The Economist case study

Since its first design in 1843 The Economist was suffering from lack of navigation. Also the leading was not sufficient enough for the text to appear easily readable and it’s heavy text-base content with black and white colour imagery made it even harder for the readers to enjoy exploring The Economist. By the beginning of 2001 readers started noticing this and unsubscribing from the magazine.

Here we could explore one of the main design principle: aesthetics, and how it could affect a piece of work. While aesthetics are subjective in graphic design exists established rules of what constitutes the principle of aesthetics. Proportion, symmetry, colours, lines, texture, balance, flow can all improve the aesthetics of one piece. In practical terms we can say: legibility of the typeface, readability, high quality visuals and others. In other words for people to read the magazine they need to like it aesthetically.

This is a picture of the old The Economist taken from the Spiekermann blog:

At first glance very it looks very black not only in chromatic colour terms but in typographic and layout colour as well. A closer inspections lets us see the smaller line space. Also by 2001 The Economist was still using black and red as the only two colours… In 2001 when the famous German typographer Spiekermann was appointed for the redesign of the magazine they went full colour for first time. The two main things that the typographer improved with his redesign and the help of Tomato are the leading by increasing it and the typeface by changing the original The Economist type with his own popular ITC Officina.

Design Republic has published a more extensive case study of Spiekermann’s redesign of the Economist in 2001:

A German designer helps a British institution to stop being a witty nuisance.

Established in 1843 by James Wilson, The Economist is a bastion of economic liberalism. A magazine that prides itself on its intelligent discourse, principled editorial stance and watertight writing style, it is a mainstay of the newsstands, shaping thinking in the political, business and financial spheres.

However, by the 21st century the successful formula was beginning to look stale. In the 1980s and 1990s a subtly branded yet instantly recognisable red poster advertising campaign had contributed to a sevenfold increase in circulation. But the magazine was dense, difficult to navigate and hadn’t been substantially redesigned for 20 years. By 2001, readers were starting to cancel their subscriptions.

There was a further problem: the inside pages were still black and white. Advertisers, spoilt for choice in a growing magazine market, were falling away. No wonder then that the editor, Bill Emmott, realised it was time for a change. Enter German designer Erik Spiekermann. He was initially sceptical at tackling such an established title: “I told Bill I was scared by it,” he says. “The Economist is about as British as it comes and I’m about as German as they come. Apparently they liked that.”

Spiekermann set about redesigning it as a piece of information, rather than a magazine. “I looked at how to use colour to make it less impenetrable,” he says. “It wasn’t just about making it prettier.” The magazine’s main problem was its lack of navigation, typified by its contents page. “It was awful. The headlines didn’t match those on the page. It was meant to be witty, but it was a nuisance,” he says.

Spiekermann highlighted each section with a trademark red slab and a mini-contents list. He also tackled another bad habit the team had got into. “They would start a long article in a single column at the bottom right of the page. You’d think, ‘Okay, I can read this while I drink my coffee,’ but then you turn over and see you have to read two full pages! Now, long articles start with a double-column headline and shorter ones with a single-column headline. People can work out whether something takes five or 20 minutes to read.”

Spiekermann also had to address the type. “It was very uninviting. It was too tightly set, and too much fuss. It all added to a very dense, grey page,” he says. “They asked me to make the text bigger, but I cheated by making it smaller but opening up the white space between the lines. It’s much better.”

Aided by German typeface designer Ole Schäfer, Spiekermann altered the existing Ecofont – the typeface used for body copy in the magazine – to make it more readable, and a new font, the clean and elegant Officina, was chosen as an ‘information’ typeface for the subheadings, captions and tables. The result was an easy-to-scan magazine.

Just as importantly, Spiekermann helped streamline the production process. “We made it much simpler by templating everything,” he says. This also meant the magazine could be printed before the weekend – giving readers two days free to enjoy it.

The redesign was timely for other reasons too. In the wake of 9/11, approximately 200,000 people bought The Economist, evidently looking for a voice of reason. They discovered an accessible, easy-to-navigate magazine – and kept on reading.

Today The Economist sells well over a million copies a week, and its quarterly lifestyle magazine, Intelligent Life, has also recently undergone a redesign, this time with the help of British design agency Tomato. Spiekermann praises Emmott and his staff as “the best clients I’ve ever had”. No doubt the team at The Economist feels just as warm towards the German designer who helped reinvent a quintessentially British institution.

Article first published in Design Council Magazine, Issue 3, Winter 200

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