||In September 2005, Koos Staal travelled to Kuala Lumpur in order to update the design of the most widely read English-language daily in Malaysia: The Star.
In 2003 The Star had adopted a style designed by Staal & Duiker. The time had come for an update.
Here is a diary of Koos' days on this job, as published in the November issue of the journal Mediafacts.
Monday 22 August 2005
You've got mail! From Kuala Lumpur, for Staal&Duiker graphic designers at Haren (Groningen, the Netherlands). From Teh Eng Huat, one of The Star's chief editors:
Hi Koos. r u interested yo help us in the star revamp again... this time it is going to be done fast... i mean very very fast..... wl let u know the details once i finalise the concept and deadlines... cheers teh
The next day its sequel arrived:
can u be in kl frm sept 1-15.
This crisp style of communicating is typical of working methods at The Star: conceived today, on the streets tomorrow. No lengthy procedures or exhausting discussions. That rather suits me. Right! So it's head-over-heels to Kuala Lumpur.
The Starteam : Aselan, Raj, David,Koos, Teh.
Sunday 4th September
The first meeting with managing editor Teh Eng Huat and New Media Projects manager David Yeoh. So what's the idea, boys? Teh says he wants the paper to have an entire makeover. The current style after almost two years has become too static, the layout team are making near-identical front pages every day. That should change. Today's paper must look different from yesterday's and tomorrow's. Also, the items inside tend to look drab. 'We want to reach the young people. Easy to read.'
Moreover, they want to start a daily paper aimed exclusively at the young. It already has a title: All the rage. A free, compact, eight-page newspaper, that is folded around The Star and is distributed five days a week around universities and colleges in Kuala Lumpur and in surrounding areas. It will start with an initial circulation of 15,000 and will be paid for entirely by ten sponsors. 'We want you to design this paper first. And we're planning to launch it a week from tomorrow!'
I am given a key-cord with a pass card and a pin code, so that I can enter at any time, day or night. 'Suppose you get inspiration in the middle of the night', Teh says hopefully. We close the session after drawing up a brief list of priorities for the coming twelve days.
Back at the hotel, jet-lag keeps me awake. Might a s well spend my time usefully. I switch on my laptop to get started on the students' paper. All the rage doesn's strike me as a good title for such a paper. It should have a good, resounding title that goes right to the point. Like the brand names that the target group are so fond of: 'Diesel' or 'Nokia'. How about abbreviating it to RAGE ... and wait, a hyphen after the R makes it R-AGE, which can be read as Our Age. To heighten the in-crowd feeling, I enclose it in a pair of good sqare brackets, as if to exclude the wider community.
Not bad for a first start. This puts me in a positive mood, even at 2.30 a.m.!
Monday 5 September
Off to my workplace in the tower block next to the hotel. Walking the fifty-metre route between my hotel and the offices of The Star will for the coming fortnight be virtually my only contact with the outdoor world. There in the mornings and back again late at night. The sultry, stifling heat is so intense that I am always glad to return to air-conditioned spaces. My workplace is being equipped for me with a refrigerator for water and fruit juice, a tin of biscuits, a bag of Nescafé and sweets. I'm being pampered.
When Teh drops by, I show him my first version of the [R-AGE] logo. He likes it. He likes it even better when I tell him I don't want to give the logo a fixed place, but will have it floating freely over the front page. You may rip it up, put it upside-down or at an angle, etcetera. He's delighted: "The kids will love this freedom".
Then it's time to get started on a page layout: a summary outline, choice of typeface and colour scheme. Gradually a light and open layout emerges. To contain a lot of short news items, free-standing images and a comparatively great deal of white. In the existing paper they consider white a 'waste of space', but here it is appropriate.
Tuesday 6 September
Teh says that at 4 pm we must have a brief chat about our planning. The printer is by now rapidly emitting page sketches and [R-AGE] is taking shape. At four, up to a dozen men and women crowd into the newsroom, all of them in some way involved with [R-AGE]. Apparently they are expecting a full presentation about what their paper, which is due to appear six days from now, is going to look like. Fortunately I can show them enough sketches so as not to disappoint them. These always are exciting moments: with the unveiling of the sketches, the project that these editors have been working on for quite a while, suddenly materialises. Their product becomes tangible. If it goes down well, it will hugely boost everyone's enthusiasm.
