Tom Dennis meets a bona fide Editorial Design master whose fresh, clean approach has won him awards and respect around the world
On 26 March this year, Mark Porter announced his departure from the only newspaper ever to be awarded a D&AD Black Pencil for editorial design. In his 14 years' service to the paper, Porter helped redefine the way The Guardian's journalism was delivered. In 2005 he took the lead role in re-designing one of the most revered editorial blueprints of all time. In 2007 he bonded The Guardian's website to its print edition to critical and commercial acclaim. During his tenure, he was the recipient of D&AD Yellow and Black Pencils, SPD Gold Awards, and received an award for the clarity and readability of his design work from the Plain English Campaign.
Enviable accolades for any design professional - and not bad for a modern languages graduate with not a single hour of formal editorial design training to his name.
Many designers would have recoiled at the challenge of redesigning a national broadsheet with a heritage and identity stretching back to 1821. Others would have attempted to stamp their own identity over it in an act of iconoclastic egotism. Not Porter; he simply drew on his years of expertise. Already acutely familiar with his audience, he produced a design code that his readers immediately identified with: "I knew that it had to be surprising, and probably a little perverse and counter-intuitive," he states, describing precisely what The Guardian's 2005 redesign delivered.
"It was very clear that no matter how much it changed, it still had to look and feel like The Guardian," explains Porter. "Part of that came from an approach to the organisation of the elements on a modular grid, and the use of space - the principles we carried over from the old design."
Porter explains that while David Hillman's celebrated 1988 redesign of the paper was a landmark, it was also rigidly stuck in existing editorial principles. In other words, while Hillman reinvented The Guardian's identity, he hadn't necessarily reinvented the experience of engaging with the paper.
"When you redesign a newspaper you have to work with innumerable constraints and conventions," says Porter, who, under the brief of Editor Alan Rusbridger to take the paper to a Berliner format, proposed a more fluid approach. "The pages had become very monotonous because all the stories were tending to be the same length, so we proposed more short stories and more long stories, but less in the middle range. This made for more varied pages and a more interesting journey for the reader," he explains.
There is no better example of this in the redesigned Guardian than the Eyewitness spread. Here, photojournalism is allowed to breathe. A simple caption delivers fact, but the story is told through the imagery. It may seem a simple page to design, but the thought process that went into achieving it, and the design principles it embodies, are far more complex, according to Porter.
"As readers have less and less time to engage with newspapers, visual journalism has to play a bigger role. This is true on every level and page, but Eyewitness is an extreme example. Most readers will not read more then 20 per cent of the words in an edition of The Guardian, and a picture that grabs their attention and engages them for a minute or two can be more rewarding than reading a 1,000-word article, and take much less time.
"It also helps that a Berliner spread is just the right size to fill the field of vision when held comfortably in the hands, so when the picture is sharp front-to-back and shot from human eye-level, you really feel like you're part of the scene."
This example hints at Porter's magazine-led approach to editorial design. In 1999, he redesigned the paper's G2 and Weekend supplements with then-design director Simon Esterson. Each supplement placed a huge emphasis on photography, allowing the feature-led supplements to tell stories normally reserved for quality monthly magazines. Here, Porter's design experience with Benetton's Colors magazine, The Evening Standard's ES offshoot, and the aborted first UK launch of Wired shone through.
"I worked in magazines for many years before I got involved with newspapers. and there I collaborated very closely with photographers and photo editors to get the right pictures. Photography, illustration and infographics are essential in almost every newspaper or magazine - the combination of great images and information design is what makes a visually satisfying publication."
The Guardian's redesign introduced the notion of infographics and data charts to a broader reader - but not without significant thought. Porter's design ethic seems to revolve around the need for information; there is no place for spurious page tools and window dressing in his projects.
"I encouraged the use of simple single-column charts and graphs that can convey one or two simple facts in an instant - that is often more useful to the reader than a complex double-page spread loaded with information. But again, it has to be relevant and intelligently produced to be worthwhile."
