Summer 2001

A New York state of mind

Chris Vermaas
Typography and design

The design of The New Yorker has nearly always taken the approach that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, with a familiar layout and masthead. Does a face-lift jeopardise its relationship with its readers? Time to call in the Type Police

It began with Harold Ross. A high school drop-out born in Colorado and raised in Salt Lake City, he ended up in New York after the First World War, where he became the editor of a magazine for veterans. Later, he moved into Greenwich Village and hung out with intellectuals and artists such as the writer Dorothy Parker. It was in this environment that Ross had the idea of starting a magazine that would deal with big city life in a sophisticated and unsensational way. It would be truthful and honest, unconcerned by provincial ways of thinking; it would tell its readers what was going on in the city, discuss books of importance and publish new writing; it would also have humorous cartoons, caricatures and illustrations – in effect, making it an American version of Punch. And so The New Yorker was launched in 1925.

After Ross’s death in 1952, his right hand man William Shawn took over. In 1925 the circulation was 14,000 copies, rising to 171,000 in 1941; by the 1970s, under Shawn’s editorship, it had peaked to three quarters of a million. During that decade, the magazine had its greatest influence on the American political arena. Lengthy articles told the New York upper middle class what to think about various topics such as blacks in America and Americans in Vietnam. It published new writing by authors such as Nabokov, Roth, Updike, Malamud and Woody Allen. Shawn remained as chief editor until he was fired in 1987, at the age of 79, when Si Newhouse bought the magazine. Under Shawn’s successor, Robert Gottlieb, circulation rose again, the average age of the subscribers went down while their average income increased, a process continued by Tina Brown (who took over in 1994). Since 1998, David Remnick has been editor in chief, the fifth to date.

The New Yorker still towers above the rest, an island of taste in a sea of newsstand trash. ‘If we think something is good or interesting we place it and hope the readers will go with us,’ Shawn had declared, an approach still respected by American journalists, who in 1999 voted it a magazine of the year award. Above all, it is a magazine for people who love reading, not geared to the rushed readers of today. The articles take some time to consume, so most of us have to stretch our attention span and slow down to absorb its carefully researched articles on a wide range of topics. Reading is still the medium that involves an audience the most, whatever the gurus of new media may tell us.

After three quarters of a century, The New Yorker has demonstrated that tradition is not the same as conservatism. (Besides answering every problem with a solution, Americans have the flexibility to keep the things that perform well the way they are.) Visually, it may be a monument, but in spirit it is much younger. As a result, the magazine addresses the problem of looking ‘young’, a mistake too many companies are making in western Europe. Bankers used to be men of a certain age, slightly overweight, well dressed and radiating trustworthiness. Now they try to look cool and casual, but in the end look neither cool nor trustworthy. Driven by fear of losing market share, European companies infantilise their image and that of their products, but chasing trends does not show a sense of high self-esteem. American companies appear to have more faith in themselves: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The New Yorker did a fine job of changing over to digital setting in the late 1980s while retaining the typographic feel that makes The New Yorker look like The New Yorker. The topics written about in its articles may have changed but the typography and the layout remained the same – you have to look at the advertisements to deduce what period a specific issue is from.

Ingredients of The New Yorker look
The illustrations and cartoons.
Every issue features an illustrations on the cover. To ‘read’ such cover illustrations you need to know about what goes on in North America, the East Coast, New York and, especially, Manhattan. Without knowing that the American football player O. J. Simpson was nicknamed ‘The Juice’ (O. J. also stands for orange juice), for instance, it would have been difficult to decode the half empty (and half full) glass that appeared on the cover the week that he went on trial. That said, even if one cannot read the hidden messages, it is always a pleasure to look at the drawings. A study of the earliest covers shows that not much has changed – only the names of those involved. The backdrop is still Manhattan, and for three quarters of a century they have been drawing skyscrapers, skyscrapers and skyscrapers.

The visual mind games of the cover illustrations continue inside. As well as drawings illustrating the articles, there are little doodles breaking out of the columns and the cartoons for which The New Yorker is famed. It is my fancy that these cartoons are drawn by a tribe of funny old men who appear in their own drawings, and all live and work on the same but separate floor of a tall building somewhere in New York. Since most of these cartoons dealt with Manhattan skyscraper life, you feel they must have drawn their cartoons from life: favourite themes include businessmen behind office desk; a married couple in a rooms of that same New York apartment; a moment of New York street life – observed from the apartment window. Alternatively they dress up as thinking or even speaking animals. A favourite recent cartoon shows a man with his finger in a desk diary and a phone at his ear, asking: ‘Never? Is never good for you?’

It was only after the arrival of Tina Brown, in the 1990s, that The New Yorker started to include photographs: paper and print technology improved tremendously over the last decades of the twentieth century.

The layout. The general idea of the layout of The New Yorker was based on the proven magazine formula of horror vacui, or ‘fear of emptiness’. Open fields of unprinted paper were avoided – which makes sense, after all, in a city where real estate is so expensive. Only poetry was accorded the luxury of space. Articles could start in any column and never had big, screaming headlines; before Tina Brown they did not even have standfirsts. Both text and listings were set in three justified columns and filled the page in that horror vacui way; drop caps are used to break up the grey. The rules that separated the text from the ads were not exactly straight, suggesting that they might have been drawn by hand. These lines are a very New Yorker detail. And it is in the details where the angels and devils hide.

