If you’re one of the legion of bubbling under-the-hot-100 magazine designers (in other words, not a DD at Condé Nast, Time, Inc., or thems like that there) you may well have heard of FPO sometime in the last year or so. It’s been some time in the making but the magazine launches soon. Editor/Publisher Rob Sugar of Auras in suburban Maryland, (a magazine design consultancy responsible for a pile of publications including newsstand titles Moment and Biblical History) has given a number of us (if I do say so myself) “thought leaders” a sneak peak.
I must admit that I have been anticipating the launch of FPO with a mixture of apprehension and anticipation. On the one hand, I think it’s a great idea, I have long respected Rob personally, he’s a generous and well-regarded member of the DC design and Maryland business communities (for evidence of that generosity, see the download page on Auras’ site), and he knows a lot about the nuts and bolts of magazines. The new journal also has some precedent—until recently Auras produced a newsletter full of good practical typography and production advice. The trouble is, and maybe I shouldn’t get hung up on this, I have long felt that the work that came out of Auras’ studio was less than stellar—dated, creatively lazy, and overly decorative. I just wasn’t sure that designers who saw publication design so fundamentally differently than I do would create a magazine that met my needs as a reader or improve the quality of discourse in the pub-design community.
Why don’t I like their work? In my view Auras’ distinct house style often doesn’t serve the editorial voice of the publications it handles. It’s a look that leans towards the cutesy— they use typefaces that, while not actually novelty fonts, come close—they’re so garish as to be distracting in an editorial context. There’s too much clutter and repetitive empty decoration on the page, and a tendency to undermine hierarchy with graphic add-ons that distract from rather than focus attention on content. Auras pubs are often full of bright saturated colors—but there’s often no unifying color scheme.
I particularly dislike their art direction. They use a lot of stock, which leads to trite and obvious visual solutions, but even when commissioned, images in Auras pubs too often lack subtlety or nuance. They tend to illustrate headlines rather than articles. The Auras method works ok for Moment, but was an enormous step backwards for Urban Land, a once-attractive magazine that the company redesigned early last year.
It must be said that Auras pages are colorful—maybe even attractive, but I’m just not a big fan of magazine design that’s pretty for the sake of being pretty. It gives every page the same goal and the same solution, and a piece of art that merely reinforces the headline, even if it does so attractively, is a missed opportunity to get into meatier issues.
In my view, the Auras method also doesn’t particularly lend itself to a design magazine. FPO pages should be simpler, highlighting rather than competing with the magazines pages it uses to illustrate its points. There’s actually relatively few examples in FPO, and most of these fall into the category of illustrating visual faux pas—things that should not be emulated. This gives FPO the odd effect of being a design publication that tells but doesn’t show, and creates an editorial tone that’s a bit pedantic for my tastes even though I fundamentally agree with most of the points being made.
While most of the suggestions made in the text are sound, the magazine does not always follow its own advice. The articles below–a piece about how to make art meetings more effective–starts with a story of a clichéd image coming out of an art direction-by-committee process. The result sited as the unfortunate outcome—a handshake—is certainly overused and tiresome. But without apparent irony, FPO illustrates the very same article with an equally hackneyed stock image of a business meeting which was clearly drawn originally to illustrate a piece on unequal power relationships. Illustrator Christoph Niemann took on this same topic with humor and rather wonderful results with his “periodic table of metaphors” in Print a couple years back, there’s a lot that could have been said visually here that would have addressed the topic more directly than just showing a picture of a meeting.
The first issue of FPO often does not give its readers enough credit. It may be that the contents that made for a good newsletter does not, in this case, stretch to magazine length. As sound as the advice is, I didn’t learn much from reading it. I would rather see a magazine that read like a dialog between professionals—and that featured more good work—than a trip to remedial design class. There’s also a bit of laziness in the first issue—some reprints and two Auras designers are interviewed on their favorite illustrators—this is a good idea—and it might have been nice to hear from the illustrators too, but by keeping this piece in-house it misses an opportunity to bring some diversity of outlook into the magazine.
Despite the first issue’s shortcomings, there’s some reason to hope that FPO will evolve into something better. First issues rarely put all their cards on the table, and the publisher seems to be sincerely soliciting advice from the magazine design community. More importantly, the magazine will exhaust the freshman curriculum at some point—that is unless they plan to play gotcha with other magazine’s mistakes every issue. In short, Auras’ old newsletter has not quite yet evolved from a promotional vehicle into a real magazine but there’s no reason to think that it can’t.