Javier Errea on the redesign of Liberation

Libération, one of France’s most iconic newspapers, launched its redesigned print edition on June 1st. They called on SND-award winner Javier Errea who achieved a spectacular redesign, paying tribute to Libération’s original rebellious spirit. Errea shares a look at his process.

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What was the brief of this redesign?

It is not a secret that Libération was suffering. A significant number of reporters, editors and designers were about to leave the paper at the end of 2014. So the newspaper was obliged to rethink what the future could be, both digital and print. It was clear that pagination was to be reduced and it was a good opportunity to pack and display contents in a different way, far from typical section structures. A very short, condensed but adding-value newspaper. From the visual side, the idea was to input a clear change, to show a different accent.

How did you work with Libération’s editor-in-chiefs to rebuild the architecture and hierarchy of the newspaper pages?

As sections were gone, the key was how to display different and consecutive big stories keeping the sense of rhythm, provinding contrast and surprise to the chemin-de-fer. How to avoid flat, boring, repetitive spreads  was the challenge. That is why the four pages named Expresso following the cover story were a must. Same in the middle with Idées, the new name of Rebonds, and at the end with the Culture spread, These kind of mirror the Expresso pages. We spent weeks figuring out how it could work and we adjusted the sequence many times.

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How did you make the choices of what to keep from the visual identity inheritance, and what to reinvent?

That was really difficult. I have to say that not just me but everyone in house agreed that the previous formula had been working well since 2009. What we tried in 2009 was basically a calm and elegant newspaper, including a clear French flavour in type, long texts, etc. It was different now. This is the reason why I went deep into Libé visual archives. My goal was how to be different from the 2009 formula but still Libé. I was very clear from the beginning that the answer could come from the origins, those fabolous seventies and eighties. I mean that long texts and intelligent journalism were a must, but that elegance and low voice should give way to a louder newspaper. Libération has a strong protest soul, it is a bad boy complaining, let’s say. Condensed bold typefaces from those origins provided an interesting clue. I have to say that in general the visual idea was to rescue those types from the origins, including some kind of typewriter-look type, shadowed type such as Graphique, and my favorite, Windsor. It was funny to notice that one of the original logos of Libé from the seventies was based on Windsor, which is also the typeface Woody Allen always uses for his movies’ credits.

How did the idea of commissioning a bespoke set of fonts come up in the process? What was the brief you gave to Jean-Baptiste Levée?

I have to say that it was not clear to me that commissioning an exclusive set for Libé was a good idea. The problem was time, it was such a tight schedule that I hesitated. Initially I decided to use Druk, from Christian Schwartz, along with other fonts such as American Typewriter, Cooper, and of course fantastic Tiempos and Tiempos Headline for body text and complementary headlines. Druk was a secure option except for the lower case, due to ascendants and descendants. Designer Yorgo Tloupas, who was in charge of the redesign of Next magazine, suggested Levée and insisted on a new type for Libé. Tlouplas and myself agreed on the visual direction both Libé and Next should go, which is amazing. We didn’t know each other previously. Jean-Baptiste worked really hard and fast. We asked for some minor adjustments during the process. The final LibéSans is a fantastic, huge job in a record time.

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Libération has always given a central role to images, especially photography, in its cover and general layout. The new design direction seems to move towards much stronger titles and typography, thus reducing the role of photography in Libération’s editorial line… do you agree? How did the newsroom react to this change?

I don’t agree. Photography is as important as it has always been. It all depends on the visual idea the team wants to develop according to the news story. The problem is that in many occasions photography was not being used properly. My concern is that each story demands a specific visual solution, not a photo necessarily. Photography is just one solution, the most frequent one of course, but just one. Libé has a strong tradition of illustration as well. Infographics is a field to explore and be more ambitious. Actually we have just started to offer double spreads using data. Big type and pictures are not fighting each other. Balance and proper visual solutions is the way. It is not a case against photography at all. How could it be when I love photojournalism? It is a fight against filling up holes, which is very different.

One of the great qualities of this redesign is your bold graphic and typographic choices, which create such a strong identity and rhythm. Yet obviously sometimes that is at the expense of legibility. How do you feel about this?

Legibility has been an issue, to be frank. We were sent complaints. And we are now adjusting rules and uses to be more legible. But, LibéSans offers dozens of solutions. The thing is how to fine-tune uses and how to better apply specific weights to sizes and content. It is not easy. A very wide family is always more difficult to deal with. Narrower weights have to be used just in bigger, expressive sizes. We are concerned, obviously. But I would miss expression if we don’t take advantage of this fantastic font. The formula is not to keep a flat rhythm but to get readers surprised and attracted. Even younger readers, why not?

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This question is kind of related to the previous one. It seems to me that your work balances more towards the expressive side of news design, while we would rather aim towards a functionalist design direction at Le Monde. Obviously, at some point, this has to do with editorial lines. But I’d be happy to hear your views about the possible limits and pitfalls of a functionalist approach for news design.

It is a good point. I am happy that you mention it. This is something I have in mind all the time. It’s not an easy task. Functionality and legibility is always an issue. But every single newspaper shouldn’t look like The Guardian. My point in many conferences is that news companies and even news designers just want to imitate those elegant, clean, ordered newspapers, but clearly forget that news expression in much broader and exciting. Ugly newspapers are more interesting in many occasions. Actually, the world, human beings, the news, everything existing is not perfect at all. Life is chaotic, dirty. Imperfection is more human. What does it mean? Simply that functionality can be also flat, cold, inexpressive. Of course we can design a clean newspaper, and we do. It is easier, by the way. We try to apply the most suitable solution, when and how far to be functional versus expressive. Of course the editorial line, what I like to call the soul of a newspaper matters. Le Monde is not Libé. El País in my country is not Libé. The Guardian is not Libé. I envision Libé as kind of artistic newspaper. You know what I mean? It is or it should be a piece of art in addition to the news. I am not expecting this expression when I buy Le Monde, or El Pais, or The Guardian. But I am expecting something different with Libé. Actually, this is not original. Libé has been like this for more than 40 years. They have invented and tried almost everything. I remember myself when I was a university student. I didn’t read French but I used to buy Libe daily. It was my daily jewel. What will they have invented today?, I asked myself. The news is the limit. The news is the most important element, ingredient. Assuming that, which is obvious, how you tell the news should be connected with your soul.

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Was working for Libération any different from the other redesign projects you had taken care of? If so, how?

I have been collaborating with them for the last six years. So Libé is somehow my home. You know Libé very well as a French designer. Libé is not a common, average newspaper. It is not what it used to be in the seventies and eighties. But they keep that spirit. I can feel and smell the good flavor of the golden times even in the middle of difficulties. I wish the world could have more Libé in different countries. We need more unpleasant papers such as this.