Off the racks

Church of the Poison Mind

06.24.08 | Permalink | 1 Comment

I was surprised to find the book of the SubGenius still in print. My excuse for including it on a magazine design site? First, it’s highly cool. Second, many of the pages, and all of the art was originally created for the SubGenius Zine back in the 80s. Like the church of the flying spaghetti monster, the church of JR “Bob” Dobbs is a gag religion. SG is founded around the charismatic “Bob” an idealized 1950s father-figure who’s image miraculously appears in ad after ad from that era. Subgenius is weirder, cooler, spookier than FSM, and much more entertaining. The Ohio-based group spawned several books before fading back into the obscurity from which it emerged. They still have a semi-active web presence.

SubGenius managed to catch the grungy look of period street tracts in all its IBM Compositor/Linotype Headliner glory. Like many cults, they preached a world view that warped life into something with enough real-world evidence to be almost-kinda-sorta plausible, as they seeked a universal substance called Slack, warned that Jehovah is really a space alien who still threatens the Earth, and cautioned that if you think the church is a joke, you sure as hell won’t get the punchline.

The big unanswered question about the church: Did the organization’s excellent illustrator “Puzzling Evidence” influence the rather similarly styled movie sequence for the Talking Heads song of the same name?

Art Direction, Redesigns

Hollywood Noir

06.20.08 | Permalink | 1 Comment

HL, or Hollywood Life is a hybrid celebrity/fashion magazine—two topics that leave me colder than a mafia hit man doing wet work in Anchorage—but it’s hard not to be seduced by HL’s stunning redesign, which premiered this month.

What makes HL so spectacular is the photography, and what makes the photography so good, is lie upon lie upon lie. Most images are shot in a lush black and white, the lighting is self-consciously film noir, the fashion is distinctly classic, and the hair styles and makeup are vintage Ingrid Bergman—making HL feel like an artifact from the 30s or 40s.

Now, some would feel that a modern magazine should trade in the vocabulary of its own era—that a look back is an attempt to paint pages with an unearned authority, and anyway, isn’t the whole retro thing played? HL deserves to be excused from all such quibbles. This baby is so well done, and the pages are so beautiful I found myself just looked moon-eyed at spectacular spread after spread.

While there are some color pages, I love that the rich vocabulary of black and white is explored so thoroughly and its use is so intrinsic to the publication’s voice. I love that the tawdry celebrity culture ala the Sun, Star, and Us that we expect from anything with a whiff of fame is vanquished in favor of not just retro style but with the whole 40s studio-system attitude. It’s hard to believe these photos weren’t shot under the supervision of image-cops, as they once would have been.

I also love the large two-color newsprint section, in which the magazine runs meaty articles, and that the art director can pull off pages that are a bit more contemporary too. A jittery comic strip runs for several pages but would never have seen print back in the day. It still seems part of the HL whole.

The typography breaks one of my tenants—don’t set italics all caps. Italics were originally designed when capitols and meniscuses were not used together, and the original italic fonts did not include an upper case. Italic majuscules have always been a retrofitted and somewhat awkward addition to modern italic typefaces. Strained in design, most are just obliqued versions of Roman forms even when the l.c. letters themselves are quite cursive. And, there is no historical president for setting Italics that way. Now, I admit that insisting that you can’t use a typeface a certain way because people didn’t used to use it that was is a bit like insisting that flammable is not a word (which, by the way, it isn’t). Times change and usage and style change along with it, but that doesn’t make it right. Not in my book, anyway.

Nevertheless, I can’t hate HL’s Typography, even though there’s lots of Ital. all-cap, and too much all-cap, period. Instead the design comes off as artfully artless, both elegant and naïve, as if McSweeney’s typography was superimposed on a fashion book. Except for the reliance on caps, the type is quite understated. There are few designed headlines and none that aren’t either black or reversed. HL could have been set in lead.

HL has never met an opportunity for product placement it didn’t like, which may be necessary to fund the imagery for this relatively low-circulation glossy. For example, if you read the caption for the photo below, you learn that Christina Ricci is wearing a Givenchy black and taupe cotton jersey and silk top. Looks nice, where can I get some of those?

Art Direction, New Launches

A fleeting….

