Four colour culture

Most glossy magazines look the same, but Adrian Shaughnessy of Intro thinks there are still a few titles that are bold enough to stand out from the crowd

Until recently, graphic design was an invisible art form and being a graphic designer was an invisible occupation. It used to be hard work explaining to elderly relatives what you did for a living. Not any more. Today, there is a widespread appreciation of design and a heightened interest in its practice. Look at the shelves in bookshops; they sag under the weight of graphic design tomes. As a consequence of the home computer revolution, non-designers talk knowingly about fonts, kerning and column widths.

But what should we make of this? Is it a sign of graphic design’s coming of age or the seemingly inevitable erosion of standards as everyone believes that they “can do it”. Whatever is happening, graphic design is inching towards establishing a presence in modern culture equal to that of contemporary art, fashion, interior design or any other branch of entertainment.

Few areas of graphic design can rival the impact that magazine design has on the lives and reading habits of millions. Yet establishing criteria for “good magazine design” is not easy, especially when you consider that there is a magazine for every subject under the sun: you only have to compare the radically different styles of a fashion mag for the Hoxton glitterati and a weekly guide to Perch fishing. Since we all buy magazines for different reasons, it is unlikely that we can formulate a definitive set of rules governing the successful design of a magazine; after all, one person’s TV Times is another’s London Review of Books.

However, many of the pivotal moments in graphic design’s history have been created by magazine designers; think of Alexy Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar; David Hillman at Nova, Neville Brody at The Face and David Carson at Ray Gun. All of these designers exerted enormous influence on the evolution of graphic design. Is anyone doing the same today?

Glancing at the shelves in the local newsagent, the evidence doesn’t look promising. Scan the current crop of glossies, and I defy you not to ask yourself the question: “Why do they all look the same?” Of course, it’s possible to have this depressing thought about many aspects of modern visual communication, but the herd instinct seems especially strong in the magazine world. When Design Week asked me to look at a few examples of current magazine design, I decided to look beyond the formulaic.

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