Mr Fantastic and his magazine for our times

Every era has a magazine that defines it: for today, that title must go to Jop van Bennekom’s Fantastic Man

Writing this column highlights for me the paradox at the heart of magazine publishing. You, the reader, happily await the next issue of Creative Review to arrive on the shelves/through your door, and the space between issues might sometimes seem long and sometimes seem short. But its arrival is just one of many distractions to your day. You might flick through the issue immediately. Or look forward to having a look next time you make a coffee. A colleague might draw attention to a story or you may only realise the latest issue is out a week or so after publication.

Once read, though, what then happens to the magazine? CR is probably one of those more likely to end up being filed for reference, but there’ll also be copies that find themselves – gasp! – in the recycling bag, or worse, in the bin. If CR and other visual culture titles are a slight exception, out there in the mainstream magazines are absolutely disposable items. They catch a moment, then are gone.

The paradox is that magazine makers are permanently immersed in lovingly developing their magazines to be as engaging as possible. Those long empty days (hah!) before the latest fix of your favourite weekly/monthly arrives are taken up by the magazine team writing and editing articles, selling ad pages and designing pages. The best magazine-makers make use of this paradox. Disposability means that you can try something, and if it doesn’t work adapt it next month. This is how magazines came to both reflect and lead graphic trends – their transience means they can continually adapt. This is one of the things that drew me to, and keeps me fascinated by, magazines.

The extent to which a magazine can change depends on its context. Creative Review can feature a different guest font for headlines every issue as that is rightly judged to be useful and relevant to you, the reader. Monocle, on the other hand, despite a brave initial design, has barely changed since it launched three years ago, and retains its highly templated approach in order to align itself with the ‘serious’ business press.

Not only are most magazines changing to some degree issue to issue, but not all magazines are destined to survive forever. Titles die, and others are born. There is little sadder than a magazine that overstays its welcome. In its day The Face was a vital reflection of the 80s youth culture scene, and it had a second wind in the mid-90s, but by its end it had become irrelevant and faded. Magazines have their time.

Such ongoing change and development make editorial design ripe for observation and comment, hence my blog, this column and numerous books on the subject. William Owen’s Magazine Design remains the bench-mark here (it’s out of print but copies do turn up on eBay). In it he establishes the magazine design canon, a brief précis of which would start with early illustrated and photographic titles such as Vu and Picture Post (not forget-ting personal favourite, Leslie’s Weekly), moving through Fortune and Harper’s Bazaar and the introduction of colour, the 60s (Twen, Nova, Sunday Times Magazine) 70s (Rolling Stone, Time Out, New York) and 80s (Face, i-D, Blueprint, Octavo).

Which magazines would extend that list into the 90s, the noughties and now? David Carson’s deconstructed designs for RayGun would be first, followed by its polar opposite, the original iteration of Wallpaper*, and Tibor Kalman’s Colors, Loaded and early Wired – a magazine ahead of its time. Heat would be there for its attitude. Carlos would represent how customer publishing became a creative force in the industry, Grazia for proving weeklies could be upmarket, and Monocle for willfully ignoring the rules. Coming from leftfield would be Nest for its flamboyance, Marmalade for its attempt to overcome the rigidity of QuarkXpress and InDesign, and 032c for attempting to break the design habits of cool culture quarterlies.

The Guardian’s smart appropriation of both magazine and website design language would earn its inclusion, as would the sheer slickness of the various New York Times magazines. There’d be some familiar faces – i-⁠D along with the later reincarnations of Wallpaper*, Wired and New York.

And right now? If I were to pick a single magazine to represent editorial design today, that would be Fantastic Man. Creative director Jop van Bennekom has past form, having launched conceptual magazine Re- in the 90s and gay zine Butt in the noughties. This time, working with co-founder Gert Jonkers, he has assembled a stellar team of contributors and editors who have established Fantastic Man as a serious player in the men’s fashion market.

Its design manages to do two very different things at once. First, it harks back to a time when magazines reflected the simpler world around them, before Apple and Adobe provided a million and one possibilities. The simple monochrome typography, regimented column rules, text underscores and clear delineation between text and image lends an old-fashioned air to the magazine, deleting 30 years of busier multi-coloured designs with added access points in an instant.

Yet these same elements make the magazine modern, making visual reference to basic HTML design – simplified design based on either-or decisions between centred/ ranged left and smaller/larger type, and little decoration other than the functional column rules and underscores.

This hasn’t come from nowhere – there are clear links to magazines such as von Bennekom’s own Re- and a slew of inde-pendent Dutch designs from the early 90s, plus other fashion titles such as Purple and Self Service – but he and Jonkers have taken these ideas and made them their own.

Although subtle in comparison to many more mainstream magazines, Fantastic is not hung up on being übercool – the design can shout loud when it needs to. There is plenty to read, with cleverly chosen and saleable interviews and profiles mixing celebrity (Bret Easton Ellis), fashion stars (Tom Ford) and oddball heroes (the Sparks brothers). It manages the clever trick of taking its subject matter seriously while appearing to not take itself too seriously.

The design sensibility perfectly reflects this subtle editorial touch, and is what makes Fantastic Man stand out from its growing army of copyists. This sympathy between content and design links it directly to those much-loved magazines above.

Jeremy Leslie runs the blog

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