So the Vancouver Sun unveiled its top-to-bottom redesign on Tuesday – paper, web and app. There’s much to say.
Despite the wide ranging changes, of course everyone’s mostly talking about the logo. The optics of eschewing local talent and going to a London firm for the logo aside, the end result is thunderously mediocre. The official explanation – that it somehow evokes both the pacific coast and the Stanley Park seawall – is unconvincing. I see at best a misplaced machine part, or someone’s aimless attempt to make something with green lego. Whatever it’s supposed to be is so abstracted as to eliminate any possibility of joy, whimsy or actual meaning. But at least it shrinks down nicely for an app icon – without losing, or gaining, any meaning in the process.
Print edition: a mixed bag
Moving on from that easy target, let’s look at the rest of the print edition changes, starting with that most iconic component: the front page. The main thing that amazed me on Day 1 was that they removed any actual news from the all-critical “above the fold” area – you know, the top half of the front page that shows in newspaper boxes, or on your doorstep.
Instead, we get the “teaser bar”, or whatever the top strip is called, followed by… a giant photo with no text. Additional teasers run down the left side.
Where is, um, the actual main news story? It seems absurd to hide any primary news text – even the main headline – below the fold. The new layout is clean and modern, I’ll give them that, but I don’t think a desire to see what the news is without dropping the whole paper open is somehow hopelessly old-fashioned. (I notice, too, that the website keeps headlines above the photos.) They call it “front page news” for a reason, but that seems to have been forgotten here. Interestingly, this is not done on the other sections… only the most important one.
[Note: later editions have sensibly restored actual headlines to the “above the fold” area.]
Boxes, boxes everywhere
Meanwhile, the boxiness of the logo seems to have infected the entire layout. Every section is identified with a box of a different colour, which is OK, but the homepage is nothing but boxes – six of them on the “above the fold” half alone on the first day. The “teaser” items at the top now share space with the VS logo, but the result is a bouncing string of boxes with nothing aligned.
That teaser section, referencing a couple of stories inside the paper, has grown in size on every section to where it competes with the main story. The balance is way off now.
All in all, it seems the sort of thing that a senior-year design student would receive back with a bunch of red-pencilled notes and markings.
The rigid box structure of the top area is carried through on all other sections. This seems to preclude any creative breaking-up of the space with silhouetted photos and the like, as has been common practice. As well, the whimsical pairing of different news teasers by utilizing similar headlines and/or photos would be impossible under the rigid new “large/small” approach. I hope this will loosen up as we move forward.
Readers’ letters about the redesign so far have largely quibbled with placement of crosswords, Sudoku and the like. This doesn’t affect me personally, but I know that the daily habits and familiar placement of these things are a comfort, and any time you shake up their placement you’ll rankle someone. It’s a bit of a thankless task.
I’m more concerned by overall changes like the smaller, more closely spaced font used for text. The editorial describing the changes spoke of different design decisions based on the different usages and expectations for different media, and that the print edition was where people expected to do more long-form reading. So why reduce legibility? (Certain items like horoscopes are now absurdly small.)
Finally, I was startled and dismayed to turn to the national-news section and find myself apparently inside the National Post. What?! I’m sure there was always lots of content from the National and Financial Posts, but it feels way less like my Vancouver Sun now that two sections are prominently branded to resemble them.
Finally, why rebrand “Arts & Life” as “You”, other than a compulsion for short titles? Frankly, I don’t want to read about “me” – I want to read about the arts, and about interesting things in… life. A semantic change, but still one I’m unconvinced about.
Online edition: night-and-day improvement
For all my criticism of the print version, I have to switch gears when talking about the website. Looking at it, I feel like I am gasping in fresh air after years of suffering a dusty, stagnated and cluttered site that seemed stuck in the 90’s. The old site was a dog’s breakfast indeed, and so the bar was low for improvement. As just one example, I could never find the “vacation stop” feature despite the many times I had to do it. The new site is clean, smart looking, and even makes good and subtle use of that “boxy” effect, particularly in the new menu.
As well, the concept of “mobile friendly” has finally arrived! Hallelujah!
App: because it’s 2016
The Vancouver Sun app was nearly as frustrating as the website due to its quirky, well-hidden search function and its overall kludgy design. The arrival of Apple’s “flat design” OS is old news now, but the app never updated to match it and felt left behind, design-wise.
Thankfully, it’s a new era here as well. A clean and well-functioning design keeps it simple and accessible. Dark grey has been banished for bright white. You can swipe left or right on articles to move to the next or previous one, respectively. Headlines for articles you’ve already viewed turn grey when in the main list for any section. Overall, it’s now a real, modern app I’m no longer reluctant to use.
A redesign will never please everyone, but this reboot of the Vancouver Sun gets more things right than wrong. It’s unfortunate that the mistakes are in the most noticeable and icon place, the print edition’s front page. And the National Post and Financial Post cross-branding feels intrusive. But overall, it’s a great leap forward. Now excuse me while I find a magnifying glass to read my horoscope….