From: Chris Evans with Massimiliano Mollona, Dexter Sinister & Marina Vishmidt To: Richard Bagley & the staff of Morning Star
In 1987, first-year University student Chris Evans wrote a letter to Morning Star newspaper, a tabloid-format socialist daily founded in 1930 as Daily Worker and published continuously since. The letter suggested — somewhat simplistically — that the paper’s editors had misread the relationship between class and form, or otherwise underestimated its importance. Evans offered to help re-design Morning Star, suggesting that by reconsidering the way the paper looks, it might usefully reposition itself in relation to its audience, both existing and prospective. That this might be done through the newspaper’s design was indicative of the times, i.e., the era of the young upwardly mobile, and a boom period for marketing ‘designer’ culture and PR. Evans received no reply.
On 16 November 2011, Morning Star began a direct campaign appealing for funds to save the newspaper, with then-editor Bill Benfield announcing that the 80-plus-year-old organ was in danger of going bankrupt. Evans wrote to the paper again — 25 years on — once more offering design services, now together with an assembled team of consultants that included graphic designers, a writer and an anthropologist. This time Evans got a reply and an initial meeting at Morning Star’s London office was scheduled. The paper was interested in the prospect of this pro-bono design advice and suggested that the consultant team should proceed and outline its approach in due course.
Now, on 4 September 2013, that course has gone considerably off-course. Evans had approached The Showroom, an independent art organization, to host a series of workshops in order to develop the project. In turn, The Showroom secured funding through a collaborative group of small art institutions organised under the rubric ‘How to work together’. The group then produced the requisite public relations material to describe what it would be doing and why it would be doing it. The project was given a name, ‘Morning Star Rebranded’, along with a brief description. All of this eventually appeared on the internet, framed within the ‘How to work together’ website. On seeing the announcement, Morning Star staff threw up a number of concerns regarding the structure of the funding, the timeframe and the appearance of the newspaper in promotional material. These were seen as an uncomfortable fit with the newspaper’s political position.
Consequently, a public event intended to launch the project at The Showroom on Thursday 5 September 2013 was CANCELLED. In its place, the group has imagined a set of questions and answers that might clarify its motives.
WHY ARE THERE CORPORATE LOGOS ON THE PROJECT WEBSITE?
This might seem strange in the context of a project for an explicitly socialist organisation. The ‘How to work together’ project is principally funded by Catalyst Arts a scheme developed by Arts Council England aimed at helping cultural organisations diversify their income streams and access more funding from private sources. Small art organisations such as The Showroom have had to adapt and navigate the consequences of so-called austerity- era cutbacks.
SHOULDN’T YOU HAVE SEEN THIS CONTRADICTION?
Yes. Just as corporate advertising in Morning Star would undermine its editorial autonomy, we ought to have anticipated how corporate funding would compromise the project. As such, we fully understand Morning Star’s concern that its readership would ‘become alienated by links to big corporations which would be perceived to have a political agenda at odds with the paper’s.’
DOES A LOGO REALLY HAVE THAT MUCH POWER?
YOU MEAN THE WAY IT LOOKS?
Not at all – it’s simply the fact that it’s there.
BUT YOU MUST THINK DESIGN MATTERS TOO. AFTER ALL YOU’RE CALLING THE PROJECT ‘MORNING STAR REBRANDED’, WHICH IMPLIES YOU THINK OF MORNING STAR AS A BRAND YOU WANT TO CHANGE.
Not exactly. We by no means think of the paper as a ‘brand’ in the same sense as we might a commercial product or online service. In using the common term we meant to imply a bit of critical distance relative to the sort of hype it suggests. Indeed, the word branding has become a bit toxic – or at least synonymous with marketing and surface. That’s not what we’re interested in.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO ACHIEVE THEN?
There are two opposing ways to think about design. The first distinguishes between content and form, and considers what form is most appropriate for the content. This approach reacts to an imagined audience, and so works towards forms that are familiar and comfortable. In a word, conventional. But design doesn’t just have to react, it can also speculate: a new form can generate a new audience. Rather than simply reacting to projected desires, this second approach conceives of form and content one and the same thing.
So, as we see it, Morning Star follows the mainstream format of a tabloid yet perhaps this is at odds with the uniqueness of its ideological position. Through consultation with the paper, re-considering the form might attract a new, younger audience in tune with its radical values and vastly increase circulation. This is our starting point: to propose useful ways the paper might achieve this.
JUST BY CHANGING ITS APPEARANCE?
Well, not exactly. We’re imagining that any worthwhile reconsideration would address all aspects of the newspaper’s production and distribution. It seems futile to talk about the way something looks as distinct from the way it’s made. This is what we meant by ‘form and content as the same thing’.
A cursory perusal of the daily titles at any newsagents confirms that the papers look more similar than different. The Daily Mail looks a lot like the Mirror which also looks like the The Sun. It could therefore be easy enough to mistake Morning Star for The Sun.
Or more specifically we can consider the differences between the way the headlines are treated in, say, the Daily Express and the Financial Times. A Daily Express headline is typically 3 to 5 words, set huge in bold type. A headline in the Financial Times is more like 6 to 12 words, always the same mid-size, with a sub-heading that further unpacks the article. This is not to advocate the format of the Financial Times but to illustrate examples where *what’s* being said reflects *how* it’s said.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE WAY MORNING STAR LOOKS NOW?