Wednesday 7 September
Set to work, to formulate the guidelines and specifications of the [R-AGE] layout, so that the layout team can get going on their first issues. This means that part of the project is now out of my hands and dependent on the skill, talent and insight of The Star's designers. You may do no end of designing and putting down guidelines, but in the end the project stands or falls with the quality and enthusiasm of the designers carrying out the work and of the material they get to work with. This will always be a point of concern, not only here but with any newspaper.
Teh puts before me a draft that his own people have made for a planned weekly supplement in A4 format about ringtones and the hypes surrounding mobile phones. With a circulation of 225,000, for distribution only in Klang Valley. Its title: MyRingIT ('Ringit' is also the Malaysian currency unit). Teh is not happy about this sketch, and would I have a look at it. And quickly too, because the supplement is to be launched on September 16th! The afternoon goes on thinking up variants of the RingIT logo and cover.
I heard it rumoured that they want to emply a promotional bus to advertise [R-AGE]. I can't stop myself from doing some sketches for such a bus: one which instead of windows has large screens showing music and promotional videos; the bus as a newsroom; as an Internet café; as a backdrop for stage shows; etc.
Meanwhile, I occasionally remember that I came to revamp The Star and realise that that will be quite a job, while my limited time is being spent on [R-Age] and now also RingIT. Anyway, this has to be ready by Friday, so from then on I'll be able to concentrate fully on the 'main paper'.
Thursday 8 September
A session with the editors of all the supplements and sections. Their drift is that they want a more markedly individual face for their sections. The editor of The Sunday Star feels that the Sunday edition is too similar to the weekday paper. Two years ago, that was just what they wanted, but now they realise that the Sunday edition arrives at a very different moment in people's reading routine and should therefore breathe a different atmosphere. I suggest that we should work towards three styles: a 'news' style for the paper as a whole and for the regional and news sections, a 'features' style and a SundayStar style.
I am putting in working days of twelve hours and more, but that is not exceptional here. They all work hard, and very long hours.
Friday 9 September
In the afternoon the offices are buzzing with excitement. The Star's 34th anniversary is being celebrated in great style. We drive out to The Star's modern printing works at Shah Alam, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur. All employees are present. Large tents are pitched outside, with an elaborate buffet meal. The Minister of Transport is there, as well as Miss Malaysia. Speeches by the MD (Managing Director) and the Minister. Then some thirty employees are honoured for completing 15 years of service. This is followed by an important moment, which has been eagerly anticipated by all: the MD announcing the bonuses. Everyone working for The Star will every year, depending on the financial results, receive a bonus in the form of one or more extra months' pay. That may add up to quite a sum. In 2000 the company did so well that everyone, irrespective of their rank, received thirteen extra months' pay. This year it's just two. As soon as MD Steven Tan has pronounced these words, people are massively sending text messages to the home front, and then make for the buffet, while the winners of the Malaysian Idols contests of 2004 and 2005 sing to the crowd.
The festivities are reminiscent of a family celebration. Indeed, working at The Star is more than just a job. Almost all of the employees have been with the company for many years - the men that I'm dealing with have worked here for over 25 years, without exception. They even found their wives at The Star. As they themselves put it: 'We were always so busy with this paper that we never found time for going out. So we found ourselves wives among our colleagues'. They're well and truly married to the paper.
Saturday 10 September
Peace and quiet at the offices. A pleasant environment for getting on with my design for the daily paper. In 2003 the basic idea was a strong corporate style to mark the paper as a whole. This gave rise to a strict approach, aimed at formal unity. The current desire for more variety offers me opportunities to introduce greater diversity in the range of design. The front page will be a 'poster front page': no more front page features, but purely a 'shop window'. A strong visual impact with bold typographic accents. I decide to allow the logo to shift around four different positions for day-to-day variation. A problem is that here they like to announce a great deal of features on the front of the paper. This tends to produce an overcrowded and chaotic front page, just too much of a good thing. So I suggest putting the elaborate list of contents on page 2, as in a magazine. This will unburden the front page.
Sunday 11 September
An ideal day for working on the Sunday paper, without the hectic activity of weekdays. Towards the end of the day I feel I've struck the right note, and an individual profile emerges: different from, but nonetheless related to the weekday design. The sports section, which on the back of the paper has its own front page, is in a different register: a lot of visual clamour here, with loud accents.
