The best of 2021: a year in Canadian newspaper covers

By Brad Needham

Some newspapers have clearly given up on print design. It’s about content and digital. Obviously both of those are key to the future of media organizations everywhere. But I still believe print design is important. And that’s why I celebrate it here and on my Instagram account, both of which have been around for about a year now. While my Instagram shows great pages from day to day, this blog tends to focus on designers or bigger topics.

While I want to celebrate all newspapers making an effort (and I do on Instagram), the next two posts are going to show a few papers that consistently deliver striking and thoughtful designs. This post will focus on Canada’s big three: The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and National Post. Perhaps next year I will add more, though I don’t see many papers upping their effort. Next post, the rest of the world.

Each of these top papers tends to have a solidly defined style. I will look at my top three pages from each publication (at least that I highlighted this year on my Instagram), then a slideshow of some other pages. To be clear, I know there is some amazing work happening inside these papers and on other section fronts, but this is about A1, and only includes papers making an effort — and a splash — frequently. I won’t look at one-offs, or rare successes in this post. I will feature them in order of my connections with each, so Toronto Star, Globe and Mail (only as managing editor of Pagemasters North America, which handles most of the page production for the Globe and Mail, though the pages featured here were likely done in house) and the National Post (I recently started working at Postmedia).

Toronto Star

This was probably the page of the year in Canadian media for me (the top Globe page rivals it), though not necessarily from a design perspective. There were some stronger pages visually, more complex. But this is a powerful page, which gave a lot of real estate to a key issue at a key time. The reverse text, the big headline asking a big question, the little moccasins with a big message. It came out a day late (only because the day-after coverage in many Canadian papers was lacking), two days after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children, but it struck a chord.

The Star will less frequently blow out its front page for an international issue than the national papers, but it did here. It was the strongest Canadian 9/11 anniversary page, with a strong image and beautifully handled typography.

In the summer of 2021, the Star decided to focus more on print design (I’m not making this up), hiring an art director as well as three others to focus on design, graphics, illustrations, etc. This is an example of this, with a striking, contrasty photo illustration from Ramon Ferreira.

Here is a small sampling of some other great Toronto Star pages. All great in their own way, all very Star. The beautiful illustration by Hawlii Pichette, the strong art and colours on the Afghanistan page and the excitement of an epic gold medal win on the Olympics page.

Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail is always swinging for the fences and often knocks pages out of the park, well beyond A1. The Globe tends to have elegant or pleasantly elaborate illustrations, big art and sometimes subtle headlines. Its weekend A1s can run with the best in the world.

This page might have been the best purely from a design standpoint. It’s simple, but smart. Likely planned for ages. It is powerful as well, about the “Two Michaels,” who were wrongly imprisoned in China for more than 1,000 days. This was Day 1,000, a grim milestone. Some will argue this, but the Globe owned this story, especially in Canada. Every day the Globe kept track of days the Michaels were detained on the front page. I don’t know how early it started, but it was there for hundreds of days. This was the culmination of that. The tallies, how they work around the flag. No art. The contrast. It’s a stunning and powerful page.

The Globe had one of the best Election Day and and best election results page. But I love this visual. And fantastic use of white space.

I love this illustration by Klawe Rzeczy. It’s busy, it’s chaotic, but it is absolutely eye catching. And despite the Globe getting illustrations from various illustrators, it always seems to feel like the Globe. Refined.

Here are a few more. I love the keys from the keyboard. And, again, in Globe style, the white space. They do not fear white space because they know how to use it. They also did a stained glass look (see National Post below). It’s too bad it cost the Canadian women’s soccer team some play, but it’s a nice page. The dart board. White space. Red. Contrast. And the pencil. I did a page like this, so of course I like it! Again, bold white space. And Calgary. I love it for design, but also I’m from Calgary! Finally, the bear. So dark, and boldly dark, but the Globe can get away with it as it prints on glossy paper. I should have said that earlier as that is key to some of its success in print.

National Post

The National Post has been known for its design since its inception in 1998. For a long time it stood above the rest. It’s still exceptional, especially once you get past the very often great front page. The inside design doesn’t try too hard. It is elegant and clean. So much so that others have tried to imitate it, without success. The vertical flag is something I often talk about. It adds so much. Funny that these three papers all have very different flag styles, with only the Star having the classic text across the top. Sorry, tangent. The National Post is still giving it its all, particularly on Saturdays.

I debated my fave, but in the end this vibrant illustration won out. It’s played well with the other content on the page, but it, in itself, is just so striking. To tie things together, it’s done by Becky Guthrie, now the art director at the Toronto Star. The Canadian media scene is a small world.

But then there is the Christmas page. This has been a tradition for the National Post since it started, conceptualized as a way to compete with the Globe’s art-driven Christmas page. They took the boldly overtly religious approach to set themselves apart from the Globe. The reverse flag. The colours.

This page is a basic, clean design. There are other extraordinarily designed Post pages, but I wanted to give props to a big news page. Like headlines, designs are often more celebrated for feature-type stories as they are easier to illustrate. This was a big news day in Canada. The Two Michaels home at least. It was the best page for this event.

The National Post’s Election Day page was great. Still maybe my favourite. It’s very different from the Globe’s white space. A big monster headline. Contrast-y text on a dark background. I just love the symmetry on the next page. I almost chose the Prince Philip page as one of my top 3. It was close. What a piece of art by my good friend* Kagan McLeod. The next is an Olympics page. As I wrote then, the Post won the Canadian newspaper Olympics with outstanding design day in and day out. And a classic Post cartoon cover.
*I don’t actually know Kagan other than over Twitter and through seeing his illustrations in each of the top three papers here, but I’ve been a Kagan stan for a while.

So while 2021 proved to be just as maddening and depressing as 2020, just with vaccines, it still provided plenty of brilliant newspaper front pages. I am thankful to the editors and designers at all the papers here, who keep pushing boundaries and working with passion. And to those at the papers who still do the once-in-a-while great pages. Every little bit counts.

Next up, a look at papers from around the world, featuring publications such as Dennik N of Slovakia, Denmark’s Politiken, The Villages Daily Sun from Florida (you must have known that was coming) and more!

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