Show Me the Money (for Art Direction)

Speaking of magazines, I’ve just started writing a regular column about interaction design over at Print. If it seems a bit retrograde for me to publish my thoughts on digital media in that forum, believe me the irony is not lost. In spite of its somewhat anachronistic moniker, though, I still find Print to be incredibly vibrant as a showcase for great graphic design — and in spite of all my pooh-poohing of the fitful and awkward migration of traditional graphic design values into the digital space, I still think that digital designers have a lot to learn from print — just as print designers have a lot to learn from digital.

My first column will appear in the June 2010 issue, which will be on newsstands in May, but the editors have graciously decided to publish it in advance on the Web in full here.

Almost inevitably, the topic is Apple’s “magical and revolutionary” iPad and so the column has some overlap with my harsh criticisms of the Popular Science magazine app from earlier in the week (catch up on that blog post here). Specifically, I try to wrestle with the iPad’s prospects for ushering in a return to the visually and expressively rich values of traditional art direction.


Economic Indicators

The main premise of the column is that though both publishers and publishing designers want the iPad to save publishing, their interests are in fact somewhat divergent:

“What publishers mean when they say they want to save publishing is that they want to derive enough revenue from the digital distribution of their content to support the ongoing, profitable production of that content. What designers mean when they say they want to save the publishing industry is that they want to save their jobs. Or save design jobs. Or at least preserve the way that publishing designers practice design. Which is to say that they want to continue to create editorially specific solutions using a wealth of skills and tools — typography, illustrations, photography, and ambitious layout creativity — that very much depend on the wealth of publishers.”

Do I think this kind of art direction is possible on the iPad, or any other tablet device? The answer makes for the thrust of this first column. Basically, I make the argument that even if the iPad can save the publishing industry (an iffy proposition, to be sure) it won’t save art direction for the simple reason that art direction is too prohibitively expensive to survive in the world of digital publishing.

Not long ago I watched R.J. Cutler’s documentary “The September Issue,” a fascinating if incomplete look at Vogue editor Anna Wintour and the rarified world of fashion publishing over which she lords. In one particularly memorable twist in the film, the magazine’s editors decide to nix an already completed story that entailed a photo shoot with a rough price tag US$50,000. Poof, out the window. What was essentially an enormous sum spent on art direction — discarded.

Of course, not every publication operates at the expense level of a Vogue, but it’s safe to say that like Vogue most print magazines have very high operating costs. They spend far more money per content unit (article, photo shoot, interview, etc.) than Web sites do, and of course that includes the cost of art directing and designing the content.

Pointing out this disparity is not meant to demonstrate that Web publishers are cheap, but rather that print publishers have traditionally been quite flush. For decades, print publishing attracted incredibly robust advertising dollars, year after year, building whole empires as a result. That steady influx of healthy cash, combined with the relatively leisurely pace of publishing a magazine once or twice a month, or even once weekly, is what supported the remarkable run of visually stunning and culturally memorable publishing design that started in the middle part of the last century. Every article in every magazine looked different, looked gorgeous, because publishers could afford to make it so.

Bottom Line

That’s over. For a million reasons, it’s over, but mostly for one reason: the Internet remade the economics of publishing. The evidence suggests that very, very few if any publishers are able or will be able to recapture those vertiginous levels of advertising revenues for digital publishing on the Web. And even if they do, even if they can turn the corner and evolve their business models on the Web, the generally ruthless economics of publishing in that environment has already made publishers unalterably averse to the significant expenses of art directing content.

The same will follow for the iPad, at least that’s my position. What we’re seeing right now, in the Popular Science app, and what we’ll see in the coming months from other ambitious digital magazine products, is a bubble for digital art direction that will burst quickly. I’m not saying that these magazines will all fail (well, I basically am, but of course I’m not certain about that). Rather what I’m saying is that these publishers are right now enthralled by the newness of the iPad and they perceive in it an opportunity that really doesn’t exist. The iPad looks to publishers like a fresh start in the world of digital, one more last chance to recapture the old ad dollars that the Web essentially dissolved. Even if those ad dollars return, what these publishers are wishfully ignoring at the moment is the fact that the kind of art direction these magazines require is very labor intensive and very expense-heavy — it costs a lot of money to art direct. It’s a value equation that worked for print but won’t work in tablet media, just like it didn’t work on the Web. When that realization dawns on publishers, they’ll stop paying for it.

