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Francesco Franchi: On the Luxury of Newspaper

Making use of years of experience at award-winning design magazines, Francesco Franchi is now the mapmaker leading an intrepid team of designers and journalists into new terrain: bringing a young audience to newspapers.


There is a loud and strong cry that the newspaper industry is broken and that the form is outdated in this digital era. For designer Francesco Franchi, that negativity smelled like an opportunity.

That opportunity is for editors and creative directors to rethink the medium, and for design to be a central part of the strategy to show what a newspaper can be on its own printed terms, rather than moving the entire newspaper to some social media platform, like Snapchat.

“We need to create, not follow,” says Franchi, now the managing editor of la Repubblica newspaper in Rome, where he has set out to reenvision its structure. Franchi has begun by designing a new 40-page Sunday supplement called Robinson, which derives its name from Robinson Crusoe: a playful but ultimately serious allusion to the idea that culture has become an terrain that needs an expert to help navigate it.

Making use of tightly packed charts, sharply compartmentalized space, and smart, informative graphics, Franchi is the mapmaker detailing the landscape, and for him, Robinson’s journalists are the expert guides. 

Working in newspapers is a slight career turn for Franchi, who previously worked for eight years as the creative director of IL (Intelligence in Lifestyle) magazine. It was at IL that Franchi established his career: His editorial designs have won numerous awards, including the prestigious D&AD and SPD, and his spreads have been exhibited at the V&A Museum in London and the Cooper-Hewitt in New York. Creating functional, dense maps of facts and figures quickly became Franchi’s area of expertise, and these tightly woven infographics earned the Italian language magazine global acclaim within the design community.

Franchi proposes that it’s not just culture that needs to be inventively mapped, but all of the topics that a newspaper covers: The Robinson supplement is the first part of a carefully conceived strategy in redesign the way news is presented and consumed. We caught up with the professor, lecturer, and author of two books on editorial design to discover what his current strategy entails. 

Franchi photographed in Rome for 99U.

Your day-to-day experience at la Repubblica must be very different from that of IL, which is of course a monthly magazine.

Yes. The whole structure of IL was different. I was able to develop a studio inside the newsroom, IL studio. There we worked for different clients, like banks and fashion brands, developing magazines for them as well as producing our own.

Here it’s very different, a lot faster, because it’s a daily newspaper. We have a meeting every day at 11 a.m. where we discuss the newspaper of the day, but then we also try to plan for the day after. Then we have another meeting at 3 p.m. about the next edition. The working day usually ends at around 11:30 p.m. 

As managing editor, I’m doing less design now, less infographics. I’ll sketch ideas, but then pass them on to my team most of the time. And I’m working with different teams, with different newsrooms. At IL, we were 12 to 15 people in total. Now I’m working with a whole newspaper, and all the various sections of it, so the complexity and dynamics are different. 

The experience is unique because I have to think about every kind of topic – culture, news, books, music, politics, the economy. I’m not talking about design most of the time, as was the case at IL. I’m talking about all the different kinds of thing that you’d find in the newspaper. I’m not in a design studio really. Here it’s more…serious.

You’ve mentioned being hired to rethink structures, what exactly are you rethinking at la Repubblica? And what role does design play in your reconceptualization of what a newspaper can be?

Well, lets start with Robinson, the new cultural insert that I mentioned. I wanted to introduce a new flow with it, and create a new kind of flat plan inside the supplement, stemming from the ideas and approach that I took with IL. We decided first to introduce a lot of infographics into the supplement, and to merge different languages to make it approachable. The front of the supplement has a long flow of news stories in it, a bit similar to the kind of long-form writing you find now on the web.

With this new format, we use the kind of design and structuring elements you’d find in a magazine. For example, we might have a story cutting into one spread that continues in a later part of the supplement. The text is big because our readership is quite old. But with Robinson, we’re also trying to grab the interest of a new, younger readership; the design has to appeal to different demographics.

We’ve done this by nodding to old issues of la Repubblica – we’ve used early design details from when it was first established in 1976. We use these details to emphasize to the old readership that this is something that they’ve experienced before, but at the same time, maybe the way we’ve treated the elements will catch the eye of younger people.

