Getting magazine-y

A day spent with an array of leading art directors convinces Violetta Boxill-Roope that there is still life on the newsstand

It seemed ironic that the day-long conference, Magazines are Dead! Long Live the Magazine, should take place on the last day of the last week of the month; commonly known to all involved in the production of a monthly magazine as Press Week. Usually exclaimed rather than said, this is the manic last week in a magazine’s cycle when all hands are needed to turn Word documents and raw image files into the beautifully crafted pages you see on the news­stand. As creative director of one such publication I questioned my, or at least my editor’s, sanity at letting me take this day out of the studio.

The conference was aptly staged in Bridewell Hall, above the St Bride print library. Simon Esterson (art director of Eye and co-curator of the conference with Jeremy Leslie) welcomed us all and acknowledged the inappropriate timing of the event: “I can see from how many people have attended that magazines are indeed alive … but perhaps, not today.”

First up was Paul Rennie, head of context in graphic design at Central St Martins who gave us a brief history of post-war publishing during Britain’s economic collapse and the subsequent social and political upheaval. Published from 1938 to 1957, Picture Post, a magazine which pioneered photojournalism (and had taken its lead from America’s Life magazine published two years earlier) was at the forefront of the political and economic redefinition of Britain. It was, he claimed, a magazine that could as easily report on the persecution of the Jews, unemployment and government blunders as it could sex and sport.

The monthly Architectural Review (published since 1896) was mentioned by Rennie and by several other speakers – its articles on the built environment, urbanism and landscape design were presented in imaginative and unique ways often because of economic restraints. A cheap, thin, uncoated, coloured stock was, according to Esterson, the “DNA of the magazine” – amusingly enough a trick many contemporary magazines use today to suggest expense.

Rennie then offered one of the most interesting ideas of the day. He suggested that the strong heroic architectural photography in these pages actually influenced architects; that the photogenic quality of a building was perhaps present in an architect’s mind and could sway his design. It’s an amazing claim but one later echoed by Tony Chambers (former creative director and current editor-in-chief at Wallpaper*). Could magazines really change the world? Or, at least, could they be responsible for its landscape?

“The story of magazines has a direct link to the story of the economy and the story of technology,” said Esterson (next up and covering 1960– 2000) and he sought to contrast the static visual language of the earlier period by firing back-to-back slides of colourful, confident and fluid pages from a wide variety of magazines. The Sunday Times Magazine (“the first British colour newspaper supple­ment”); Campaign (“changed the face of business photography”); Twen (“dramatic compositions mobilised the spread”); Private Eye (“best covers ever designed”); Today’s Golfer (“intro­duced comparatives and testing … a usefulness to the magazine”); Time Out (“cover as advert”), i-D, The Face, Arena, Nova, Rolling Stone and Esquire were just a few of the titles in his visual arsenal.

William Owen, a strategic consultant who helps titles translate themselves to the web, then spoke of the “poverty of resources” allocated to such areas and the misunderstanding of this arena. He started with a few home truths. Firstly: functionality matters more than beauty. If it doesn’t work, why come back? Many of the most successful sites are visually pretty crude: YouTube, eBay, etc. The audience will tolerate a basic design providing there is resolved content and functionality. This is something many big companies misunderstand. He compared, the club site with lots of video and polish and investment to, a blog written by one man which gets one tenth of the reach of Arsenal, with probably 1/1000th the investment. The reason for the latter’s success? “Authenticity, wit and being prepared to work in a different way.”

Secondly – Owen claimed – editors don’t always know best. Amazingly, there were no audience air-punches at this statement. Websites, he said, are not magazines, they function in a completely different way. They are, he argued, “a landscape, not an object”. Furthermore, he went on to state that journalists can’t blog because “they’re not opinionated enough and they have to close an argument”. The language of bloggers is far more dogmatic and less con­clusive. This made sense to me but I wasn’t sure if I’d share this view with my opinionated editorial team on Monday.

