the (ever-evolving) economist

Do you read it? I try. Problem is, this weekly’s so full of good stuff that it takes me a month to finish each issue. Do the math, and you can see that I’m behind faster than you can say “Bushwhacked.” They pile up in the corner, and as unopened copies rise toward the ceiling (how many can I stack before they fall?), so does my guilt: Jon Coltz, serial tree-killer. I’ve taken to an alternating strategy of subscribing one year, atoning the next. Been through several cycles now – seems to work for me, anyway.

Incredible magazine, this. Despite drawing from the work of dozens of correspondents, it nonetheless has the amazing ability to speak with one, unified voice – a voice that often lies at the intersection of self-important and smart-ass (oh, those cheeky captions) – but that is mostly just plain smart. One doesn’t read about Vladimiro Montesinos or medievalist gatherings in Kalamazoo in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, you know. This just in: Moby reportedly reads it too; there we have it, then!

Pretty little magazine, as well; with the recent, major redesign of The Economist – only the fifth full overhaul in its 159-year history – the magazine finally appears comfortable in its clothes. Its identity crisis (loosely paraphrasing Britney: no longer a newspaper or journal, not yet a magazine) has up and vanished, and with that, it has metamorphosed into an ultimately readable, accessible, and timely record of the international mise-en-scène.

But what has The Economist been, and, more pertinent to this post, how has it looked as it has evolved? Well, if you turn back a century, say to the issue of Saturday, July 2, 1910 (1), you find the masthead emblazoned in textura, and learn that it was, at once, a “Weekly Commercial Times, Banker’s Gazette and Railway Monitor: A Political, Literary, and General Newspaper.” More of the cover was occupied by advertising than by real content; and the table of contents itself was crammed into a quarter-page box, but then again, the issue comprised only 50 pages. The text face (2) looks a lot like Phemister’s Old Style speaking in a Bookman sort of dialect; note the departure, however, for figures used in the tabular material.

The masthead, layout, and look were little changed 10 and 20 years later (3, 4, 5, 6) – indeed, the design was essentially frozen for its first 90 years – although by 1930 the Old Style was replaced by a Scotch Roman, and text figures gave way to lining; but the really big changes that The Economist was to see in layout and letterform would begin four years later. Starting in 1934, then, we have a very different publication; the claustrophobic compartmen-talization of text, tables, and ads gave way to a redesign that allowed some breathing room; white space would not be used this liberally in the magazine again for another 70 years. Although registered as a newspaper (as it is, apparently, to this very day), it resembled one far less. Blackletter banner was replaced by sleek inline, and titles of lead articles were set in Perpetua writ large (7, 8).

This showy use of Gill’s 1929 masterpiece was, however, of limited duration; in the early 1950s, vestiges of it remained only in section titles and in the table of contents, and the bold layout de-evolved into an arrangement that was just downright bland (9). Truly, of greater typographic interest during this period were three “emergency editions” of The Economist that were printed – or rather, typewritten – as a result of a compositors’ strike. The first of these begins:

This emergency edition has accordingly been produced without any type-setting whatever. We are painfully aware that it is only a token issue, but we take some pride in being able to preserve the tradition of unbroken issue in a week that marks our 107th birthday...It is perhaps natural that we, as the victims of the dispute, should feel aggrieved against the union, who were its initiators. But even apart from this natural bias, we think any fair-minded person would deem the course of action taken by the London Society of Compositors to be so devious and disingenuous as to deprive them of any right to public sympathy. We have no better friends than the compositors who set our pages week by week. But their union leaders would do well to observe that it is possible to get along without any compositors at all (10).

A forerunner of the flag that is used in the present design appeared a few years later; Perpetua was retained in section titles (set in caps) and Plantin continued to be used in text and subtitles (11, 12). But The Economist, in anything like the present form, did not appear until the late 1960s. Although the body still used newsprint, this new era of the magazine introduced glossy, illustrated covers, a full contents page, and the photocaption chicanery that remains a hallmark of the brand (13, 14, 15).

A sort of typographic promiscuity marked the magazine over the next two decades; in the early 1970s, section titles appeared in Univers and text in Baskerville (16). In the late 1970s and early 1980s, headings and text employed Helvetica and Times, respectively (17). There was a brief fling with Goudy Old Style in the late 1980s (18), followed by a change to the eponymously titled font, Economist (later, Economist 101), with Frutiger for section heads (19).

According to Erik Spiekermann, “The original Ecofont was designed by Gunnlaugur Briem, the only type designer from Iceland. I don’t know what that looked like anymore. Then a Mr Patel redid it, sometime in the late 80s. When I first saw The Economist, the type looked very uninviting. It was too tightly set, and there was too much noise in the letters, too much fuss. It all added to a very dense, grey page.” It is true – character collisions and near-misses abound, especially in the italic, and the letterforms themselves are dark and busy.

For the 2001 redesign – a comprehensive undertaking engineered by Spiekermann, and a focus of his recent talk at AtypI Vancouver – much of the work centered on altering the text font, christened Ecotype in its new form: “The text face was cleaned up and made to resemble the bold weight a little more. The italic was also changed, but not as much. The digital work was done by Ole Schäfer in the space of a few weeks. This new face is exclusive to The Economist.”

As you can see in a partial comparison of Economist and Ecotype (20), the redesigned face did indeed shed some of the noise and fuss, such as the skyward-pointing terminal in the lower case g; in addition, the axis of the Roman characters was shifted from 7 degrees to nearly vertical, and the serifs were reshaped to subtend an angle close to the horizontal. In the italics, Spiekermann and Schäfer softened the curves and shortened the serifs, and they lessened the slope by about 3 degrees. The numerals, too, were treated to a needed cleansing: the 1 now looks less like a dotless i, and the zero has been made monoline, not at all to be confused with the lower case o.

Spiekermann also changed the titling face from Frutiger to his own Officina (21, 22) and added a subhead Ecotype face: “We decided to use Officina as the ‘information’ typeface, for navigation, captions, tables, intros, etc. When the heavier weights were deemed too ‘goofy,’ we made a cleaner version, now available as ITC Officina Display. They used Frutiger Light for headlines, and we changed that to the bold weight of Ecotype, which we had redesigned."

But Spiekermann orchestrated more than a simple font transplant. As you can see in these comparison images (23, 24, 25, 26, 27; courtesy E.S.), he made the magazine much more readable and accessible by adding white space back into the mix and by expanding the table of contents from one page to two via the liberal use of graphics and article titles with clarifying subtitles. Much more color now illuminates the features and figures; key articles are no longer merely outlined in a box, but printed on a field of blue, and graphs and tables are eminently decipherable. To those of us who were subscribers at the time, the change was immediately apparent and most welcome.

In understated fashion, the Editor of The Economist introduced the new design: “Good design, like good writing, should blend into the background; it should be the servant of editors and readers alike, not their master (28).” Had the redesign been heralded via photocaption, however, I wonder whether an opportunity for cheekiness on the part of the editorial staff would have provided a temptation too hard to resist: “Hoary old magazine gets a new dress.” Or something like that. But the real question may be, did Moby notice?

30-November 2003