Comment: CfE could learn from newspaper design

HIGH concepts are a useful teaching tool, says Rick Instrell
Curriculum for Excellence could learn a thing or two from newspaper page design, argues Rick Instrell. Picture: Toby WilliamsCurriculum for Excellence could learn a thing or two from newspaper page design, argues Rick Instrell. Picture: Toby Williams
Curriculum for Excellence could learn a thing or two from newspaper page design, argues Rick Instrell. Picture: Toby Williams

Like many others I have been critical of the designers of the Curriculum for Excellence for relying on vast lists of pupil outcomes and experiences. Instead I advocate the use of a few abstract “high concepts” which are easy to remember and can support learning across subjects. Let me exemplify the method through a design “rule of thumb” which many have found useful in their own media learning and teaching.

It is usually referred to by the memorable acronym “Crap” coined by Robin Williams (not the late actor). In her classic The Non-Designer’s Design Book she identifies contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity as the key principles required for effective design of page-based texts such as print ads, newspapers and magazines. The contrast principle requires different content elements to look different. Repetition gives a sense of compositional unity to a page or group of pages. Alignment means every page element should be aligned with another. Proximity means items which belong together should be in integrated visual units.

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Consider the front page of The Scotsman. Unless there is an exceptional story, the elements are organised using a modular grid. These are: the masthead which acts as The Scotsman brand; teasers which highlight content items; the lead story and a pair of”wing” stories; an index strip at the foot. Contrast is evident in different font sizes for headlines, subheads and copy and in other visual cues such as different line lengths for the lead and wings and different background colours for the teasers. Teaser background colours may be symbolic of content eg maroon for Hearts and green for Hibs. But often the designer will pick up a colour in the front page photograph, thus helping to unify the whole page.

Colour “rhyming” is an example of repetition which can be used across the whole newspaper. Other repetitions are the use of the Coranto typeface for the headlines and news stories. If you look closely you may notice that the Coranto font in the headline has similarities as well as subtle differences to the masthead font. Coranto is a serif font – the letters end with fine strokes. This contrasts with the sans serif (without serif) font used in the text beneath the masthead (date, slogan ie “Scotland’s National Newspaper”, price and web address), in bylines and in jump-lines which tell the reader where the story continues.

Alignment helps the eye quickly scan and differentiate content. Notice the vertical alignments at the left and right of the front page. Note how the fully justified text produces vertical gutters between columns within the same story and how vertical and horizontal rules are used to separate stories.

Proximity is evident in the content of the four bands as well as in the juxtaposition of headline, image and copy in the news stories.

Effective newspaper design is invisible in that it gives the reader effortless access to the content. Yet the design has to be visible and distinctive so potential readers can quickly select their favourite newspaper from competing titles on the newsstands.

In order to design their own publications, pupils first have to look beyond the informational, persuasive or entertainment content and notice how content has been designed to gain readers’ attention and convey meaning. I have illustrated this using this newspaper but the same principles can be seen in any publication. One can introduce young pupils to design principles using storybooks, film posters and comic strips. Rather than use abstract terms such as “contrast” one can pose questions which prompt children to deduce how a story has been designed to appeal to the audience. For example: Look at the size of the hero and the monster. Why has the artist made them that size? Once pupils have answered such questions they have started to develop the skills necessary to design their own stories.

The power of Williams’ principles lies in their simplicity and broad applicability. High concepts possess simplicity and power. They give learners a firm footing for the many steps that follow. Leonardo da Vinci allegedly wrote: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Many teachers had hoped for simplicity and sophistication in the Scottish curriculum. Alas, all we have is a vast Heath Robinsonesque guddle.

• Rick Instrell is a member of the management committee of the Association for Media Education in Scotland