Five years ago, techie zealots and Internet gurus were joyfully predicting the death of print. And with good reason. Pulp prices were rocketing while readership was plummeting and here was this amazing new way for readers to get exactly what they wanted, when they wanted it. Why would anyone buy and carry around bulky, environmentally unfriendly publications which pushed unwanted ads and articles when they could pick and choose from a world of information and entertainment? Or so the logic went.
Five years on, if print is in its death throes, it’s going out kicking and screaming. Last year 148 new consumer magazines were launched in the UK. Some will probably go under, but as Philip Cutts of the Periodical Publishers Association explains: “A decade ago there were 1889 consumer mags in the UK. Last year that total was 2164. There are more and more specialist interest titles and publishers are looking at lifestyles to track readers’ progress, so that when they grow out of something there’ll be an obvious title for them to move on to. We’re also selling more magazines because publishers have managed to crack specific markets and titles are much better targeted.”
But it’s not just magazines we’re buying. In 1996, 101 504 books were published in the UK, 6000 up on 1995, and while you could argue that marketing is the main factor in a magazine’s success, design seems to play that role in the success of books.
“With so many books around readers will go for the visually attractive, so the design is very important,” says Lisa Gee of independent publisher Serpent’s Tail. “And a good design will often get you more review space in a magazine that’s looking for an interesting visual,” she says, before adding the caveat that “you can use the greatest design and illustration on a book, but if the author doesn’t deliver it won’t sell”.
Serpent’s Tail was set up 11 years ago by Pete Ayrton, and from the beginning the company was determined to do something different with its covers. “We mostly publish cutting-edge writers, so the covers need to reflect that,” explains Ayrton. “By not having any in-house designers we can try to match the right designer to the right book. So, for example, our High Risk series of American writing is designed by US designer Rex Ray, who is on the same cultural wavelength as the writers.”
Ray, a self-trained designer who also does most of the photography for the High Risk covers, is fortunate in that most of the publishers he works with trust him, “so I get a lot of autonomy in these projects”, he says.
“I wanted the High Risk series to have a cinematic quality – as though they were movie tie-ins without the movie. In some cases I used stills from films and photos which I took from the television. These were less about a subject and more about establishing a mood.
“The use of the split [screen] horizon on all the High Risk books lets me juxtapose two images so the viewer can make some association between the two – regardless of whether there is one, and usually there isn’t. An association is implied but it’s entirely up to the viewer to figure out what it is. It’s important to use imagery, not to illustrate the text, but to draw the reader in. I also try to use lurid, sickly, clashing or complementary colours so the books stand out on-shelf. The covers should pose questions that can only be answered by reading the book,” explains Ray.
Vince Frost is a graphic designer who has worked on both magazine and book design, and recently designed the cover for Fourth Estate’s Lila Says. He finds designing book covers “fun, because they’re quick. They have to be done in a short space of time. In that sense they’re simpler than other forms of design, but the basic function of design – solving a problem and communicating – is the same.” Frost puts print’s resurgence down to “the visual times we’re living in. It’s almost as though people are reacting against the one-dimensional feel of a screen and want tactile, 3D media.”
Frost and photographer Glen Erler had the task of interpreting the Lolita-esque story of Lila Says. “Lila is an anonymously written, sensual book so Fourth Estate didn’t want her to be identified, which is why we decided to go for the close-up of the lips. It’s sexy without putting boobs on the cover,” says Frost. The story itself is quite edgy, so for the title Frost used letterpress-pulled type, which he cut up and stuck back using Sellotape to give it a raw 3D feel.
“A successful cover has many elements to it: an interesting title, typography, photography, the paper finish… On Lila Says the title becomes a typographical illustration which doesn’t detract from the beauty and simplicity of the photograph, and the matt finish makes you want to hold it and reflects the softness of Lila,” says Frost. “It jumps out on the shelf because it has a graphic simplicity,” he adds.
It seems the only downside of designing for books is the dreaded marketing department. “The problem I often have with marketing departments is that most of their ideas are based on past successes, so eventually everything begins to look the same,” says Ray. Frost describes the relationship as “a constant battle, because they have a different agenda”. Erler adds: “You can lose control and there’s not much money in book covers. Vince and I agreed on Lila Says that if either of us felt compromised artistically we’d pull out.”
