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Newspaper subs blamed for tyranny of nosy commuters

29 Apr 2008

Commuters annoyed by fellow travellers who read newspapers over their shoulder can blame subeditors whose page designs are the product of ‘architectural genius’, according to University of Manchester researchers.

Oddfellows Hall
Oddfellows Hall

Andrew Crompton and Frank Brown tested the ‘visual depth’ of a Daily Telegraph front page to confirm that the humble newspaper sub is a whiz-kid at maximising a page’s impact - just as an architect draws a passer by to his buildings.

The experiment also revealed that the 30 January 2006 edition of the Telegraph had similar “architectural” properties to beautiful woodland, music, army camouflage and the famous Gothic “Oddfellows Hall” building in Manchester.

According to the lecturers, all appear ‘interesting and varied’ when approached from far away in the same way that subs make newspapers easy to read from a range of distances.

Dr Crompton said: “We found that public buildings and newspapers have to address similar problems in terms of maximising their visual impact – and have surprisingly hit upon a similar solution.

“According to our analysis, the Telegraph is designed to be read from a range of distances: on a newsstand, across a table or from behind someone’s shoulder.

“Since they are products evolved in a competitive market this is doubtless deliberate: it’s fair to argue there is a degree of architectural genius in the humble subs’ work.”

The team based at the University’s School of Environment and Development used ‘Zipf’ graphs to look for a connection between size and frequency of its component parts.

They found that drawings of older buildings sometimes displayed what is known to scientists as 1/ f scaling, which like natural scenes appear interesting and diverse.

The same distribution was also found in newspaper pages -though they found 1/f scaling was rarely the case for modern buildings.

Dr Brown added: “Visual depth, the degree to which an environment is able to keep revealing fresh features as it is approached, is something that this analysis allows us to describe and quantify.

“Visually deep objects – whether newspapers or buildings - exhibit detail over a complete range of sizes, and therefore present new information to a viewer in a continuous stream as one walks towards them.

“Conversely, buildings lacking parts in a particular size range or lacking small-scale detail may appear blank or dull.

“Subeditors have hit upon a formula which proves they too have this artistic sense.”

Notes for editors

Dr Crompton is available for comment.

The paper ‘A statistical examination of visual depth in building elevations’ is published in the journal Environment and Planning.

Images are available.

For media enquiries contact:

Mike Addelman
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881 567