Behind the Straits Times redesign

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Singapore’s biggest publishing house SPH (Singapore Press Holding) celebrated its 170th anniversary with a complete redesign of SND award-winner The Straits Times, integrated with print, online and apps.

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Design consultant Lucie Lacava has developed an international reputation for award-winning editorial design.

To commemorate this important event, Singapore’s most-read newspaper invited design consultant Lucie Lacava to introduce a new redesign from print to online. She has helped to redesign over 100 publications around the world and been recognized with awards for El Espectador (Bogota), La Presse (Canada) and recently The National (UAE), among others. Lacava’s design provides a canvas for creativity, talent and innovation.

In an exclusive interview, Lucie tells us about the project.

What were your main goals when working in the redesign process for The Straits Times?

It was important to keep in mind how some of the key design features would appear across platforms. Another point was to keep the design simple enough to allow functionality, for instance how a kicker in the print edition becomes a tag on the app.

How did the newsroom editors contribute in the redesign process?

The redesign committee included news, graphics and digital editors. There were several town hall gatherings introducing the print and digital proposals, and walk-in galleries where everyone was invited to leave comments. Most importantly, the newsroom editors had to rethink the content of their sections. As they discarded old features and introduced new ones, the design would adjust accordingly. Some of the daily sections have been expanded to include more coverage from around Asia, while the Sunday paper introduces a new analysis section.

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Who are the Straits Times’ readers?

The Straits Times is the country’s highest selling newspaper.  Singapore is a global financial centre, a city-state with a multicultural population of over 5 million, the paper has to appeal to all demographics.

What are the main changes that called your attention?

Unlike other parts of the world where newspapers are losing readers and advertising revenue, The Straits Times has not experienced such decline. The main reason for the revamp was to bring all of the digital apps, the website and print edition in sync, and offer readers a seamless experience across platforms. On the digital side everything has changed from the back-end to the front-end. The information on the web is organized in blocks. On the print side, advertising and editorial now share the same grid. We introduced modular design, and also much needed white space. The pages are now more hierarchical. Print, web and apps use the same fonts and colour palette.

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What are the main fonts and colour palette you used in the project?

A custom font family called Selane was designed specifically for this project by Patrick Giasson from London. Selane is available in ten weights, plus ten italics, a matching text font, and a beautiful swash display version, which you can see on the cover of the Life section. It was quite a challenge working with Hermes, trying to adjust the H&Js to get a nice even gray text. Select weights of Selane display were hinted for best legibility on line. The daily print version sports a cool colour palette, while the Sunday edition is more colourful. The digital products use a combination of both palettes since the sections on the apps do not necessarily use the same naming convention as the print version.

Did you combine print and online edition in the redesign?

Print, web and apps were completely redesigned over a ten-month period, and launched all at the same time on July 1st. The responsive website was rebuilt by the in-house team, while the apps were built by user interface specialists. My role was to work with both teams to ensure a consistent look-and-feel across platforms.

What are some  highlights from the project?

In today’s media landscape where so many sites and apps are competing for readers’ attention, it is important to have a strong recognizable brand.  The Straits Times did the right thing, by redesigning and launching all of its products at the same time. Here the approach is not digital first or print first, all the platforms are equally important, it’s up to the reader to chose.

Were there regional or cultural differences specific to Asia or Singapore that influenced your work?

Singapore is a gorgeous modern tropical city, where you will find world-class architecture and cutting edge building design. There aren’t many historic buildings left besides some shop houses in Chinatown and a few temples around the city. The Singaporeans favourite pastimes are eating and shopping. The Straits Times newspaper has traditionally followed the British model, a minor influence that has been retained in the current design. Overall, the new design reflects Singapore as a dynamic and cosmopolitan city, where the local flavour comes from its content and photography, not from any particular design direction.

How was the process of working in Singapore different from, say, Baltimore, Montreal and Abu Dhabi?

Every project is unique. I would travel to Singapore once a month, while my Montreal team worked on prototypes and style guides. What was different in the process here, was having to work concurrently with the print and digital teams, and how one influenced the other. Changes made down the road had to be applied to all of the platforms. For example when we changed the ruling system, we had to go back and update it from print, to web, all the way to the smartphone app, and then of course all the style guides.

