Feminist Times: design for non-comformists

Charlotte Raven’s feminist magazine Feminist Times, originally planned as a re-launch of 1970s title Spare Rib, launched online last week. We asked art director Lucy Newman about designing for the controversial anti-lifestyle title.

Charlotte Raven’s feminist magazine Feminist Times, originally planned as a re-launch of 1970s title Spare Rib, launched online last week. We asked art director Lucy Newman about designing for the controversial anti-lifestyle title.

In a ‘manifesto’ published on the newly launched Feminist Times website, editor Charlotte Raven asks: “Where have all the interesting women gone? And what happened to all the interesting magazines? There are over forty women’s titles on our local newsagents shelves but they all look depressingly, uniformly bland.”

Raven describes Feminist Times as “a place where people can detox from mainstream media and meet interesting like and unlike minds”. She originally planned to re-launch the 1970s feminist magazine Spare Rib but Marsha Rowe, who co-founded the publication with Rosie Boycott, applied to trademark the name in June, stopping her from doing so. The Feminist Times name was announced in July after an online poll and the site and soon-to-be-launched magazine will be ad and celebrity-free and funded by supporters.

The magazine and website are designed by art director Lucy Newman, who attended school with Raven, and designer Neni Almeida. “Charlotte texted about a year ago to say she had a new project, “an old fashioned feminist mag”, and I was on her list to consult about it. We met in a coffee shop in Whitechapel and then visited The Women’s Library where we looked at Nova and Spare Rib,” she explains.

While primarily aimed at women, Newman says the site aims to appeal to “non-conformists of all ages, genders and backgrounds” and bring feminism to a wider audience. It’s a sparse design: strong deep colours are coupled with greys and black, sans type and a grid layout. Embellishment is kept to a minimum, presumably to let the controversial editorial do the talking.

“The overall concepts that needed to be embodied in the design and imagery were: daring, radical empathy, warmth, inclusive (not aspirational), home made (around the kitchen table), iconoclastic, irreverent fun, punk, political. A movement that you can join and join in. It meant designing a look and feel which is anti-lifestyle and in someway anti-taste, if that is the right word, which is an interesting challenge in itself,” explains Newman.

The colour scheme is inspired by a Victorian wall paint colour chart which included Scheele’s green, which was poisonous and made of copper arsenic. Sans type was chosen for its legibility online, although serif may be used for the print edition, and Newman says there was “a conscious decision to steer away from curved shapes, soft wafting, lyrical marks and purples, which are considered feminine.”

Imagery on the site ranges from 3D headlines to collages and photographs depending on the content, and Newman admits that finding the right illustrations to balance controversial editorial can be tricky. “Hard hitting ‘edgy’ imagery is not the first choice at all, as the magazine is about raising consciousness and being inclusive. Solutions can be found with illustration and typography if need be, [and] the editorial team have lots of visual ideas too,” she says.

While not a Spare Rib reader, Newman says the magazine was an influence when designing Feminist Times. “The issues from the 1970s are hugely inspiring with their use of off set litho technology, duotone images, collages and drawings. We took from it some colours, bright pink on the aging paper cream background,” she adds.

The Feminist Times logo was inspired by weekend newspaper supplements from the 1990s, which Newman studied in Central Saint Martins’ library. “It comes in four colours and is set across three lines. It’s like a mark or a stamp, so relates back to older trademarks and banners. I’m fond of arial for its plainness, but Neni [designer] suggested Ubuntu and it seemed a more interesting choice,” she adds.

The Feminist Times name is a dry alternative to Spare Rib, but Newman’s logo gives the name a more playful, youthful feel. Her design for the site is not feminine or polished, which reflects the brief and brand values she was given.

But Newman’s comments raise an interesting question: surely a magazine can be beautiful without being seen as ‘girly’? Of course, Feminist Times wants to communicate a grassroots, non-conformist, old-fashioned punk aesthetic, so the decision to keep the website as stripped back as possible makes sense. But there’s no reason why a site that opposes the values and ideals put forward in traditional women’s consumer mags has to abandon all of the design features employed by those brands, or extra details that could make a richer and more enjoyable reading experience.

It will be interesting to see how these values are communicated in the bi-monthly magazine, and just how the print edition will compare to Spare Rib. And as last week’s reaction to Elle’s decision to “re-brand” feminism with the help of top ad agencies proved, it seems we are just as divided on what feminism should look like today as we are on what the word actually means.

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