No. 10: Is the best design really outside the U.S.?

Each year we take the last few days of December to look back on the news design year that was. It’s been a crazy time for our craft and the industry, so take the trek with us over the next 10 days as we recount the biggest moments in a year filled with extraordinary change.

No. 10 – Is all the best design really outside the U.S.?

It has been nearly four years since there was a World’s Best-Designed Newspaper™ from the United States. In this decade, in fact, there have been only three U.S. recipients of the highest honor in newspaper design. Which begs the question: Is the best design happening outside America?

The newspapers that have been awarded in recent years are both a global who’s who of the design world and newcomers just bursting onto the scene. So much for thinking the fix is in.

To be fair, American papers do very well in the general competition, taking home a high percentage of awards for individual pieces of work. Yet that top award for the overall design of a publication appears curiously out of reach.

What has happened around the world that’s not happening in the U.S.?

Avid watchers of the global design scene point to an increasing experimentation with new formats as one reason for success. Many of the papers that have been honored are compacts, either tabloid or Berliner size, which offer unique design canvasses that break free of the mold in ways both beautiful and utilitarian.

The following video explains what the judges who chose 2007’s World’s Best™ were seeking when they awarded four papers with the coveted prize…

A look at the recent winners

The Guardian, London’s free-wheeling left voice, successfully made the break from broadsheet in 2005. It’s been honored twice as World’s Best since then. The paper’s use of color, strong sense of grid, and ability to surprise in risk-taking illustration and graphics has garnered The Guardian a new perch at the top of the newspaper design food chain.

The start-up Spanish financial daily, El Economista, also a small format paper, gorgeously used color and illustration to make its way onto the list. This year, Akzia in Russian and Expresso from Portugual were small-sized papers that won the big award.

That format change is something newspaper executives stateside have been unwilling to chance because of longtime ties to the broadsheet, especially for advertising. Ask many a top U.S. editor why she’s not yet taken her paper compact and the answer you will get is this: We just can’t risk the revenue.

Broadsheet can’t be the only thing holding back U.S. papers from taking the top award, can it? After all, there are several scrappy tabloids in the U.S. doing some very interesting design.

And if you look to larger format newspapers like Die Zeit and Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, which have been awarded World’s Best multiple times in recent years, the answer points to something more systemic.

What does it take?

Jurors through the years have talked about an overall consistency and an adherence to design principles throughout each winning newspaper, an awareness of voice and tone that helps to permeate a publication and leave a lasting mark of identity. The attention to interior pages has often been cited as something noticeably absent from American papers, as well.

And, time and again, the World’s Best™ judging panel, which changes from year to year, has asked that U.S. newspapers be more bold in presentation, more daring in the chances they will take, and more sophisticated in their choices.

As the judges who chose the 29th Edition’s best said: “If print is dead, it’s a pretty live corpse.” Well, at least around the world.

What will happen for the 30th Edition of The Best of Newspaper Design™ when a new set of judges looks back on 2008? It’s anyone’s guess, especially with so many U.S. newspapers overhauling their designs in the last year. Stay tuned when the judging panel convenes in February at Syracuse University.

• Coming next > No. 9: Untangling the migration to mobile


Resources

The Best of Newspaper Design™ site on snd.org

The 2008 Call for Entries

Coverage of the 29th Edition of The Best of Newspaper Design™

Coverage of the 28th Edition of The Best of Newspaper Design™

Matt Mansfield is vice president of the Society and an associate professor for the Medill School of Journalism.