Yet within this infographic and photojournalistic approach, Porter values the core design foundations of a solid grid and judicious typeface use just as highly as the particular image elements.
"Some kind of grid is always essential," he explains. "A large part of the job in editorial design is to bring order to a collection of different elements, and the grid helps us impose that order. But grids also have their own aesthetic qualities, too, and my design is probably more grid-based than many other designers, because I believe that the mathematical properties of grids can enhance the reading experience. I don't think that grids are restrictive; a bit of underlying discipline is actually liberating, because it leaves the designer free to devote more attention to type and image."
For English-language readers, this becomes clearer when examining the foreign language titles Porter has worked on. By removing the immediate understanding of the words on the page from examples such as Pºblico and Persoonlijk, the solidity of the grid-based design is clearly apparent.
Each of these papers is also a product of Porter's expert design eye. Grids and cover image use withstanding, the mastheads and typefaces closely mirror The Guardian's bespoke serif, Guardian Egyptian, a bespoke font designed by Christian Schwartz and Paul Barnes.
"When Paul did some sketches of what became Guardian Egyptian, I could immediately see that it had the qualities we needed - it felt intelligent, classic and subtle, but also sharp and modern.
"It was a fascinating experience developing the font. Early in the process I was very hands-on about the details, but in the end I understood that you shouldn't look at individual characters in isolation, and that it was better for me to be very clear about my requirements, but at the same time give Paul and Christian the space to do the design."
Porter goes on to talk about the basic, universal principles in editorial design, and how - as Pºblico and Persoonlijk prove - there are universal foundations that can transcend language. He says these principles are supplemented by an understanding of the visual culture you're working in, and the reader you're designing for.
"I've been working on a magazine in Paris where the previous design wasn't really working, but it did look distinctively French," he recounts. "So I tried to think like a French designer in order to come up with a new design that follows those universal principles of good design, but still feels French."
This identity and culturally astute approach to design also forms the basis of his digital efforts. Like his print work, Porter believes a research-rich approach to digital is the key to a successful project, where understanding the audience's character is key. He treats online the same as print up to a point, however, an attitude he repeats when talking about designing for display devices such as the iPad. Just because you can do something with digital doesn't mean it's necessary - good editorial design is as much about knowing what to leave out as it is about filling a page. Similarly, he believes devices like the iPad shouldn't merely mirror a print edition with a few added bells and whistles: "In time, we will find a way to make digital publications that have the readability and design sophistication of print, and the full functionality of digital," he says.
Porter believes that the digital realm is still restrictive for editorial designers, and he's right, of course. Usability is always the foremost concern in any editorial website design brief, and given the requirements for keeping multiple browsers happy and the restrictions of typeface use, it could hardly be described as a designer's paradise.
What is exciting though, Porter reflects, is the reaction that the wider print industry is having to the threat of digital.
"It's interesting to see smaller niche magazines experimenting a lot with production techniques - to make the magazine an object with tactile properties as well visual ones - and I think that's a good direction for them. But the more commercial end of magazine publishing is a business like any other, and most businesses will constantly be trying to cut costs and improve profit margins, which does not make for an environment in which creativity can flourish."
It's an apt position to take, given his own accomplishments in editorial design. Porter's work for The Guardian newspaper, its website and the various foreign language titles on which he's made his mark may have inspired countless creatives in many fields, but his true achievements lie in delivering design solutions that are both creatively brilliant, and commercially successful.
With the echoes of 'print is dead' still reverberating around the design community, this makes Porter's achievements even more remarkable. Not just because he "fell" into editorial design, but because his work has come to stand for a daring, intelligent style of editorial design mimicked across the globe.
In his new life as a consultant and practitioner at Mark Porter Associates, he has pages and pages of intelligent, stylish, but most importantly accessible editorial design experience to draw upon. But Porter's core principles remain unchanged - there is no magic formula. Good editorial creations are the product of knowing and connecting with your viewer on all levels: "Readers respond to publications because of their unique personalities - which come from the design, editing and writing combined."