Passing on Periodicals

Speaking of magazines, does anybody read them anymore? Which is to say that while I’m sure there are plenty of folks who continue to buy, subscribe to and read traditional periodicals, I realized recently that I’m not among them.

The other day, I was over at a friend’s house and was surprised to see that she had copies of Monocle and Good Magazine on her coffee table. Well, I wasn’t surprised by that so much as I was surprised by how interesting I found them, at least for the short spell in which I was flipping through their pages as my friend and I chatted. I have complaints about the art direction in Monocle, but between those two, I can’t deny that compelling stuff is happening in magazine design these days. Add just about any given week’s issue of New York Magazine to the mix, and you have a pretty good survey of some of the most absorbing design happening anywhere. The problem is that they’re like lipstick on a pig: some of the best design being done today is being wasted on magazine content.


Being Boring

This is the reason I found myself unexpectedly enjoying the act of flipping through those issues: I just don’t think of periodicals as a medium I want to spend my time on. Aside from the work of adventurous art directors like Chris Dixon at New York, I find magazines really boring. To be sure, I’m a faithful reader of The New Yorker, but that’s the only rag whose arrival I anticipate with eagerness, and the only one with which I’ll spend any meaningful amount of time. Given just about any other magazine, I can for all intents and purposes consume its contents in about ten minutes, tops. Even the very best of most magazine writing often strikes me as distant and outdated. (I admit this includes even the often excellent articles that run in The New York Times Magazine, but then I don’t really even consider it a magazine, but rather an extension of the newspaper.)

I used to enjoy magazines tremendously; I used to spend hours parked at the newsstands, just poring over the latest issues, and I used to feel that they offered a wonderful, four-color window onto the world. But, truth be told, the lion’s share of my recreational non-fiction reading happens online now. It’s not just that the diversity of content and the immediacy of that content is so much richer online, it’s the fact that there’s so much more one can do with content when it lives online.

By extension, you might construe this rant as a kind of dismissal of newspapers as well — probably an imprudent opinion for me to hold given who my my employers are. But perhaps because I have such a strong predisposition towards The New York Times as an important and vital daily product, there’s something much more substantive about newspapers, to me. Whether it’s the fact that a fresh newspaper was printed within the last twenty-four hours or, frankly, because the Times offers the best journalism anywhere, I can easily get lost in any given day’s newspaper. By contrast, I find the shallow depths of most magazines to be so fleetingly engaging that I don’t bother with them. Even if they’re designed as beautifully as Monocle, Good or New York.

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  1. I’ve noticed the same scarcity of magazines around me, and when I do look through them often have the same thoughts regarding the content. But it also occurs to me how I think the opposite in terms of layout — flipping through a well-done magazine is more visually appealing and refreshing than almost any website. Though of course this isn’t an apples/apples comparison between the media types (also relating here to your previous post on Clearview).

    I read an interview with a photog the other day and one point he made was that in many ways our “standards” or recognition of poor image quality has declined with the advent of cameraphones, home inkjet prints, 72ppi, etc. We’ve been sort of “dumbed down” visually. I think that’s probably right in many ways. Hopefully it’s just a transition period…

  2. I’ve had a magazine renaissance of late. Though less of them are compelling to read as I’d prefer, there is something about the object itself: the colors, layouts, choice of paper stock, photography, and, yes, advertising — NYT, the mag, being one of my favorites. Still, as a person of color, it peeves me to no end that the roster of contributors pictured in almost any magazine I pick up always looks the same.

  3. I wonder if this is similar to the “movie-going in the thirties” idea that you described earlier, if perhaps there’s some trend toward voracious culture consumption in all its forms up to a certain point and then a tapering off as (in your terms) your responsibility/recreation equilibrium changes.

    Though I (at 23) still find a lot to like in the content of the magazines I read regularly (New York, The New Yorker, and Bust) perhaps I, too, will be less satisfied in ten years.

  4. I think there’s a couple issues (at least) here, for me they’re 1) form factor, and the related 2) consumption zone. I’ve just moved and 4 days a week or so I have a 45-minute train commute. I’ve found the non-driving train time is actually both a great prep-for-work time and a super cool-down-from work time. I often work on project notes or organizational tasks, but other times I’ve found it’s a perfect opportuntiy (and unit of time) to catch up a good mag.

