Preceded by: pastel set
Succeeded by: red wings set
Ahead of its 18th series, commencing on 10th July 1989, Countdown underwent its first major production refresh. Surviving just two years, the set redesign saw the dynamic coloured tiles of the original style be substituted by a dreary brown configuration.
The launch of the set came hand in hand with a change of opening titles after two years. This instalment featured a number of elements seen for the duration of the sequence, including a revolving four-square chequered background in the style of a chessboard; a rectangular box at the left of the screen, which progressively filled up with a red bar; a green oval at the top right of the screen, which counted down the number of seconds left in the sequence and stepped closer to the bottom as each second elapsed; and finally, a series of red and white boxes at the bottom section of the screen, changing between different words that can be made from 'countdown'.
The beginning of this elaborate sequence firstly involved the letters from the word 'COUNT' individually flashing on and off the screen with the tempo of the music, after which a clock face briefly appeared to mark the 1–4 second period. The clock folded away and a numbers solution started to be written, beginning with '100 x 5 = 500; 500 + 75 = 575'. Following this, the clock reappeared for 6 seconds (now indicating the 10–15 second segment of the countdown) before once again folding away for the solution to continue, stating '575 – 8 = 567; 50 – 17 = 33; 75 x 8 = 600'. After this, the letters spelling out the word 'DOWN' individually flash on and off the screen in the same manner as before, and the numbers solution is rounded off by writing '567 + 33 = 600; 600 – 600 = 0.' The titles conclude with the chessboard gradually coming to a halt and the red and white 'COUNTDOWN' logo swivelling onto the screen: 'COUNT' in red text in front of a white box, and 'DOWN' vice versa.
Devoid of the perpetual bright colours that characterised the former style, the set was noticeable for having periods of substantially darker lighting; in particular, during the Championship of Champions V tournament that took place in early 1991. The studio backdrop was the only element to liven up the studio by tinging different colours every so often, as it had done before. From its plethora of geometric flourishes, primarily triangular, it could be assumed that this design was inspired by the Art Deco movement prominent in the 1920s and 1930s, albeit lacking the eccentric golds.
In this brief and seemingly forgotten era of the show, the set exhibited an abundance of wooden boards. These were accompanied by a number of jagged and slanted wall panels accentuated with green and white granite textures to offset the deluge of brown. Each of these wall pieces had horizontal grooves running through them to emphasise on the geometrical look that the style communicated. Underneath these sections were layers of a darker woodgrain, which separated the excess of tan on top from a stone grey at the lower part of the walls. An arched, metal rail was fixed to the top of the central wooden boards, with two shorter examples framing a rounded panel on the outer areas of the studio. The wooden set was constructed around a diamond-shaped platform, with a central void in front of the desks. A plan view of the platform's layout would have seen a similar resemblance to the inside of a baseball field, though this studio was hardly worthy of a home run.
This quirky design was the only one in which the desk was split into four smaller tables, therefore making it distinctive because its setup wouldn't be permitted today: players are now required to show each other their working when making the same declaration (though this wasn't the case at the time), and the distance between them on this configuration would have made that difficult. The two outer desks were roughly two-thirds longer in order to accommodate both members of Dictionary Corner — lexicographer and guest — on the left, who sat together. On a related note, this was the first set in which the position of Dictionary Corner was switched with Richard Whiteley, who was previously stationed at the left side of the studio. The desks here were the most unusual out of all that have been seen on the show, featuring sloped fronts and numerous overhangs. The front faces had a triangle motif imprinted on them, which was overlapped by protruding strips of wood to allow for a stylish drop shadow effect. On both sides of each table was a standing floor-mounted wedge block. The desks for the two contestants had their nameplate sitting on top, as well a seven-segment display embedded into the front to show their game score.
Reprising its role as the centrepiece of the studio, the clock now sat on a protruding pedestal, level with the darker woodgrain sections, and rested against the two wooden boards either side of it; it was supported by two legs fixed into the walls. Because of the boards angling inwards, the set lighting caused the clock to cast a prominent dark shadow onto them. In conjunction with the set using a bottle green highlight colour, the border of the clock face and its hand were changed accordingly from the red colour they had been painted in before.