The idea, in the end, is to embrace more of the young; that’s a large part of why I’ve been brought in. To catch the younger readership while still maintaining our established, older one. My target is the people who aren’t buying newspapers anymore.

How else are you using the physical format of the newspaper toward that end?

There is an age group that we’ve completely lost who won’t buy newspapers anymore. Or it’ll be hard to catch them. It’s the generation a bit younger than mine. But I think there is a generation that we can catch: the age below that one. I think we can catch them in part by changing the format of the newspaper, and realizing that we don’t need to replicate something that we have digitally in the form of a newspaper. Instead we need to think of the paper as something complementary.

It’s about keeping breaking news as digital, and then thinking about the paper as something more luxurious; something you can read on the weekend. We need to reconsider the actual format of the newspaper to do so: maybe use less pages, and then every day include some kind of well-designed supplement. I like the idea of different weeklies with different topics, one on each day of the week. We also need to think about the distribution channels.

Interesting. In what way?

If you think about the delivery start-up model, you’ll understand what I mean. Young people get things delivered to them all the time. Food with Deliveroo, laundry with Zipjet, on-demand cleaners through Book A Tiger. We need to think about how we as a newspaper can fit in with the on-demand economy. People aren’t going to go out and buy the newspaper. The newspaper has to go and find people.

There are a lot of ways we can do that. For example, this weekend, we did a festival in Bologna, in the center of Italy. La Repubblica organized it so that our readership and our journalists could meet. There was music, books, talks about different topics. It’s just one way that the newspaper can go into the city to find new readers.

You’re talking about community and building up networks, as opposed to finding some kind of format that can replace print. Around the advent of digital journalism there was of course this excitement around the idea that the iPad and apps were going to save newspapers and print magazines, an idea that quickly faded away. Now print media isn’t investing in tablet versions of their magazine. Broadly speaking, what many are borrowing from digital is the idea of developing networks, communities, and finding alternative models to bring in revenue based around events.

Yes, the tablet versions of magazines were a big failure. If you compared the number of people that downloaded an issue with the ones that actually started reading it, there was a huge gap. It’s not something that I think can’t work at all, but we saw that the system wasn’t working properly after lots of companies invested their money and resources into trying to develop the tablet versions without much response.

At the same time that was happening, we also noticed that there was a market exponentially growing, and that was the market for independent magazines. Young magazine makers found in the internet a new way of distributing. I’m thinking of the U.K.-based company Stack, for example, which sends subscribers a different independent magazine every month in the mail.

There is a market for the new, independent magazines. And as that market has grown, with it have come new shops and places where you can buy them. With this, we noticed a renewed interest in paper. I don’t believe in the tablet version of magazines, but I believe in the websites. There are some things that you can read on paper, and other things that are more useful to have on your iPhone.

It’s about recognizing how the two can live together, and the independent magazines have shown us the value that print can have as more of a luxury item.

A lot of the best newspaper supplements are paying a lot of attention to design and writing in the independent magazines you describe – the teams behind ZEITmagazin and the New York Times Magazine, for example, often cite independent titles as key inspiration.

Monocle has been a huge reference point because of what the company was able to create. While it’s niche in many ways, it was able to create something that people wanted to keep and use to show who they are. The magazine is something that you see people carrying in their pocket, and you’re like, “That’s a Monocle person.” Being seen with an issue of Monocle changes the way people think of you. Yes, the kind of magazine you read can be an accessory, defining you to others – this was definitely the case predigital, too. You might be a Dazed & Confused reader, or maybe you’re a bit more The New Yorker. What you have on your coffee table says a lot.

It’s how la Repubblica once was, in the beginning. If you had a rolled-up la Repubblica in your pocket, you were considered in a certain way. This is what we need to think about now. I remember the people at my university in the 80’s, with la Repubblica sticking out of their bags. I thought of them in a certain way.

The model that we’re thinking about, then, is how to work in a niche and assert the character of the newspaper. It’s about creating a very strong identity for the newspaper and its supplements, through its visuals but also its content. That’s where its power to sell will ultimately come from.