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The Straits Times has always done well in the SND competitions, especially in photography. Are you planning to use more on this strength?

There is now a huge emphasis on photography usage. In the previous design you would find multiple average size pictures per page, and nothing stood out, now one large photo is more likely to dominate the page. There were so many missed opportunities to showcase great photos or news events in the previous design. For example, on the prime minister’s official visit to London last year, only one glorious photo made it to the front page, while dozens of great shots never made it into the print edition. We have now introduced double page spreads where stories can be told visually through photography and graphics, and link to additional visual and interactive content online.

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The Sunday Times launch was on July 4. The Sunday edition shares the same architecture and typography but differs from the daily, with more colourful section headers, and a bolder presentation on page one.

More on the redesign from The Straits Times Art Editor Peter Williams 

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Peter Williams Art Editor, The Straits Times

What do you like most in the new redesign?

It is the very process of redesigning a newspaper that I like most. The design team, led by ST Editor Warren Fernandez, included editors, designers and digital editors, allowing us to draw on our various perspectives. We understood the limitations while pushing out the boundaries, and explored all directions that the new redesigned Straits Times could take. It was a massive challenge because it was not just a newspaper we were redesigning – we had other platforms to consider as well.

It was interesting to see digital and print design evolve together. Lucie Lacava helped not just in terms of design, but also in bringing to the table the perspective of someone from the outside looking in, which made for helpful input. Lucie challenged some of our points of view and, in some instances, throwing some pretty far out ideas into the mix. The team met once, sometimes twice a week to discuss our progress and share ideas. Lucie would join us when she was in Singapore.

This whole process took almost a year. Ultimately, when you look at the end-product having been through the entire process, you see and feel the debates that took place, the victories and the legacies. You also know that it will continue to evolve and change as readers do. So, what do I like most? It’s hard to pick one thing. As a lover of typography, I had to say I like the final choices made in terms of type, and the new grid system. It’s clean, easy on the eye, and ads and articles all align better. The paper now looks neater, crisper.

How may professionals work in your design department?

The Straits Times Art Department has 16 artists including myself. We have four dedicated senior illustrators, some of who are famous for their political cartoons. The rest of the team comprises infographic artists and designers. We cover a very wide scope of work that spans E-books, 3D rendering, magazine covers and layout and coding, to the humble fever chart. Our work has also moved beyond print – our designers now work more closely with our illustrators, and produce things like simple animations. As audiences and mediums evolve, the team has constantly developed new skills and enhanced existing ones so they can keep providing readers what they want.

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What was the big challenge in the redesign?

The Straits Times is an institution, and, as we were thinking through the redesign, we had to bear in mind the readers who wanted change and those who were less comfortable with it. We had to keep the latter group in mind and reassure them that even with its fresh, new look, they were still getting everything the ST had always given them in terms of content.

We were also taking on a new colour palette, and that presented its own set of challenges beyond just choosing the colours. We had to ensure that we were able to get the new colours right on the presses – a delicate balancing act on the numbers. We did many tests to ensure that we got it right, and some of the section colour percentages were rather clever – dark enough to hold reverse type but light enough to take black type. It worked out well I think.

How many SND Awards has The Straits Times received from the SND creative competition?

The Straits Times has picked up quite a few SND awards over the years. I’m sure that with this new design direction hopefully more will follow. Our current design is sharper and pays even more attention to space.

We have put visual journalism front and centre, both in terms of picture as well as infographics.

The everyday layout of the newspaper also remains flexible and invites creativity. It is driven by a new thinking process and will leave a strong impression.

Is there some points you would like to highlight about the redesign experience?

There were several things that have worked in ST’s favour. The first: having an editor at the helm that is open to exploring new approaches in design and visual journalism. That does not always happen. An open-minded editor who is willing to participate and provide input into the design process is half the battle won. The second was the input we had from Lucie Lacava, with whom we saw eye-to-eye on most things, including typography and colour, which made the working relationship easy. Lim Chuan Huat, as project manager, pulled it all together. That combined force shows strongly in the newly redesigned ST.