▸ Other changes: one of the other changes given to the programme for Series 18 was the clock music, which was recomposed to the version heard today. The first Countdown Masters series — broadcast between April 1989 and March 1990 — crossed over the pastel and wooden set designs, with some editions on the wooden set being filmed prior to Series 18. This resulted in the Masters series using the original clock music for many of its transmissions on this set, despite the newer version having been introduced on the regular show.
▸ Later changes: the earliest observable difference made to the wooden set, just weeks after it entered production, was the removal of the central pedestal, on top of which sat a diamond-shaped prism object. The length of the pedestal considerably (and unnecessarily) increased the distance between the two players, and taking it away allowed the desks to be pushed closer together.
Midway through the set's tenure, the original clock hand was replaced with a replica absent of rounded corners. This "sharper" style has been retained since, though the hand lost the arc-shaped "tail" extending from the inner section when the clock model was rebuilt in 2013.
▸ Discontinuation: 'longevity' is an invalid nine-letter word to describe this period in the programme's history, as the wooden set was ditched after just two years. To date, it remains Countdown's shortest-lived set design, a record that it will likely keep. It was replaced by the red variation of the wings style when Series 22 commenced in July 1991.
Letter and number tiles
In this era alone, the tiles displaying the letters and numbers had four different styles overall, pertaining to problems with their colour scheme and later the font used.
▸ Potential* Series 18 redesign: as well as the updated set, Series 18 introduced a new set of tiles to reflect the appearance of the rebranded logo. Here, the lettering was apparently portrayed in the thinner Futura Book font and filled in red against a pale yellow background. With these attributes, the tiles resembled giant versions of those used in Scrabble.
During the transmissions of the series, it was pointed out that the colours would be problematic for any viewers who suffered with photosensitive epilepsy. An attempt was made to have all of the episodes recorded again, but some of the original contestants weren't available. This resulted in many editions, notably in the series finals, having to be broadcast using the unsuitable tiles. Those episodes that were filmed again reinstated the blue and white scheme introduced in Series 11.
*As of the time of writing this, the only evidence to suggest the tiles looked how they do in the design below is a press photo of Carol Vorderman stood in front of the conundrum board, whereby the words written on its banners were presented in this format. However, another press photo from around the same time featured the contestants' nameplates in the reverse configuration, meaning it's plausible the tiles could have had that look instead.
▸ Series 19: for Series 19, the tiles were renewed for the third time in the show's history. In terms of readability, this was undoubtedly the worst look they have ever possessed. While the blue and white colour scheme was restored, the text was now set in what appeared to be the dreadful Twentieth Century Ultra Bold font — Twentieth Century being one of the competitors to the near-identical and currently used Futura typeface. The extreme thickness of the letters, combined with the height they were set at, meant the 'W' character had to be condensed and therefore looked out of proportion, while the 'Q' had to sit above the baseline due to being taller than the other letters with its descending "tail".
Given the situation with the tiles in the previous series, it was ironic that the thickness of Twentieth Century Ultra Bold caused legibility issues for some viewers, deeming this design unsuitable also. To resolve this, they were refreshed once again for the following series onwards; on this occasion, into the style still seen now.
▸ Series 20 onwards: Series 20 was the first on the daytime show to involve the letter tiles that are still being used today, although they could have made their debut in the midst of the early morning Countdown Masters series. In contrast to the preceding style, their appearance went from appalling to essentially perfect — evident from the length of time they have survived. Not only did the better-suited Futura Bold font replace the atrocious Twentieth Century Ultra Bold used in the Series 19, but it was displayed at 75% width. This let the wider 'M' and 'W' characters fit comfortably within the square space without being subject to further condensing. The letters were also subtly reduced in height — increasing the negative space around them — which in turn meant the 'Q' could sit on the baseline without its "tail" needing to be trimmed as in the Series 11 iteration.
For both the letters and numbers, this specific design lasted until the debut of the orange wings set at the end of 1999. While the letters weren't changed, and haven't been since, the numbers were increased in size to equal the height of the letters.