Designing Magazines



The book Designing Magazines has a table of contents, but it doesn’t have a chapter on tables of contents. I thought about including one, but ultimately decided against it—because, really, I’ve never met anyone who works for a magazine who cares about the lowly TOC.

Alright, I shouldn’t say nobody cares. If there are ad reps, they care. They want one…two…hell maybe eight TOC pages for the nice, creamy far-forward ad positions they provide—but even they don’t care what the page looks like, what it says or how it functions. Lots of TOC’s just means happy advertisers.

Designers and editors care about TOC’s during a redesign. There’s certainly as much discussion about the contents as any other page in the book—more than some—and every magazine works diligently to find its own compromise between advertising and divulging the substance of the issue. We all get that an effective contents page is a strip tease—it’s just as important what you leave out as what you include.

But no matter how cunningly we script our reveals, we don’t believe anyone is watching the editorial poll dance on the TOC. And, in the end, it’s not the plan, it’s the execution. Once a magazine design is in production, TOC’s get no respect. Editors wait until the last-minute to write them, art directors either dislike them because they give a sneak-peek at visuals more effectively used elsewhere, or they’re arted up with outtakes. (Only the biggest magazines commission specifically for the TOC). And, for the most part those priorities reflect reality, readers don’t read them.

Conventional wisdom holds that the TOC’s is merely a second chance (after the cover) to “brand” the magazine. Indeed, the cover and the contents page have a tangled history, many early magazines; and some scholarly journals still put contents on the cover in tabular form.

However, the lack of love can be an asset for the designer. TOC’s offer the sort of pure typographical design and structuring that can be a rare opportunity at a magazine. Because the page reflects the personality of the magazine and not the topic of an article, the contents page is about (well sure) branding, but also structuring and organizing information. I generally design my article pages around the art and in the case of features, the headline, TOCs are refreshing because both text and images can play second fiddle to pure design—type, grid rhythm, shape all the stuff we get geeky about. Because we really don’t expect readers to use them, contents can be an opportunity for innovation—as with the calendar-style TOC from Dwell (above) or the collage-style page from Soma below.

TOCs can also provide an opportunity for young designers to distinguish themselves at a magazine—both because it’s the sort of page that’s likely assigned to a junior; and because it provides a similar sort of challenge to the type-heavy assignments that college programs (by necessity) focus on.

Below are a few interesting TOCs. I’d be interested in hearing about other good TOCs that should be here, or reader’s thoughts on the lowly contents page.

11-soma.jpg 14-mother-jones.jpg
Soma Mother Jones

Soma’s 2001 page relies on oblique but intriguing images to create interest in the reader. Mother Jones’ 2002 TOC flows type around a collage built from a dog’s dinner of images from the magazine. Here, like with most TOC’s, feature stories are given most prominant play on the first page and departments are almost an afterthought.

09-jane-1.jpg 10-jane-2.jpg 17-newsweek.jpg
Jane   Newsweek

The personality shift across these two 2001 TOC pages from the late Jane is unusual. The first austere page is all ’tude and girl-power, the second—overloaded with makeup and frilly fashion seems almost contradictory. However, the visual key to the cover in the lower left-hand corner of the second page is a nice, reader-friendly touch.

Newsweek’s TOC; along with Entertainment Weekly‘s (both from 2002) is about as perfunctory as they get—the news-driven weeklies have different topics and attitudes, but the minimal pages reflect news-publication priorities, in which every inch is sacred.

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Entertainment Weekly National Geographic

National Geographic’s contents cover from 1915 may not have much visual appeal to a modern eye, but made sense for how the magazine was used. Collectors kept years or decades of the magazine, the cover index allowed quick contents referencing without having to pluck a TOC page from a sea of ads—as is often the case in a modern publication.

Some more TOCs from various posts:

Esquire TOC-1 2-08

Esquire TOC-2 2-08

Esquire TOC-1 3-03

Esquire TOC-2 3-08

Wig Wag TOC.jpg

New York Times TOC 1

lumpen TOC