Submitted by: Print Power 15/02/2016
Whether it’s detailed infographics that explain complex industry trends or long-form journalism that describes tricky financial models, print has a unique ability to get across the most difficult information. What is it about print that allows us to convey highly complex information simply and concisely? Whether in the form of data (via infographics, illustrations and other graphic devices) or long-form journalism, brands are finding that they are able to get across key messages to their customers more effectively by turning to print.
A 2014 book by Naomi S Baron, titled Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, concluded that many supposedly ‘digital native’ university students vastly preferred to read textbooks in print than online, claiming they are more inclined to skim read online, are more easily distracted and encounter greater difficulties in comprehension compared to print. A familiar pattern emerges in case studies, where a combination of time spent reading and understanding text increases when the text is read offline. This is something marketers need to heed, particularly when they are dealing with complex financial and technological information.
Jonathan Milne, Head of Communications for Maersk, the Denmark-owned oil company, commissioned White Light Media to produce the magazine Shelf because, as he states, “We felt that we needed a platform for intelligent editorial to frame the challenges and successes of the industry in a different way. We see Shelf as part of our overall stakeholder engagement activity. The decision to go for print reflected our view that very high production values and the ‘slow journalism’ approach we wanted lent itself best to a print format.” Reflecting Maersk’s declared corporate value of ‘humbleness’, Shelf uses illustration-led design and infographics to deliver a broad and considered survey of some of the major issues facing the North Sea oil industry – an interesting read even to the layman, especially when compared to the dry offerings of comparable corporate reports. Milne is keen to point out that digital communications are still an important part of his remit, but there are certain things print can perform better at, particularly as part of a joined-up (on- and offline) strategy. “It in no way detracts from our desire and ability to use the content across other channels,” he says. “But I find print is a good way to convey complex information to our customers easily. A good-quality print publication is also something that people tend to keep and refer back to.”
The ease of reading print
The sheer physicality of paper products is something that David McKendrick, founding partner of design and editorial agency BAM, firmly believes can never be overstated. “I actually enjoy the physical sense of achievement you get with reaching the end of a piece of print,” he says. “You can see it’s 10 or 12 pages long and you know as you turn the page that you’re getting somewhere. Whereas reading online, you don’t actually feel like you’re having that experience of achieving something. I find that if I’m reading something long-form onscreen, the contrast makes it really physically difficult. Whereas if I read The New Yorker, I find it much easier in print.” Physical discomfort is an under-acknowledged reason why you tend to get eyeballs on a page for longer than on a website. “People would rather spend time with print than staring at a backlit screen,” says McKendrick. “So if there’s a complicated message you want to deliver, having graphics on a printed page is a better option. Plus of course there’s less moving stuff on a page to distract you.” BAM, who list Christie’s auction house in London among their clients, are launching a new magazine in France this October for financial paper Les Echos. “Sometimes we may not even understand the content,” says McKendrick, “because it’s financial articles sent over to us in French. So we have to go by a synopsis they write for us. But they’re often quite stunned about how we can articulate this complicated information by using simple design approaches.’
A great example of print delivering a complex message is Quintessence, a bi-annual magazine produced by Cedar Publishing for BNP Paribas Securities Services, the pan-European global and financial services group. The magazine uses long-form journalism and graphic devices to produce “rich editorial content, drawing from expert insight on the latest developments in global finance.”“Developing high calibre, engaging content for our external stakeholders is critical to staying at the forefront of our industry,” said Mark Hillman, BNP Paribas Securities Services Head of Marketing and Communications. Hillman was so satisfied with Quintessence that he commissioned a second magazine from Cedar. Available in English, French and German, Focus features content tailored to corporate treasurers who have expressed the need to stay abreast of key trends and news affecting their business.
Think, question, engage
David Moretti, the former Creative Director of Wired Italia and now Deputy Creative Director of Wired US, highlights the ability to deliver complex messages with his graph on the politics of climate change. Rather than using actual meteorological data, Moretti’s team chose to focus on the relative activity and noise made by each country attending the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change between the years 1995 ad 2013. What is most telling, points out Moretti, are the moments “when the big nations, the United States, Russia and China, stay silent”. While the band representing the US rises and falls – often corresponding with the balance of power in the Senate – and the Chinese presence is reassuringly significant, the line representing Russia remains eerily below the radar. Unsurprisingly for someone who works at Wired, Moretti stresses that the digital side of his job is vital and that he produces content that can work in conjunction between print and other platforms. When it comes to print, he sees the use of infographics as “creating an instrument to help people understand complexity and have an opinion.”For Moretti, this is crucial to how we think about visual language in modern magazines, which are consumed within the context of a digital landscape. “We use and abuse the word storytelling,” he says. “In a magazine like Wired, we moved from the idea from informing people to communicating with them. There’s a subtle difference. Wired became much more interested in creating a community and provoking a dialogue than simply sharing information.”In other words, he no longer sees his role as merely conveying complex information. Instead, he wants the reader to think, to question, to engage. He talks not simply of different levels of information within the infographics he produces, but levels of interaction. Illustrations are printed in gatefold so they can be physically folded out. He also talks animatedly about how he would ideally create these illustrations on a larger scale – for instance in an exhibition space, where an audience could literally be encircled by an infographic, “like in the film Minority Report”.
Embrace the complexity
If the scale of Moretti’s ambition is contagious, his appreciation of how illustrative skills can bring cold factual data to life is enlightening.
“It’s the Wired voice – the geek voice – at its best,” he says. “The big challenge everyone talks about is whether it’s possible to use this voice to communicate complexity. But there’s some complexity that cannot be compressed. This is the miracle you find in the era of ‘make it simple’ – sometimes you need to spend the time, you need to sweat!” In other words, some things demand reading properly for full understanding. There are all manner of graphic tricks that can help, but as one of Baron’s students discovered, the simplest advantage of the printed page is often that “it takes me longer because I read it more carefully.”