06.12.08 | Permalink | 2 Comments

What is Glimpse? I’ve been trying to figure that out. At first, I thought it was the clearest evidence that Good had been certified big league—having spawned this knockoff from the deep-pocketed National Geographic Association. But, Glimpse is not quite Good (in more ways than one, actually). Nor is it quite a knock-off of Co-Op America’s quarterly, although both have much the same focus on international sustainability and travel, and both are aimed at the college-aged.

Whatever they’re up to, the result is an odd, almost random mix of stuff. Who would guess that behind the screaming jackal of a head on the cover would lie multiple foodie pieces, reviews of boy bands, and a step-by-step pictorial on how to Rumba? Oh, the promised democracy package is there, too, but articles about working with activists oversees, the underside of democratic transformation, and the military coup that brought Pinochet to power are combined with benign snapshots of scenic foreign locales and colorful natives, relevant to the text only in that they are probably from the same country. It’s packaged up with a typeface so cuddly you could sleep with it, and decorated with cheerful Reds and Yellows. The whole magazine is kind of like the travel section of your local paper and a high school social studies text were thrown together and set to purée.

And, will it blend? Yes, but don’t breath in the smoke. Robert Hughes once described the East Wing of the National Gallery—in his estimation a more effective architectural statement than an art museum—as being like a church where one has the option not to pray. Glimpse also provides an easy opt-out, it’s the magazine for international activists with sunny, optimistic dispositions, and other, more pressing priorities.

None of this is to say that serious topics and amusements can’t be combined—nearly all serious magazines do it to some degree and there are lots of models for doing it effectively—Harper’s Good, and Wired all come to mind. But the Glimpse take seems to be that serious news should be delivered with a smirk and wink, and that doesn’t work nearly as well.

Glimpse, and the Glimpse site had a life before NatGeo’s involvement—the current “vol1 issue1” is just the first under the new partnership, with the requisite new branding and enhanced newsstand presence. It will be interesting to see how this magazine evolves—whether the confused result is the product of blended corporate cultures, and if so, which set of values will win out.

The front section reprieves grunge typography.

The Fire and Rice article came out of the organization’s community web site, as did much of the other content.

Off the racks


06.10.08 | Permalink | 5 Comments

In summer, DC streets fill with bright-eyed volunteers gathering donations and signatures for various organizations—the DNC, several conservation groups and a host of others. All worthy causes—though they always want to chat when your top priority is a BLT. One of the less worthy if more entertaining groups of youth to descend regularly on the District was Zendik Arts. They come out of a commune in West Virginia to foment revolution through the sale of t-shirts, and when times are good, copies of Zendik Arts Magazine. Zendik bills itself as an arts community rather than a religion (though they seem interested in something called “Creavolution”), but like many cults it formed around a charismatic leader—Wulf Zendik, who died in 1999, but lived long enough to write his own Wikipedia page—since reduced to a stub. I recommend the discussion or one of the early unexpunged versions. Here’s a small grab: “He stands as one of the preeminent philosophic and artistic forces of his generation. A fiery, compassionate, deeply human presence, he remained totally committed to creating an enriching present, and future, for everyone and everything on planet Earth.”

The Zendik look bounces around a bit, from the socialist-realist cover to the Journey/ELO aesthetic as seen on left page typography above (and much more so on the web site), to the unreadable zine-smear below. At first the inconsistency distressed me. I considered joining the movement in order to properly brand this thing (or at least make the text readable), but that would diminish Zendik Arts, and not just my standard of living. The artful artlessness can be breathtaking on occasion. I love the gloriously frenetic spread below, even though I am alas, too old to replicate it.

I haven’t seen the youngsters from Zendik in a while, perhaps there’s only enough of them to proselytize one town at a time or maybe they all reconciled with their real families, but if they come back, I do plan to buy the new issue if there is one. Much of the writing in incoherent, but Wulf’s principle message is clear enough “We have undeniably valid grounds for a revolutionary action.” Oh, if it were only that simple.


Grand Reopening Business

06.05.08 | Permalink | Comments Off on Grand Reopening Business


Premiere Business, which I panned last summer is now back with a second volume, which also happens to be a second issue. The good news? They decided to commission some real photography for this one rather than relying on stock. The bad news? It still has an editorial mission along the lines of “Hey kids, let’s set up a business magazine in the old barn,” oh, and the web site still isn’t.

In the Ether, On the racks, Trend Spotting

Penny pinching

06.05.08 | Permalink | Comments Off on Penny pinching

The editors at Budget Travel are awfully proud of their just-published 10th anniversary issue. In a statement in the June issue, they congratulate themselves heartily on their forward thinking. And, a flack from the magazine sent me a free copy along with an offer to speak to one of the self-satisfied editors myself.

