• Typographic Design

Crunching Numbers

The result is a solution that is smarter, more efficient, and more legible and that serves a needed purpose. It is the definition of good design.

In all the media frenzy over its new design, something has been overlooked that goes to the core of what The Wall Street Journal is: the appearance of the stock listings. Arguably the signature component of the WSJ, the listings of financial information have been completely reworked from a typographic point of view.

The Journal commissioned Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones of Hoefler & Frere-Jones to create a new way of rendering the listings pages. The designers evaluated what was in use and determined several ways in which the information could be better presented, taking into account the challenges inherent in newspaper design. As Hoefler notes, “The need to set small type on a narrow measure poses its own problems before you even get to the hurdles of cheap paper, ink squeeze, and presses that run at breakneck speeds.”

Among many issues, they observed that the numerals could be difficult to distinguish: 6, 9, 3, and 8, when printed with ink on newsprint, tend to look similar. Same for the 2 and 5—not small details when one considers the importance of this information. In addition, there was not enough differentiation in the weights of the text, making it more difficult for the scanning eye to seek out highlighted information.

Frere-Jones points out that stock listings are the “most complex and specialized part of a newspaper, with their own specific restrictions. Entire lines have to be set in boldface for emphasis, though the page grid never allows for extra space.” Frere-Jones and Hoefler created an entirely new typeface, HTF Retina, that addresses these problems with a type system that has refined letterforms with 10 different weights, developed to work within a common set of widths.

The varying text weights improve legibility and enable the settings to be calibrated for each individual printing press used across the country, ensuring a uniform appearance for the Journal. Perhaps most significantly, the new type enables the setting of more lines per vertical inch, allowing more economy of space while actually increasing legibility. It took a year to develop, refine, focus-group test, and produce just this one aspect of the redesign. And it’s a part that most people won’t even notice.

But that’s the point. By starting out with a mandate to make the section better—but keep the personality the same—the designers were given the opportunity to rethink the presentation of the text as a complete endeavor. The result is not a flashy, attention-getting trick but a solution that is smarter, more efficient, and more legible and that serves a needed purpose. It is the definition of good design.

The paradox of the whole exercise is that those who are in the business of business (and, for that matter, the rest of us) can get their quote information in real time at their desks. They don’t need to wait until the next morning to see a printed version of the closing prices. The Journal’s reproduction of the information seems to be, at this point, more for the purpose of historical record. Ironically, it is best suited for leisurely, non-technologically inclined (ahem, older) readers—the opposite of the demographics the Journal is aiming for.

Nevertheless, The Wall Street Journal has taken what was adequate and made it excellent. And while the results don’t jump off the page, they work in many ways to make the publication better. As one of the participants in a focus-group review session reportedly commented, “I know this is better, but I’m not sure how. I have no idea what you did.” High praise indeed, and a goal we can apply to any area where good design is required.

— Alexander Isley


Adapted from an essay that first appeared in reveries, an online marketing journal.

© 2005 Alexander Isley Inc.