Ways to save tab design

As I see it, there are three ways to do good tab design if you’re a newspaper and want to leave the broadsheet behind.

There may be more ways to do good tab design. I just haven’t thought of them.

Tabs do need help. The current crop of products just isn’t good enough.

“Fix tab design?” you say. “But aren’t those magazine-style publications the wave of the future?”

Readers like the size. They want a tab. That’s the official line within the industry as far as I can tell. Europe is full of them. And some newspapers in the United States are making the switch … or at least thinking about it.

But there’s a flaw to this “tabs are the answer” thinking.

Let’s take a look at the central flaw in tab design for a newspaper: Organization. Finding stuff.

In other words, how do readers quickly find the Entertainment section? Where do classifieds start? Where’s the Sports section? If it’s on the back, how far into the paper does it extend? Do I have to read from back to front to browse Sports? How do I take a section with me or share it with another?

I like tabs. I do. They just aren’t done well enough to be useful.

So how do you fix this problem of not being able to browse quickly to the sections you want?

Here are my three answers for ways to approach this problem:

  • My recommended approach: Lots of color to assist in navigation. There should be a set color for Business. A set color for Sports. A set color for Entertainment. And it would be best if every page were a color page that contained a useful color bar near the edge of the page or across the top or bottom for easy browsing. Build content inside this bar if it’s across the page so that it’s useful for more than just locating sections. You might think it is unlikely to get a 4-color position on every page, and that’s true. So you might have to look for ways to just do the covers in color consistently and also finding a way to mark your pages clearly when they’re black and white. I am sure there are ways to design a tab with clear and unique markings for each page in each section. A newspaper should also be able to find a way to put color on the cover pages.
  • Another approach worth experimenting with: ways to fold sections together to enable their dismantling into mini-tab sections by the reader. This could be a nested approach, so that the very center of the paper would be a section and the next section around it would be another section, and so forth. Unfortunately, this would require clear understanding by the reader that this is the way to read the newspaper. I’m not sure this will be easy to pull off. Another way to approach this would be separate tabs with a cover that wraps around to give the entire paper a wrapper. This would be easier for readers to figure out and one I recommend.
  • A third approach and one that every tab should follow: A better table of contents explaining what’s where. This is obvious and boring, but still needs improving at many tabs I’ve seen. If you aren’t able to use color consistently to highlight your sections, and you decide not compile several smaller tabs into one larger newspaper, than all you have left in my mind is an excellent table of contents to save you. Forget you’re a newspaper and adopt a magazine-style approach for this. But be better than a magazine and make this table of content consistently on Page 2 or Page 3. Make sure it is easy to find and complete.

One final thought: Jumps should go directly to the next page with a tab. Make it easy on readers to browse through the newspaper.

That’s about all I can say about tab design. Make it colorful and make it clear. And then perhaps it will be the answer to increasing a newspaper’s popularity. It at least will have a fighting chance.