Seeing the good and the great of yesteryear made it easy to feel overwhelmed. Jeremy Leslie (group creative director of John Brown Citrus, author of blog and by all accounts a magazine fanatic) did little to dispel this nausea with a brilliant but disheartening first slide of a newsstand packed with hundreds of magazines. The magazine market is saturated. Fact. Most magazines print up to 50% more than they sell to guarantee a broad distribution and presence on the newsstand. These unsold copies go on to be pulped and dumped. Fact. This energy consuming model is not sustainable. Gulp! Before we had a chance to thumb the classifieds or run to the pub next door to drown our ‘nothing’s original and I’m killing the planet’ sorrows, he went on to offer not so much a solution but an alternative. Fragmentation! If we create niche audiences then we can accurately target the reader (through subscriptions, mail order or specialist outlets) and perhaps reduce the waste.

Leslie had a range of examples, starting with the internet. It’s unlikely that without blogs and user-generated sites that magazines like Karen (which documents the mundane details of everyday life ), Me (each issue explores the life of a guest editor) or Found (a collection of found stuff, that gives a glimpse into someone else’s life) would exist. Conceptually, they are printed blogs. And with the ability to access free information on the internet, the proposition of a ‘magazine’ has to change. Make magazines more magazine-y. Think of a magazine as an experience, a physical object, paper, form, with free stuff … make even the most basic things special. Monocle had a simple but elegant hand-finished solution to attach its Travel Top 50 supplement, for example: no poly-bag or blob of glue here, but a commonplace elastic band around the spine and centre pages of both documents, carefully nestling one to the other.

Subscriptions are key, too (they “buy you freedom” in the words of Esterson). Esquire and Wallpaper* both embrace and reward their sub­scribed captive audience by offering alternative or limited-edition covers. A recent issue of Esquire, for example, has its cover star Daniel Day-Lewis in a conventional magazine pose: front on, direct eye contact, cover lines. The subscriber’s version, however, has a less predictable image with Day-Lewis slightly turning and – shockingly – no cover lines! Wallpaper* has perhaps championed this with limited edition covers designed by the likes of Jeff Koons, Zaha Hadid, Dieter Rams and Alan Fletcher, unavailable to the casual newsstand buyer. Collectable. Covetable. Exclusive.

In another manifestation, Creative Review sold its February 2007 issue to advertising agency Mother for £15,000. This was announced with an oversized price label on the cover (an actual die-cut spot-coloured label stuck to the front of the magazine) and packaged in an oversized brown wage packet complete with the handwritten line, “Your Mother is a whore”, which I understand wasn’t too popular with WH Smith. This economic union allowed cr to have 28 pages of ad-free content, use special inks, and include a free sticker and posters, the most poignant poster slogan being, “I Sold My Soul & it Feels Great.”

Leslie also proffered that if you are going to exist, then question your existence. Joseph Ernst’s One Page magazine, for example, is, as you’d imagine, just one page of print. Each ‘issue’ analyses a different aspect of the content of a different magazine. Hello! magazine (dated 31.07.07) features 67 celebrity names. In Ernst’s version, each name has been reproduced at the same scale and in the same position on the page as it appeared in the original document. The final print provides a typographic x-ray of sorts, a ‘history’ of overlayed type. Similarly, his version of French Vogue (March 2007), contains 236 pages of advertising. Each logo is over­­laid to produce another specimen. This time much more dense and chaotic. Leslie points out that the fashion logos of the seemingly restrained Vogue are bigger and bolder than the brash headlines of Hello! Not something you’d anticipate.

Nice magazine is an a4-ish piece of inch-thick wood. It recently had a fashion supplement, an a5-ish piece of wood: essentially just a front and back cover and spine. Leslie invited us to make our own assumptions on its raison d’etre believing, himself, that it’s a comment on how books should be more physical. I, perhaps more cynically, chose to revel in its absurdity and see it as comment on consumption, waste and the pointless content of so many magazines.

