Off the racks

The Children’s Cursade

10.04.07 | 2 Comments

Once in a while, I find myself thinking about children’s magazines. This is in part due to where I live. There are several kiddie books within an easy commute of my house, and sometimes they need art directors. It also has to do with having my own school-agers—I’ve spent a lot of time in front of the kid’s periodical rack at the library, while waiting for my own wee ones to pick out their books. But mainly, designing a periodical for the pint-sized seems like an interesting professional challenge. Children’s magazines have their own aesthetic and their own rules. My design work (unlike my desk) is pretty rational and orderly—I’ve long wondered if I could art direct a magazine in which wacky typefaces, screaming colors, and a tenuous grid were virtues. Would I find it freeing—or would it send me over the edge?

Recently, a new question occurred to me—just why do kids’ magazines break all the rules of harmony, organization and typography anyway? When it comes to young n’s, why do publishers think bad design is good?

Time for Kids may not be the ugliest juvenile title ever, but it certainly does a lot of things graphically that wouldn’t be done in the über-rational mama-mag. While it is is relatively easy to read, it has no consistent typeface, color scheme or grid. The magazine does succeed at giving children a carefully-selected look at the news, but at Kiddie-Time, long-form journalism means three graphs, no single story requires flipping a page, and photographs are drab and obvious. All visual juice comes from gimmicky type and vibrant colors.

Would an Editor at RealTime want a reader trained to read on the children’s version? Does the spoon-feeding of demitasse portions of content and brain-dead imagery send the message that magazines provide value?—that would seem a question of more than passing interest to the folks at Time, Inc., why else would they put this out?

To paraphrase fearless leader, “Is we teaching our children to read a magazine?”

Kids magazines certainly weren’t always as bleak as the current versions. The magazines I remember loving in my childhood—Ranger Rick, Dynamite—a pop culture journal from Scholastic with a snarky (by 5th grade standards) sense of humor, and Mad all featured stories that sustained for pages, a comparatively challenging vocabulary and more sophisticated (and toned-down) color pallets and typography. Kids liked Mad, even though it was black and white and had jokes they didn’t get because it seemed grown-up and cool. I see no big change that requires Kiddie Time to be the way it is now—it’s aimed at kids in third, fourth and fifth grades who are, by that time, reading chapter books–gawd-awful chapter books—but chapter books! And without pictures! So why is Time training the next generation of readers for easy in-and-out mags like Maxim and Lucky and not for Time and Fortune?

It would be tempting to blame child psychologists–those killjoys who thought that smurfs and dragons working out tedious interpersonal problems would somehow make for better television than 16-ton anvils and cliff plunges. But, I would guess that, while every kids glossy claims a team of shrinks and educators on board, they’re probably not actually paid, they probably don’t really come into the office, and they probably have especially little to do with how material is packaged—instead contenting themselves to object to a word or sentence here or there. I would love to hear from someone with experience on the design or review side of kids magazines on this. It seems more likely that the wacky colors come from fuzzy inherited wisdom—inspired by the aesthetics of cartoons and toy packaging.