If Budget Travel is looking ahead, they are looking ahead to last January, and the launch of Everywhere. Like that magazine, BT is now the business end of an Online Community, which will continue to generate text and pictures for the magazine, once even the Tin Jubilee has passed.

I have a history of being cynical about community-generated content. What, one might ask, makes the freelance writers and photographers that have produced the content of magazines like BT in the past, different from members of the magical “community” that are poised to create a revolution on the page? If the only answers are “a paycheck,” and “expertise” then cynicism is the only reasonable response.

However, from what I’ve gathered, BT, unlike EW, is paying their citizen-senators (at least) somewhat decently, and the magazine will continue to underwrite travel expenses for major articles. This is all to the good, people who contribute something of value deserve value in return and this level is probably about right for this magazine. Despite the imagined glamor of travel writing, travel sections of newspapers and smaller magazines have always been partially underwritten by journalists hoping to break even on their recent vacations.

Being dubious of the motives of social late bloomers like BT, though, is not the same thing as being dubious of community. Readers, whether they are involved through on-line tools or not, is a good thing at a publication. As bigger newsstand glossies have become increasingly slick, increasingly expensive, and increasingly dependent on product placement, they have forfeited the once taken-for-granted link between readership and collective. While today one might read the New Yorker; I doubt many New Yorker readers feel like a member of a society by virtue of having a subscription, as once they surely did. Encouraging involvement through reader submissions is good, and if an online portal seems more available than a brown paper envelope and a transom that’s also fine. (Though it might be worth a try to print the editorial office address at sizes larger than 4 pt and in places more obvious than in a column of boilerplate).

But of course, when you publish, it doesn’t just matter what you do, it also matters what results are. As of now, EW is coming closer to that communal ideal than BT which seems just a bit too self-aware, still a bit too slick, and a bit too editor-controlled to really pull off the neighborhood-newspaper feel that one would guess both (at least claim to be) after. A real community organ offers a chorus of discordant voices. That beautiful cacophony still eludes both of these magazines.

Art Direction, In the Ether

Covers and Cash

06.03.08 | Permalink | Comments Off on Covers and Cash

I missed this when it originally ran but Far Out Brussel [sic] Sprout has a nice reported post on the rarefied and expensive world of national celebrity newsstand covers.


Power Vacuum

05.28.08 | Permalink | Comments Off on Power Vacuum

The name of the magazine is Empowering Women, but empowering them to do what, exactly? Read unedited press releases in the form of articles?  Lede: “Covering almost 70% of the earth, [the ocean] is full of minerals and nutrients. Wouldn’t it be great to start each day by diving into sparkling blue surf and taking in all the natural nutrients the ocean has to offer. Now with Arbonne’s SeaSource Detox Spa you can….” or maybe your prefer:  “I don’t know of another job that would allow you this kind of choice…Arbonne gives a woman a chance to live her life the way she chooses and to be more in control of her life, to set boundries on her time to be more present with her family.” Or again: “At 24, Jennifer Townsley is one of the youngest National Vice Presidents in Arbonne. The busy young mother is overwhelmed by the amazing impact Arbonne has had on her family’s life….” Or you might just admire the lovely spreads.  The image below—creams and all—appears on Arbonne’s web site—who knew it could also be such an effective editorial photo?

Mind you, the quotes above are all from separate articles, of the dozens of pieces in EW most orbit around a single cosmetic company sold through a pyramid scheme through network marketing. 

Reading Empowering Women, it would seem inconceivable that it does not share ownership with Aubonne. But no, the magazine promises to provide a 128 pp blowjob to a different marketer every issue, for what one can only assume is a princely albeit undisclosed sum. The unrelenting nature of the pitch (“Her friend switched tactics, She convinced Jennifer to go to a gathering where she promised she would meet a prominent Executive National Vice President….Jennifer met doctors, lawyers, and other people…who all believed in Aubonne”) makes this magazine close to a paper version of what one would imagine being programmed by a cult is like. Pass the Kool-Aid.

Art Direction, Magazines of Mystery


05.21.08 | Permalink | 1 Comment

Tea comes with a lot of visual associations, but from the Japanese tea ceremony to the silver tea set and tinkling of china cups, the common link is ceremony and elegance.