Leslie made no judgement on these kinds of experiments and offerings but celebrated the fact they could exist. They push and perhaps ignore the definition of a magazine. Useless, art or visual exercises in critique; either way, I applaud them.

In addition to the two usual items, (image and word) ‘design’ is now also recognised as the third component of a magazine’s content and Leslie had a range of examples that illustrated the fundamental part that it plays in a magazine’s foot­print: Mark, the Dutch architecture magazine’s over­powering, distracting yet strident design of overlaid patterns on images (later tweaked as architects allegedly didn’t like it); New York magazine, for the synergy between the art director and editor; Grazia for putting the expectations of a monthly into a weekly; Ray Gun’s famous 1994 issue when David Carson printed an entire interview with musician Bryan Ferry in Zapf Dingbats as it was so dull; and 032c, the Berlin-based culture magazine that champions the ‘ugly’ with its computer-distressed, compressed and stretched type. Heresy for any purist typographer.

Leslie’s presentation was inspiring, informative and slightly crazy. Could his thinking provide the answer? Perhaps not. There is a flaw to this niche approach as Esterson argued, “fragmentation ultimately equals saturation”. The more we target, the more we produce. Gulp, again.

Monocle’s art director Richard Spencer Powell (former art director of Wallpaper*) then discussed his current magazine whilst perhaps subconsciously highlighting the differences between the two publi­cations. He left Wallpaper* in 2002 with founding editor, Tyler Brûlé, and set up the creative branding agency, Winkreative. After five years they decided to have another go at publishing. This time the offering was a small, shiny, black international magazine covering business, current affairs, culture and design. The design is encyclopedic in pace: dense body copy, uniform headlines with a lack of hierarchy. Powell believes that the content sells itself so he can afford to ‘under-design’ it.

Decisions were based on instinct, not market research. “We used uncoated paper because I liked it,” Powell offered, along with, “I’d been thinking about black for a while”. Seemingly casual answers, but he later confessed that, with their brand experience, he and Brûlé looked at it like a client, addressing the entire proposition in one hit: from magazine to website, from business card to wrapping paper, everything adhered to a rigid system of style guidelines, albeit ones they generated themselves.

By contrast, the launch of ‘Britain’s first weekly glossy’, Grazia, took two years of market research and secret preparation. Originally an Italian title, Sarah Horrocks was asked to translate the offering (codenamed ‘Rosa’) for a British audience. Her unremarkable choice of fonts (Raleigh, Garamond and Gill) produced a remarkable launch in 2005. The clever use of paparazzi-style photography instantly gave the magazine a glamorous immediacy and intimacy. Current news and serious journalism sat along celebrity gossip and fashion features: something that only appeared in the monthlies like Marie Claire.

Wallpaper*, too, has listened to its audience without losing integrity or focus. The tired images of reclining perfect people in mushroom-painted Scandinavian-styled apartments are gone, replaced with a rigorous attempt to produce the unexpected with unconventional covers and unique shoots. Ceramic artist Barnaby Barford created figurines in designer clothes for a recent fashion feature.

No models, no clothes, just porcelain. In another, young designers were flown to the construction sites of highly anticipated buildings. Styled and shot, ticking three audience boxes – architecture, design and fashion – in one.It had been an invaluable day with a variety of voices and a feast of imagery but for every great cover and spread, somewhere in the same publication is probably an average or unresolved one. With magazines you can make mistakes and experiment. By their very nature they constantly evolve. They echo and reflect. At best a companion, entertainer and mentor. At worst a fickle, bigoted asbo waster. The proposition might change but magazines are far from dead. My unfinished pages, lying dormant back in the studio, on the other hand, were in desperate need of resurrection.

Violetta Boxill-Roope is art director of Alexander Boxill Design and founding creative director of Icon magazine


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