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The Stacks

SPD 40

06.20.07 | Comment?

I didn’t buy SPD Solid Gold, The Society of Publication Designer’s 40th Anniversary volume although I was tempted—it has a lot of nice work.

The trouble with anniversary volumes, however, is that they tend to be edited with an eye towards what’s relevant for today’s readers, and what reflects best on the reputation of the organization the book celebrates. The result is a historical arc that’s just a little too neat—the work of the ’70s seems to foreshadow the work of the ’80s, and so on with an inevitability that was never there.

Instead, thanks to a little pre-renovation housecleaning on the part of the magazine I freelance for, I’ve been enjoying an incomplete but fascinating set of the Society’s original annuals, most from the ’80s and early ’90s but a few earlier. It’s the trends that didn’t catch on, or that ran a few years and then fizzled that seem most interesting now—for example the way the alienated murky punk aesthetic was turned to service journalism in these pages of House & Garden.

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These pages doubtlessly make the art director responsible wince now, sorta like seeing yourself with sideburns in a ’70s photo, but they shouldn’t—it’s kinda cool that something like this once happened under the auspices of Condé Nast.

It’s also fun to look at all the magazines that are gone. Books like Wig Wag (one of my perennial favorites), Smart, Hippocrates, Lear’s and even Omni. Some of these had a few years others a few months. Even (or maybe especially) in the failures there’s a whiff of magic. It’s hard to imagine a general-interest launch like Wig Wag being attempted today, but what a beautiful magazine it was, with a postmodern yet somehow small-town aesthetic, it must have been a joy to art direct. In its way, Wig Wag was just as smart as its better-remembered contemporary Spy, but without the smugness—Spy as if it had been edited by Garrison Keillor.

The other interesting thing about my new old annuals (in addition to the greater number of small-circulation and local publications than you find today) is that they put all the current handwringing about the deleterious effects of the web on magazine-making—the death of long-form journalism, the rise of sound-bite writing—into perspective.

Contemporary magazines are characterized by the tension between chaos and structure made possible by the cunning use of multicolumn grids. Approaching the page like this didn’t really become practical until Quark 3, and it is with Quark 3 and not the web that the trend towards heavily-layered chunkified pages starts. Before then, the logistical and editorial hurdles to producing content that burst like popcorn on the page was too great.

What’s nice about the pre-Quark 3 pages is not that the illustration or photography or typography is inherently better before than afterwards–I don’t think they are. But, the earlier, simpler pages are in many ways a better showcase for ideas. Too often in modern magazines, ideas are forced into service of structure and not vice-versa.

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