Could A Redesign Really Rescue USA Today?

With the help of Wolff Olins, USA Today makes its newspaper more like the web, while the website is more like an iPad app.

"Gannett’s 78 newspapers spread over 30 states and two island territories are textbook examples of how to succeed financially in the newspaper business. Most are small, with the average circulation about 34,000, and almost all are extremely profitable." That’s Larry Kramer, now the president and publisher of USA Today, reporting for The Washington Post in 1979.

At the time, newspapers were facing new competition from the growth of television and radio as news media. Gannett’s collection of smaller papers, which delivered local news broadcasts left out, was a hit. But Gannett’s biggest hit came a few years later. When USA Today launched in 1982, it was disruptive. Unlike the standard newspaper of the day, it used heavy images and color. Its stories were small, consumable tidbits that rarely jumped to another page, and it mimicked the mass appeal of news broadcasts. Today, it’s the second-largest newspaper in the United States.

"[USA Today] was like the Internet before the Internet, because a lot of the tools making news successful on the Internet are the same tools," Kramer told Fast Company at a meeting in New York this week. Problem is, the company stopped innovating as the actual Internet appeared. Its profits have plunged as it attempts to transition revenue sources online. On its 30th anniversary, USA Today launched a huge redesign that symbolizes its attempt to catch up. It includes a redesigned website, newspaper, and library of apps. And to top it all off, it replaced USA Today’s static blue-box logo with a dynamic dot that changes depending on what’s happening in the news. When the leading story is about voting, editorial might fill it with a ballot box. On the sports page, the game-winning catch might fill the space, while it might show a celebrity in the Life section of the same edition.

The last dynamic logo we saw was also from a media company that was trying to reinvent itself. When AOL became lower-case and got a period in 2009, it put its logo against a variety of backdrops. This similarity might not be a coincidence. The same design firm, Wolff Olins, helped create both dynamic logos. "To have something static doesn’t seem appropriate for a news organization that changes every single second, so its brand needs to be adaptive in the same way," Wolff Olins design director Lisa Smith tells Fast Company. (Fantasy Interactive designed and developed the digital presence; more on that in a second.)

AOL’s approach to this idea didn’t go over so well with the design community. But Smith says USA Today’s version of the dynamic logo is a different concept. "I would say this is the first kind of activated identity that is specifically related to the content that the business creates," she says. "[AOL’s logo] is much more about art, this is much more specific to their content."

So does USA Today's new logo function better as a symbol of a media company’s promising new identity? Or a desperate attempt to appear relevant? The jury is still out, but its verdict will probably depend largely on whether the brand’s total redesign lives up to the "pulse of the nation" idea it promises.

The new website, created by Fantasy Interactive, looks like more like a tablet app, adding a luxury, full-page ad feel in hopes of attracting better ads. Kramer says about 2 million people see USA Today in print each day, compared to about 50 million people who visit Gannett’s websites each month, but print still brings in more revenue. The hope is that design can change that.

This summer, Gannett hired Kramer and Editor-in-Chief David Callaway to switch focus (if not necessarily add more resources) to digital products. Its redesigned newspaper now references the web with a list of web-only articles to follow, curated social media posts on current events, and QR codes that lead to Internet video.

Meanwhile, the brand’s ever-changing new logo attempts to make its static newspaper identity relevant to every day and every niche, like the Internet. USA Today has always tried to be everything to everybody. In 1982, that strategy earned it mocking nicknames like the "McPaper." Its latest redesign is just the 2012 version of that mission. But even in a new package, can the role of a general interest publication hold ground in a world where audiences can access niche publications on any topic from one device? "There are a lot of people who want to know what’s normal," Kramer offers. "People like to gauge what are people doing … reflecting what we as a society are doing, there aren’t a lot of places that do that."

The new website, which is purpose-designed for the iPad.

"I believe our balls are symbols of who we are and where we’re headed," wrote USA Today designer Sam Ward in a memo about the new logo titled "Cool Balls" that was sent to USA Today employees. "They are not stories, graphics, or illustrations. They are signposts, perhaps; reminders that offer inroads into America’s stream of consciousness."

We’ll see.

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  • Steve Price

    Wolff Olins are (contrary to some of the comments made) in my opinion a extremely reputable agency with some astounding work to boast, this being one of them. I believe that this is a revitalisation of an otherwise tired brand and all but exhausted industry. 
    A new identity can never guarantee survival, but a brand is about what a product/company does, what it offers and how it offers it, not what it says. As long as they keep on this track and follow the suit there is a chance they will again prosper and perhaps this is the springboard?