    There are good-for-you intellectually stimulating reads like Seed, Good, Monocle, etc. and there are my guilty pleasures like Vanity Fair, CA Modern, Gourmet, and Golf Digest. I actually just asked for a Dwell subscription as a birthday present from my Mom, and I’m considering Readymade with a new mid-century home. The train is too bumpy for serious online work (or to much writing), but it’s perfect for a good thorough magazine session.

    I also subscribe to the Sunday NYT almost *exclusively* for the Magazine, as I’ve read most of the news online before the paper arrives — but I love the Mag from Safire and Randy Cohen at the front to the Crossword at the back, and I find it one of the best photography magazines published. You simply don’t get the same quality experience online.

    With all of the mags I list above, it’s not just about *reading* — it’s about the magazine experience. It’s something online design hasn’t quite yet got to … maybe someday. It’s a nice design challenge, no?

  5. I have subscriptions to MAKE and ReadyMade, and I buy copies of Adbusters when they catch my eye.

    That’s about it for print periodicals.

    Most other paper-based publications may capture my eyeballs for a few minutes with their electronic editions, but I don’t really have the space for a growing collection of magazines I won’t re-read.

  6. I can relate, except I’ve found solace in academic journals. I am in no way related to academic research or teaching, but Human Factors is a great journal for design-backed-by-numbers, the Information Design Joural is great for User Centered Design, Philosophy of Science is at just the right intersection between humanties and science, plus Visible Language and Design Issues for design criticism. Critical Enquiry added for a good spectrum of ideologies.

    Most magazines are too shallow, outdated and content-free use them in any remotely useful fashion. Journals keep you at the leading edge of your interests and carreer. What you read in a journal will be published insultingly dumbed-down in a magazine six months later.

  7. I gotta say, I find magazines, as content free as they sometimes are, are the perfect reading material for subways, buses, diners, and whatnot.

  8. I’ve started to get interested in magazines again, and I’ve subscribed to Make and I’m thinking about I.D. NYT Magazine is really my favorite though, mostly because both the content and design are brilliant. Not only do I enjoy looking at it, but I always learn something!

  9. Just out of curiosity, what are you complaints about Monocle. I have to say I really like the magazine/periodical a lot: the design is very clean, a bit too clean. It almost reads like an official German form of some description. The content is also very interesting, arbeit fanciful for the average person and perhaps to advertorial. Aside Monocle and the occassional Digital Photography magazine I don’t but them any more.

    For one, in Ireland they are too expensive and out of date. The internet will be the demise of the magazine IMHO.

  10. I’d also be interested to hear your complaints about Monocle Khoi.

    Until recently, I’d also stopped reading most magazines. Then, prompted by a project which required me to look at financial publications and periodicals, I started reading a couple again: The Economist and Monocle.

    Whilst some of the writing in Monocle kind of grates on me, I find it refreshing to have a magazine aimed at men which is intelligently put together — not like most of the magazines for that target audience in this country.

    I find the ‘pick up and put down’ aspects of magazines appealing. The web requires too much investment from me at times — I have to turn on the computer, sit, search, read, browse. When I want to occupy my mind for ten minutes before I go to sleep, a magazine generally hits the spot.

  11. The immediacy and variety of writing online might be valid points over and against a magazine, but I find the general quality of writing online to be an order of magnitude worse than most periodicals.

    In particular, the ‘immediacy’ of much online writing leads subjects to be treated in gloss (think weblogs and their ilk) when I’d much rather read a longer and more thorough piece in a periodical. There really aren’t a ton of Atlantic or Harper’s equivalents online, except of course the online editions of those periodicals.

    But given the choice between paper and screen, I already spend hours and hours a day parked in front of my computer at work. The last thing I want to do is hunch over a screen more. I’d rather sit outside on the deck (while it’s still warm) and flip through dead trees than hunch over my MacBook.

  12. About 10 years ago I whittled down all my magazine subscriptions to one: Granta. It only comes out four times a year, so I can keep up with it (unlike the New Yorker!) and it’s in the format of a paperback book. It has some of the best writing and photography that you’ll find anywhere, although a bit less so in recent years; they have a new editor coming on board now and I look forward to a rejuvenation.