Monday 12 September
The Star (a pack exceeding 200 pages every day!) is full of articles that look quite drab and nowhere does it offer any guidance to 'readers pressed for time'. I devise a useful addition: a small box stating 'who-what-where' (or 'why-when-whereto') to accompany each article. A 'Q-box': even if you read only this and skip the article, you still pick up something. Simple typography, quick to put together, easily applicable. A column of short items is a must. In Europe, a corner giving Headline News to be read within two or three minutes, is proving quite popular. Might catch on here as well. Within the paper, we introduce 'shop-window' pages for the different sections: 'Foreign News', or 'The Economy' will have their own front pages.
I've been making good progress and feel that I'm getting to grips with the changes without affecting the basic design.
In the afternoon, Teh drops in, all elated, to say that the launching of [R-AGE] has gone very well. The kids really loved it.
In the evening there is an informal meeting/presentation for a select group including the chief editors and the advertising sales director. The mood regarding the new direction is positive, with some criticism on minor points of taste, which are always tricky to deal with, but we're moving in the right direction. Teh asks when I'll be ready to see the MD for the Presentation. I suggest Wednesday afternoon, to afford myself the maximum amount of time. But it'll have to be a day sooner after all. Never mind. Not everything will have been worked out, but the general outline will be clear.
Tuesday 13 September
In the afternoon I travel up to the sixteenth floor, where the MD resides - a sacrosanct place in this building. Fortunately there is a huge table, onto which I can spead out all of the pages. After explaining my plans, I feel that things are going well. It's enthusiasm once more, with criticism of a few details, but that doesn't detract from the mood. 'I think this is how we should do it', says the MD. 'Now only our reporters should learn to make better choices and headlines', he fumes. An all too familiar complaint ...
Wednesday 14 September
Today I've been working out the adjustments suggested by the MD and designed different styles for the supplements. There are sections which are newsy, such as 'Metro', 'Regional news' and 'StarBiz' - these require a news style. Other sections are more feature-like: 'StarTwo, 'Weekend', 'SundayStar', 'StarMag', 'Education, 'In.Tech', 'Bizweek'. I need to strike a balance between uniformity and diversity.
Thursday 15 September
My last day here. Teh inquires after the colour schemes and the layout guidelines, so that his people can make technical preparations. I work out the first concepts, but in the course of the day it becomes clear that I'll have to take home a bit of work so I can complete it at our Haren studio. A quite thorough restyling of a newspaper in just one week is proving somewhat overambitious.
My plane departs at 11 pm. Transportation to the airport has been arranged. At 7 pm I switch off my laptop and get into the car. On our way to the airport, Teh asks me when I'll be returning, to instruct the editors and to hold workshop sessions for the layout team. We agree that to make it early in 2006.
At the ultramodern airport we all dine at the Chinese restaurant, and they promise next time to show me more of their city and country. I realise that in the past fortnight I haven't even had time to buy a postcard or a souvenir. For those at home I intend to make up for this in the airport's dutyfree shops.
Exhausted but contented, I collapse into my airline seat and kick off my shoes. The air hostess comes along to offer me a newspaper. As a rule I'd be grateful, but right now I politely decline ...
Koos Staal, Kuala Lumpur / Haren
The Star has from its launching in 1971 appeared in a tabloid format. The weekday circulation is 306,000; that of the SundayStar 320,000, and according to recent research The Star has a daily readership of 1.1 million, seven days a week. The average size of The Star is about 220 pages, every single day! And virtually no page without advertising.
I restyled The Star on an earlier occasion, in 2003. It was felt at the time that the paper looked dated and that a new milestone was required. Recently they had openend two new printing works with state-of-the-art technology and moved into a bright new office tower at Kuala Lumpur. This innovative atmosphere had called for a revamped newspaper. After working visits in 2002 and 2003, the new style was partially introduced on 1 January 2004. There was some apprehansion about changing the paper too drastically. Meanwhile the climate has changed and people are open to more far-reaching changes. This means that a year and a half later, The Star can be once more revamped. Which proves that people here realise that a newspaper is not a static product but should continually move with its times.
Despite the economy which has been flagging in Malaysia as elsewehere, The Star has been doing well. Competition from the New Straits Times (circulation ca. 150,000) is serious but not a threat. This paper has recently switched from broadsheet to tabloid format and since then has rather resembled The Star in its layout.
Then there is The Sun, also a tabloid, which a few years ago was changed from a paid newspaper into a free issue. Nonetheless it is doing poorly, with a circulation of 120,000. Upon my surprised question why such a free paper is unsuccessful in Malaysia while a success everywhere else, Teh answered that Malaysians feel that something which costs nothing cannot be up to much: 'They want value for money'.