That’s it for now, but I do have more thoughts on this. In the meantime read the full Print column here.

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  1. Not sure I completely buy your premise that good art direction and design is automatically costly. Without a doubt there is a problem with bloated budgets and essential inefficiencies at most mainstream publications, but that is more a side effect of corporate bureaucracy than the inherent costliness of good design. In fact I’d say that some of the best design work I’ve seen has been on low budget independent publications.

  2. All salient points, but I think you’re underestimating how much readers value visually rich content. Look at the Elements app. That could have easily been done as a templated blog, and it would have been universally ignored. The reason it’s gotten so much attention is explicitly because of the art direction and visual presentation.

    You’re also overstating the expense of creating compelling visual design. You don’t need to spend $50,000 on a fashion shoot to create stunning editorial. You need talent and the desire to do something more with content than slap it into a CMS template and be done with it.

  3. You make some great points, but I really really hope you are wrong.

    I would love to see the approach that magazines take with content make its way to the web design. I think articles should be art directed. You don’t have to spend $50,000 dollars to do so, but certainly we can change our layouts, colors, typography for different content instead of the template approach we have now.

    I think the tablet can save art directing, and I think that once more people buy a tablet the value of ads on these platforms are going to be on par with print.

    Web ad performance sucks now because people mainly browse the web from their desk tops with multiple windows open, multiple tasks going, its really easy to ignore an ad. Ads are placed in predictable places and usually have jack shit to do with the site their on. The ones that try to be engaging choke your computer or jump in your face when you don’t want to see them. They never really feel like part of the experience like they did in magazines

    I think tablets change that.
    The ads that are going to be possible on these tablets are going to be different and more engaging I think if for no other reason then that you are viewing this ads while relaxing on your couch rather then crouched over a desk staring at a bright PC screen. Publishers are going to start making a lot of money from this and when they do there is going to be more and more art direction on the web

  4. Art and editorial direction are what makes each publication unique, whether you’re comparing GQ and Esquire or Meatpaper and Meat magazine. To imply Art Direction for online products is worthless is just plain dumb. Publishers need their art directors to unify their trinity of publishing venues (print/web/mobile). Do you think for a moment a programmer can do this?

    About that $50K Vogue shoot: who cares? If Vogue wishes to burn their money, that’s their business. It has no impact on my or many others’ companies nor on the business as a whole.

  5. Totally! Publishers really need to re-think how they communicate online. Instead of struggling with ways to repurpose existing content and processes, they need to find new ways to communicate. As you said, it’s not just in how to get fancy layouts in front of readers. It’s that thinking that makes the current readers feel like fancy PDF readers. If publishers really want to re-energize their industry, they need to re-invent what it means to publish.

    It’s funny – after watching The September Issue I also posted about iPad magazine publishing. It was so fascinating to see how the film presented all the backstory, and process that went into making an issue of Vogue magazine. If magazines like Vogue can retain the power and influence in the digital era then great! What they need to do digitally is bring forward that depth of content to their readers. (And not hide it for only documentary filmmakers!) I think it would make for something way beyond what publishers are giving us now.

  6. I think he’s spot on.

    Where I disagree about art direction, is that I think it’s not going to be coming directly from app development per-se. But from HTML5 and CSS3. If you look at what people like Jason Santa Maria, or Chris Coyer have been doing. They have really been pushing what can be done with the tools.

    But this means both designers and editors (or “content strategists” if you want to be really douchey) have to take the time and focus their efforts on quality content. You can’t take the blog road of pumping stuff out daily, because that sort of stream only truly suits itself to a templated CMS system. Good Art Direction will require less but better content.

    I think that’s going to be done using existing web tools (HTML5 / CSS3 / jQuery) in combination with apps. Especially on the iPad/Phone where we have no worries about CSS issues, or IE issues. Typography for the web has come a LONG way. It looks like the best route to go.

  7. Interesting, as I was reading though, I realize that art direction may possibly be replaced by user experience. In many ways aren’t they the same thing really? A way to tell a story.

  8. If designers want to save their job, then art direction needs to be made affordable, somehow (better tools, technology, and automation). But even then, we aren’t making more money for ourselves, just hanging on by a thread.

  9. what’s more important, the art or the content. in the past it’s been the content. maybe going forward it will be the art or at least better tying the two of the together.

    things are getting more and more visual. the Ipad is proof.