The cold hard truth about magazine design

With magazines driving the rise in infographics, it was only a matter of time before the medium shed light on the world according to editorial designers

I’ve always had a soft spot for infographics, whether they map London’s football stadia or dissect the causes of our current financial collapse. My interest was sparked as a child by David King’s pictorial lists in the Sunday Times Magazine, and later by the Atlas of War (Pluto Press), a book of maps created pre-Mac by Michael Kidron and Dan Smith. It presented a persuasive left-wing outlook on the industry of war and remains a personal favourite for the way it enriches the information it presents.

Since then, computerisation of the design studio has made infographics far easier to create, but it hasn’t always made them better. In some hands the infographic has become just another style of design to be dropped in alongside the latest cool font. A case in point is Barnbrook Design’s recent Little Book of Shocking Facts, a book that decorates facts rather than exposing their relevance.

The best infographics are developed by journalists and editorial designers working together, as they did on the Sunday Times Magazine and the Atlas of War. So it’s no surprise that a driver behind the rise of infographics has been magazine design. Graphs and diagrams have become handy devices to break up pages of text, an additional form half way between text and image that has become easier than ever to assimilate into pages. This is particularly true of US magazines. New York magazine launched the trend with the Luke Hayman/Adam Moss redesign of 2004. CR subscribers were given the opportunity to see some of this work in last month’s Monograph in which, alongside examples from the magazine, current New York design director Chris Dixon described how infographics are used to relay all types of information in his magazine. The editors and designers involved share a highly attuned understanding of how to work together to communicate information, the design adding to rather than confusing the understanding of the content. There is also a shared appreciation of context. Their much-copied Approval Matrix (latest spotting: the pilot issue of Gaz7etta) is all the more amusing for the rigour and seriousness of its design approach.

The Magazine Designer’s Guide
The same can be said of a recent piece created by the design team at Bloomberg Businessweek. When invited to create a one-off promotional print for the US arm of independent magazine subscription service, Stack, creative director Richard Turley conceived the Magazine Designer’s Guide to Magazines (shown, left). Here in one A4 sheet is the world according to magazine designers: not a serious investigation, but a parody of the issues editorial designers face day to day. “I wanted to do something funny,” Turley explains, “because not enough graphic designers are funny. What we do can be ridiculous, but it’s taken so seriously.”

He and a couple of US colleagues (Kenton Powell and Robert Vargas) collaborated on the design but Turley used his newcomer status to lead the project. Having recently moved from London (where he worked at The Guardian) to New York to take on the role at BBW, he wanted to express his curiosity at his new situation. “You look at US magazines and they’re so polished you expect that finish to permeate down through their processes. But it’s not like that, they’re just as chaotic as UK magazines,” a fact expressed by the timeline along the bottom of his design, showing a 9:1 ratio of “dicking around” versus “vigorous design”.

Other targets include designers not reading the texts they design, the men’s market’s reliance on Megan Fox and the editor-designer relationship – the latter summed up by a Venn diagram describing the relationship between the two disciplines as “disdain”. I’ve written plenty of times about this relationship but never seen a description that so succinctly explains how it can go wrong. Does Turley have personal experience of such disdain? “No, I’ve been lucky,” he says. “I’ve worked with editors who understand design. Enjoyment of a magazine isn’t predicated on you reading every word. It’s about the way you suck information out. Good editors understand that.” 

Bringing lifeless facts to life
It also takes some calculated digs at venerable US publishing institutions, including Wired and the afore-mentioned New York magazine. Only the thinnest-skinned New Yorker could take genuine umbrage at what is really just a celebration of what editorial design does best – bring otherwise lifeless facts to life through humour and design. But has Turley had much reaction from the magazines mentioned? “Apparently staff at the New York Times were a bit upset about the reference to pet-rescue dogs,” he says. “My US colleagues were more anxious about it than I was. Ex-Wired design director Scott Dadich Tweeted his approval, otherwise I’ve not heard anything directly.”

Would a British version of the Guide be very different? “I don’t think so,” says Turley. “Broadly the experience is the same. There’s the same amount of dicking around. There’s just more people involved in the US, so the masthead would be smaller.”

Jeremy Leslie runs the magCulture.com blog. For more on Stack, see stackmagazines.com. Details of Turley’s redesign of Bloomberg Businessweek at crmag.co.uk/dzlj4f

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