Hard Times

08.15.09 | 3 Comments

I’m a bit late with a response to the NY Times Magazines’ redesign. But, the topic is near and dear to my heart, (love The Times, love the Magazine, read them religiously, etc. etc.) that I wanted to weigh in. And, if the critical response matters at all to the editors and publisher (and I suspect it doesn’t) I want to add to the record another voice pointing out how disastrously misguided the recent redesign was. Though I don’t know the details—I didn’t see the sausage being made—I would guess that this is a case where the designer did the best that could be done with really misguided prerogatives from above.

It was certain, or nearly so, that changes were coming to the supplement. The (for me, anyway) heartbreaking departure of Janet Froelich, the magazine’s longtime and highly gifted design director to warmer ports and the demise of T and Play, the magazines’ occasional supplements foreshadowed more changes to the franchise. The magazine is now slightly smaller, but what could have been a mere size reduction has turned a once-beautiful magazine into a nearly unreadable one.

The editor explains what happened in a letter in the roll-out: “The cut in trim size does not mean there is 9 percent less room on every page for words and pictures. [obvious nonsense, what else could it mean?] This week we are introducing a new typeface, Lyon Text….It is more condensed than our previous typeface—with the result that the words-per-page tally has hardly been affected….” Here’s my cynical interpretation: the published shifted some of the pain of financial cuts onto the magazine, and the editor punted that pain further down the field onto the design staff, and (more critically) the reader—god knows the editors shouldn’t also have to change the way they do business (cut tighter, for example).

That decision—for words over usability—infects every corner of the redesign. The highly readable Stemple Garamond of the old design has been replaced by something that’s anything but. Both smaller and condensed, it is a struggle to get through it. The once elegantly open and inviting pages are now cluttered with the doodads, infographics and type. Even the new headline font (versions of Knockout) is condensed, contributing to an overall feel of expediency rather than pleasure (and makes the magazine look like a lot of others. As fond as I am of Knockout, it’s become an editorial cliché). The Need To Pack It In There leads to some odd decisions—why, for example does the magazine run two almost identical portraits of the same person on the interview page, both cut off at the crotch?—probably because of the smallness of the available space, mixed with a desire to capture some of the page’s former impact.

I used to save the magazine for late morning. Like many, I made it a reward for getting through the paper’s grimmer news sections—and we’ve been through some grim days indeed in the last eight years. The supplement doesn’t seem like a present ready to unwrap any more. Instead it has become a lesson in how to put a reader off. Anyone who doubts the value and necessity of white space need only compare Deborah solomon’s interview in the before and after (below).

The old design had a playfulness, a graphic joy that now seems excised from the pages. One small example of this is the retired Christoph Nieman portrait of the ernestly goofy ethicist now replaced by a stark and old fashioned feeling silhouette. The Funny Pages (though I was not personally a fan) was charmingly out of character for the Times, but, it is also gone.

To be sure, the art direction—the quality of imagery—is still excellent and the writing (when the topic motivates me enough to struggle through the text) is just as good as always but designwise, they have reduced the magazine’s impact by much more than a slightly smaller page should have done.

To be fair, magazines and newspapers are struggling now—that’s no secret. While I wish the publication had not downsized at all, if it were my money and the jobs of my friends on the line, I might have done the same. Nevertheless, I worry that publications are cutting out their hearts as a response to short-term hardships. (no matter how bleak things are now, the New York Times is not on the endangered species list.) What magazines offer that web sites currently cannot is a truly visual experience. periodicals and books allow you to look at more and higher-quality imagery more quickly than the swiftest DSL can download pictures. Paper publications also provide a more pleasurable and portable reading experience. And the pay-to-play part of print still gives print publications an authority that web-only ventures do not have. If magazines are to survive in the web age (they will, radio did not kill newspapers, television did not kill radio or cinema) they will not do it by becoming paper web sites. The new NYT Mag is dangerously close to offering a worse experience than what can be found online.

An earlier post about the NYT Magazine, which shows several pages from before the redesign, can be seen here.

Update: Well, it was obvious this morning that T Magazine has not, in fact, been shuttered. I remembered reading that with such certainty that I didn’t think to check. I am not sure about other NYT Mag spin-offs Key and Play. If anyone knows for sure, please feel free to jump in.