Monday, September 20, 2010

History of Billboard Hot 100 Design

In looking at my personal chart, I decided over the weekend that its design needs an update--something with a little more Billboard-esque authenticity. Thinking about what has worked best about previous Hot 100 designs led me down an interesting path examining the history of the visual design of the Hot 100.

The Hot 100 has long been the premiere Billboard chart, ranking America's biggest hit songs each week based on airplay and sales. Although it has many fans, including myself, Billboard has long insisted that the purpose of the Hot 100 is to serve the industry. To that end, the design of the Hot 100, as well as the policies behind it (which I don't examine here), strives for an easy read of the nation's pulse of musical taste. Here's a trip down the design of Hot 100 history.

Current Design (April 2005 to present)

Hot 100, December 12, 2009, Google Books

The current design was adopted for the April 30, 2005, issue, as part of a major initiative to revamp the entire magazine. The biggest change to the Hot 100 over the previous version is the color overhaul, abandoning the longstanding red and black design in use since the late '80s in favor of a more colorful maroon and yellow palette. These new colors distinguished the Hot 100—a multi-genre chart—from the pop charts, which remain red. Other charts and genres have their own colors too: teal for the Billboard 200, gray for heatseekers, green for country, purple for R&B, olive green for Christian/gospel, gold for dance, dark red for Latin and blue for international.

The data columns headers went back to two decks, with “Weeks On” changing to “Weeks on Cht,” a different abbreviation from what was used before. The previously abbreviated “2 Wks. Ago” is now spelled out as “2 Weeks Ago.” All the chart data columns are now highlighted, not just the “This Week” and “Wks on Cht” columns, and the rows of data cells are highlighted in alternating shades of maroon, with a slightly darker color for the odd numbered entries, a purely decorative element. The bullet symbol is now a circle instead of the oval, which had been used since sometime in 1983 or 1984.

Featured entries (i.e. #1, Greatest Gainer, Hot Shot Debut) are highlighted in yellow, with bit of shadow to make them appear raised. The featured banners now appear to the left of the track names instead of above them. “Number One” is now more simply “#1,” with the number of weeks at #1 appearing just below as “X wks,” and “Greatest Gainer/Sales” was renamed “Greatest Gainer/Digital,” which I suppose is more accurate, although redundant. The “Hot Shot Debut” tag now appears where the “New” tag had been. “New” tags are highlighted in dark maroon, like the bullet circles.

A column for gold and platinum certifications (abbreviated “Cert.”) was added to the left of the artist column, perhaps in recognition of the rebounding sales market thanks to digital singles. Finally, sidebars were added to highlight additional information about certain entries.

My take: The bullet design is improved and the numbers columns all line up now, which they didn’t in the previous design. However, I find the alternating row shading, which was a big criticism of the first 2001 redesign, to be distracting and purposeless. Although the colors do look nice, I miss the traditional red.

Modern Update (November 2001 to April 2005)

Hot 100, November 24, 2001, Google Books

After a long period of virtual stagnation, the Hot 100 was overhauled in 2001—twice actually. The initial design, discussed below, didn’t last very long. Part of these changes were related to the charts in general. Up until now, most of Billboard’s charts were in black in white, with the exception of the Hot 100, which had red spot color, and the Billboard 200 albums chart, which had green. Beginning in 2001, all the chart formats were given color schemes, although they changed again for the 2005 redesign. In 2001, the existing colors for the Hot 100 and Billboard 200 were retained, while R&B became purple; country was orange; dance was gold; rock, adult, and top 40 were teal; and assorted other charts became blue.

The design elements of the chart were virtually unchanged. The data columns are one-deck, with “Wks. on Chart” now put as “Weeks On" and highlighted in right red. The “This Week” column is now highlighted in red. Although previously, groups of ten had been offset with thicker borders, these borders were eliminated. The bulleted ovals became white and filled in against the red background.

The featured entry banners all got little icons: crowns for Number One, headphones for Airplay Gainer, dollar signs for Sales Gainer, and guitars for Hot Shot Debut. The number one banner is written out “Number 1,” as opposed to the former “No. 1.” The weeks at number one appears to the right of the Number 1 banner, written as “X weeks at Number 1.”

My take: This design was a great improvement over the difficult to read initial design of 2001. However, the bulleted tracks don’t stand out as much, and I miss the 10-block borders, which helped to quickly identify subsets, like the top 40 or top 10.

Colorful Misstep (July 2001 to November 2001)

Hot 100, July 28, 2001, Google Books

The July 28, 2001, issue of Billboard was the first to introduce the new color scheme, as a part of a general overhaul of the magazine’s format in an effort to make it more reader-friendly. Some of the changes implemented didn’t last very long, however. For its first 2001 overhaul, the Hot 100 looked a little pale, with the vibrant red replaced by a paler red, almost like hot pink. Alternating rows were highlighted in light red (odds) or left white (evens). The banners were black with white lettering. The bullet ovals were filled in black with white lettering, replacing the red oval outlines.

