Wed 08 Oct
The mailman delivered the latest copy of Eye Magazine to my door last week. As design periodicals go, it’s hard to beat Eye for being both historically illuminating and contemporarily challenging; few continually published design magazines are as well-written issue after issue as is this one. It’s edited and printed in the United Kingdom, which probably goes a long way towards explaining why it’s so uniformly gorgeous, too — the British take their design press a bit more seriously than we do. That also partly explains why subscription issues arrive neatly packed in a protective cardboard sleeve. These magazines are so exquisitely printed (and priced) that readers tend to cherish each issue.
None of which is to belittle American publications. Among others, I also subscribe to the domestically edited and produced Print Magazine, which despite its name, had something of a renaissance under the remarkable, decade-long stewardship of Joyce Rutter Kaye that concluded only a few months ago. Print, which has always set a high standard for design journalism, had for decades opted for sobriety in its presentation. To be fair, the magazine was always beautifully designed. But in recent years especially it has approached its page layouts with a palpable freshness and vigor, and now regularly looks spectacular. When my copy arrives in the mail, I tend to leaf through it eagerly but gingerly.
And that’s my point. These two design magazines in particular, and design magazines as a whole, publish with an almost counter-productive devotion to aesthetic care and attention. To be fair, their charge is to showcase the best work in the field, and they naturally feel compelled to do so in as attractive a package as possible — using lush, full-color photography, tasteful typography and layout, and printing on archival or nearly archival quality paper. The problem though is that, in their commitment to high aesthetic quality, they are effectively publishing periodicals that are primarily saved and only secondarily read.
It’s taken me years of subscribing to these magazines or buying them on newsstands to finally admit to myself that, more often than not, they sit on my desk upon arrival and don’t get read. Whether consciously or subconsciously, I consider them to be objects to be stored and protected from the ravages of reading.
For the most part, I’m reluctant to throw any issues into my briefcase to have handy on subway rides — which is where the majority of my periodical reading gets done. I’m loathe to subject them to the nicks and tears that casual usage will inevitably inflict upon them; I don’t want them dog-eared and folded over. For some reason, I want them in pristine condition, most probably because I cling to this idea that beautiful design should be preserved. And these magazines are indeed beautiful.
By contrast, I have no such reservations about using printed copies of The New York Times, say, with little care for preserving its pages. Or, for a more direct comparison, take The New Yorker, a magazine to which I also subscribe. It’s a matter of habit for me to throw each week’s issue into my briefcase, or to roll it up and stuff it in a jacket pocket, or even to take it with me on a trip to the bathroom. Most all of these issues wind up looking something like this:
It’s hardly fair to compare the mostly pro forma layout of The New Yorker to the fluid presentations of Eye. But the point is that my copies of The New Yorker get read routinely and quickly, and sadly my copies of Eye and Print don’t. Actually, the point is that the many intriguing design ideas printed between the covers of these magazines aren’t getting out there and into the world. In a sense, they’re held captive by their design. The world of digital publishing aside, there are no forums for printing and disseminating design ideas in a highly consumable manner. What I’m talking about is a design rag that I can just throw into my bag, roll up, tear pages from, and scribble all over with impunity. It᾿s not that it can’t be masterfully designed; rather what I’m looking for is something that looks good but that was designed to be used.
Sadly though, we may never get that. The most efficient and economically viable medium for the exchange of design ideas is, happily but imperfectly, the Web. As digital media dominates more and more of niche journalism of every kind, magazines are only going to look more and more like Eye and Print, which is to say high-end, book-like objects that can at least aesthetically justify their newsstand costs. Mobile media too will make design ideas more portable, to be sure, but it won’t be quite like having a magazine as well-written and well-designed as Eye that you can tote with you anywhere.