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The Scotsman redesign review: Is the relaunch radical enough to save the paper?

The new Scotsman in print is a very handsome thing. The new fully responsive beta version of Scotsman.com is a big improvement on the old site.

Of course, the big question is: will a redesign solve the troubles facing the Scotsman? Would a respray job magic away the travails afflicting VW?

With sales plummeting at a rate which recently prompted one former editor, John McGurk, to plead for publishers Johnston Press to put the Scotsman “out of its misery”, everyone knows cosmetic changes alone will not save the near 200-year-old institution.

But first, a declaration of interest. In fact several declarations of several interests.

Declaration of interest one: I, and my partner at Palmer Watson, Ally Palmer, have history with the Scotsman. Good history. We’ve both held various roles with it and probably wouldn’t be where we are today without having held those roles. We have friends and former colleagues who remain at the Scotsman and for whom we have huge professional respect and wish nothing but the best. When we were there the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday were great papers winning big international awards year after year for design and content (and continued to do so for a time after our departure).

Declaration of interest two: We were approached by Johnston Press to be involved in this redesign. We didn’t get the job. We’re not bitter. Honestly. Pamplona-based Javier Errea, who did get it, is one of the best in the business – a really nice guy and a friend.

Declaration of interest three (last one): We said to Johnston Press when we spoke to them that we’d love to do everything we could to help the Scotsman, it being the paper closest to our hearts. We pitched our pitch, and if they’d come back to us and said 'OK, let’s do it but we can’t pay you a penny', we’d have done it anyway. They didn’t. They didn’t answer our follow-up phone calls or emails for several weeks. We’re not bitter. (Really, we’re not.)

Javier Errea couldn’t do a bad redesign job if he tried. So it goes without saying that the new Scotsman is a good-looking Scotsman.

The type is nice. It is on-trend strong serif for most display with very little use of sans. The body text is smoother and easier on the eye, even if it is not overly friendly to those with less than perfect eyesight.

The graphic details and colours are nice. Very fine rules, a few subtle flourishes here and there, turquoise, yellow, purple and orange (no old-style red or blue) and nothing overly showy. Restrained elegance is the overriding feel. (I am, I confess, a little confused as to the point of using topic hashtags between subheadings and bylines, but that’s a small point.)

The approach to layout and use of grids is fine. There’s no real departure in page layout, but there’s a lot more integrated white space which helps most pages feel lighter and cleaner.

The masthead and thistle are now stark black, which is in keeping with the slightly austere, clinical feel of the the overall design and which the marketing people will doubtless claim harks back to the Scotsman’s black-and-white newspaper-of-record heritage.

It’s another estimable design job to add to Javier’s portfolio of estimable design jobs.

Regular Scotsman.com visitors can only be delighted by the digital revamp. At desktop widths the structure feels a little confusing and on mobile it doesn’t function as smoothly as you might hope, but in the tablet mid-range widths it is pleasing to read and use.

I was slightly disappointed by the use of Utopia for headlines, but the same font works well for text. There are also occasions when you feel that you would like more than just the article headline to entice you to read the story, and of course some users will impatiently await the arrival of comments before making the switch to the new version. But all in all a much improved experience.

Naturally, the changes are not exclusively cosmetic.

The PR puffery pumped out in the name of Johnston Press Yorkshire and Scotsman Publications managing director Helen Oldham (and how indy supporters will rail at Scottish national papers being given secondary billing to an English provincial set-up) featured this sentence: “The style and tone of the title will be a mix of traditional with contemporary and there will be an increased focus on content that will appeal to an audience right across Scotland.”

It would be very hard to come up with a more vacuous statement in support of a newspaper revamp.

“Readers will also notice subtle differences to the iconic brand’s masthead, which is being tweaked as part of the redesign,” trumpets Oldham in the press release. This has resonance. I have been involved in several redesigns of the Scotsman when part of the staff (generally coinciding with the arrival of a new editor as opposed to coinciding with the requirements of a visual update) and masthead tweaks were always a mandatory yet superfluous requirement of these exercises.

And indeed each character in the new masthead has been redrawn, but I suspect that 99 per cent of readers will have failed to notice this. That said, the decision to strip it back to black is a brave call and a good one.

What of the “increased focus on content”? These are detailed on page two by editor Ian Stewart, who is among the most respected senior editorial people in Scottish newspapers (and someone on whose behalf I had the pleasure of putting together many Scotsman front pages, some of them even before deadline).

Stewart talks of a new content mix and strengthened business coverage, but the main thrust is four new “channels”: Future Scotland (innovation, creation, growth), We Know Scotland (key facts, trends), Giving Back (community groups) and Heritage (history). We will have to wait and see how these channels develop. Giving Back kicked off today with four news features on two pages, led by an interview with Sir Ian Wood, all of which was fine but I was somehow expecting something different.

So will it save the Scotsman? Will an improved typographical and colour palette plus some nifty use of vertical space and some new content channels arrest the decline? I would love to think so, but I am not sure.

In his intro piece, Stewart states: “There will be a radically updated modern new content mix that will better reflect the changing, growing, vibrant Scotland we live in.”

When we talked to Johnston Press they asked us what we would do, and we advocated a start-again strategy for the print version. Reinvention. A genuinely radical rethink. We said we felt it would be the only way to connect with a new audience. We said we couldn’t commit to a cosmetic facelift.

This revamp has resulted in a more contemporary version of the Scotsman, which given the strictures of job losses and budget cuts at the paper is an impressive feat in itself. Yes, it is a little more than a cosmetic facelift, and online it is a huge step forward. Whether that is enough to save the print version remains to be seen.

Terry Watson is a design and editorial consultant with Edinburgh-based Palmer Watson, which has led more than 50 print and digital newspaper relaunches around the world

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