Behind the World’s Best Designed: Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

For the fifth time since 2002, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung was awarded the prize for the “World’s Best-Designed Newspaper” by the Society for News Design. With this the F.A.S. – as it is abbreviated – ranks among those newspapers which over and over gain high levels of recognition in the world of international news design. The F.A.S. is designed by Peter Breul ­– art director and head of a team of five permanent designers and 18 freelance illustrators.

Peter Breul (born 1954) stands in the tradition of outstanding German art directors and designers. Having graduated from high school and having studied with the renowned book and magazine designer Willy Fleckhaus, Breul gained his first experiences as a designer in various publishing houses and agencies. In 1986 Breul started working as a graphic designer for the legendary F.A.Z.-Magazin (the magazine of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung). In 1994 he took over as art director.

As art director he has been responsible for the high level of design for the F.A.S. ever since its first issue in 2001. Together with his team he succeeds in the accurate typographic visualization of the editorial concept. Every week they tackle the challenge to creatively transform “background coverage, courageous opinion, enlightening interviews, knowledgeable portraits, delightful gossip and valuable advice”.

What is his secret? How can it be that an art director works so consequently and constantly on such a high level? Something cannot be quite right here, or maybe it can?

Breul welcomes me for our interview in his office in the editorial building of the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung. Here the SND trophies of the previous years are glistening in the sun that is falling through the windows. There are – by the way – not only SND Awards: also elsewhere his work is honored. His work is exceedingly appreciated in the world of news design.

Mr. Breul, you have won very many design awards – this year the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung was  nominated “World’s Best-Designed Newspaper“ for the fifth time in a row. Can you tell me, what is your secret for success? 

I don’t know whether it is such a big secret. We just approach matters with the due sincerity and enjoy our work immensely. It is important to work in a team in which you have an atmosphere of mutual trust. The journalistic colleagues know exactly that they are in good hands when they come to us.

And what are the standards you aspire to in your daily work as far as design and vision are concerned?

A vision? Frankly speaking, I don’t see myself as a visionary and if so only for very limited areas. Of course I am highly ambitious when it comes to my own standard of design and those of my colleagues – and I do question this standard over and over again.

For this you have to review your own work and that of the others critically. But this is the only way to improve yourself and to reach an acceptable result.

Do you already have the reader in mind then?

We respect the reader. And we know exactly that we owe him: quality ­– both as far as the content is concerned and as far as the design is concerned – quality of the pictures, the illustrations and the texts. This is what we have committed ourselves to. But we don’t make a newspaper looking at what the reader might like to have; Sunday after Sunday we take a gamble and hope that the reader will play along, that s/he will get involved and will enjoy it. And I believe that we have managed quite well in those past ten years. In reality, this is the secret behind the success of the F.A.S..

That means you make an offer, which interested people take up, but you don’t try to follow a trend?

Exactly. I want to give you an example: It is rather astonishing to see how many newspapers reported on the burnout syndrome almost simultaneously. Some colleagues had asked themselves which topics were in the air and what our readers could want from us. This indeed I see as a wrong approach.

You would like to set trends then?

The word “trends“ is not quite it. We want to place topics!

To come back to the aspect of standards again. What standards do you aspire to when it comes to the creative design of these topics?

I want to do justice to the topic – in how it is visualized, designed, the illustration. First of all, I don’t just have the esthetic design in mind, I expect myself to understand the topic – its deeper concerns. Only then the layout is generated. And it always has to match the topic. I cannot create a funny layout for a deadly serious story or the other way round. The topic and the pictures set the tone for the creative design. The illustrations tell me how they want to be placed on the page – whether they want to have much space or just be a small and so on. Not I decide how they should be placed on the page, the illustrations have to tell me themselves.

Pardon?!

And when they don’t they are bad illustrations! (Peter Breul smiles).

Does that mean that one cannot make anything out of bad material?

I can of course turn bad material into a shapely layout, but it will not really be convincing.  Of course we have given material – pictures to which the news itself is of primary importance. However, it is generally true that one has to place top priority on visualization: which pictures I choose – which illustrators I appoint – which illustrations I will choose in the end. Do I commission studio pictures? All this I have to think through in detail in order to procure the best possible material.

Does that turn your job into a creative process? You have got the topic and then it is ready, steady, go?

It is not just me when it comes to the realization. We have an extremely good photography department. The colleagues there understand precisely what has to be done. First, I give the illustrators entire freedom. Sometimes, when we have a more difficult topic – like for instance financial topics – I ask for feedback from the writers.

Who decides the layout? Do you present it to somebody or is what you say the law then?

That depends. When I can be sure that the topic has been understood entirely, I can assess whether the illustration and the design work. Then I decide. If I have not grasped the topic entirely or when the topic is rather complex, then I need the help of the editorial department and the writers and then we start asking questions again, discussing and shifting perspectives.

Where do your ideas come from? What inspires you?

Sometimes, I myself don’t know what exactly inspires me. I think a lot about the topic. This takes some time. And I take as much time as it needs and is possible to familiarize myself with the topic. I believe I work towards this inspiration. It doesn’t appear from nowhere. Instead it takes contemplation, lateral thinking, experimenting. I just have to try things out and do them in order to see if it is coherent, fits and makes sense.  And again and again I have to ask myself anew: Is it good or bad, what I’m doing here? Does the creation pay tribute to the topic?

