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They Just Don’t Make em Like They Used To

March 13th, 2011

I love magazines. Maybe it’s because I began my career designing them, or maybe it’s because I’m 49 (the official age group that prefers raking tangible, textured pages with their thumbs, as compared to the alternative iPad “index finger-raking” generation).

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Magazines are having a kind of resurgence in 2011. Bloomberg Businessweek was relaunched sporting a smart redesign. Newsweek gained new legs with Tina Brown and Barry Diller & Co. leading the way. The top management at Time Inc seems to have made a clear step toward the reassertion of their print products with the firing of Jack Griffin. Randall Rothenberg had joined Time Inc in January as the first Chief Digital Officer, but abruptly resigned and the company has stated that they have no plans to replace him.

Another Top Time Inc. Executive Departs

Adweek will soon debut its redesigned look under Michael Wolff and Prometheus Global Media, new owners of B2B entertainment and professional marketing publications. The Hollywood Reporter had already redesigned and relaunched a few weeks ago — a breathtaking improvement over the daily trade rag which had perennially run as a second place competitor to Variety.

The New York Times Magazine has just debuted a new design that was long overdue. The former design was staid and formal, non-engaging and cold. The new design is a clear improvement, as are the new format designs of Adweek, Businessweek, etc.

Still, publication design today cannot hold a candle to the innovation, risk-taking presentation decisions and sharp playfulness of publications from the 1960’s to the 1980’s.

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I was a student of the approach pioneered by an art director named Willy Fleckhaus. A German art director that was responsible for publications like Twen and the Frankfurter Allgemeine, Fleckhaus spawned a whole school of thought in publication design. From his studio came a wave of other notable designers like Will Hopkins, who later taught and worked in New York. While at Omni, my own mentor in magazine design was passionate about the work of Fleckhaus and I came to love those publications as well.

There’s even a culture of people who collect these antique magazines. I personally own all 4 editions of EROS, founded by Ralph Ginzburg, who hired the legendary designer Herb Lubalin to create the design until an obscenity case brought by the U.S. Postal Service forced the magazine to close in 1963. To this day, EROS is considered some of the finest work that Lubalin ever accomplished. Those editions are highly coveted, so if you see a full set on EBay, my advice is to grab it.

In the late 50’s, an art director by the name of Henry Wolff led the presentation of Bazaar and later, he and George Lois created a decade of memorable covers for Esquire. These covers — from Andy Warhol falling into a giant Campbell’s Soup can to Muhammad Ali depicted as a Christ-like martyr — are documented and etched permanently now in books, museums and the minds of a generation.

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Later, in the 1980’s an art director named Fabian Baron revived Harper’s Bazaar with a similar type of presentation using one single, crisp font called Firmin Didot. The serifs were hair thin; one character in any headline could be the full height of the page, crashed together with other letters. The resulting compositions of headline design became beautifully crafted art. Baron won many awards and much recognition for that work, but regrettably it may have been the last, truly impressive magazine that was considered inspirational for its design. Fred Woodward’s tenure with Rolling Stone, beginning in the early 90’s, would be another candidate, perhaps. There was certainly a solid amount of very distinctive, memorable work achieved.

Not since the launch of Wired has a magazine been truly innovative in terms of design. The first Wired cover was printed with 15 or 16 different inks — an indulgence and level of audacity for a commercially printed magazine that was unthinkable. As controversial as it was for its elements of clutter, it also made bold waves in the editorial industry and among a devoted consumer audience.

It’s traditional opinion that good design creates “understanding” out of data, information, or content. Art directors like David Carson made a name for themselves by taking a different tact. Carson took headline and type design so far as to be labeled a “master of non-communication” by iconic graphic designers such as Massimo Vignelli.

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The big difference between today’s editorial design and those famous, iconic pages is simple. Today, we see a sort of safeness in presentation. Design has receded to take its place as the vehicle or platform to deliver content, and to do so in a way that promotes accessibility and digestibility of the idea.

The magazines of an earlier age all had a fresh, “spirit of unpredictability” in common. The logos were often used as playful (and clever) conceptual art elements. The designs took risks. The typographical approach was bold and confident. Nothing was boilerplate; even the logos were adapted and scaled differently in each edition. For Eros, even various types of paper stock were used. It was as if the editorial teams were making a product that had no predecessor or model; the physical, tangible thing they made could be anything they wanted, any size, shape, or composition.

The scale of elements could be dramatically different and juxtaposed for interest. Quite simply, type and words became art. They were clearly legible and important, but the presentation of the pages was used to communicate a thought as well as to evoke a feeling. Images were artfully intertwined with headlines. In fact, the pages of these magazines are like award-winning posters. They still convey thought and ideas, but do so in powerful, simple ways.

By comparison, today’s publications appear to be more interested in delivering the information. The design recedes to become only a conduit or mechanism of content delivery. Most editors I have worked with encourage (however reluctantly) the quick-strike, brief read and digestible format design, knowing all too well that readers have less time. (One editor I knew called this McNugget journalism.) So the magazines are designed to be engaging and informative, quick and easy, but they’re not encouraged to be expressive in an artful, typographical way.

Provoking feelings and capturing the reader’s attention, or making them consider the thought of the article for a moment has been forsaken for speed in comprehension.

Today’s media environment is about content — news you can use, analysis full of benefits; information should always come first. But for my tastes, my own personal preferences, no media product today can beat the conceptual, provocative and creative power of the oldies.

Words and images that make us think and feel. What a concept.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, March 13th, 2011 at 7:21 pm and is filed under Design, Media. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • Adam Hay

    Other than quoting from The Strangers song ‘No More Heroes’ which is now ringing in my head for some reason (I’ve just replaced the historical figures with designers from the 60s and 70s), I guess there’s a comment I would like to make. I used to design for the company that published Blueprint Magazine, designed by Simon Esterson in the mid Eighties. A small team of 6-8 dedicated staff created this large A3 title on architecture once a month. Blueprint’s still out there but a very different animal than it was (smaller for a start). Anyway, point is, back then the editorial and art staff worked very much together and were as excited as each other about the look and readability of the issue, working into the wee small hours frequently on press days. Sometimes the text would be cut in half to make way for a gargantuan headline or a massive photo, sometimes the reverse would be true. But there was always a collaboration. The corporate world we (necessarily) live in today doesn’t always allow for that, I think that’s really the reason why magazines look so different now. A lot of persuading has to be done today and that sidelines any gung-ho attitude that the readers can’t help but pick up on when they see the thing on the stands. The design has to look as if the people who produced it were as excited to create it as you the reader is to see it up there on the news stand! I think some of the latest redesigns you mention do actually hark back to Andy drowning in his tomato soup; that designers and editors are collaborating creatively again. I saw Bloomberg Businessweek recently when in New York and I was stunned. Great to see that kind of design again.

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