A masthead — or title piece as it’s technically called (it’s only a masthead when it sits above the contributors list) — is a difficult brief. For new launches there’s one hell of newsstand jostle and if you’re redesigning, you’re expected to modernise, respect the heritage, make an impact and be invisible — all while avoiding the wrath of readers. And in the age of digital, the “tyranny of the touch icon,” as editorial designer Mark Porter puts it, means that you’re constantly thinking about how to stack, crop or shrink a traditionally horizontal entity into a 56 pixel-wide square.
“It’s often the new broom sweeps clean,” says Dave Farey of studio HouseStyle, one of the UK’s go-to title piece experts who has redrawn nameplates for greats like The Sunday Times, The TLS, New Scientist, Good Housekeeping and Esquire. “A new editor or art director, or even a new owner, comes in and the first thing they want to do is make their mark.” This territorial land grab means that pros like Farey often get asked to work on the same title piece numerous times, carefully tweaking type to accent a new editorial direction or appeal to younger readers.
But it can be a thankless job, especially if like Farey you often work on consumer titles: “When you design a masthead, you do it in its entirety, perfectly balancing each of the letters,” he says. “Then the first time you see it used, there’s a bloody head right in the way!”
For Porter, whose work often involves complete publication overhauls, the decision to redesign a title piece usually comes half to two thirds of the way through a project. “Clients get very sentimental about title pieces and always feel that they don’t want to change them,” he says. “They think it will freak the readers out or they’ll lose their audience, but often they don’t have any brand equity in them. It’s about approaching each project and working out whether what they’ve got already has any value.
For example, when Porter developed a new design philosophy for The Guardian as creative director in 2005, the initial assumption was that the title piece, David Hillman’s 1988 iconic dual-font design (the first of its kind), wouldn’t change with the rest of the paper.
“As the design we were working on evolved, it became clear that it would just be wrong to carry that through,” explains Porter. Instead he opted for a dual-colour title piece using typeface Egyptian, which worked better with the paper’s new look and the type throughout. Respect for a title’s heritage is key to this field, even if you’re intending to discard its current branding. “I always try to spend a day or two in the archive looking through old issues. Often you’ll find something that they were doing 40 years ago that’s actually really strong that you can adapt and it looks really good now,” says Porter.
When modernising Parisian news magazine L’Express last year after new ownership, Porter discovered its 1970s incarnation, designed by Milton Glaser and Walter Bernard, and borrowed from them the wedge-shaped apostrophe which now defines the graphic direction of the title piece.
Similarly Jim Parkinson — a stalwart of title piece design in the US (where it’s called a name plate) who has “repaired” The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Fast Company and Newsweek, not to mention pretty much every US regional paper — says he will always start a project by asking for a logo history.
“Over time, name plates generally get bolder and bolder,” says Parkinson, “and as they do, delicious details from earlier versions are tossed aside for the sake of looking ‘modern’ or because the weight of the logo has become so grotesque that there just isn’t any room for the details that give the work its unique identity.”
Parkinson’s painstaking job is then to restore the best of these details, while bringing together the type so that it feels like a unit rather than a series of individual characters. “When I get to see a focus group react to my prototype nameplates they say things like ‘it’s printed on better paper’ or ‘it looks more in focus’. They don’t see what I did but the reaction is often better, newer, cleaner. That they don’t know why doesn’t really matter.”
Parkinson is often called in as a fixer for title pieces in distress. But a redesign can also be an opportunity to break away from tradition. Parkinson redrew rock bible Rolling Stone’s logo for its 10th anniversary, throwing out the original which had been drawn by poster artist Rick Griffin and was a cultural icon. “When I got that job I knew I couldn’t beat the original logo, and I was terrified that I might move from obscurity and forever be known as the guy who screwed up the Rolling Stone logo.”
When London studio Ard redesigned Tate Etc. magazine earlier this year, breaking from the past was all part of the plan. Previously the masthead had been in the Tate’s own typeface, but the redesign’s brief was to reinstate some independence. “One of the recurring concerns was that the magazine was mistaken for being an in-house publication,” explains Ard’s Daniel Nørregaard. “The challenge was to move away from the then current identity while staying in line with the overall ‘house attitude’.”
