Private View – A cut above

As with the world of tailoring, off-the-peg designs and templates for digital and print publishing will always have an element of compromise about them, says Jim Davies


When the prolific US art director Roger Black announced his Ready Media initiative a few months back, it seemed the design equivalent of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses on the doors of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg back in the 16th century. Treasonous, heretical and dangerous.

Working with a small coterie of editorial specialists, Black had set up what he was touting as a revolutionary new service where you could buy off-the-peg concepts and designs for magazines, newspapers and digital tablets. With reassuring furniture-like names such as Ashby, Ames and Vernier, it offers different styles for specific markets consumer titles, specialist and B2B, classic, contemporary, elegant, funky. A slick, ready-made template for every occasion. Just add content.

From the perspective of a time-pressed, cash-strapped, parochial publisher, the idea has a compelling logic. You can just pick up your tray, mooch around the smorgasbord of editorial design, breathe in the general design deliciousness and choose something to your audience’s taste. For a mere fraction of the cost, your modest, but well-regarded title is elevated by the great man’s imprimatur. Suddenly, you’re riding on the shirt-tails of Rolling Stone, Esquire, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest and the rest of relentless Roger’s fêted redesigns.

What’s more, you don’t have to wait months for design development, or argue the toss with one of those picky, prickly art director types.

Of course, designers do not see it like that. Ready Media not only eats into their potential market, but totally devalues their status. It makes a mockery of received wisdom that every project should be judged on its own merits, that you need a designer’s eye and expertise to give your publication flair, finesse and individuality. You can drop in to Oswald Boateng’s Savile Row establishment and get measured up for a bespoke suit, or head along to your local M&S and trawl through the racks. No comparison.

And to be publicly betrayed like this by one of their own? No wonder they felt so riled.

On a lesser scale, you could also argue that my line of work is undercut and undermined by the slew of online slogan generators out there, which supposedly bypass the need for a copywriter.

So in the interests of research, I plugged the phrase ’Ready Media’ into the word masher at the self-explanatory

In the blink of an eye, it had spewed forth ’Ready Media, the best service around’, and for afters, ’Hey, have you tried Ready Media?’ Hardly the stuff to have made Dorothy Parker down her last dry Martini and enrol for seamstress classes.

When you think about it, Black’s premise is just a step up from Moo, the online business card and stationery ordering service. Moo has developed a really winsome brand persona, but ultimately it is just offering a catalogue of half-decent design templates to which you can add your personal details. Once in a while, you may find yourself proffering the same business card as the person handing you theirs, but that’s the risk you take.

Generic designs will always have a whiff of compromise about them. Ashby, Ames, Vernier and the rest are perfectly shiny and professional but, at the same time, they are beige and one-dimensional. For all their rough edges and design faux pas, there is a real charm and energy about a small-town rag or niche magazine put together by enthusiasts or up-and-coming designers.

And as for the Oswald Boatengs of editorial design, well, when you are a cut above, you will always attract the more discerning client.

Jim Davies is founder of copywriting studio Total

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As we head back into our archives, here’s a gem from March 1990. Jane Lewis looks at the creative ways design firms promoted their services through mail-outs.