Does that mean that your creativity has got lots to do with understanding and intellectually penetrating the topic? Would you say that this could be an advice for young professionals and students? To understand the subject matter and – to formulate it a bit more provocatively – to act against superficiality?  Only by understanding the world good design can emerge …

Understanding the world I wouldn’t argue, but understanding the topic in question, the subject matter in any case. It is not enough to have a chic design to put around it. It can be that you are lucky and everything looks good, but I think in the course of time you develop a feel of whether somebody really tackles a topic.

How do you view the profession of a newspaper designer? Does a newspaper designer have to be political? Are you a political person?

I’m – by all means – political. But I don’t believe that newspaper designers have to be political. S/he has to have an interest in politics, economics, business administration and all matters relevant to our society. S/he has to have a deep understanding of the topics we want to print for Sunday.

The SND jury is full of praise in its statement and speak of “excellent portrait photography, superb photo editing, brilliantly crafted illustrations”. In short: “some of the world’s most high-end newspapers.” The F.A.S. is even said to have humor. It looks as if you were producing a perfect newspaper. Is there anything which should be made better?

Yes, basically in every edition. I don’t mean this to be in general, but in every edition there are pages where – with hindsight – I would say we could have made it better – should have made it better. That is probably the price of the sheer volume of a newspaper and the speed at which we have to produce. I enjoy our product and are happy when the newspaper is issued on Sunday and is in the mailbox. Of course everything can be made better. I try to do the same in my field of work: I try to enlarge the circle of photographers and illustrators – to get another view on things, to bring in more variety – perhaps also to visualize something more provocative at times. We try to change the band breath of our design continuously.  In this I place enormous importance on the fact that the people who work as freelancers for us feel at home in the office. For me it is important to have continuous collaboration and a good network in our publishing house. I put extreme importance on the fact that they feel as much at home as I do. And they know exactly that we treat them fairly. We do not fight the illustrators, we present them as they ought to be presented.

Keyword education: Which talents should co-workers in your team bring?

What all team members bring is a special perspective and specialist eye and the sensitivity for typography. This despite the fact that our typography is naturally limited because we use two fonts; with typography I mean more concretely: how does the header run ­– does the alignment make sense – when there is a ragged margin – a lead text with the image lines – and so on. Not the frame of the text determines the alignment but the designer. Important are the care and the awareness, and the ability to see.

How does everything change with the iPad and the web?

 On one hand I find the iPad completely fascinating because it is a form of a print-layout. It is generated with the layout-programs used for magazines only that you have interactive choices. At first I just saw the advantages of the iPad. At the moment I see the advantages of the printed newspaper. It is quite superior.

In how far?

With the iPad one cannot organize topics into a hierarchy. The display is far too small for this. You cannot generate a dramaturgy in size. The new technologies call for a different reception of things. This is why the concept of the printed newspaper is not necessarily easily transferred onto the iPad.

How do you view the future of the newspaper?

I have no idea how technology will progress in the next five to ten years. The iPad has been on the market for a mere two years. And this is just the beginning of what will come in the next years. Compared to this the iPad today will be a real crutch. At the moment I think the iPad versions of the printed newspapers are no better than the printed versions themselves. But I am not sure if that is going to change. Because of this it is important to me that we built up know-how – to have an infra-structure that will enable us to produce the electronic media ourselves. With this we take into account that we will not generate substantial revenues. We believe that the evolving technology will change the acceptance of the electronic newspaper. Perhaps the “future iPad” can be folded and when you press a button somewhere, it will be as big as a Sunday newspaper?

How do you see formats yourself? The smaller the more restricted?

Yes of course. For me as a designer the big Nordic Format has got an extreme advantage: That I can design these vast “posters” is unbelievingly good. I can create real design contrasts. The smaller the layout the more restricted my possibilities.

Is it only the possibilities which are restricted or has that got to do with creativity as well?

You have to rethink – like it or not – newspapers are becoming more and more like magazines. A classic newspaper layout in columns can hardly be realized anymore. For the iPad it is even more extreme.

Then it would be about time to reissue  F.A.Z.-Magazin  …

On iPad? (Peter Breul laughs.) Perhaps! We have the know how by now.

Only now at the end of our interview Peter Breul asks me if he may light a cigarette. (It is his office!) Breul is a friendly, polite and obliging man. He is a man of action and a perfectionist in the best sense and belongs to the species of designers who go into the depth regarding their job – think design problems thoroughly through and never accept the first result achieved. The professional secret of Peter Breul roots in the fact that he is a designer who thinks holistically, who adamantly, sincerely, and precisely follows up an idea. He does not accept superficiality, conservation of design, and pragmatism. Already when he was a child he designed book covers he didn’t like anew.


Mr Breul, a concluding question: Your dream of a newspaper. Or formulated better: What would you like to design one day?

 You know that! The Sunday newspaper – but a really special one. My dream project is an edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung which solely consists of illustrations. But I won’t tell you anything more about it.

That sounds like a typical Peter Breul. I thank you very much for this interview.

The interview with Peter Breul was conducted by Stefan Knapp, Regional Director of the
Society for News Design