What is it about relaunches and redesigns? Why do newspapers and magazines chase the ‘Golden Fleece’ in this regard? Why do we want to contemporarise and bring up to speed the design quotient without addressing the content side? What is it about newspaper and magazine editors and owners that makes them go in for endless redesigns and relaunches? Questions, questions… Sorry, I don’t have answers to all these posers. But I do have some theories.
Long years ago, I worked at The Illustrated Weekly. Actually it was 20 years ago. I was happy pottering along at the Indian Express in Mumbai till I received a call from one Pritish Nandy. It was the stuff of dreams. In college in Kolkata, my friends and I had followed his writings on Bhagwan Rajneesh, Frank Camper, and Jagjit Singh Chauhan with great interest. When I became a journo joining The Statesman in Kolkata, I aspired to work at The Weekly. I worked for three years at the Express in Mumbai and when Nandy called, it was as if the whole thing was fated.
Working with Pritish Nandy, despite his tantrums, was a pleasure for he taught many of us about the whole ball of wax – writing, making pages, design, fonts, photographs, visuals and graphics, and what have you. It was a fascinating journey, time stopped and one learnt and absorbed on the job. It was an education for a young reporter, who would just hit the keys, type his copy and disappear into the woodwork. But Nandy did not want journos who only wrote or made pages. He wanted a jack of all trades, master of most type.
The quality of a great visual and building a storyline around it was something that only he had a sense and feel for. One morning, he called me into his office and asked me to look at a transparency (TP) of Aamir Khan in a James Dean like posture, shot by Gautam Rajyadaksha. He drew a double spread, planted the visual strategically and ran the legend Cool underneath. Calmly he turned towards me and said that I was going to be writing the cover story. It was as simple as that.
The problem was that while the experience was terrific, there was no stability, for the Times Group was getting rid of the Gravure machine, which meant that the old style Weekly would have to be reformated. And so we went in for a tabloid size, then a broadsheet, some in colour called Elan and most in black and white. The Weekly was dying before my eyes. It was traumatic. Believe me, for a lot of us a part of us was dying before us. It was a complete travesty. Then the whispers began and Bennett in Mumbai used to leak like a sieve. That the Weekly was going to be shut down, that Pritish Nandy was leaving to join the Ambanis and their newspaper project.
Both things turned out to be true. Pritish left first and the Weekly limped around under Anil Dharker and wound up sometime in 1993. During the time that I spent at the Weekly, I saw so many changes – design, shape, size, format, look, feel that I simply lost track of sense and objectivity. It was scary, but one learnt quickly. It is against this backdrop that I view all design changes and relaunches. Always with great trepidation and discomfort.
Over the last couple of weeks, we have seen Hindustan Times go in for yet another redesign and relaunch and on Tuesday we saw The Times of India change its fonts and page one design. Now, I am not sure whether this was a one off because of an important display story – the Kasab confession? In fact, page one of TOI had three vital packages – Kasab, Hillary Clinton and the High Court verdict on Sanjeev Nanda. So, it probably required a different sort of display. It remains to be seen whether TOI will take recourse to new fonts and a change in design after HT has gone in for yet another makeover on a more permanent basis. I doubt very much, because TOI focuses on ramping up content, instead of cosmetic surgery. But that wasn’t the case till a few years back when HT had the edge over TOI as far as content and design were concerned.
Let me add that HT has over the last decade or so been a much better looking paper and it probably didn’t require the latest facelift at all. When HT hit Mumbai, it was by far the best designed and best looking paper. Then why change? I guess there are compulsions to keep the paper looking bright and cheerful in a flood of news telly and the Internet. It is probably vital for newspaper managements to stay ahead of the eighth ball.
Outlook editor Vinod Mehta wrote a scathing piece recently in his diary, which made a lot of sense. He wrote, “Papers and periodicals are being launched almost every month, and while their quality varies, they seem to have one thing in common. They are all designed by a Florida-based designer called Mario Garcia. Dr Garcia is without doubt a world-class professional, but he is costly. Very costly. He charges upwards of Rs 1 crore to lay out a newspaper. And yet there is hardly a new or old daily in the country that has not hired him. I have no quarrel with Dr Garcia; if a foreign designer satisfies the requirements of our publishers, so be it. And yet, there are numerous domestic designers, who understand Indian readers better, waiting in the wings. I myself designed three newspapers with the legendary MG Moinuddin in a matter of weeks for under Rs 20,000.
“Designers have no magic wand. They need to be expertly guided by an editorial team. If you let designers run riot, they will produce a title which could win a design award, but will be probably a publishing disaster. One can construct a beautiful-looking newspaper, which is a puzzle for the reader. My own conviction is that editorial must lead design, and not the other way round.” How true and succinctly captured by a former Sunday Observer editor, who those days had a flair for design.
My sense is that newspapers are not putting premium on news and content, but instead are pursuing trifles. The centrifuge of a great paper remains content. That was the genius of Hindustan Times, it packaged all the ingredients effectively and efficiently. At the Sunday Observer, where I worked as Pritish’s deputy, there was constant experimentation and tinkering. It was deja vu for me. For I had just come out of a design school called the Weekly. Crikey, not again! was my constant refrain. Yes, there was good solid content, too, at SO, but readers begin to lose interest when too much is seen to be happening in a newspaper. A settled look and feel is something that you want to wake up to in a world where chaos is the norm. That is why a newspaper is a habit.
Men like Garcia are running sweatshops and charging the earth, when we have enough reliable hands back home. I agree with Mehta when he says that editorial must lead design and not vice versa. Hindustan Times was a great place to work in because editorial was sacrosanct and the proprietor never brooked any sort of interference and allowed all of us to do our job, backing us to the hilt in the process.
(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist, who started his career as a stringer with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi. In late 2008, he joined three old friends to launch a start-up – Sportzpower Network – which combines his two passions of business and sport. Familiar with all four media – print, television, Internet and radio, Bamzai is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir. The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)