It’s about having the courage to say things in order to reach a niche. Sometimes we are scared to publish something, but it’s important to those things that we might be nervous about, to speak out and have an identity. From independent magazines, we’ve also realized that quality is key – that’s why people are open to spending up to $20 on a magazine. Independents concentrate on the quality of the illustrations, of the paper, of the design. We’re thinking about how to be niche and concentrate on quality, while also being mass market.

There’s a danger, though, of thinking about a newspaper as an accessory, as a marker of identity, if the look is only communicated by the design. While there are a huge range of independent titles that are beautifully designed, a lot of the beautifully designed ones you mention are coming from the design community as opposed to communities of writers, so in many cases, the quality of the writing isn’t as tight as the design.

There is no form outside of content. For every spread – everything you ever start when doing editorial design – you need a strong journalistic idea. You start from the content with speaking with editors, writers. This is very important. Throughout my career I’ve been very lucky because I’ve always been around interesting people in the newsroom. A designer in the newsroom has to be able to change the way the editor sees things while also learning from her, and while interpreting what she says from a design perspective.

You discuss the difference between representation and interpretation a lot in your book, Designing News. There’s a real love of infographic design within the design community, and we’re quite saturated with examples of it right now. What do you look for when judging information design? What are your criteria for a great infographic?

I try to judge an information graphic first by whether it is functional or not. Sometimes a work is beautiful, but difficult to read and understand. Sometimes it’s better to have something simple: have it less designed and more clear. Sometimes it needs to be immediate. That’s important. For example, when I’m designing an infographic I always ask myself whether it’s something that everyone will understand. Simplicity and immediacy: These are the things I most often think about.

Where do you stand on Edward Tufte’s 1983 term chartjunk – the notion that all visual elements in charts and graphs that are not necessary to comprehend the information actually distract the viewer? Can too much ornament and decoration be misleading?

It depends on your audience and your project. If you’re working on something related to marketing and advertising, you can have decoration and elements that are not properly related to the story or news content. When you’re working on a newspaper or a breaking news story, though, you have to stay close to the content.

Do you remember when you first became interested in infographics, diagrams, and editorial design?

When I was younger, I liked newspapers and magazines a lot. I made my first magazine when I was 10 or 11, a magazine about bicycles. After graduating from university, I worked in a design studio in Milan and infographic projects were sent my way, which I enjoyed. We did a few for Corriere della Sera, which is another newspaper in Italy.

Later you did your master’s dissertation on editorial and newspaper design, graduating in 2007.

The title was “Re Designer.” Re in Italian means “king.” The idea was that the designer can play an important role inside the newsroom. My idea hasn’t changed: It’s a very interesting moment for designers to be working in this field. A lot of things are happening. Editors are considering new strategies. Designers are acquiring new kinds of roles.

What advice would you give to young designers entering the newsroom?

We need to speak the same language as young people. It doesn’t mean moving the whole newspaper onto Snapchat. We need to create, not follow. It’s not the internet we’re designing for, after all; it’s a newspaper. It’s about the content. If you put the same content onto Instagram or Snapchat, it’s obviously not going to be the same. So it’s about working on the content, making it strong and engaging in a way that keeps the attention of young people. Bringing old ideas, structures, and journalists onto new channels is not the solution. It’s important that people entering at this particular moment understand older journalists and the history of the job. It’s through that that they’ll be able to think about designing content in a different way. We shouldn’t lose the idea of a journalist and what they can do. For example, I think about my parents: They found in journalists an idea that they could follow, almost in the same way that they followed one particular newspaper or magazine and could identify with it. We should work on the design so that it’s contemporary, but we also have to work on the content, on the quality and depth of the journalism, and designers have to recognize this. It’s important that a designer listens, reads, and learns from older, established journalists. There needs to be a strong relationship between the two sides of a newsroom – editorial designers and the editorial staff must inform and communicate with one another.

Madeleine Morley

Madeleine Morley is a design and architecture writer based in Berlin. She studied English literature at Cambridge University and went on to complete an MA in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She has written for Creative Review, AIGA, Monotype, magCulture, AnOther, and The Guardian among others.