Little of that expected aesthetic is to be found in the current iteration of Tea: A Magazine, which uses typefaces, colors and grid erratically in its haphazard effort to honor the world’s favorite beverage. I often marvel at the magazines that focus in on single flavors: Cigar Aficionado, for example—maybe you like cigars, maybe you even love them, but do you really want to commit to receiving 1500 oversized pages about them in the mail every year? I don’t think my hot beverage of choice is worth reading about (Black Coffee: Just Drip, No Flavors Added Monthly just doesn’t seem like it it would garner any readers, but others, like Chile Pepper, which I had thought had folded is still going strong. It works as single-flavor glossy because it’s really more about how the chocolate pudding tastes with peppers, than the peppers themselves, and tea seem a topic equally lilkely to inspire content. CP looks, if not beautiful, then at least like what you’d expect it would: a menu for TGI Fridays. T:AM seems to cover tea’s various constituencies in its editorial mix, but the design is studied ugliness: goopy, clashing, pastel colors, out-of-the-box Quark Scotch rules, intersecting frames, and an excess of drop shadows and other type effects. There seems to be a smell of mothballs about the design—not Jasmine.

Sure, there are lots of glossies out there that are just out of sync with content as this one, but most of those have problems that go deeper than design. T:AM may not be editorially brilliant but it is finding a variety of stories around its narrow focus. It is a magazine you can look at and say that this could be a real honey.


Ancient Egypt

05.19.08 | Permalink | 2 Comments

Ok, it’s settled. There is no appropriate use for Papyrus.

Off the racks

NatLamp MagRomp

05.06.08 | Permalink | Comments Off on NatLamp MagRomp

Rescued from the remainder bin at Borders on L: 2006’s National Lampoon Magazine Rack, a compendium of the Humor Magazine’s satires of various publication over the years. I’ve made no secret of my fondness for magazine satire, but these leave me cold. The cover promises sophomoric humor for men, which I’m all for, but the book delivers neither, unless you consider “sophomoric” a code word for misogynistic.

Most of the inclusions are from National Lampoon’s “glory days” in the early 70s, making some of the choices quite dated. I thought that would be fun—a warped look at our industry as it was. The book might have achieved that, at least to some measure, if the volume was differently organized. Chapters are arranged by theme rather than date of original publication, blunting the historical voice of the offerings.

The biggest disappointment though is in what’s not included—the brilliant work of illustrator/writer Bruce McCall, whose pitch-perfect send-ups of publishing between 1900 and 1960 from NatLamp is found in Zany Afternoons (available used for as much as 200.00 on Amazon). My guess is he didn’t want to be included, and considering what else is here, who can blame him? Playdead seems an excuse to show naked women in submissive poses. Famine Circle tries to make starvation in Africa funny, and Negligent Mother, NatLamp’s satire of Working Mother seems so out-of-touch with the mainstream today, one marvels at the obliviousness that led to its inclusion.

Graphically, at least the earlier magazines show a attention to detail and editorial branding that later offerings lack. A cover of an Al-Jazeera TV Guide bumbles type in a way the real TV Guide would never do—Clunky boxes on the cover, artificially condensed typefaces and error laden text. Can you make fun of something if you’re obviously nowhere near as competent as the object of your ridicule? John Belushi answered that in the first National Lampoon Movie: “Don’t fuck with eagles unless you know how to fly.”



05.01.08 | Permalink | 2 Comments

 /></a></p> <p>I missed it the first time around, but Design Observer is reprieving Steven Heller’s essay on the original <a href=

I missed it the first time around, but Design Observer is reprising Steven Heller’s essay on Monocle, which includes a slide show of covers and pages from the remarkable 1960s publication.


Boing 747

04.30.08 | Permalink | Comments Off on Boing 747

The Institute for E-Readership and Counter-Factual Journalism Research at Poynter is at it again.

For those unfamiliar with their work, the Institute looks at how society, reading, and journalism might be affected under various speculative scenarios. They are probably best know for the 2002 study which showed that had Superman’s alter-ego Clark Kent had the blogging and site updating responsibilities of a modern reporter, Lex Luther would have succeeded in destroying the earth at least six; and possibly as many as 148 times between 1952 and 1978. The vagueness in the figure is due, apparently, to when one calculates that the Daily Planet would have switched to DSL from Dial-up—and the impact that would have had on “Kent’s” upload times. “I’d have liked to hit the number with more certainty. But, blowed up six times or 600, we’re all still meat” said Director Ronald Kaplanavich at the time of the study’s release.

