Why the new Berliner gives me the blues

Seventeen years ago, art director David Hillman stunned 'Guardian' readers with his radical redesign and now iconic dual-style masthead. He tells Ian Burrell why he's not sold on its replacement
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The Independent Online

It was Hillman to whom the former Guardian editor Peter Preston turned for advice when he briefly considered - then rejected - turning The Guardian tabloid more than two decades ago. The same designer is also something of an expert on The Guardian's new Berliner shape, having worked on continental newspapers of similar proportions over the past 30 years.

The morning after the party, over breakfast croissants at the west London studios of Pentagram, the design company of which he is a partner, he remains unconvinced of the new newspaper, despite a long conversation the previous evening with the editor, Alan Rusbridger.

It is the masthead that grates most of all. Gone is the Garamond (which was intended to signal stylish features) and the Helvetica (hard news) and in their place is a blue and white logo in a font dubbed "Guardian Egyptian". Hillman says the new look reminds him of "cheap newspapers and freebies".

He says: "It's almost the same blue as Metro. There are these free newspapers in Europe called 20 Minutes, published in France, Germany and Switzerland and very successful - they also all have this blue background to their masthead. I find it cheap. It looks like an upmarket freebie."

Hillman had wondered if the blue masthead might change hue each day, in line with the kaleidoscopic advertising campaign and reflecting the newspaper's increased use of colour. But that hasn't happened.

The Guardian Egyptian he finds "inelegant", failing to represent the values of the newspaper. "My intention from day one was that it should have an identity, different from The Times and The Independent. We wanted a trademark, for want of a better word," he says of the 1988 relaunch, which was backed with distinctive poster ads proclaiming "The Wit", "The Chutzpah", "The Nous" in the same Garamond/Helvetica mix.

Mark Porter, The Guardian's creative director, does not have Hillman's background as a graphic designer, he points out. "He's never gone through the process of creating an identity for a corporation," says Hillman, who has redesigned titles from Holland's de Volkskrant and France's Liberation to the Italian financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore, and who cut his teeth as an 18-year-old assistant on the Sunday Times magazine, learning from such journalistic titans as Mark Boxer and Harry Evans. He says he has been told that the decision to replace the old masthead was only finalised six weeks before relaunch. In The Guardian's own "editor's blog" round-up of its readers' responses to the new product, it said: "Your main gripe is with the masthead. It's criticised for being old fashioned and not a patch on David Hillman's logo that topped the redesign in 1988. Of course that 'classic icon', as lots of you now describe it, was criticised then... perhaps in a week or so you'll come to love this new masthead - they take a while to grow on you."

Hillman makes his criticisms in spite of the scathing reactions he faced in 1988. Max Hastings, the former London Evening Standard and Daily Telegraph editor now writing for The Guardian, wrote in 1988 of how sad he was "to watch the slow death of an old friend". The reader Spike Milligan wrote in to suggest that the editor had had "one meeting too many". The Times scoffed at the idea that any "self-respecting" newspaper designer would allow anything to be positioned above the masthead - then followed suit three months later.

Hillman believes that part of the problem then was that the relaunch was a closely guarded secret, whereas this time round readers and advertisers were forewarned of changes.

But as a long-time Guardian reader, he feels uncomfortable not just with the look of the newspaper but with the tone as well. "What I'm struggling with is whether it's still the Guardian I used to read. None of it reads like reporting. Most of the stuff they have been doing has been feature-driven and my argument is if you are going to do feature-driven journalism then for me the tabloid format is better."

His biggest problem is with the front page. "The type of journalism I've never been happy with is when the front page is full of digests. Once you've read them, you feel 'Why do I have to go on and read 2,500 words? I've got the gist of it.'"

When Hillman redesigned The Guardian with Preston in 1988, they abolished the concept of the "turn", whereby a front-page story concluded in a continuation elsewhere in the newspaper. "The Times was the worst for that. A page-one story would turn to page four and the reader would miss pages two and three," he recalls. "In the new Guardian there are now five or six turns off the front page. Then there is the stuff at the top of the page, those are kind of puffs. It is almost like a contents page."

Hillman is aware that criticisms of the redesign of his own redesign may sound like sour grapes and - as a collector of historic newspapers - is willing to concede that the 1988 model "actually looks pretty grey now". But he remains "proud" that the old design "had a flexibility in it which has allowed it to grow."

He notes the increased importance of newspaper design, pointing out that there was no art department back in 1988 and now The Guardian has "God knows how many people" working in that field. "There's this vast resource in the paper that never existed," he says. "The business of designing newspapers has flourished."

Hillman says he is "struggling" with the pint-sized features section, G2. "I don't dislike the shape or anything, it's just it doesn't have any gravitas," he says. "There used to be those hard-hitting cover stories."

Is there anything about the new paper he likes? He singles out the "people" profile, praising "a very nice, cream-tinted box", one of a number of "nice touches" in "change of texture". The signposting of different sections is "clear and strong". He also thinks The Guardian has scored over rivals who failed to negotiate properly with advertisers before turning compact. "One of the failings of The Independent and The Times was that they didn't talk to advertisers and try to get more friendly [advertisement] shapes that would work on a tabloid page," he says. The result has been to the detriment of both titles, Hillman believes, and readers feel cheated by the ugly looking page designs that sometimes result.

"As something to look at I think the inside is successful - it just doesn't come across on the front page. It doesn't tell you what's going on inside - they've lumbered themselves with that blue stripe and I don't think they know what to do with it."