If you ask me... David Hillman

A COFFEE and chat with designer David Hillman is like a polite version of those how-crap-is-yourhouse programmes on television. Sitting in the ultra-modern, sleek setting of his Notting Hill offices, everything is perfectly pitched: from the casually stacked bookshelves, colour co-ordinated Penguin books to the properly elegant, effortlessly functional coffee decanter and cups. It makes you want to abandon all questions on newspapers, magazines and what he thinks of fluorescent pink covers, to ask him to redesign your own life from top to toe.

If anyone can do it, you sense Hillman can. The only thing he might have a problem designing is his own CV, crammed with recognition for work on 1960s radical women's magazine Nova to the lastbut- one redesign of The Guardian in 1988. He has also worked on titles such as De Volkskrant, Il Sole 24ore, Le Matin De Paris and New Statesman & Society.

Since he joined the Pentagram design partnership in 1978, he's been balancing this with work on identity design programmes, signage systems, product packaging and a series of Millennium stamps for Royal Mail. His most recent project is the overhaul of the family-run entertainment trade magazine, The Stage, reducing its size, opening out the layout and splashing with new colour capacity.

He also says he's currently working on a European news title, though he won't say which.

The continued interest in media projects isn't surprising. Hillman started out on The Sunday Times Magazine as a design assistant, after graduating from the London College of Printing.

His "vague interest" in fashion and lifestyle wasn't covered by anyone else in the supplement, so he started writing about architecture and living, and was made environment editor. It was The Sunday Times's then deputy editor Harry Evans who got him redesigning the paper, starting with sport.

Hillman is surprised by the fashion for talking about Nova magazine again, which he joined in 1968 as art director, moving to deputy editor within two years. Perhaps the nostalgia for the IPC title, which merged startling artwork and hard-hitting text, is buoyed by a sense that it couldn't exist now, and Hillman admits to finding the newsstands "even more depressing as a reader than a designer".

When Nova folded in 1975, he had experienced "13 years of doing nothing but magazines", so decided he just wanted to be a designer, despite expectations that he would turn to photography.

Hillman's Guardian revamp earned him a silver D&AD Award in 1989 and his mantra on redesign is: "If it's a cock up, don't do it again, but if it's successful, flog it to hell." He says you know you're doing something right when everyone else copies it. He has a casual, almost throwaway air, which belies a passion for his work. Instinctively, he's rooting for the oft-neglected art director in the projects he takes on, and remembers an instance on Building magazine when he insisted that to make it work, the art editors had to have a say in what actually happens. "The editor didn't take it very well at the time. Once the magazine became more successful than it was, the art editor did actually carve out a niche for himself," he laughs.

"At Nova, the art director and the editor ruled the roost and the advertising department did as they were told"

It's interesting to hear the pressures other magazine art directors are under these days. The business is different. At Nova, I did the flatplan, I did the ads.

Although it might have been happening in Vogue, there was none of this paid editorial. It's probably one of the reasons it died, but magazines were much more about content, and that's the big change.

Nova did stand out on the shelves, but it frightened people. Even though it was launched as a women's magazine, the intent was to make it a nongender magazine. There were articles that we felt both men and women would want to read. One of the things agencies didn't like about the magazine was that it couldn't be pigeonholed. It wasn't like Vogue. We had a high male readership, which was no good if you were pushing cosmetics. The ads were crap as well, that's the interesting thing.

"At WHSmith's now, it's just a haze of tit and bum and bright colours"

There were probably fewer magazines around in those days, less but better. There was a battle; the Nova cover with only a pair of legs on caused a tremendous furore at IPC because no one had ever put anything on the cover but the face. My argument was, it was a fantastic picture that stood out on the bookshelves and sold extremely well.

I have this thing about coverlines. People are taken in by the image first, providing it's actually interesting or beautiful. I've never held the belief that Helen Gurley Brown did when she first took over Cosmopolitan; that you had 100 coverlines on the front cover and virtually the same picture every week. That battle will rage forever.

If I had the energy I'd do a magazine which has a little bit of everything in it. It's one of the risks of the way the communications business has gone or is going; everything is segmented. It's that dreadful word ‘brand' that's used all the time. And for me, everything's too pigeonholed. There are no more what I call general interest titles, it's either Zoo, which is page after page of tit, or GQ and Esquire, which have got so much male fashion. I've never been a male fashion magazine type person, because all of the models look gay to me, which turns me off immediately. I like cars, but not enough to buy Top Gear.

"I imagined the shop as a magazine"

At Pentagram, you do such a variety of work from corporate identity to packaging, catalogues and signage systems — you have a much broader view of the world and what can be done. So now when newspapers and magazines come in I look at them very differently from when I just worked on magazines. You bring other experiences to it. When I first came here, I had to redesign the physical interior and the corporate identity of a chain of travel agents. I was struggling with what to do and it dawned on me that actually the window's the cover, and the inside window's the contents list and the features are laid out inside. Once I got that inside my head, I worked with an architect; there was a flow through the shop and its different services.

"The difficult thing is, how do you teach someone to crop a picture?"

When you design a newspaper or a magazine you never get the opportunity to do an issue. You're asked to do templates and then train other people to do it. It really focuses the mind on how far you can push a group of people, who aren't trained designers, to do something.

It's that inner sense that you have. People crop pictures because they want to fit it into the space left. It's much more difficult to say to them — which was the rule at The Guardian — we're going to have less pictures but we're going to have bigger, better pictures and you build the page around the picture.

