Just add content for ready-made magazines

Roger Black’s Ready-Media project has been causing outrage among magazine designers. Is it an affront to their craft or a clever solution for small publishers?

The launch by US publishing design guru Roger Black of Ready-Media, a series of ready-made magazine and newspaper design templates, recently caused an online stir among editorial designers. While some regarded it as a legitimate or perhaps inevitable project, others, including me, criticised Black and his colleagues. Before I get to the arguments involved it’s worth looking at how we got here.

Before magazines relied on Macs for production, I remember a publisher I worked for suggesting that we test one. Despite being excited by the prospect, I resisted as I feared he was more concerned with saving money than with improving creativity. But shortly afterward I moved to Time Out where the covers were already designed using a Mac and never looked back.

Since then the Mac has become ubiquitous and the benefits to the designer have rather neatly paralleled publishers’ need to reduce costs. There were those who took my earlier stance and worried about designers’ roles being usurped by computers (and even talk of everyone becoming a designer), but in reality it was a case of goodbye typesetting and repro costs, hello total visual control. Who could lose (apart from the external suppliers)?

Aldus Pagemaker gave way to QuarkXpress, which in turn gave way to Adobe InDesign, which as part of Adobe’s Creative Suite offered unified editing, layout, image manipulation and PDF creation. And coming soon in version 5.5 will be iPad magazine app creation.

These programmes offered two types of creative development. Crucially, they provided direct creative control over typography, imagery and layout. But they also provided shortcuts to speed up the process. Lockable guides, templates, master pages and ever more sophisticated typographic style sheets became essential in the development of a new publication. Magazines rely on a balance between familiarity and change, and these tools help speed up production of regular, formatted pages, allowing other pages to be more customised. They also provide occasional contributors and freelancers a starting point from which to work.

Although the creation of such 2  3 basic detail is the dog work of magazine design, it seems essential to me that these basic building blocks should be tailored to the magazine in question and originate with the designer/team who will subsequently use them. Any-thing else is a compromise. Magazines present content, and while the content itself is the primary information, the design plays a major part in how the reader experiences that content. Increasingly, design is content.

Which brings us back to Ready-Media. Their offer is a full set of prepared templates created to suit five styles of magazine and five newspapers. Designed by Roger Black, Eduardo Danilo and Robb Rice and featuring David Berlow’s font designs, the templates are sold hard on the company’s website.

The home page boasts “Just add content” and deeper in we’re told, “It’s time to adapt the web technique of standard templates … to print and to all platforms”. We’re offered the Vernier, “well-equipped for any trade or B2B publication” and the Gilma, apparently “a vehicle to let photography and illustration pull the reader in … perfect for an enthusiast title or any publication with a strong focus on visuals”.

For some – see the comments on the SPD site, spd.org – the whole thing is a storm in a teacup, and I’d like to think it was. But I find it highly disturbing that such an experienced team is so willing to breezily dismiss the designer’s role, in the process commoditising a skill that is a vital component in maintaining quality in publishing. They claim their templates will free up the design team to concentrate on art direction and imagery, but that’s what all templates do. I suggest that templates created internally are going to be more appropriate, better suited and in the long term save more time (and hence money) than any off-the-shelf offer.

I can hear the magazine publisher I mentioned at the start of this column arguing that a set of Ready-Media templates will make his designer’s life easier. But I hope said designer will resist the offer and propose the money is spent on developing a bespoke solution instead.

Jeremy Leslie runs the magCulture.com blog. More information on Ready-Media can be found at ready-media.com. See also the debate at spd.org

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