  • noname

    Well I tried going to my USA Today bookmark for fantasy football updates. Guess what? The page doesn't exist anymore and from what I can tell they no longer provide this information. If they do, it's not part of the fancy redesign. So they have lost one reader in me as I have changed my bookmark to the NBC Sports/Rotoworld fantasy updater. And I happen to think the new layout is horrendous. It probably looks and works great on a tablet, but I'm on a desktop using a mouse.

    The designers did not understand or did not care how a user would interact with the content, they just wanted something splashy and iPad-esque. Fail.

  • Ludvik Herrera

    Fantastic redesign and user experience in the interactive realm. The print version is a nice welcome. However, it is a news paper, a news site, it is not so much about design, it is about the content and the way it is conveyed.

  • Robert Knilands

    I would agree. But most newspaper designers hate content. They don't understand it, and they fear it. That's why most redesigns botch the body type -- designers don't like content.

  • Confused

     So the design firm that totally botched the job with AOL gets another fat deal w/ USA Today? Why do we keep rewarding failure? There's plenty of shops out there.

  • observer

    The concept behind this is solid enough. Circles: all encompassing, the world, your world, 360 coverage, the circle of life, etc. What doesn't work is the blatant use of the word "balls" to describe the concept. It reeks of frat boys and desperation in a rebrand. You can't tell me I'm the only one that laughed at this. You also can't tell me that was the point unless you're The Daily Show or Colbert Report executing a rebrand with the "balls" concept.

  • Arman Nobari

    Designing for a print-product (printed material to be used) has one primary goal above all else: "Let the words do the talking". If no one can read the words, it doesn't matter how nice the design looks, or how sleek the motion design in a promo video is. If they can't read it, no one will bother.

    It is clear to me, as a UI/UX designer, that inconsistencies and usability flaws are not only apparent, but are "blaring" with this redesign. The designer made it look nice, but like every online news source, is far too cluttered. Almost reminds me of the New York Times website, but slapped into a tablet-friendly Wordpress theme.

  • It's Wilder

    I feel for the designer who's job it is to come up with a circle graphic for every page every day. A year from now, they are going to want to shoot the design firm.

  • Robert Knilands

    Designers are not journalists. So this will ultimately fail, just like every other redesign.

  • Robert Knilands

    Diana, it's not a huge step, unless going backward counts.

    As with most redesigns, the body type is a mess. It's way too small and too cluttered. People doing redesigns make this mistake over and over; it's as if they are determined to keep failing in the same ways.

    Of course, the design-based philosophy itself has been a huge failure again and again. No redesign has ever restored relevance or readership for any sustained period of time.

    That's no surprise, though, because designers are not journalists. Relying on them to improve a newspaper is like relying on the Tea Party to "fix" the economy. You get a lot of blather and lot of empty claims, but you won't get any solutions.

  • Robert Knilands

    Mark, I can, and I will say that.

    "Did you even read this article ..." Yes. Nice deflection attempt, though. I see you follow it up with the standard, repetitive, and tired response of: "There are so many more things now!" Of course, then you destroy that entire point by trying to reach back 30 years to compare something from then to something from now.

    If you think a redesign has anything to do with relevancy, then there really is not much hope for you. Again -- designers are not journalists.

  • Mark Rojas

    You can't say that designers are setting them up for failure or killing journalism. Print media has been struggling to survive for some time now.  

    A designer may not know how to correctly and objectively report the news but this is a huge news organization with many journalists on staff -- that is their job. The sole task of the designer is to make it visually appealing for consumers of the news -- and now in multiple platforms. Now we have the internet, smartphones, and tablets and on those devices we have facebook, twitter, pinterest and numerous other ways to consume the news.

    Did you even read this article, it introduced USA Today as "disruptive" - "the internet before the internet." This redesign may not be as disruptive as the one back in 1982 but it is a change to stay relevant -- and profitable. 

  • Diana

    Hi Robert -

    A good designer will work closely with readers to make sure that the design solution meets their needs. While the overhaul isn't perfect (in my opinion - I don't care for the "dot" logo) it certainly a huge step forward in refreshing this brand. 

  • Kyle Conrad

    What's the deal with the changing fonts? Some headlines are serif, some are sans serif, there's no unity across the board.

  • Jawaher

    Having both serif and sans serif headlines is nothing new, but it is used mostly in magazine layouts. I personally like it, makes the layout more interesting.

  • Khalsa Lakhvir Singh

    nice. but the iconography is not entirely impressive. otherwise, a very lively layout!

  • oliver jet

    This looks fantastic. Bright, great layout, and comfortable to read. I would get a subscription to USA Today only if they had the comics in them.