Veronika Illmer explains the mass appeal of BILD’s design aesthetic

bildlayersVeronika Illmer, who has been in charge of art direction at Bild and Bild am Sonntag since 2001, is among the amazing speakers at the 2014 SND Frankfurt workshop (click here to register). She talked to workshop organizer Stefan Knapp about the German newspaper’s striking design.

Newspaper publishers, designers and readers have been engaging with both the appearance and content of Germany’s largest-circulation newspaper (2.44 million copies daily). Everybody knows about it. But nobody reads it – allegedly. However, many speak appreciatively – even if sometimes off-the-record and strictly in private – about the targeted visual and typographical aesthetic: the big lettering, the photos and the headlines.

BILD polarizes. Hans. F. Krebs, who founded the degree program “press design” in Germany in the 1980s, had characterized Frankfurter Allgemeine as well as BILD as unique daily newspapers:

“The competence of both publications to inform has been typographically visualized to the point,” he said. “The Frankfurter Allgemeine reports in a factual manner, driven by the pursuit of subjective truthfulness concerning politics, economy and culture; BILD has its competency in sensationalism, distortion and hysterical dramatization.”

This analysis separates information literacy from typographical visualization and in this explains the basis of newspaper design. It concerns visualizing contents in a graphic form. And this as perfect as possible. In recent years all German newspapers have been redesigned – some more, some less successfully. Frankfurter Allgemeine even has photos and advertising on its front page now. BILD in contrast seems not to have changed at all. Has optimal design and the perfect form been realized in BILD?

Since 2001, Veronika Illmer has led the art direction of BILD as well as BILD am SONNTAG. She studied at the Hochschule für Angewandte Kunst in Vienna, designed a number of magazines, books, exhibition catalogs and posters. In 1995, she moved to Hamburg and became, among others, art director at Prinz, TV-Movie and WELT am SONNTAG. For Axel Springer she also developed projects in Paris and Warsaw. She has lived in Berlin since 2008.

Her team at BILD consists of six print and online art directors. More than 150 print designers, 50 photo editors, a team consisting of 100 digital designers and programmers, seven in-house photographers and a department of infographics/storytelling with 20 team members contribute to shape the brand.

Veronika Illmer welcomed me for our interview in her office in the Axel Springer Building near the former Berlin Wall. Here, on the 16th floor, one has a spectacular view across Berlin. On the wall are numerous awards from the Art Directors Club. On the bookshelves are numerous books, which she designed for the Axel Springer Verlag, and on the visitors’ table are newspapers, including, of course, BILD, with some pages highlighted vigorously with red marker.

Stefan Knapp: Veronika, you have been responsible for the design of BILD for 13 years. You are, so to speak, in the lion’s den. Does BILD produce “evil” typography?

Veronika Illmer

Veronika Illmer

Veronika Illmer: Evil typography does not exist. Good one, however, does. Typography is always good when it puts content in the correct form.

SK: … and the typography of BILD is good?

VI: It works! It attracts controversy.

SK: How and why does the typography of BILD work?

VI: BILD wants to be clear, coherent and original. These are also the basic principles, which we try to implement in the typography.

SK: Is that your ambition for the design in your daily work?

VI: It is my ambition to be precise. Clarity is the basis of good design. I try to give the content a fitting form. I want – one could say – not unlike a tailor to dress a story in the best possible way.

SK: Does the content not sometimes get in the way of this?

VI: If everybody had the same point of view, we would not recognize anything anymore. A tabloid is always narrowing a topic to a controversial point. In this one often has to walk the tightrope. Mindfulness is a must but too much caution leads over and over again on the well-trodden path of the everyday and boring. One has to know how to strike a balance.  Not always the same result can be achieved.

SK: The power with which BILD influences public opinion and exerts economic influence has often been under attack. For instance, in the case of your free-of-charge World-Cup Special Edition with a print run of 42 million, which virtually appeared unasked-for in the letter boxes of all German households. Do these things influence the design?

VI: I don’t believe in the demonic power, which BILD is often said to allegedly have. Least of all in the case of the free-of-charge World-Cup Special Edition, which first and foremost aimed at arousing eager anticipation of the football summer and which has – with its 42 million print run – been an offer beyond comparison to advertising customers. The only thing that influenced the design was the wish to get the people in the mood for the World Cup.

SK: Do you think that designers can be held responsible for what they design? I refer to the consequences. You work for a very opinion-forming newspaper. Does a newspaper designer have to be political? Are you a political person?

VI: In any case I don’t follow any political agenda. Without political interest it would be difficult to work for any newspaper. If by political person you understand somebody who follows public life and tries to find her standpoint concerning it, yes, then I am a political person. And of course everybody is responsible for what he or she does.

SK: Your boss at BILD is Kai Diekmann. Which role does the design of the newspaper play for him and what can you say about working together with him?

VI:  Teamwork is everything at BILD, but everything also depends on Kai Diekmann. He is the motor. Behind everything. Working with him is a furious spectacle.

SK: That sounds thrilling. So, a furious spectacle …

VI: Yes, full of surprises, high-speed and not always without exertion.

SK: How long have you known Kai Diekmann?

VI: I got to know Kai Diekmann at the WELT am SONNTAG in 1998. We worked together in a playful and creative way and we had lots of fun changing the flagship WamS. And 2001, the adventure at BILD began. In between I wanted to get a rest from this adventure, took a year off in 2013 and traveled through South America and North Africa.

SK: Did you need a creative break?

