Wanted: Trashy Design Magazines

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.


Can’t Touch This

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.

Mobile Media

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:

Used Issue of <em>The New Yorker</em>” width=”400″ height=”422″ /></div>
<p>It’s hardly fair to compare the mostly <em>pro forma</em> layout of <em>The New Yorker</em> to the fluid presentations of <em>Eye</em>. But the point is that my copies of <em>The New Yorker</em> get read routinely and quickly, and sadly my copies of <em>Eye</em> and <em>Print</em> 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 <em>rag</em> 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.</p>
<p>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 <em>Eye</em> and <em>Print</em>, 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 <em>Eye</em> that you can tote with you anywhere.</p>
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15 Comments

  1. I’m kind of in the same situation with most design magazines. They look too fragile and usually keep them in a safe place so they wouldn’t get “hurt”. They are definitely not designed to put in my bag and be read on the train.

    I think design magazines should take a look at what most skateboarding magazines are doing for years. They look very trashy and they look like they belong in a bag so you can take them out anywhere you want and read them. A thing I don’t like is that they are stashed with advertising.

    A magazine I really like reading is Vice Magazine. It’s right between the skateboarding magazines and the design mags. The magazine is a desired object because it’s free, and you need to be very quick to get the new issue. But it is also a magazine you can read anywhere.

  2. I’m exactly the same way with my Print and Communication Arts. I’ll only carry one with me consistently if I have more than a single copy of it.

    Sadly, Eye is a little out of my price range.

  3. Get your mits on Dot, Dot, Dot. A Top class magazine. Excellent writing. And a small and handy size! Personally I find traditional design magazine writing boring. Last thing I want to read. Pretty pictures though. Print is great for that.

  4. I was on a bus the other evening when a woman in the seat in front took out a well-read copy of the New Yorker folded back at the exact same page you’ve captured above…

  5. Being rabid for high-end print like this will undoubtedly be the death of me. Although Eye has always been a staple on my shelves, even more overproduced magazines like Idea, Werk and Livraison find me taking even more care in getting them home to the magazine file. I can’t even bring myself to subscribe in trying to avoid any damage in shipping. Hello, I’m Mike and I’m an addict.

    I think it has to do with the timelessness of what’s between the covers. It’s reference, its an inspiring piece of ephemera, its… This even goes for magazines outside of the design world. I remember the first time someone introduced me to the music magazine Wax Poetics. He handed it to me with two hands telling me to be careful. People hold what’s inside dear – crate diggers and design nerds alike.

  6. Actually I feel the same can be said about comic books versus graphic novels. Same stories but different format and presentation therefore the product is treated differently in terms of handling and reviewing.

  7. I think great packaging makes products beyond what they were originally intended for… like how Asian parents putting plastic covers over their couch.

    Beside Print, my other favorite magazine is Dwell. I don’t read it as soon as I get it. I feel it deserves my undivided attention so I only read it when I have a block of un-distracted free time. And often I end up not reading it at all until much much later.

  8. You’re exactly right. My employer subscribes to design magazines that I also get at home, but I’ll only read work’s copies. My issues at home get filed away for safe keeping, but since I didn’t pay for the magazines at work I can read them without worrying about their condition.

  9. Since most of my reading is also done on the run I’ll typically protect any soft-cover design publication by taping the corners with clear shipping tape (like you frequently see with library books). I can’t stand it when they get dog-eared.

    I have to say, once a book or magazine does begin to show signs of wear my attitude about it changes. It’s sort-of like a pair of well broken-in shoes or jeans and I’m much more apt to just grab it and go.

  10. How about a design magazine done up in a newspaper format, but smaller in size compared to the standard newspaper?

    I personally can’t stand having to wrestle the newspaper around on a crowded train, elbow to elbow with another person that’s trying to do the same.

  11. C’mon people, be brave and get over it. Next time you splash on a design mag, fold it in half straight away, then use it as a coffee coaster as soon as you can. You’ll feel a whole lot better.
    And then take some of those design monographs to the thrift store. Not the Tibor Kalman one, though. Pass that on to a student.

  12. @gene – there are a few mags out now in newsprint, namely newwork and E&A;. both beautifully done. E&A;is the only tabloid size, however. newwork is a full broadsheet.

  13. OMG, I thought it was just me! Here I thought I had some sort of ADD-like disease or something. Ahh, there’s nothing like a fresh new magazine. (Specially those that are more expensive than books). I feel so much better. One thing I do hate about design magazines, those THICK paper sample sheets that won’t let you flip thru the pages. Ahhrg!