The design of Spare Rib

As the British Library makes the entire archive of women’s magazine Spare Rib available online, we republish co-founder Marsha Rowe’s article on how the original design of the publication came about – from its tissue paper logo to the ground-breaking image used on the first issue’s front cover

Spare Rib issue 9, March 1973, © Estate of Roger Perry

As the British Library makes the entire archive of women’s magazine Spare Rib available online, we republish co-founder Marsha Rowe’s article on how the original design of the publication came about – from its tissue paper logo to the ground-breaking image used on the first issue’s front cover…

Spare Rib was in print for 21 years (1972-93), ran to 239 editions and represented many of the aims and objectives of the Women’s Liberation Movement. It examined aspects of identity and ethnicity and also gave a platform for leading writers, such as Germaine Greer and Alice Walker, as well as the voices of many ordinary women.

“Funny, irreverent, intelligent and passionate, [it] was a product of its time which is also somehow timeless,” says Polly Russell, Curator of Politics and Public Life at the British Library. “Detailed features on feminist issues such as domestic violence and abortion, and news stories about women from the UK and around the world sit side-by-side with articles about hair care (including the unwanted kind), how to put up a shelf and instructions on self-defence.”

Spare Rib issue 1, July 1972, © Angela Phillips


The magazine was co-founded in 1972 by Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe. Together with designers Kate Hepburn and Sally Doust, they produced a magazine that, as the section of the British Library site dedicated to the title has it, “became the debating chamber of feminism in the UK”.

The design of Spare Rib had to support the aims of the magazine on several levels, writes Rowe on bl.uk. It had to look like a women’s magazine, yet with contents that did not reflect the conformist stereotyping of women. It had to suggest the familiarity of women’s magazines – like a good friend, intimate, loyal, supportive – while also being challenging, questioning, exciting and radical.

The designers had to transform the name Spare Rib into a magazine title. They had to create the front cover look, and an overall style for the pages inside the magazine. The design had to be both stable and flexible, to allow for future change while retaining the feel and basic identity we wanted to establish. Integral to every decision was cost. Money and professionalism went hand in hand.

Spare Rib issue 66, January 1978, © Angela Phillips


The name Spare Rib started as a joke, with its play on words about the Biblical Eve fashioned out of Adam’s rib, implying that a woman had no independence from the beginning of time. This held the witty, subversive connotations we had been looking for. Once Rosie [Boycott, co-founder] had agreed with me on the name, she and I worked with two designers, Kate Hepburn and Sally Doust, who created the overall design of the magazine.

Marsha Rowe and Rosie Boycott in the Spare Rib offices, 1972. Photograph by David Wilkerson

 

In those pre-computer days design was hands-on and labour intensive. Kate had studied at the Central School of Art and Design in London (now the University of the Arts, London) and graduated to further study at the Royal College of Art, while Sally had studied at Brighton College and graduated to Goldmiths, London.

Her first job was as Art Director at Vogue Australia, after which she returned to England, and had two pre-school-age children. This meant that from the start we had to plan for the needs of a working parent, and we continued to accommodate that perspective into the design schedules and editorial meetings.

Spare Rib issue 55, February 1977, © Michael Ann Mullen

 

One afternoon in late January 1972, Rosie and I went around to Sally’s flat, where she and Kate had been working. All afternoon Kate had been experimenting with torn up tissue paper to fashion the letters of Spare Rib into a logo. They “knocked the ideas backwards and forwards as we were looking at it”, Kate said, “continuous talking. It was not about planning, it was about feeling your way through it”.

Any doubts between Rosie and me about the name vanished on seeing the design, the word ‘spare’ an adjunct winging off the resounding ‘Rib’. As Kate put it, “Visually describing the sound of the word, a bone. The metaphor is direct, very visceral”. This collaborative aspect remained an essential ingredient between editorial and design activity.

Spare Rib issue 122, September 1982

 

For reasons of cost, we planned to use only two colours plus black, not the four colours that are usually used to compose the plush, full-colour offering of a woman’s magazine. Sally described how applying that decision based on the constraints of a limited budget, and making it work so as to bring out subtle and arresting results, was a significant challenge. “It was so exciting after working on Vogue, which was so formulaic. Experimenting with tints, using a spot-colour, produced designs that were innovative and energetic”.

While new young illustrators and photographers were keen to work for the new magazine, finding a visual language to express the new ideas of the magazine was also a challenge. Angela Phillips took a ground-breaking photo for the first issue. In contrast to the heavily made-up faces of glamorous cover models, it showed two young women looking as they did in everyday life. It was attractive and to some, an affront. How dare we!

Spare Rib issue 7, January 1973, photograph of woman by Valerie Santagto

 

Spare Rib covers were often controversial. Choosing a photo of a Vietnamese woman with a big smile on her face, rather than choosing a gloomy shot, infuriated the photo agency head who supplied us with the pictures, because he viewed the end of the war as a defeat.

Our early distributor persuaded us to use four-colour printing in an effort to sell more copies. We did this for three issues, found it made no difference to sales, and reverted to the original three-colours, wondering how to make up for the expensive experiment. Another distributor complained that graphic covers were off-putting. Both missed the fact that content was driving sales.

Spare Rib issue 10, April 1973, © Angela Phillips


While most of the pages were printed on a shiny, higher quality paper, we chose to include matt, slightly thick paper on which to print the inside news and listings. This had two purposes: to differentiate their content from the rest of the magazine, and to provide a stronger central core, which could make up for not having a huge number of pages carrying advertising. Finding non-sexist advertising in accordance with the values of the magazine was another challenge.

Spare Rib issue 9 contents page

 

As the editorial structure developed into a collective and more women were directly involved in lay-out and design, they sometimes used their own talents as illustrators or cartoonists. Alison Fell recalls:

“I have lovely memories of working with Laura Margolis, the designer. She and I did a spoof fashion shoot at an expensive boutique. She was the photographer and I was acting the model. I tried on a silver lurex boiler suit, which was rather fabulous. Laura took some rather good, hard-edged photos in black and white, using spotlights. It was amazing. And I don’t think that the shop realized that we were pulling a fast one. I wrote the article under the nom-de-plume Hippolyta McKay.

“And then there were all those nights staying up late over weekends putting the magazine to bed. I would be cutting lumps out of a text to make it fit, and I’d be doing all these mad drawings, like the one of a nude girl cradling a toy aeroplane, to slot in as illustrations.”

The British Library Spare Rib website is at bl.uk/spare-rib, while the complete digital archive of the magazine is here. Marsha Rowe was assistant co-founder of Ink newspaper, the co-founder of Spare Rib magazine and co-founding director of Virago. She was fiction editor at Serpent’s Tail and ran a life-writing course (Your Life’s Word). As freelance commissioning editor/author, her publications include Spare Rib Reader Penguin 1982, Sacred Space Serpent’s Tail 1992, Infidelity Chatto & Windus 1993 and, as co-author, Characters of Fitzrovia, Dennis/Chatto/Pimlico 2001/2. She is currently writing a memoir spanning 1964-1974, from Oz magazine, Sydney, Australia to Spare Rib, London, UK. The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License and was originally published at bl.uk.

The Spare Rib online archive

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