No celebs, fluoros, or bad typography here

Magazine designers are often the victims of snobbery from their graphic designer peers, but there is still much to be proud of in editorial

Over this series of columns I’ve mixed close-up examinations of individual magazines with more general insights into how magazines get made. Underlying these two strands is an assumption that a wider design audience doesn’t fully understand editorial design. I hope the column helps in a small way to spread some understanding because I believe the wider graphics world can learn from editorial design as increasing numbers of designers seek to express their own voice and experiment with self-publishing in print and online.

It still surprises me, though, how designers outside the editorial world sometimes view magazine design. Lack of understanding can quickly become a dismissiveness verging on snobbery. I’ve seen it at awards judging sessions and been faced with it when describing what I do, not least when I told people I was redesigning Heat magazine, more of which later.

Three recent conversations have helped crystallise my thoughts on this. The first was an online exchange started when Mike Dempsey posted his thoughts on the current design of Radio Times [mikedempsey.typepad. com]. He compared it to its 70s heyday and painted a picture of the decline of an icon. A stream of senior editorial design figures argued back, pointing to the heavily commercialised world today’s mainstream magazines have to survive in. The message was ‘our hands are tied: covers need to be more type-laden, fluorescent and celebrity-led to sell’.

I have sympathy with both camps here. Dempsey is undoubtedly looking back with rose-tinted glasses – it’s worth remembering that at the same time as his beloved Radio Times was being published, the brasher TV Times was paving the way for today’s commercialism. But that era of Radio Times was special, and his miserable photo of a set of contemporary TV listings titles is powerful ammunition for his argument. It is not a pretty sight.

Yet there are magazines that achieve a good standard of design despite these increased commercial pressures. The key is unity of purpose; magazine-making at whatever scale has always been about teamwork, as Dempsey notes in his post when he acknowledges both editors and designers of the old Radio Times. The two roles have always had to be closely aligned to hope to achieve the extraordinary. Each needs to understand the other’s discipline almost as well as their own. Now, though, you also have strong marketing teams working alongside the creatives. I have experienced at first hand what happens when marketing becomes too powerful; the effect on design can be even more detrimental than that of a design-blind editor.

Details, details

If everyone works in the same direction, though, it is possible still to create special work. British Elle, Bloomberg Businessweek and New York magazine are just three current examples of high-selling, successful mainstream magazines that have consciously placed strong design at the heart of what they do. Each of these has made a strategic decision to look great and hired teams on that basis. The art and editorial departments work to maintain a level of design others should aspire to across three levels: conceptualisation, layout and detailing.

The latter is where editorial designers often let themselves down and open the way for others to criticise our industry. Just as good writing relies on the rules of grammar, so there are basic design rules that need to be maintained. I’ve worked recently with two very different publishing clients and been dismayed at the inability of both to use grids and stylesheets to control basic elements. One company had a huge amount of creativity that more than covered for their lack of detailing, but it wasn’t hard to see how the other company’s magazines had begun to contribute to the mess in Mike Dempsey’s photograph. Pack in the celebs, throw in the fluoros, top up with poor, inconsistent typography? No wonder designers outside the editorial world sneer – my lip’s curling as I write.

The second conversation was part of a dissertation interview I had with a student friend. We were discussing how editorial design was more than just making stuff look good; at its best it contributes to and becomes a part of the content itself. Words, images and design combine to create content on the page, becoming more than the sum of their parts. It’s no longer enough to be just a design geek. More than ever before, you have to be on a par with your editor in terms of understanding and responding to the story. This is the exciting part, the part that is unique to editorial design – making the most of the raw materials you have, fashioning them into something that engages the reader while keeping an eye on that detail, making sure each story fits into the run of pages, and getting the work done to schedule. With today’s technology we have more control over every part of this process. Which is why it’s so frustrating when a title fails to take proper advantage of design.

There’s a paradox here that plays into the hands of critics. Some of the best magazine design is created to be invisible; it builds up the story without distracting from it. Thus the content exposes itself to examination. And many people can’t get over the fact that a weekly celebrity title such as Heat is a mass product. This is where the snobbery can really kick in – the subject matter is dismissed and the design goes with it.

Given the choice I’d always select the New Yorker as my weekly read, but I found reworking Heat a really enjoyable challenge, attempting to create some order amongst the red and yellow celebrity chaos. Retuning the design was one thing; it was another ensuring it continued to develop once my consultancy had ended and the editor I worked with had left. Some-times design is seen as a quick fix rather than a long term activity.

A few years back when I was at John Brown Publishing my proudest achievement was being responsible for a particular pair of magazines at the same time; one was the UK’s largest circulation monthly at the time (for BSkyB), the other the highly niche quarterly Carlos (for Virgin Atlantic). Both were strong examples of their respective genres, but inevitably it was the more explicitly innovative of the two that received the awards and plaudits. Similarly, I see no paradox in admiring both an obscure independent publication (Put A Egg On It, say) and a mainstream fashion title (Grazia). I just wish more publishers had the creative ambition of these two magazines.

The third and final conversation was a far shorter one; the news, shared in a brief email exchange with a US friend, that New York magazine’s design director Chris Dixon had been poached by Vanity Fair. The move of one of editorial design’s leading figures from a high-brow city weekly to what might be described as an upmarket version of Heat isn’t just a brave move on his part but a daring one from VF publisher, Condé Nast.

It remains to be seen how the appointment works out – will Dixon’s new colleagues be design-literate enough to get the most from him? But I look forward to his Vanity Fair encouraging other publishers to shake up the design of their magazines. Perhaps even the TV listings market could be inspired to add a little flair to their raw functionality.

Jeremy Leslie runs the magCulture.com blog

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