This time, the Institute looks at, a site that has ranked in the top ten for most of the last decade, imagining how BB might have looked had it started out as a magazine rather than a web venture. The results are stunning, particularly for magazine designers, because they include pages generated with PageMonkey—a Page Maker 2.0 emulator backed up with nearly 8 million dollars worth of artificial intelligence and main frame computing power, which was used to devolve the web site’s design into the crude printed zine you see here…..

Oh, I just can’t keep this up any longer, as fun as it is—lie upon lie upon lie when—will it stop? These are, of course pages from the real Boing Boing, dating from the mid-’90s. Like many period zine/mag hybrids—publications that tottered on the line between commercialism and funky idealism, BB showcases a lot of those awful things we did back then that make our skin crawl today—type squeezed beyond recognition, and often inconsistently; ghastly text wraps, goofy display fonts (Oh I know Pignuts, er, excuse Peignot has its fans but they’re wrong) and too many screens and ghosted images (because they didn’t require a $6.00 printer’s charge for a double-burn).

On the other hand, this issue boasts the cool shirt illustration/infographic above, and an early cover drawing by Dirty Danny Hellman. It also remains the only publication to put images of Allen Ginsberg and Alfred E. Neuman on the same page.

Below: the reason I bought this issue didn’t have anything to do with the editorial portions of the magazine. The ad on the inside front cover, was a delightful stroll down the garden path which led to a new subscription or certain death. I didn’t subscribe, but between you and me, I haven’t slept well since.

The back cover sported this satire of Mondo2000, then enjoying a meteoric success before crashing and burning a few years later.

New Launches, On the racks

Buyer’s Remorse

04.24.08 | Permalink | 3 Comments

reMarriage is the magazine for “Before, During, and Happily Ever After.”

I suppose that “before, during and after” remarrying is not as broad a topic as “before, during and after the bris,” nor as weird as “before during and after the funeral,” but the cover lines, “Bride’s Dress Dilemma: Pouf or Posh?” “Today’s Mix and Match Families,” “Losing Friends in the Divorce,” and “Stepping into Teenage Angst,” do suggest a freewheeling attitude towards content that most magazines, and nearly all bridal magazines, eschew.

reM doesn’t just tell us that not all marriages work out, they demonstrate it on every page with the unhappy union of Bodoni and Avant Garde, the quarterly’s two signature fonts. While both faces were indeed iconoclasts in their day, I worry that that’s not enough to overcome the substantial generational difference. Has Ms. Garde really thought about what it will be like living with a face 170 years her senior? Will life still be good when his pairs no longer kern?

Both fonts are used in the magazine’s flag, which does not merely rely on the oil and vinegar type combo to undermine the unity of the mark, but also mixes colors, runs part of the name bottom-to-top, and interweaves two letters in the otherwise loosely tracked logo.

Inside, the colors run to the murky, the grid use runs sporadic, and the use of rules runs generous. The muddy colors I would guess, reflect the editorial attitude—a thin patina of hopefulness over the rough terrain of a cynicism richly earned as youth faded in unhappy matrimony. “It may take years” for the shouting to subside in a new marriage warns the editors on page 9. On 11, the stepmom’s “Bill of Rights” urges small kindnesses that would seem modest by Gulag standards.

The articles are not awful, though most would benefit from tighter editing, and a bit less self-promotion on the part of the writers, many of whom are clearly trying to drum up business writing for a regionally-distributed magazine. And the design shows, if not exactly flair, a small spark, on occasion, though one that is often doused by a heavy handed approach. An article on merging established households has attractive imagery combined in an engaging way with call-outs for specific decorating problems and solutions. Too bad overlapping 20pt frames overwhelm the photographs, and the headline is given a gimmicky graduated screen that adds little interest to the design, and only dubiously connects to the topic.

Other articles, though, are a hodge-podge of stock art, tiresome tropes (the Bill of Rights is surprinted on a picture of a scroll) and novelty fonts. An article on the politics of merging families never settles on a column width, and is bafflingly illustrated entirely with pictures of cardboard boxes and scraps of floorplan.

All in all, the magazine isn’t pretty, but I do intend to leave it on the coffee table for the benefit of my father in law, who once introduced me as his daughter’s first husband.

« Previous Entries
» Next Entries