If the publishing boom has saddled book designers with the problem of shelf-shout, it’s much worse for magazines, which are desperately trying to differentiate themselves in an overcrowded market. Steve Anyiwo, art director on the recently launched Fresh, which bills itself as “the mag for fun-loving young women”, believes it’s not so much a question of differentiation as cloning.
“We’re in-between Minx and More, so we take on board what’s existing before shaping Fresh’s identity,” he explains. “As far as the cover goes, we try to capture the Fresh girl, who’s basically up for anything and sexy in an upbeat way. ©
That’s done through really careful selection of the models and a lot of shooting to get the photography right.”
Tibor Kalman, ex-editor of Benetton’s Colors magazine, is profoundly depressed about the state of magazine publishing: “There’s nothing happening at the moment. David Carson is an example of a designer who’s successfully reached a level of autonomy and not done much with it because he’s into ambiguity rather than clarity. Even something like Wired is really quite traditional in form. Using metallic ink and day glow colours is only a surface difference,” he says. “Great magazines are made by madmen – people who flout authority and convention. Neville Brody’s time at The Face is a good example. It was the best moment in magazine publishing since Life lost its backbone. Great covers are made by looking within yourself to create an emotional impact – and arguing ferociously with the publisher, who wants to put a naked celebrity on the cover,” he continues.
“The culture is currently driven not by artists, but by business and corporations which want to own everything in perpetuity. At one time people started magazines out of passion and the cash was secondary. The early days of CondÃ© Nast is a good example, it was a time of incredible upheaval, with each magazine being run by a true believer. Now you only get to create a new magazine if you have a good business plan,” he says.
One such new magazine in the US is Icon, a “thoughtstyle” magazine for men which uses cool, classic design bound up in a textured-cover coating which “people will hopefully want to touch and feel and put their mark on, not just observe”, explains editorial director and publisher David Getson. “First and foremost, any new publication must have a focus and mission that no other magazine has, and this should guide absolutely every single subsequent step that that magazine takes, from grammar usage to cover design and even the ad sales process. The designer’s role in this is crucial. Besides information, a magazine sells its personality; the reader is able to step temporarily into a certain style or mindset. The designer is in the front line, responsible for accurately communicating this personality,” he says.
Getson doesn’t see the web as a print killer because they’re such different animals: “A computer screen can present information and design, but it can’t put that information and design in your hands to be felt, bent, wrinkled, and used. Magazines and books are made to be slowly destroyed by the reader; that’s one way to tell someone has enjoyed it over time.”
One magazine that really doesn’t need to worry about shelf-shout and making it to the next issue is The Face, which was the first style glossy and still sets the standards by which others are judged. In the past six years its circulation has risen from 60 000 to 113 000, and, more importantly, its pagination is constantly growing – which means it’s not only keeping readers happy, but is also keeping an increasing number of advertisers happy. But deputy editor Charles Gant believes there’s a danger of
alienating readers with these hefty tomes: “Huge magazines run the risk of being out of touch, becoming flabby. The size has changed the way people read magazines, they don’t expect to be interested in the whole thing and often skip entire sections. Or maybe the Internet has taught people how to browse.”
The sheer number of titles covering just about every market and specialism is also affecting content adversely: “You have to accept now that a film interview appearing in The Face could also appear in a men’s mag, a film mag, in newspapers and women’s mags, so you have to work harder to sell the story in a different way, find angles that aren’t just puff pieces,” Gant explains. “Design’s role in finding these new approaches is fantastically important. I wouldn’t get hung up on typography as I don’t believe it’s that important. In the post-Carson era lots of people think it is, but Lee Shilligham, the art director at The Face, uses photography to successively create bold ideas and re-invent the magazine.”
Kalman has to have the last word here: “Unless designers make themselves responsible for content, they have no control. If the content consists of bland puff pieces, it’s the designer’s responsibility to get the editor fired, otherwise you’re just wasting trees.”
Anyone who disagrees or has interesting examples of marginal magazines is invited to e-mail him at Tibor@interport.net.