Publish and be damned

Barbarian publishers, focus groups and falling sales
have all put paid to the notion that designers influence
the look of magazines, says Adrian Shaughnessy

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Barbarian publishers, focus groups and falling sales have all put paid to the notion that designers influence the look of magazines, says Adrian Shaughnessy

What has happened to mainstream magazine design? The average glossy mag is a graphic free-for-all exhibiting an almost total disregard for any sort of typographic rationale. Scan the shelves of any newsagent offering the top-selling mags and you’ll see what I mean. There are a couple of dozen serial offenders.

The design of these mass-market publications is telegraphing an overwhelming sense of feverishness and desperation. Over-retouched faces peer at us from between forests of typographic mess. It’s almost as if some anarchic punk-like spirit has entered magazine design, and publishers are saying, ‘Let’s do anything, no matter how loopy’, to attract jaded readers.

Paradoxically, some of these magazines stray into uber-trendy Super Super territory. Super Super – the house journal of the nu-rave generation – has caused heated discussions over its anarchic design, but the only difference between it and some of the more garish mainstream titles is that Super Super is knowingly appropriating supermarket aesthetics and anti-design, and doing it with flair and imagination, whereas the publishers of mainstream celebrity mags use ‘bad design’ because bad design is what you get when you use design as a sledgehammer.

I can’t believe that designers are responsible for the state of magazine design, so it has to be the publishers and their beloved focus groups. No designer would willingly do this. Would they? If designers are to blame, then it’s a band of renegades who have jettisoned every notion of balance, harmony and typographic hierarchy for a seemingly random assemblage of typestyles, colours and layouts?

These covers actually smell of panic. In a recent Guardian Media article, it was noted that ‘In last week’s ABCs, women’s celebrity and gossip titles and real life, music and men’s magazines were hit as Maxim, FHM, Zoo, Loaded, Real People, Reveal, Bella, Heat, Kerrang!, NME and Q all suffered double-digit circulation drops year-on-year’.

Double-digit sales drops are serious. You can understand why publishers are keen to do anything they can to stop the rot. But turning covers into typographic bouillabaisse hardly seems the answer.

I’m aware that I’m indulging in design snobbery here. Like many graphic designers, I’d prefer to see my copy of TV Quick designed on the principles of classical Swiss design. I’d like Simon Esterson to be made art director of Reveal. And think what a studio like Spin or Bibliotheque could do with Q or Uncut. I fully accept that I’m whistling in the flatulent backdraught of commercial pressure here. No publisher is going to tolerate designer sensitivity in his or her quest for more sales. But, using magazines as a microcosm of what’s going on, I think there’s a serious point to be made about the future of graphic design.

I wish there was a less melodramatic way of putting this, but what we are talking about is the death of graphic design and it’s replacement by a client-directed programme of intervention. What’s the point of studying graphic design if your work is going to be determined by focus groups. What’s the point of learning a craft if it’s going to be hijacked by hysterical clients who will bend it into any shape to attract attention.

The Barbarians are inside the stockade, and they are sitting on the shelves of your local newsagent. Be afraid.

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