Nothing is more important than useful content. If you have that, then design can only help to get people to notice it and thence to read it. If your content is mediocre, no visual fireworks will improve it. They may enchant for a while, but in the long run, “Form without substance casts no shadow” (T.S. Eliot). But what if you simply have to cut costs with measures such as switching to saddle-stitching instead of perfect binding, or eliminating UV coating from your covers, or opting for a lower paper grade or cover stock? Can design camouflage the loss?
Jan V. White
When a magazine’s cover “worked,” we can never determine for sure exactly what worked. Was it the photo? Was it the subject of the cover story? Was it the big type run in process yellow? Surveys can be taken, focus groups convened, but experience teaches that you can’t escape flying by the seat of your pants. That’s another way of saying that we depend on the editor’s gut feeling. I was one of the judges awarding “best cover” medals in an intramural competition at a publishing company large enough to warrant such an act. The company’s owner—who ought to know given his company’s output—told
Frenetic—that’s what publications have become. To stand out, everybody tries to eclipse the competition with fashionable exaggeration, bursts of color, weird patterns, eccentric type, extravagant visuals—all in a frantic attempt to startle, to be different, to be creative. As a result, everybody looks like everybody else, and instead of standing out, they disappear. How does one not fall prey to this disappearing act? Of course, content justifies our existence, but for now, let’s assume our content is perfect. Instead, let us concentrate on form, which is perhaps even more important than content in helping a publication find its audience. What is the use in assembling
Saville Row, located in London, is where you go to order a suit made to measure and come out in sartorial splendor with a considerably lighter bank account. These world-famous tailors make “bespoke,” i.e., custom-ordered clothing. Should magazines be bespoke to their audience? When times are tough, should the publication’s look be mournful, with somber colors, larger type size, lots of slumping italics? Or should it pretend to be brave in the face of adversity, all cheerful in pink and sunny yellow? Or is dignified, neutral, quiet best? Does prettiness trigger first-glance attraction? Should a business-to-business pub ape consumer-style in order to engage readers more? No,
Cluttered? Confusing? Old-fashioned? Boring? There are so many clichés about the look of your publication, and “redesign” is seen as their panacea. Unfortunately, redesigning a magazine is a very difficult process, because every publication is unique unto itself. Its problems are peculiar to its subject, its target audience, its established personality, its writing, the expectations it evokes—you name it. Since it is unique, it is misleading to look at someone else’s before/after redesign, try to figure out what they did and why they did it, and then attempt grafting bits of it you “like” onto your own pub. It doesn’t work. You have to
Why do editors and art directors fight over design? Because each views it his own way. Management sees design another way still, and often underestimates its impact on a magazine’s success. Obviously, everyone wants the product—whether on paper or in electronic form—to look attractive and unique. It’s good for building loyalty, sales and recognition in ad agencies. The readers, however, don’t really give a darn about what it looks like, so long as it delivers what they need. Substance is what they pay for. If the design brings that substance to the casual viewer’s attention, it is fulfilling its highest function. If it helps