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A Page of Newspaper Headlines

from September 2007
This is part of my pages on Typeface or Font Readability. A good place to look for real practical evidence on the readability of fonts is the newspapers.
There’s a real-world readability experiment taking place every day, where newspapers, and especially newspapers aimed at the less erudite readership, fight to grab people’s attention. And if a front page is in any way hard to read, you can be sure that few are going to bother to read it. (See also my page on Newspaper Typography Strategies.)
The Guardian newspaper in the UK, on 7th September 2007, published across its centre spread a selection of front pages from different UK newspapers, all on a single topic: the disappearance in Portugal of an English child. The centre spread looked something like this:
There are some consistencies in approach among the different publications to be seen here.
1. The high-brow and middle-brow papers all use a black-ink serif font for news headlines.
(High-brow includes The Independent, The Telegraph, The Times and The Guardian, middle-brow includes the Daily Mail, Daily Express and London Evening Standard)
The Daily Mail and the Daily Express, ie what I’m calling the middle-brow papers, use a serif font for the main news headline, though often a sans-serif font for other headlines. This is very clear on the Daily Express example to the right, you can also see it on the Daily Mail sample on the main spread, alongside the picture of Cherie Blair. This is consistent with the market positioning of these papers, which present a simple, quick-bite technique in their typography to people who would regard themselves as non-intellectual, but thinking and intelligent. (I think that’s a fair analysis – tell me if you think I’m wrong). Though, looking at the banner at the head of the Daily Express example, where it says, ‘Free Sweets’, you do wonder, but anyway . . .
2. The low-brow papers all use a sans-serif font for front-page headlines. This may be in:
black on white
white on black
or a bordered typeface where the background varies from light to dark, for example:
The Daily Mirror does this quite a lot, where the text has a border round it so it stays readable over both a light and a dark background. And it is perfectly readable, clearly it must be even by those of low-to-moderate literary accomplishment. So there you are, is it easier to read black text on white or white text on black? What was the question again?
The lowish-brow Scottish Daily Record has an interesting typeface as part of its headline. Not sure what to make of this from a readability point of view. Certainly challenges those theories about Arial and Comic Sans doesn’t it?
Notice that the middle- to low-brow papers all use quite a condensed font for their headlines. In some guidelines it tells you to avoid using a condensed font for low-ability readers, but then they’re guidelines, we don’t need to take any notice of them, the low-brows wouldn’t succeed if they were difficult to read.
The broadsheets, by contrast, have their serif headlines in a much less condensed font, this is especially true of The Guardian I think. Mainly this will be because they don’t need to condense quite so much, perhaps, though if you look at the sub-heads on the Daily Express example, above, and at the Cherie Blair headline in the Daily Mail example in the main spread, they’re quite condensed yet of a similar sort of height to a headline in a broadsheet.
So what are we to learn from all this? That less-accomplished readers read a sans-serif headline more easily than they would a serif one? And a condensed font more easily than non-condensed? And highbrow readers the reverse? It’s possible, though I wouldn’t be too sure of that, especially given all the quirkiness and jumble shown by the more popular papers, I’d be more inclined to suspect straightforward style and fashion.
If you look at the display of front pages as a whole, there’s a general consistency about them. It’s a mass of red and black. Black and white and red all over, like what we know the definition of a newspaper is. Nothing deviates far from a general norm.
We need to remember always, though, that these examples come from a snapshot in 2007. Techniques will change as time goes by.
But apart from and addition to this, the strongest message that comes through, particularly taking into consideration all those ads for giveaways etc that fill the edges of the pages especially of the red-tops, must be something that backs-up the research from the University of Reading about child-friendly typefaces (see my Typeface Readability page): it’s that people, all people of all ages and levels of ability, are used to seeing around them such a variety of typefaces, that they don’t have much trouble reading most of them. More, the trick is to break up the text into small bites, so nothing looks too daunting for the assumed intellectual level of the readership.
Next page in this set: Newspaper Titles .


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