The first decision is what the picture's going to be.

And it doesn't necessarily have to be a picture related to one of the stories on the page. Sometimes the best pictures can end up being caption picture stories, which The Guardian does better than anyone now with the two-page picture spread. It's fantastic.

There was a magazine about insurance I did a long time ago, called Post. I thought, Christ how dull; do I really want to do it? I suddenly realised it could be the most fantastic photographic magazine that would ever be published, because what they're talking about is disasters. The first issue we did was about insuring boxing events, so the cover was an amazing black and white fight image of Muhammad Ali. If I had to do it full-time, we could have turned it into Paris Match or Picture Post. There was so much good stuff to illustrate it.

"It's built into the British psyche that there is someone, the minute they hear it'll be redesigned, they'll be writing that letter"

I tell my clients that one of the risks one runs is that it's impossible to redesign anything, especially a magazine or newspaper, without upsetting somebody.

"You can't just repackage all the old material under some new pretty dress"

When people say they'd like to redesign a magazine the first question is, why? And if we're told the circulation is dying etc, then we say yes, we can help you, but you've got to look at what the magazine or newspaper says. Because people buy it to read and if what it says is crap, then that's part of the reason people aren't buying it.

There's got to be something in there — something that says, not only do we look different, but we looked at the way we handle stories.

Success will come from total commitment from the top down. A hell of a lot of energy has gone into the redesign of The Stage. You get a sixth sense of how successful a project is going to be from the level the enquiry comes in at. In The Stage's case, the enquiry came from Catherine Comerford, the MD.

If it comes from the MD, you know it's going have energy poured into it.

"You cannot just take the existing newspaper and downsize it"

I met Peter Preston [then The Guardian's editor] at an IPA judging session around 1979/80. He phoned me afterwards and asked, did I think it was possible to turn a broadsheet into a tabloid? I had just finished working in Paris on Le Matin de Paris. In France it's the other way round; the intellectual and respectable titles are in a small format, and all the tit and bum papers are the big broadsheets.

My argument has always been that yes, it is possible.

But one of the drawbacks is the word ‘tabloid'.

Because it's actually no longer a description of size, it's a description of attitude in journalism. Secondly, you cannot just squeeze it all into a smaller size, because the tabloid shape is not conducive to lots of bitty stories, especially when they put those dreadful adverts on it.

"The Telegraph just seems to be this kind of honest newspaper"

There's a bit of me that thinks The Daily Telegraph will end up as the winner in the newspaper design wars, because they're the only ones who have stuck to their guns. The Telegraph, forget its politics, as a kind of sit down and read something that is concise and precise, it's fantastic, because it hasn't got 15 tonnes of supplement, most of which you throw away. The only stupid idea they had was giving The Sunday Telegraph that ridiculous masthead and making it look like the Woman's Weekly my mother used to read — it had exactly the same typeface.

"You can watch Sky News all night or CNN if you really want to be bloody bored"

One of the interesting things about the Berliner Guardian, whether I like it or not, is that they have gone back and thought about how pieces are written and how you fit articles into that format. There's less space, fewer stories per page. And also there isn't news anymore. It was all on The Ten O'Clock News last night or on digital channels.

I think the newspaper's role is comment and fact, which for me, is much more the way French newspapers run their lines, especially in the way they report news — they always give opinion. That's not to do with design, it's to do with an editorial attitude. When you've got all that sorted out, you've got to look at how you put it all on a page.

The Times to me was a total and utter fucking disaster. But the fact that it's Murdoch owned meant it was never going to have much warmth added to it.

It wasn't much better than the Daily Mail, and still isn't. There's a lot of it, and it's just grey. I'm not a great lover of colour, but if any paper needs some injected into it, it's The Times.

The Independent is interesting, because they had no choice but to change, or else it was going to disappear. When it first came out, it was just downsizing, but what's interesting is that they have progressed, moving not that slowly into comment and features. The problem with the front page being an idea is that some are good and some are bad. It's like saying you got to have six ideas a week — that's quite difficult.

"It looks like the fucking Beano with pictures"

I hate The Observer. I think it's a total bloody insult.

When I did buy a Sunday newspaper, it was always The Observer. Now it's just colour and design and type 15 feet high for no apparent reason. I saw one of the supplements the other day and the cover gave this promise that the inside didn't live up to.

"I can't understand why somebody wants to be like the Mail"

I had a go at redesigning the Express with Rosie Boycott, but we didn't get very far. The hang up there is that they want to be like the Mail.

"I'd love to do the Daily Mirror"

My father was an ardent left-winger. He used to buy the paper and I lived on it when Cudlipp was editor.

My dad also bought the Daily Express when it was Tory. I said: ‘Why do that?' He answered: ‘I buy the Mirror because I believe what it says and the Express because it makes me angry.' Both were amazingly designed papers. I think the Mirror is still a serious paper and I wish it could distance itself from The Sun and all the other red-tops.

To design a serious tabloid would be a real challenge. The Mirror shouldn't make the same mistake The Times and The Independent did — they didn't negotiate with advertising agencies about finding agreement on ad sizes. So you have seven or eight pages taken up with ads — even the greatest story in the world doesn't live around that. You couldn't redesign the Mirror without rethinking how adverts fill the pages. The broadsheets aren't that difficult, because their subject matter lends itself to better design. A model could be what Paris Match was, with pictures and photo news. It was a news magazine that's now a personality magazine. Even the Mirror could have all that showbiz and it doesn't have to look like a dog's dinner.

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