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"An incalculable loss"

The New York Times covers its front page with names of 1,000 COVID-19 victims

As the death toll of the coronavirus pandemic approaches 100,000 in the United States, The New York Times has acknowledged the unenviable milestone by dedicating its front page to the names and biographical details of Americans who have lost their lives.

The New York Times May 24, 2020 edition depicting the names of 1,000 COVID-19 victims
The New York Times May 24, 2020 edition depicting the names of 1,000 COVID-19 victims (Source)

The genesis of the project was provided by Simone Landon, assistant editor of the Graphics desk at The Times, who wanted to represent the grim figure in a more meaningful and impactful way than charts alone. “We knew we were approaching this milestone,” Landon said in a Times Insider article. “We knew that there should be some way to try to reckon with that number.”

Landon wanted to convey “both the vastness and the variety of lives lost”, so she came up with the idea of compiling obituaries and death notices from newspapers across the country. With the help of researchers and editors, The Times collected nearly a thousand names and selected biographical phrases that depicted the uniqueness of each life lost.

“Mauricio Valdivia, 52, Chicago, wanted everyone to feel welcome,” reads one entry. “Ruth Skapinok, 85, Roseville, Calif., backyard birds were known to eat from her hand,” reads another.

Close-up view of the May 24, 2020 edition of The New York Times depicting the names of 1,000 COVID-19 victims
A closer view of the some of the names featured on the cover

While 1,000 is a staggeringly grim figure itself, it still represents just 1% of the growing COVID-19 death count in the United States. So long is the list of names that it continues onto additional interior pages. Online, the list is presented as a heart-wrenchingly long scrolling page with human figures representing all the lives lost.

The New York Times May 24, 2020 edition depicting the names of 1,000 COVID-19 victims (interior)
The list of names continues onto additional interior pages

The Times Insider article provides some background on how the cover came to be an entirely typographic design:

For the front page of the paper, two ideas stood out: either a grid of hundreds of pictures of those who had lost their lives to Covid-19, or an “all type” concept, [The Times chief creative officer Tom Bodkin] said. Whichever approach was chosen, he said, “we wanted to take over the entire page.”

The all-type concept came to the fore. Such a treatment “would be hugely dramatic,” he said.

The design references that of centuries-old newspapers, which Mr. Bodkin is keenly interested in. For many years after The Times started publishing in 1851, there were no headlines, in the modern sense. […]

Mr. Bodkin said he did not remember any front pages without images during his 40 years at The Times, “though there have been some pages with only graphics,” he said, adding, “This is certainly a first in modern times.”

Andrew Sondern, an art director, is credited as being behind the print design of the list. In an email conversation with Nick Sherman, founding member of Fonts In Use, Sondern recounts some of the practical considerations involved in setting the type.

“This is a single text block of over 13,000 words with no paragraph breaks. Any minute change could alter every single line break, so the most important work was setting up a flexible scaffolding,” Sondern said. “In the end, I went with a straightforward solution that looked good enough to avoid production difficulties.”

Despite the novelty of the all type design for the front cover, it was by no means a fun project to work on, Sondern said on Twitter. “Reading and typesetting these 1,000 names was brutal, but these are extraordinary stories that require commensurate design.”