The invisible designer

Editorial design is about relinquishing the ego and letting the content speak for itself. But that still requires a lot of skill, says Jim Davies

There is a certain amount of irony to the curmudgeonly publisher David Hepworth’s recent broadside against magazine designers (Private View, DW 3 November 2005). The thing is, his company – the snappily titled Development Hell Ltd – is producing one of the best-designed magazines around.

Now 35 issues old, The Word is a monthly, which mainly covers music, but also ventures extensively into other pop cultural avenues. There are all the expected films, books, TV programmes and DVDs, but also more arcane subject matter, like best and worst band logos, the etymology of popular catchphrases, and the subtext of book cover blurb.

The Word’s real achievement, however, is the way it makes you want to read it from first to last paragraph. True, it’s lacking in designerly finesse. The typography is unfashionable, the masthead verges on ugly and the pages are cluttered. But the magazine serves up good, honest, hard-working design, which places the emphasis firmly on the top-notch writing – informed, opinionated, and liberally laced with self-deprecating humour. Here, design is the spotlight rather than the star performer.

In fact, you don’t notice that the pages have been ‘designed’ at all – and that’s a compliment. All publications have to balance the visual with the verbal and, as befits its title, this magazine is firmly on the side of the word. So, hats off to art director Keith Drummond, who has managed to bury his ego for the greater good.

Usually, editorial designers like to strut their stuff, to justify their worth with graphic frills and flourishes. The Guardian’s recent redesign is a case in point, with its extensive use of chevrons – both as a navigation device and a graphic icon – over-sized quotation marks, a two-colour lower-case logo, jaunty Egyptian headline typeface, and splashes of blue and orange type. It shows a determination to be different, but also to reassert its position as the home of progressive editorial design.

Yet there’s something self-conscious about it – a ‘look-at-me’ quality that verges on the obtrusive. The design is so knowing, that the paper actually runs an occasional column on the front page called Column Five, which appears – you guessed it – in the fifth column of the new Berliner grid. At first, I thought this might have been an oversight, that a sub had left the template labelling in, but I’m pretty sure it’s deliberate. Couple this with the dramatic new Eyewitness page, which devotes the entire centre spread to a single photograph. The balance is definitely shifting towards the visual. This reflects the paper’s ongoing battle with more image-rich media formats, such as 24-hour news channels and the Internet, but also shunts it into magazine territory.

Even daily newspapers can’t compete with instant news, so they focus on comment and analysis, reacting to and interpreting the facts.

All graphic design is about the delicate interrelationship of words and images. But, in the case of editorial design, this tension is being played out in an arena where the audience has chosen to read, rather than having sponsored words thrust upon them. The design can afford to be gentler, subtler or even invisible.

But, however you pitch your visual to verbal balance, its implementation still requires the skill and vision of a competent designer. Whether Mr Hepworth likes it or not.

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