On being ... makeover mad

By Ingrid Sapona

It’s summer makeover time! I know, seems like just yesterday people were getting their spring makeovers. What’s that? You can’t remember the last makeover you had? Well, then you’re overdue! Better call your salon today to see if they can squeeze you in for a fall makeover.

I don’t know when this whole makeover idea started, but it’s certainly become ubiquitous. I first noticed it maybe 15 years ago on daytime t.v. shows where they’d pluck a woman from the audience and hand her over to a hair stylist and makeup artist who, during the course of the show, would magically change the woman’s look.

I’ve always found the whole idea mortifying. Sure, I know the chosen woman has free will (she wasn’t dragged off kicking and screaming -- or at least they never show that part on t.v.) and she could simply say, “No thanks, I’m happy with my current look”. But people never seem to do that. Instead, like pigs to slaughter, they innocently put their “look” in the hands of a total stranger. Sometimes the change is for the better; sometimes -- at least in my eyes -- it isn’t.

The makeover madness revolution then evolved to include people surprising their friends, mothers (for those Mother’s Day makeovers, of course!), and sisters with makeovers. (Am I the only one who’d be offended if my friend thought I needed to be made over?) And let’s not even talk about the makeover shows involving cosmetic surgery -- that’s a whole other thing.

I guess what I’m really trying to understand is why people get excited by the idea of drastically (ok, maybe that’s a bit of a negative word -- how about: dramatically?) changing their look. Actually, I don’t even get why they’d entertain the idea of big, overnight changes in their appearance. Sure, there’s always room for improvement, but makeovers aren’t just about improvement. They’re all about: “Is that really you?” and “I didn’t recognize you!”

But I really don’t understand wholesale changes of appearance in anything that seems fine the way it is. So, it was odd to me when the two newspapers that I subscribe to -- the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star -- both underwent major design makeovers in the past month or so. (I certainly thought they looked fine as they were.)

Hoping to understand what prompted these makeovers, I read with great interest all the articles they ran explaining their reasoning. Interestingly, the first point both papers stressed was that the changes are not just cosmetic; they’re part and parcel of an editorial refocusing on news and analysis. But couldn’t they do that without changing type fonts and page layouts?

Both went to great lengths to explain the design changes, stressing the amount of input they got from focus groups. In fact, on launch day one paper ran a headline proclaiming: “You spoke, we listened.” But I’ve participated in focus groups and I’ll bet participants probably were shown samples of different designs (or design elements) and asked which they liked best -- not whether a makeover was needed at all. (I’m sure that decision had already been made by the paper.)

Both made changes to the type fonts they use for article text. One commissioned its own font that it says is the same size as its previous font, but it sure looks smaller to me. In fact, that paper made wholesale changes in its font choices, going so far as to use different styles in different headings and in different sections of the paper. The rationale given for the font changes was that the new fonts have “more impact” in smaller sizes. Hmmm… Interestingly, they left the masthead pretty much unchanged, though they put back a maple leaf image that they took off in 2000. But, you’ll be happy to know that the leaf is “bolder, more confident” than it used to be. Hmmm…

The other paper went the other way; it increased the text font size and added space between the lines, noting that this increases readability, especially for those who wear bifocals. Good idea, but man is there a lot of white space. (I know, I may be singing a different song in a few years when I end up in bifocals.)

Fortunately, both maintained their broadsheet format but narrowed their pages. (My nightmare was that they’d switch to a tabloid format -- but that would be more like a sex change than a mere makeover -- and, thankfully, they weren’t ready to go that far!) One paper explained the narrowing as a “sleeker format” that (apparently) is being adopted by many of the world’s leading newspapers. The other admitted that there’s a cost savings, as well as a reduction in newsprint consumption, while at the same time making the paper easier to handle.

I’ve mentioned just some of the design changes made as part of the newspaper makeovers. As with any makeover, I’m sure some people love the changes, and some don’t. But what I still have trouble believing is that there was an outcry from readers for transformation or that editorial and design changes needed to be introduced all at once. Of course, I’m sure part of the reason the redesigns weren’t introduced incrementally was because, in true makeover style, part of the desired reaction was “Wow, I didn’t recognize it!”

I know change is a fact of life, but sometimes I think we’ve gotten a little too carried away with this whole makeover thing and change for change’s sake. As for me, frankly, I’m always a bit relieved when old friends still recognize me. So, if any of you might be thinking it’s time you held a little focus group of your own with a view toward a makeover for yours truly, all I can say is: sweeping change isn’t my style.

© 2007 Ingrid Sapona


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