training course, and they said you must use no more than one or two fonts on a page. The Mail uses a number of fonts, some serif, some block serif, some sans-serif, and it doesn’t strictly allocate them to headings, text or sections. Possibly the only ‘rule’ it sticks to is to use a Roman serif font in multi-column blocks of text. You need to remember that the Mail is Britain’s second biggest selling newspaper, and they wouldn’t be using amateurs to do their typography. What they’re actually doing is using the different typefaces to break up the page and separate out each little paragraph-bite, to grab the reader’s attention. The overall page may look a bit dense and impure to some, but it does its job, which is to look like a serious newspaper for people who’d regard themselves as serious, while at the same time presenting in sensationalist soundbites – very clever. Next time someone tells you that this or that font is categorically the easiest to read, buy them a copy of the Daily Mail and ask them, are five million-odd of the great British population complaining? (ie about not being able to read their newspaper, we know they’re complaining, but not about that). Then when you’ve done that, you can use it to whack them on the head.
Or take a look at the UK newspaper, The Sun. The Sun is famous for being aimed at a low-reading-age reader. What typefaces do they use? The Sun currently (2009) uses a serif news Gothic font for body text, and two main fonts for headlines, both sans-serif, one with a high variation in stroke width, and the other of more uniform width, which is sometimes in italic capitals to break up the page-look a bit. What! italic capitals for low-ability readers? Yeah, course, don’t you believe what those experts tell you, take a look at The Sun (if you can bear to?)(or should that be bare to?)(no, no, bear to, even though it is The Sun).
See an analysis of the use of newspaper titles in stylised Old English fonts, on my Newspaper Titles page. That page shows some fonts with complex letter shapes, that many people see on most days and certainly don’t complain they’re hard to read.
Fashion plays a big part in newspaper design. The change of house style by The Guardian newspaper in September 2005 gives some insight into this, and you can read my observations on this on my Guardian 2005 page.
There’s a website about newspaper design at www.newsdesigner.com
A history of typography
There are references to articles on the history of typography at http://www.typeculture.com/academic_resource/research_directory/?L2=tcrd2_45#tc_2, which will be worth following-up if you think that this or that font is the easiest to read.
Next page in this set: A Page of Newspaper Headlines .

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