The new title piece is in RH Inter, a revival of a late 19th century grotesque font, redrawn by designer Robert Huber, who rounded and straightened some of the lettering’s angles to directly refer to the Tate’s typeface. The decision was made to shift the title piece from caps to title case to make it more accessible but also because the RH Inter’s lowercase glyphs are packed with personality.
Redrawing an existing typeface, as Ard did for Tate Etc., is a common practice when developing a masthead from scratch. “You often start off with an off-the-shelf typeface,” explains Porter, “and then you identify particular issues with it due to the exact letterforms you’re using and how they work as a group. You end up with something that’s based on that but has a lot of subtle differences to make it feel strong and like a logo.”
Porter’s redesign of Danish paper Berlingske — one of the oldest newspapers in the world — featured a version of Commercial Type’s Sanomat redrawn to add more contrast and personality to the “B”. It was one of the most challenging title pieces Porter had ever worked on, largely because of the intricate heraldic crest featured in the title piece. Working with Milan studio La Tigre (who also cleaned up The Independent’s eagle), Porter had to do a crash course in heraldry to make sure the meaning of all the emblems was intact, balancing the demands of different sizes and applications with respect for its heritage.
Kuchar Swara, the design director of magazines and lifestyle at The Telegraph, faced a similar challenge when he radically overhauled the Telegraph Magazine and had to find a new way to express some very traditional type. “Gothic headlines are never easy,” says Swara, “particularly because The New York Times to my mind kind of owns the small gothic, centred nameplate feel, so we had to treat ours differently.”
Swara (who is creative director of Port and has also redesigned title pieces for The Spectator and Case da Abitare) instead decided to go big on the title piece, giving the lettering more weight. It was a decision that meant there was more freedom inside the magazine for huge headlines (inspired by Willy Fleckhaus’ FAZ magazine and the Nova covers from the 1960s), switching between soft fonts like Austin or the more punchy Druk depending on the content.
Independent hip hop magazine Brick also used its title piece as a means to subvert expectations, using a punky blackletter based on Phospho’s Adhesive Nr. Seven originally designed by POST — and one of the few things kept from a recent redesign by Catalogue. Although death metal comes to mind when you see blackletter, the type was chosen because it felt atypical, unpolished and nodded to a deeper understanding of hip hop culture.
“Many artists, Snoop Dogg for example, have always used blackletter within their branding and art direction,” says Brick editor Hayley Louise Brown. “The lettering style is also hugely prolific within Chicanx culture so you have the LA connection, not to mention Tupac’s ‘Thug Life’ tattoo.”
Just as Swara changed the feel of The Telegraph Magazine by playing with the title piece’s size, Brick’s fourth issue will feature the nameplate in an unexpected place. “I think the masthead is something that will continue to evolve with the publication,” says Brown. “It’s exciting to have the freedom to play around with it.”
For relatively young indies like Brick, the title piece is prime real estate to signal to potential readers what the magazine is about and stands for. Push, a bi-monthy publication on its first issue, wanted to communicate its disruptive approach to documenting political change within music and youth culture.
Setting its name in Nimbus Sans Extended Black, design lead Josh Millgate then printed and re-scanned it numerous times, each time warping the image under the scanner. “Our content blurs the lines between industries, allowing individuals to seamlessly discover passion within new areas they may not at first consider,” says Millgate. “The masthead reflects the editorial in that the overall direction will morph, distort and change with the times.”
Sabat, a magazine that discusses witchcraft and the occult, also used its masthead to drop clues about the editorial direction. Given the magazine is concerned with hidden aspects of the world, creative director Cleber Rafael de Campos played with the idea of leaving parts of the design to be discovered. Using Albertus for its old woodcut feel and setting it in a ring around the cover model’s face, de Campos has disguised the title piece in the cover photography by printing it in a clear varnish. “It is a magazine without a masthead, or one that is not visible at first glance,” says de Campos. “It has an element of anti-branding to it, yet at the same time it makes the magazine very recognisable.”
This article appears in issue two of Type Notes, a typography magazine published by London foundry Fontsmith. The issue also includes articles on adult film posters, tattooing and lettering, stamp collecting and the design of Scotland’s new bank notes plus a guide to type design software from Fontsmith’s Phil Garnham.
You can order copies at shop.fontsmith.com
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