It’s not only about how it looks; we might also consider other aspects of the paper’s operation. For instance, how the principles of cooperative ownership might be usefully applied to the paper, given that contemporary technologies allow us to radically and realistically rethink these models. This could include considering new approaches to funding, such as crowdsourcing, or distribution through ‘print on demand’ services that allow small and cost-effective print runs. We would like to contribute to a conversation with Morning Star about these options.
The most relevant contemporary models of new media, in the sense that they more readily align with Morning Star’s democratic principles, are websites such as Reddit, The Huffington Post or the countless Tumblr sites that have recently grown to have significant reach and influence. These sites support and foster a more overtly ‘democratic’, two-way system of reportage. Again, the editorial approach is reflected in the way these sites look and work, and vice versa.
BUT TO GO BACK TO MY QUESTION: WHAT’S WRONG WITH HOW IT LOOKS NOW?
Okay, as we see it, there are two things that could be productively reconsidered. First, by echoing the layout and general style of mainstream UK tabloids, Morning Star is prevented from signalling its essential distance from them. It loses its unique voice which creates a false impression: it doesn’t look like what it’s saying.
Second, some of the symbols used, to signal the paper’s ideological orientation to a younger audience, could be seen as anachronistic. With repetition and familiarity, symbols lose their ability to carry meaning. For example a clenched fist rendered as a wood-block print would not mean the same thing to a 15-year-old in Manchester in 2013 as it might have done to a 15-year-old in Manchester in 1936. Symbols have to be reinvented in order to remain potent, they can’t just sit around.
We could go further and say that worn-out symbols restrain Morning Star’s ability to adopt a more productively defiant stance and hence reach an expanded audience. This reminds us of the text below, by writer Mark Beasley, about similarly impotent forms:
‘it seems to me that the recent Occupy movement at Zuccotti Park was marked by an uncannily consistent aesthetics of Western counterculture that recycled all the above: dirty tarps, tie-dye, the drum circle, kids selling roll-ups for a buck, and Bob Marley on repeat. To the extent that this is (was?) a protest born of the digital revolution, on the ground it remained the same as before: dirty bodies dressed in rainbows clamoring to be heard. Could the movement’s failure to rethink its look, its art, its music – its tribal form – be a contributing factor to its (apparent) demise? Make no mistake, the hippies understood the power of *renegotiated form*, and in a way their dress codes were as concrete and contrived as punk’s, whose delinquent silhouette contributed to the legitimacy of its stance. Then, roughly a decade-and-a-half later, Acid house took the “light, sound and pharmacy” of the hippies and twisted it just enough to contrive a new sound, look, and attitude. If it doesn’t have a cohesive and disruptive aesthetic, then it isn’t a movement.’
HOW WOULD YOU DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY THEN?
One approach might be to imagine an expanded vocabulary of symbols that we could develop together with Morning Star. These could initially depart from existing and recognised symbols, like the red star, working instead towards unfamiliar and newly potent forms. We imagine there might be a whole new set of symbols developed for and with the paper.
Symbols become symbols because a number of people agree that they mean the same thing. To foster this collective agreement, we’d suggest putting them into circulation on the internet, posting on social media sites like tumblr. In these settings the symbols become currency, as the act of passing them from one user to another stabilises their meaning. Their value is a consequence of the attention paid to them.
THIS SOUNDS AN AWFUL LOT LIKE BRANDING.
Yes, more accurately rebranding. The original symbols have been devalued through overuse, so it’s time to nominate a new collection. Branding isn’t necessarily a dirty word, as we tend to assume when its associated with the more sinister aspects of corporate business. This is too reductive. Branding can equally be conceived of as a powerful technique to be used for diametrically-opposed political agendas. Clearly, questions of identity are far from straightforward. We should be careful here not to demonise ‘branding’ per se, but to think through, in each case, what its motivations are.
WON’T THESE PROJECTED CHANGES ALIENATE OUR CURRENT READERSHIP?
Possibly. We could discuss ways to avoid this.
Whilst soliciting a new readership, we think that the rebranding could carry the existing one along with it. We shouldn’t exaggerate the distinction between Old and New audiences since it’s surely not that binary. We believe, optimistically, that a change in form might produce a new audience. This could in turn expand the scope of what’s possible to communicate, and instead of existing merely as a lone model of an alternative to commercial newspapers, Morning Star might instigate new positions.
THAT’S A TALL ORDER FOR AN AESTHETIC RE-FIT.
We’re not so naive as to think a redesign is going to change everything overnight, but we do maintain that its form could be a powerful *lever* for precipitating a more substantive shift.
OKAY, BUT WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
We don’t know. This is an admittedly odd design project, for a start it’s the wrong way round. Typically we would have been asked by a client and provided a design brief outlining the project’s criteria and goals. Instead we’ve reversed that order and are speculatively offering a redesign that’s entirely unsolicited. Still, as with any other design task, the first and most important thing is to understand all the paper’s needs and technical constraints. Only Morning Star can supply these. From there, hopefully we can offer another kind of expertise and overview.