  13. I find myself without the time to read magazines like I used to, so what I buy is based almost exclusively (sadly) on the design and not the actual content. I always buy the Believer, just so I can look at the illustrations.

  14. Subscription wise, I only have two magazines/journals that I read cover to cover each issue: The Economist and First Things. Design wise, First Things leaves something to be desired, at least in print, but I find the content enjoyable. Recently I’ve taken to reading most of their articles online, since I actually prefer their website’s layout to their print copy.

    The Economist has a tasteful design, which makes it pleasure to sit down and read through it — though here also, I find myself reading about 50% of the articles on their website, which was redesigned a year ago and “clicks” very well with what I perceive as the magazine’s image. I’m no expert in the grid system, but I think I detect some elegant use of it on economist.com — everything seems ordered, elegant, precisely in its place. I’ve recently also tried their new podcast, which is the entire text of the magazine read by professional (British) actors, free for download each week for subscribers. I was positively impressed, but I don’t spend so much time commuting (thankfully) that I can listen to an entire magazine. Still, it’s nice for listening to several articles on the morning and even commute, and positively great for any weekend excursions.

    A notable feature of First Things and the Economist is that both are crammed with text and any illustrations or photos are tastefully added as accents, not the main focus. I read TIME when I was 11, and enjoyed it then, but now when I look at it I’m amazed at how little actual information is presented in the articles. It seemsЁ vacuous.

    As for newspapers, at 23, I never really have gotten into them. I find paper newspaper far too unwieldy and I hate getting newsprint on my hands — they’re just too big to read comfortably without putting them down on a table, and I prefer to do my reading on the couch. I do visit online newspapers though and I like the NYT’s new design a lot — it’s very elegant. Most other newspapers I only visit sporadically whenever Google News brings up an article of theirs.

  15. For those of us who spend our working hours plopped in front of computer screens, it seems a shame to come home after a long day at the office and again confine ourselves to the digital realm.

    Granted, I get most of my NEWS online, but I’ve always been more drawn to the esoteric, scholarly writing that can be found in magazines and journals, which typically cannot be found online.

    Obviously, the web has it’s advantages in terms of immediacy, fluidity, and connectedness, but I for one find it essential to “unplug” regularly, and absorb more traditional mediums. That, and good magazine design is absolutely an artform… One that I’d hate to see fall victim to our online addiction.

  16. I must say that The Economist is a must read. I can’t think of another English-language publication with better coverage of international affairs and business on such a frequent basis. Their recently redesigned is also excellent.

    That said, strictly speaking The Economist is not a magazine. It is registered in the UK as a newspaper and always refers to itself as such.

  17. I would have to agree with Mark on this one. I dont invest alot of time into magazines, but it is nice to see whats going on in them design wise now, and its also nice to have a few in front of you while relaxing in the living room. I’m going to say they are good for a “quick fix” on possible inspiration.

  18. My wife threw out my copy of NYTimes magazine with Hellertown/ type article. Within hours my mailbox was full of links with that article attatched. Should I go dig in the trash of sit here and read it?

    Theres something to be said for 300dpi in regards to that article. Plus I can’t wipe those Sunday morn boogers into the classifieds of my laptop.

  19. It’s funny, I have two friends who are professional economists and both of them refer to The Economist as a “rag.” Still, it’s a great read — even if the facts are frequently wrong and the analyses flawed, the writing is refreshingly direct and lively, consistently some of the strongest writing in journalism today. In the words of a former editor, it is “always serious but never sober.” It’s a brilliant example of how a paternalistic, self-confident, all-knowing tone can inspire confidence and trust in unwary readers.

  20. Chris and Mark: Sorry to jump in on this a little late, but regarding Monocle… I think it’s a very adventurously designed magazine and I think its overall fit and finish, so to speak, is really pleasing. It’s certainly established a unique voice. So conceptually I don’t have much argument with it.

    But at a lower level, I find some of the typography bewildering. The color of the typography — the size, weight and leading of a given block of text and its contrast/harmony with another given block of text — is sometimes wildly inconsistent. To me, the game plan is so engaging, but the execution is untidy.

