The list can be a lazy solution to fill the corner of a page or a clever, witty way to present content

Magazines love lists, but why does using them prove so divisive? It all depends on what we do with them.

The list is one of those beautifully simple, easily ignored, but essential concepts that help us humans keep on top of our lives. Without diaries, to-do lists, dictionaries, indexes, shopping lists, address books, family trees and of course Google, where would we be? We seem to have a natural predilection for organising things using lists that, despite Nick Hornby’s claims to the contrary, transcends gender.

Magazines have long understood this love of lists, and used them to aid engagement with readers. This has partly developed from the process of producing a magazine, a complex string of events that relies on lists to arbitrate between the competing claims of creativity and deadline. To simplify: the editor prepares a list of content, the art director lists the visual concepts to work with that content, and the various pieces of content are assigned space on a visual list, the flatplan (think page-by-page story­board). In effect, this chronological map of pages is one long list, as signified by the contents page at the front of the magazine, and increasingly by the front cover, where the quantity and hierarchical ordering of headlines will often resemble the editors’s original content plan.

But if a magazine’s internal structure is defined by lists, it doesn’t automatically follow that this will be explicit in the finished pages. Yet it often is, because just as the team behind the magazine find lists useful to organise their content, so the readers need help in negotiating their way through the content. The recent obsession with entry points – drop caps, pull-quotes and sub-heads to break up solid columns of copy and attract the reader’s attention – has brought the list to the fore as a very useful tool to structure content.

Take a feature about the best restaurants in London. This will have been developed from a list compiled from a number of sources, but might well appear in a magazine as a long-form text from which it will be quite hard for the casual reader to extract details about which restaurants are being discussed. So, at the design stage, a boxed list might be added to the page, featuring a top ten selection of the best restaurants with a brief description and contact details. The casual reader might be encouraged to stop and look. Alternatively, the same piece might be re-configured as a list feature. Instead of a single long read it might become a numbered list of the top 20 London restaurants. Either way, the list is used as a device to provide a subtly different editorial structure for the same content.

Time Out began life as a series of short lists of London events. As it became more comprehensive it faced the problem that the lists became too long and difficult to navi­gate. Enter briefer lists within the long lists featuring the editors’ top ten choices.

The magazine industry remains divided between those who believe such devices are excellent innovations and those who think they pander to the lowest common denominator. That the obsession with lists was partly brought about by the success of best-selling lad’s mag FHM in the 90s only encourages the latter view.

The reality is, of course, that the list is a neutral device that can be used cleverly or stupidly. It can be a lazy solution to fill the corner of a page, or it can be a clever, witty way of presenting content and add value. On occasion it can even be a catalyst for innovation. This happened at Grazia when the editorial team was searching for a structure within which they could mix gossip, fashion and hard news. The solution was the ‘10 Hot Stories’ feature, which in the week I’m writing takes up 18 pages at the front of the magazine and brings together Brad & Angelina’s make-or-break holiday; looks at the latest clothes from online store asos; and profiles the wife of US kidnapper Phillip Garrido. The 1–10 numbering of the individual stories provides the designer with the visual glue to hold these disparate parts together in a way that not only avoids jarring the reader but has become a defining part of Grazia’s identity.

One of my all-time favourite magazines (as featured, I should add, in a list of my ten favourites recently compiled for another publication) managed to both celebrate and critique publishing’s craving for lists. List magazine was published back in 2000 by New Yorkers Serge Becker and Lisa Ano, and consisted only of lists. Opening with a list of dead porn stars and their causes of death and closing with a list of contributors, it will persuade even the most cynical that lists can be highly engaging. Its 180 pages include random verbal lists that set the scene for the later Schott’s Miscellany series of books (global literacy rates, models’ day rates, the guest list for the launch of Talk magazine), and pictorial lists (Marlene McCarty’s series of portraits of girls who killed their mother, identikit images of the fbi’s most wanted, adverts and the pieces of art that inspired them). It’s presented in an understated, un-designed manner with little decoration. Just lists. Sadly, issue two was never printed.

If a hip independent New York magazine isn’t enough to convince you that lists can be an engaging method of holding an entire publication together, consider ShortList magazine. Launched by Mike Soutar, the man responsible for fhm’s huge success in the 90s, ShortList is a free men’s weekly based around a series of lists with just enough content to engage the tube train commuter. It’s not a revo­lution in publishing, but it fulfills a need. His next project? A woman’s weekly called StyList. The list lives.

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

 

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