Evolution or revolution? It’s food for thought

By successfully infusing familiar recipes with new flavours, food magazines are a lesson to us all

Having been involved in a couple of major redesigns recently I’ve been reminded of one of the key principles of editorial design: the need to balance change with familiarity. This is the evolution or revolution dilemma. Magazines need to develop from issue to issue, the question is how much change should they incorporate? A redesign is a redesign of course, and involves a deliberate programme of change (revolution), but most magazines shift slightly from issue to issue anyhow, without heralding a redesign (evolution).

Some titles go further – the most high-profile being the high-end fashion project Visionaire which changes form and subject every biannual issue. On a smaller and less flamboyant scale, until recently I designed M-real magazine, a publication that retained a familiar format but changed every aspect of its design each issue. The magazine was aimed at editorial designers, so had license to play with the form in this manner. (Others, most notably Monocle, settle on a very specific look and feel and stick to it religiously).

Generally, though, a magazine develops an editorial and design approach that reflect each other and that together provide a large degree of familiarity for the reader from issue to issue. That same continuity helps the creative team produce the magazine too. Change must be managed carefully, carrying the reader and ensuring that changes made are in the right direction.

The oft-repeated scenario is that of the art director trying to persuade a reluctant editor to endorse a new look (and, yes, sometimes it gets told the other way round). My recent experi­ence has shown that the more likely problem is an inability to spot the need for change. Magazines are produced to very tight and regular schedules in order to hit their monthly/weekly on-sale dates. Many get stuck in the cycle of execution, the deadline itself becomes the monthly goal, and a more strategic overview is easily overlooked.

The best editors and art directors maintain this more general overview. But as well as concentrating on their own magazine, they must look at the context within which their magazine operates. That is, they always need to understand the competition.

Today that competition comes from more than just other magazines, but let’s set aside the digital competi­tion (other than to note that it has sped up change in many markets) and concentrate on one genre of print magazine, the food magazine.

With occasional exception, food publishing has stuck to the same template for decades, reacting to obvious economic and social stimuli, but remaining essentially the same – a combination of recipes, advice and reviews. The ratio of these elements can vary, the level and ambition of cooking can change to match up-, mid- and downmarket audiences, but essentially the concept remains the same and involves large photo­graphs of food on glossy paper – glossy because that’s what carries food photography best, right? Such was the prevailing wisdom until Jamie Oliver launched his magazine, Jamie, last year. Despite arriving as part of an almost unbearably huge wave of brand extensions from the tv chef, the magazine has success­fully translated Oliver’s can-do person­ality into print. Hiring his own team of experienced magazine creatives, he has come from leftfield and created a food title that is already influencing others. Printed on an unconventional matt uncoated paper, it features a busy, crowded, but warm design, and provides a mix of recipes and travel reportage that like the chef himself crosses boundaries. It looks accessible but aspirational at the same time, quite a feat. You can bet other food magazines will have been looking with interest at Jamie and considering how to adopt elements of its positioning.

Jamie is not the first magazine to set out to express its namesake’s character in an editorial format. In the US there are plenty of examples of celebrities with self-titled publications. Oprah has made a great success of Oprah magazine, but converting yourself into a magazine/ media brand has its problems. Just ask Rosie O’Donnell, who found her Rosie magazine couldn’t keep up with her personality and lifestyle. The queen of them all remains Martha Stewart, who appears to have overcome her jail term to maintain the success of the media empire based on her upscale lifestyle taste. Flagship title Martha Stewart Living is taste-making at its most aspirational, but on a recent trip to the US I found a hidden gem in a tiny Martha Stewart publication called Everyday Food. As its name suggest, this is simple fare compared to the flagship magazine but it spreads the Martha Stewart lifestyle message way beyond its core readership. Even within a genre as seemingly saturated and repetitive as the food magazine, there remain surprises.

Move away from the mainstream to independent publishing and there is even more to surprise you. Meatpaper is a journal that uses meat as a starting point for examining the US’s troubled relationship with food. That might sound terribly dry, but its use of illustration brings it to life. Fire & Knives is a recent British launch that takes a similar visual approach to Meatpaper, avoiding the usual food porn. Produced on matt paper in a small format, it gives its writers an open brief, broadening its scope away from cooking and eating to look at the literature, history and media coverage of food. The content is delivered in a slightly retro design that removes it completely from the standard editorial food world. It’s a magazine where food writers get to write what they really want to write rather than following the market, and is all the better for it.

Beyond food, other genres have their innovators too. Bored with your regular interiors magazine? Try Apartamento for a different world of interiors. Want a different perspec­tive on cycling? Try The Ride journal. These are not obscure fashion titles but real magazines dealing with things real people are passionate about.

What this brief survey establishes, I hope, is that even in these chaotic times for magazine publishers, new voices on old subjects continue to challenge the status quo. The best magazine makers understand and follow these new directions and continually evaluate which parts they might adopt and add to their titles without either ripping off a competitor or damaging the character of their own magazine. It’s all about knowing how and when to change.

Jeremy Leslie runs the magculture.com blog

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