Despite Billboard’s excitement for these changes, readers apparently weren’t impressed, and in the October 27 issue, Billboard announced further design revisions, which took effect November 21. The new chart color schemes were retained but design elements were tweaked, reverting back a bit to the pre-2001 design. For example, the featured entry banners went back to being just red text above the entries, instead of white text on black. And the black bullet ovals became white with red lettering. And thankfully the alternating row color scheme was dropped.

My take: I applaud the attempt to give the Hot 100 a fresh look, but ultimately this just didn't work. The chart was difficult to read due to the alternating highlighting, which was distracting and arbitrarily makes some songs stand out more than others. Black featured entry banners weren’t very attractive, and the pale color overall made the chart look washed out.

Longstanding Classic (1984 to 2001)

Hot 100, October 12, 1991, Google Books

This was the design of the Hot 100 when I first started paying attention to it, a fairly straightforward black lettering on white background with thin grid lines to separate all rows and columns and thicker lines between blocks of 10, making it easy to quickly spot the top 10, or see which singles are bubbling just under the top 40. It was introduced on October 20, 1984, along with a major overhaul of the magazine in general, including an actual redesign of the “Billboard” title logo.

Change in Billboard Logo, 1984, Google Books

The first awards banners for the singles with the greatest increases in sales and airplay were introduced November 30, 1985, at first called “Hot Mover,” then “Power Pick” and later “Greatest Gainer.” The banner for the #1 single first appeared sometime in 1986. Also starting with the November 30, 1985, issue, the column headers, which had appeared at about a 30-degree angle, were made vertical and double deck.

Starting sometime in the late ‘80s, bright fire engine red was used as spot color for the title (red highlights had been used in the past, although the Hot 100 was black and white for much of the '80s), the “this week” position of bulleted tracks, which is slightly larger than those not bulleted and circled with a red oval, the “new” tag for new entries, which spans across the “last week” and “2 wks ago” columns, but not “wks. on chart,” and for all featured entry banners and song titles.

Because this basic format lasted for so long, a few other minor tweaks were made at times. At some point in 1986 the “new” entry label switched from stretching across all three data columns to just “last week” and “2 wks ago.” Beginning with the July 1, 1995, chart, the Hot 100 included a “peak position” column to the right of the artist column. During the week of December 5, 1998, the chart was remained from “Hot 100 Singles” to “The Billboard Hot 100,” a change that reflected the chart’s major policy change implemented the same week, allowing airplay-only tracks to chart. Additionally, the three featured entry banner stars were replaced with long pointed triangles.

Hot 100, October 20, 1984, Google Books

My take: With the design change to correct the angle column headers and the re-introduction of red spot color, this became a classic, clean look for the Hot 100. It is perhaps the most serious looking design for the chart.

Historic Looks (Prior to 1984)

Hot 100, March 26, 1983, Google Books

Before the major revision in 1984, the Hot 100 didn’t change much for quite a long time, except for the title font. It’s harder to find examples, but I’ve seen charts from 1983 and 1962 and they are pretty similar. Back then, stars were used instead of circles to indicate bulleted singles. There was an interesting feature in the early ‘80s, which was two tiers of bullets: a black star for bulleted singles, and white “superstars” for those bulleted singles with the biggest increases in sales and/or airplay. Sometime after March 1983 but before the big switch in 1984, the stars system was replaced with the ovals and the two-tiered bullet system was eliminated. Here's a fun one from the early '70s, with a vertical title and borders only between the three columns:

Hot 100, June 12, 1971,

In the ‘60s, there was a “3 weeks ago” column, and the “wks. on chart” column appeared to the right of the title and artist. The name of the artist appeared much smaller and in title caps, while the name of the single was in all caps.

Hot 100, October 12, 1963,

My take: While the stars are fun, I prefer the ovals, although I am intrigued by the idea of having a two-tier system to indicate which singles are rising up the chart the fastest. The chart looks best with both vertical and horizontal borders. It's interesting to see it in three columns, but I think I prefer the two.

Check out the new look of my personal chart this Friday, inspired by one of the above Hot 100 designs.


John said...

The Longstanding Classic chart is by far my favorite. There's just something about it that I can't put my finger on.

(BTW...that sample chart really shows the best and worst of pop music, wouldn't you say? "Love, Thy Will Be Done" compared to "Love of a Lifetime"? Jus'sayin.

Paul said...

god i remember the longstanding classic from when i used to religiously buy the magazine! I look forward to your new design :)

ww_adh said...

Martika! Whatever happened to her? She had a few great singles and then...poof. I used to buy Billboard from time to time, although I wouldn't say religiously, because it was so exepensive (even more so for you Paul, I would imagine). I would, however, go to the library and photocopy theirs. I was so excited when I could get a full Hot 100. It was so much more informative than just listening to the radio chart show.

Chris B. said...

I'm glad you've redesigned your chart, dear, and this post was interesting. I think I like the Longstanding Classic version best, too.

Anonymous said...

I have a few of those longstanding classic designs uploaded on my flickr photostream. Feel free to check it out.

CookInDineOut said...

Thank you Anonymous! I love looking through old charts. Nice to have the actual scans.