  21. Your disposition of the New York Times is about the same as any other product in its design versus its quality. My dad used to tell me about a grocery store that Milton Glaser designed. Glaser did the packaging, the interior/exterior, everything. The store failed because the quality and the people who worked there and ran it weren’t very nice and the store didn’t come up to snuff with the design. It doesn’t matter if you make an article that’s greek text look fabulous, if it’s not interesting, it really doesn’t serve any purpose.

  22. The New Yorker, The Believer (I went back to it after a hiatus) and Giant Robot are my magazines of choice. The depth and quality of writing is refreshing in comparison to so much of which is found on the web. Immediacy has its benefits, but so does leisure. And I would second the comment above that after several hours staring into a computer screen, the feel of paper and the look of print are very welcome.

  23. What I should add is, you as a designer and myself as a designer, if it doesn’t serve any real interest or value, why do it? It’s the whole reason I think you, and I, are in newspapering in the first place. :D

  24. I’m a big magazine junkie – always spending far too much on them.
    I find the process of reading a magazine to be more focussed – whereas on the web, you’re always getting distracted by links off to other sites. There’s also something about print media. Whether it’s just the fact that it’s tangible, or the choice of paper stock, or the crispness of ink on page.

    Currently my buying list includes: Grafik, (inside), Monocle, Monster Children, Paperplane, Australian Creative, Creative Review, plus the odd issue of Tokion, Urbis, Artichoke, Monument, Wallpaper, and anything else that takes my fancy.

  25. Cabinet Magazine is a regular buy for me. And The Believer from McSweeney’s. I never really buy design mags as they are too expensive, but I’d love to get EYE regularly. I buy the odd Colors magazine, but haven’t bought one for a while.

    In an ideal world I think I’d run a second hand magazine shop (journals too) – magazines are so undervalued, and they end up lost forever.

  26. I’d like to get Eye too, but it’s rediculously expensive here – more than a lot of design books. Same goes for Idea, but that’s flat out expensive everywhere.
    Imported mags are good too. I used to try and get copies of Relax from Japan whenever I could. Too bad that magazine met the reaper (although it’s last year or so was nowhere as good as it used to be)

  27. I don’t read magazines, but still have a horrible nagging feeling that I’m missing something when I past the newsstand.

    Recently there has been one magazine that I find myself thumbing through, and I may even get a subscription. It’s Time magazine, redesigned by Pentagram and the Time in-house team. I find myself appreciating every single well designed printed page.

    Of course, it looks like a digital publication, which kind of leaves me where I started. However it was the design that brought me back.

  28. I would love to see an entry where you dissect Monocle’s art direction. I’m actually quite happy with their articles and art direction.

    Monocle, Intersection and BusinessWeek are those of which I read regularly.

  29. As a Web designer, it’s rare that I drop cash on design magazines. But, as a news/story junkie, I gladly fork over the bucks for magazines like Smithsonian, Harpers and New Yorker. Besides I don’t want to spill Cheerios on my laptop when I’m reading at breakfast.

  30. I remembered this post today as I unwrapped and opened the newest issue of Step Inside Design magazine.

    I would like to offer my objection. The suffering effectiveness of magazines as a genre is rooted in the fact that they have simply followed a common trend in our culture. Many media and artistic genres have suffered the same blight as mags, sacrificing substance for flashiness, quality for prompt delivery and insight for ad space. With an overload of everything audible and visual, it is no wonder that we all will choose to bypass one or another of the forms that inevitably both attract and sidetrack us from ourselves and what we hold dear. Magazines are undoubtedly part of the white noise we witness daily.

    That said, I am simply reminded that we are all (to an extent) in control of our intake. I can choose which magazines enter my life (not merely my browser but my home), curating those that come in contact with me, which ultimately influence my being. In whittling down the number of rags I read, I’ve been fairly pleased at the quality of the leftovers. They may be slower, without the benefit of up to the minute information, but I’ve come to realize that’s a good thing.

    /* Currently reading: Mother Jones, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Sojourners, I.D., eye, and the (aforementioned) STEP.