With trade magazines increasingly mimicking the slick design style of glossy consumer titles, Hugh Pearman looks back on the golden age of fanzines
I was sitting at a magazine awards ceremony recently, where each publication was flashed up on the screen, as the grateful hacks made their way to the podium. Some of the winning publications were national consumer titles, but a lot were trade and professional press. What struck me was how the gap has narrowed, design-wise, between the two. We’re in a golden age of slick graphics.
The question is, how much of this gold can we take? When Pipe-laying Today (if only it existed) starts to looks as sharp, design-wise, as Wallpaper*, then something has gone a little awry. Personally, I like my glossy magazines to look suitably glossy, and my trade magazines to look rough and ready. The same goes for their websites. A trade magazine should, ideally, look like it’s been knocked out by someone during a tea break.
Well, they don’t any more. The art director is more important than the editor in a surprising number of titles. They’ve gone the way that Car magazine went decades ago – everything is subservient to the killer image, with the words as packing material. No wonder good photographers can command such high fees.
For me, the high point of magazine publishing in Britain was the early era of the fanzine. Fanzines came out of punk and football, but they were caused by improvements in photocopiers. And I know this because I was there. I was at university in the mid-1970s and I wanted to start a magazine. I duly went to the university’s reprographic department to investigate printing costs. They hummed and hawed – usual business of small print run equals high cost per unit – and then said, ‘Look, we’ve just got these new professional Xerox machines. They’re as good as printing, really. Why not just cut and paste your words and images, run off the copies, and staple them together?’
Up to that point, photocopiers had been dreadful, producing grey, smeary results. The only alternative had been the clumsy Gestetner stencil process. But the new kit was a step-change: fantastic contrast, crisp edges. The machines were the size of cars, but they worked. Thus it was that the little arts magazine that my chums and I concocted – with typewriters, pens, Letraset, scissors and glue – came into existence and even landed me my first real job. Nobody ever asked to see my degree certificate.
The rather more influential punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue duly arrived at about the same time – instant publishing, done with felt tip pens. Yes, there was a shift in popular culture, but that would have meant nothing without the reprographic technology.
The great thing, though, is that design-wise, such hasty publications were rubbish by today’s standards. Even a decade later, when football fanzine When Saturday Comes first appeared, it was positively polished in comparison. Today, even determinedly retro magazines, like Viz or Private Eye, have a slightly designed feel, presumably to justify their cover prices.
Luckily, the equivalent lives on in a million interest groups, today – typically A5 size, to fit through letterboxes. My current favourite – because it is badly written and designed, but oozes dedication – is Dragonfly, the magazine of the Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal Trust. But, even there, now there is serious money in the waterways restoration business, the new editor is talking about producing a more professional magazine. I want to beg him not to.