Type and magazines: neglected no more

Typography is the element that links all the parts of a magazine together but it can go unappreciated: not in the pages of TypoMag though…

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Last week I was asked one of those questions that as designers we half love, half loathe. It was at a party celebrating the 25th anniversary of Elle, one of our more carefully designed mainstream magazines and therefore a rather curious environment for the question, ‘What does a magazine designer do?’

The quick, social answer is that we take the elements – text and pictures – and compose them on the page. We make them ‘look good’ together. I might mention typography, but only if the person is still paying attention after that first sentence.

Which is a mistake, as new book TypoMag reminds me. Typography is far more important to magazine design than that. In her introduction, author/designer Laura Meseguer makes the case for typography as the element that links all the parts of a magazine together. “Every magazine is searching for a way to be different and attract a particular audience,” she explains, “and that is presented through format, photography, paper, journalistic style, all parts of the whole, linked by typography.”

My love of magazines grew alongside a parallel interest in typography, so for me font choice and the application of typography has always been a central part of the editorial design process. And I know plenty of other magazine designers who share that belief (just as I have come across a fair number who either don’t share it or are mistaken in their belief that they do, but that’s another subject). Somehow, though, typography almost gets taken for granted in magazines, so it’s refreshing to see the subject picked up in this book.

Meseguer sets the tone with her introduction, explaining the selection criteria and defining some of the issues raised – the functional role of typography, the more general ‘tonal’ role (is the magazine to appear sober or flashy?), and the paradox of legibility versus readability.

This latter subject is, for me, the heart of the matter. We know the parameters within which we must design to be easily read. There’s plenty of information available in more specialist type books about the ideal point size to leading ratio, the optimum number of characters per line and the benefits of kerning.

But typography has a deeper role to play when we want to focus attention on other elements of the content such as images, or to play with these rules to create mood and friction or even just stand apart from others. Magazines that are made for long-form reading (the New York Times Magazine and UK Wired are given as examples in the book) channel creative attention to the design of the headlines while letting the body text rely on the functional rules of reading.

Others (Newwork and Lieschen) are published by designers primarily as experiments in editorial design. Simple functionality is not always the point, there is space here for expression, reflection of the content and even adding meaning to the content through design.

The book takes a close-up look at 29 magazines, each one getting between four and eight pages. These pages are not large, so the examples are crammed in tightly but purposefully. There have been plenty of books that highlight single elements from a cover or a spread from a magazine, but this time we get to see multiple pages and covers, giving a more rounded view of the individual magazines. The images alone back up Messeguer’s claim that magazines are alive and kicking. Highlights for me include long-time favourites Carl*s Cars, Kasino A4 and Little White Lies from the independent sector, but more familiar titles include Monocle, Émigré and the Architectural Review. There is little I would drop, but plenty that could have been added.

One key omission is the work of German designer Mike Meiré, one of the most quietly prominent editorial designers around at present. His work is heavily typographic, and has clearly influenced several of the magazines that are included in TypoMag. We’ll have to wait for the upcoming collection of Meiré’s back catalogue to see more of his work on Econy, Brand Eins and 032c, any one of which might have been included here.

All the images are carefully annotated and each magazine is accompanied by several hundred words of background detail. Some of the words here feel like they’ve lost something in translation – the book is originally Spanish – and are sometimes slightly uncritical in tone, but they lift it above being just another picture book.

The pictures, though, are what will make or break a book like this, and on that count it does the job well. Dutch editorial designer Luis Mendo is right when he states in his foreword that “magazines … are the best living example of the marriage between image and text”. This book backs up that claim, and should serve as a reminder that magazines remain a key record and source of current typographic style.

Jeremy Leslie runs the magCulture blog