Magazines aren’t really like this

Ugly Betty lied to you: magazine offices are seldom as beautiful or ordered as the pages they produce

The world of magazine publishing has found itself the subject of several movies and TV shows recently. We have been able to laugh along as the office politics unfold inside the over-designed offices of the fictional Mode magazine in Ugly Betty and gasp at the all-powerful editor of US Vogue. If Mode’s cylin­drical corridors, organically curved meeting rooms and hidden spaces seem unreal, The September Issue, the fly-on-the-wall documentary about US Vogue, portrays the editorial office experience as only a small step or two down from the Mode empire: sleek modernist spaces alongside floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over Times Square.

The reality could hardly be more different. Editor Anna Wintour was the reason the movie The September Issue got made, even if her creative director Grace Coddington turned out to be its star. But it is Wintour alone who has the use of a spacious, person­alised office on the 12th floor of the Condé Nast building in New York. We see little of the real day-to-day working spaces of the editorial, design and publishing teams.

So what will those offices be like? Probably the same as every other US magazine, ‘warren-like’ as one New York art director put it during my research. New York is a city where an office of your own is such a big deal that everyone has one. Everyone. But of course this democratic approach devalues its subject, meaning most ‘offices’ are either windowless boxes or high-sided cubicles. This not only dictates the mood of the US office – they tend to be deadly quiet as adjacent colleagues email each other rather than actually talk – but is according to IPCMedia’s editorial development director Andy Cowles, who has worked in both the UK and US, one of the reasons US magazines need more staff. “The size of the teams is due to their commissioning more content and their endless process of fact checking and correction. But a lot of it, I believe, is that the US style of office requires a lot of people to administrate it,” he argues.

This desire for dedicated personal space is constant, however forward-thinking the actual building the offices are situated in might be. The 44 floors of the new Norman Foster-designed Hearst Magazines HQ in Manhattan is apparently one of the most modern and environmentally-friendly buildings in the city, but much of the inside is split up into ‘cubicles’, spaces barely bigger than the average UK desk.

In the UK, people still hanker after their own office but few get them – the publisher, perhaps the editor and the art director. Open-plan is the rule here, something that in my view suits magazine production. “Our offices are a level playing field,” explains Cowles, “egalitarian, often with the editor sitting amongst us. You can talk to everyone, you can stand up and be noticed.” Basic interaction is easy in this environment, decisions get made when they need to be rather than at pre-arranged meetings.

When I worked at Time Out in the 90s, the magazine moved to its current home on Tottenham Court Road, and the editorial and design departments were combined into a long room with an office for me as art director at one end and one for the editor at the other end. This was an intelligent combination of open-plan and private space that in part reflected the factory-like process of producing a weekly publication. Editorial ideas flowed from one end, design from the other, and they met at the sub-editors’ desk halfway down the room. The interior design featured specially made MDF furniture sitting upon a custom-designed carpet. On the plus side, none of us on the staff had ever had so much space and I had my own office. On the negative side, never had a specially commissioned carpet been quite so hideous.

As editorial offices have become increasingly computer-orientated, their design has developed to help people have time away from their screens. At Time Out, the studio had an open table space for sharing layouts, proofs and even lunch. Today, Sight & Sound magazine does the same thing, as art director Chris Brawn explains: “We have a central table where we
have our meetings and eat. It’s the only communal place where everyone talks to one another, and hence the real place where the content of the magazine is formulated. The rest of the time everyone sits in front of their Macs with their heads down.” Even the open-plan set-up can end up feeling like a library.

By now, you’ll be getting the general idea about magazine offices. They are, basically, just offices. The creative department is one part of a larger team encompassing ad sales, print buying, distribution etc. A typical response in researching this piece was, “our office is a grey and white monstrosity lacking any real creative vibe”. Several people compared their offices to call-centres.

There are exceptions, of course. Legend has it that staff at Wallpaper* aren’t allowed to hang their jackets on the back of their chairs for fear of messing up the highly designed look of the room. I have no idea of the truth of that story, but I’d be disappointed if it wasn’t the case.

The book The 10 Influential Creators for Magazine Design is the publishing equivalent of Studio­Culture, showing both the work and offices of smaller publications such as Self Service, Fantastic Man and Intersection. Taking common factors from this book and from The September Issue, we can identify the few traits that mark an office as a magazine office.

Firstly, all feature a wall of mini print-outs of the magazine issue in production, a vital part of overseeing the visual and editorial flow of a publication. Whether this has a dedicated room and magnetic hanging system as at US Vogue, or is just roughly taped to the office wall, as at Intersection, this is common to all magazine offices. It is an attempt to make sense out of the mess of magazine production.

And, secondly, that mess itself. As editorial designer Simon Esterson says, “It’s not the furniture, it’s the stuff that comes in and the people that drop by that make the magazine”, and, by extension, make the magazine office. A magazine is an edited selection of material gathered, and whether the focus is fashion, cars or design, there has to be a surfeit of material for that edited selection to be made from. No magazine office ever has enough storage space, not even US Vogue.

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

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