Jeremy Leslie: What makes a magazine?

In the first of his new monthly columns, Jeremy Leslie asks what makes a magazine a magazine?

To kick off this series of columns on magazines and editorial design, let’s start at the beginning and ask what makes a maga­zine a magazine. This may seem a curious question – what you’re looking at right now is a magazine, right? – but it’s worth a closer look as it also helps establish a value for judging what a good magazine is. The subject also has an element of currency, following the refusal by South Africa’s abc (Audit Bureau of Circulation) to recognise MK Bruce/Lee as a magazine.

MK Bruce/Lee is an extraordinary project published by South African company The President on behalf of the music tv station mk. The maga­zine focuses on music, and each issue comes in two versions, one (Lee) for women and one (Bruce) for men. But what makes it stand out as special is its physical form. Creative director Peet Pienaar has conceived the project as a lucky dip bag of printed goodies including stickers, fold-out posters, booklets and postcards. Every surface buzzes with multi-coloured repeat dingbat patterns using different paper stocks and print effects. It could hardly be further from the ‘standard’ maga­zine format. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a magazine, it just makes it a very special magazine. I’ve argued many times before that magazines have to emphasise their printed nature, their ‘magaziney-ness’, to set them apart from digital experiences and secure a foothold in the future, and MK Bruce/ Lee is a perfect example of how to do this. Yet, in the words of the ABC, “The board rejected your application for membership of the ABC on the basis that it was not considered to be a magazine.”

But if MK Bruce/Lee can partly be defined by its difference from the mainstream, what are the factors it shares with the mainstream that mean both can be considered magazines?

I will come to some key attributes but I prefer to start with the more open definition expressed by editorial designer Fernando Gutiérrez for my book Issues: “The word magazine means storage space for dynamite. A magazine is full of surprises and it can explode at any minute.” By that defini­tion, half the magazines on the news­stand today should struggle to earn the right to be called magazine. And therein lies one of the main issues to be addressed in defining ‘magazine’.  For many people, the ubiquity and familiarity of magazines renders them almost invisible. They pick up the latest issue of their regular read and take it completely for granted. The lack of surprise in mainstream titles has played a major part in their success but is arguably now playing a part in their slow decline. They are predictable not only in format and appearance but in content too.

There are exceptions. The ‘surprise’ factor explains why magazines like The New Yorker and The Face remain regarded with such high esteem. But great though such titles are, they not only stick to a traditional physical format but cannot be described as typical. They are (or were in the case of The Face) exceptional for their refusal to be predictable. It is difficult to describe the New Yorker in a single sentence, its scope is so broad. Every issue contains surprises – as David Hepworth has said, “one of its chief delights is that it’s impossible to predict what’s going to be in it”. This was what made The Face great in its heyday too. It managed to combine the most unlikely parts. Political reportage sat next to fashion in a way that hadn’t been seen since earlier titles like Twen and Nova. And yes, they got things wrong: the fashion shoot based on terrorist chic springs to mind. But it was only later, when The Face became scared of making such mistakes, that it began its decline toward closure.

With the majority of magazines being nervous of straying too far from their comfort zones we need to celebrate those titles that are attempt­ing to do something different. Whether mainstream or independent, consumer, b2b or customer, old or new, industry bodies like abc should be supporting innovative publications. And if we’re supporting innovation in content and presentation, why not format too? It is only relatively recently that the increased scale of magazine production has prompted so much homogeneity in physical format.

I offer two criteria that define some­thing as a magazine rather than a news­paper or book. Firstly, a magazine is a vehicle for edited content. Text, pictures and design work together to present a mediated view on a subject/subjects. The usp of the New Yorker is that you the reader are placing your trust in the editorial team to deliver a surprising combination of material, including content you perhaps didn’t expect would interest you. This mediation is an important difference from other content providers, particularly digital media where content is sourced by search or by random links.

Secondly, a magazine is part of a series, an ongoing project that gets published under a single banner. The period between issues might be weekly, monthly, quarterly, annual or irregular, but another issue is always on its way. It is this that allows the reader to develop an ongoing relationship with a publication, and is what publishers rely on to create loyalty and contin­uing sales.

Weeklies like Grazia, Heat and Pick Me Up are magazines, as are monthlies like Vogue, Esquire and indeed Creative Review. But so are ever- changing projects like Mono.Kultur (every issue a different binding format), La Mas Bella (one issue a map, another an apron, another a tapas-making kit) and perhaps most spectacularly Visionaire (one issue a lightbox and transparencies, another a series of pop-up books). And so, of course, is MK Bruce/Lee.

All these magazines and more will be fair game for this column over the coming months.

See more about MK Bruce/Lee at mkbruce

Jeremy Leslie blogs at and is a curator of the international magazine symposium, Colophon

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