VI: It was simply important for me to get out, to get to know other ways of life and of other kinds of life-necessities. Back in the engine room surprisingly much has remained of that feeling of freedom, of not taking and seeing everything as serious.

SK: Your journey must have been very inspiring. By the way: How do you get your ideas?

VI: By looking, systemizing what I have seen anew, associating and combining and by wishing not to do things again like I did them yesterday and the day before.

SK: You studied design. How did you get to be a newspaper designer?

VI: True, I studied graphic design at the Hochschule für Angewandte Kunst in Vienna. More by accident I then I got a whiff of what it is like to work for a newspaper at the Austrian weekly Falter, and liked it. At that time I mainly learned from my colleague Rainer Dempf, who kindled in me the love for typography and for looking at things closely. I was also lucky to work with excellent editors-in-chief who lived their passion to scrutinize and to question. It was never boring.

SK: Back to your work. How do your pages develop?

VI: Everything starts in the newsroom on the 16th floor. Here all the stories from all departments come together, from the regional editorial teams, from the reporters, the photo editors, and the agencies. Here news become stories and stories become the designed newspaper. Permanently retold on BILD.DE  and printed for the news agents.

SK: How do designers and editors work together?

BILD's front pages are strongest with single topics, says Veronika Illmer.

BILD’s front pages are strongest with single topics, says Veronika Illmer.

VI: After the ideas, the choice of pictures, the direction and weight given to the individual stories has been decided on in the newsroom, designers and editors work on the pages in their individual departments. Each page has its own small editor-designer-unit, which can very effectively and directly realize all changes and further developments.

SK: Could you give an example?

VI: Let’s take the last page, the gossip page. As a general rule, two major topics will be agreed upon with the art direction, editors, departments, and two, three important pictures singled out, ideally with headlines. We don’t make an exact scribble, more of a sketch. Then designer and editor build the page in the show department. Whereas before all designers and art directors sat together with the editors in one newsroom, today we layout in the departments – the special separation alone creates more direct responsibility and a bigger scope for designers and layout artists.

SK: Which are your best pages?

BILD's front page reacts to an announcement about the fate of handwritten script.

BILD’s front page reacts to an announcement about the fate of handwritten script.

VI: The dynamics of big events often creates great newspaper pages. BILD is especially strong if the front page is single-topic. And that can happen either because the event we are reporting about, is so significant or because the editorial department has an idea that is so original that it becomes the event. The announcement that German handwritten script was vanishing, for instance, inspired us to make a handwritten title page.

SK: I very much liked the series accompanying the exhibiton “60 Years 60 Works of Art: Art in Germany from 1949 to 2009.” For 60 days we had a whole page (or at least most of a whole page) for one work of art – and showed how BILD manages to convey highbrow topics in a way that has mass appeal. And certainly the XXL-BILD in double format  – with Kati Witt on a scale of 1:1 – a million-fold installation on newspaper.

SK: Have there also been flops?

VI: Of course.

SK: Which ones? Will you let on about one?

VI: There I would like to draw the card: The accused has the right to remain silent …

SK: Well then. The examples show that lots of the effect is achieved by the headlines – the language.  What is more important: pictures or headlines?

BILD manages convey highbrow topics with mass appeal.

BILD manages convey highbrow topics with mass appeal.

VI: Picture and headline belong together. Only when both of them are good, the whole thing will be good.

SK: Who writes the headlines with you?

VI: Ideas are generated by everybody from intern to editor; the editor decides.

SK: Let me please come back again to the design. Why does BILD look the way it looks?

VI: A simple formula. Shall I tell you?

SK: Of course.

VI: BILD is daily the sum of the relevant, amusing and exceptional events of one day multiplied (resp. in individual cases divided by) the sum of the perspectives of its editors and designers.

SK: Aha! But doesn’t anything change in the design of BILD? Doesn’t it always look the same?

VI: BILD does not always look the same, it constantly changes. Very often these changes go unnoticed, because the logo of BILD is so strong and the headline typography of the front page – which is still, like in the ’60s – most of the time Helvetica Inserat, is so formative.

SK: What have been the crucial changes over the past years?

VI: There have been many changes, which, however, never aimed at twisting the brand essence but at enriching it. In 2006, for example, we introduced sans serif – the Escrow – for the headlines, at that time absolutely uncommon for tabloids. At the same time we developed a very exact grid, every line width is defined, every space. A modular system, which enables us to design the pages at high speed but very freely, and which lets them always fit into the overall system.

SK: Lots of designers have attempted a redesign of BILD. What quality do the concepts in the drawer have?

VI: The drawers are empty.

SK: Okay! What is the future of BILD? Will it exist in its current form in 10 years’ time?

VI: I am convinced that in 10 years’ time BILD will still be the biggest printed and biggest digital newspaper in Germany.

SK: Axel Springer, i.e. BILD, also stands for progress and innovation. What are you working on at the moment?

VI: We link channels. That is, the all-decisive question at the current stage of digitalization is: How do we optimize the way news or a story takes to the reader/user through all channels, i.e. printed, online, mobil, as video, in an app? And what will come then? For a brand like BILD it is not that clear in which format or channel a story appears. The decisive factor is: It is ALWAYS a BILD STORY. The brand takes it all!

SK: And that is what you are going to present at the SND Workshop in Frankfurt?

VI: Yes.

SK: We are looking forward to it. I very much thank you for the interview. 

"It is my ambition to be precise. Clarity is the basis of good design. I try to give the content a fitting form. I want – one could say – not unlike a tailor to dress a story in the best possible way."

— Veronika Illmer