The text. While the overall feel of the magazine has stayed the same, there have been changes over the past 75 years, ranging from the virtually invisible to the very obvious and from the fortunate to the unfortunate. For instance, in the 1970s, The New Yorker reduced its page size. This was mostly done by trimming the margins; the width of the three-column text block remained the same, although it was shortened by seven lines. The same typeface – Caslon – was retained but in a larger point size; by condensing the characters and reducing the letter spacing, the lines could still contain the same amount of text. As well as making for easier reading, this produced more solid-looking columns that gave the pages a clearer structure. As for the quotes within the articles, a smaller point size of the same Caslon font was used. The overall feel of the magazine however remained the same.

The listings. As a typographer, I know from experience how difficult listings are. Different levels of subheads are necessary to show the hierarchy between all the sections and to give visual clarification to all the places, dates, times, titles, directors, years and starting times, as well as the descriptions of the listed events. To guide the ‘searching reader’, who is not the same as the ‘reading reader’, The New Yorker uses four fonts: Futura, Vogue, Caslon and the face used for the magazine’s title on the cover. This was designed by Rea Irvin, or based on letters drawn by him. To my knowledge, it has no name, so let us call it The New Yorker. Irvin also drew ‘Eustace Tilly’, the dandy with the high hat and a monocle in his hand who appeared on the first cover. He can still be seen at the top of the ‘Talk Of The Town’ column every week, and in various guises on the annual birthday cover.

A warning from The Type Police
One of the less satisfactory changes affected the logotype on the cover: in the early 1980s the contours of the letters were smoothed up and their edges sharpened. Why? The very same typeface – by Irvin – is also used inside, for the headlines, where it retains its original rough contours and rounded corners, which is probably the way Irvin drew it. But it was still a pleasure to see the cover of The New Yorker, which must look entirely at home in those beautifully cared-for Manhattan interiors. In that city, they know how to present themselves, even magazines of such an age. Yet in the past few years, another thing began to bother me. In 1997 I sent them a fax as follows: 

‘Dear _____. As promised, an official note from the desk of ‘The Type Police’ to ask you about that typeface used on the cover. The New Yorker is one of my favourite magazines to read and to look at. Not just for the illustrations, but also for the well taken-care-of typography. If I am right, the faces used are Vogue by, I believe, Mr Schar; something like Caslon by Mr Caslon and The New Yorker by Mr Rea Irvin. In addition to them there is a fourth face, Souvenir by Mr Benquiat. It is only used for two short lines – the date and the price – on your great covers. Why? The reader of The New Yorker will never see this typeface again in the inside. And I [and that is the Type Police] would have been fine with it if the face was a nice one, an addition to your magazine. However, right now your covers, made strong by the typography of the title and the commissioned illustrations, are bothered by these two small typographic warts. Sorry. Although it’s just a small file on our desk, the Type Police like to solve the case and is watching your magazine closely. Weekly! Thanks. Chris H. Vermaas.’

There was a reply: The New Yorker said it ‘appreciated my concern’. In fact, The New Yorker’s editorial pages use only four typefaces, which, although a limited range in comparison with other magazines, is enough to give the typography a strong character. Souvenir is the fifth – not fourth, as stated in my 1997 fax – typeface and, as previously mentioned, used only for those two small lines on the cover. After some research, it became clear to me that this ‘1970s’ face was originally drawn in 1914 by Morris Fuller Benton, an American who is one of my heroes of type design, and creator of such great typefaces as Franklin Gothic, News Gothic and Century Schoolbook. This original Souvenir had been used on the covers of The New Yorker from the start, but for the purpose of photosetting the font was entirely redrawn by Mr Benquiat in the early 1970s. The letterforms were cleaned up and the original spice disappeared, though it still had a flavour of what made his Benquiat Frisky such a great face. But his treatment gave the Souvenir another feel and it was that version that appeared on the cover in the early 1980s.

Despite my fax, there was no progress for two years, although I continued to read the magazine with the same joy. In 1999, without being asked, I sent in some typographic proposals for the date and the price, set in great typefaces all designed by fine Americans, from Muller Benton to Frere-Jones. This time there was no answer. But on the cover of the 13 March 2000 issue, Souvenir had gone, replaced by the same typeface Irvin had once drawn for the logotype. Was it the Type Police who had done this? No. The inside had been restyled as well. The magazine had given itself a sort of birthday present. The problem with this present was that the magazine, like a lady who had received too radical a face-lift, no longer looked like itself. To illustrate this point I will address the six most harmful typographic misdemeanors. 

Six counts against The New Yorker
1. The type on the cover.
I am glad that the Souvenir has gone, but using the same font for the dateline and the name of the magazine dilutes the impact of the logotype. Typographic contrast should be generated by using at least two different typefaces: this is common sense.

2. Art Deco versus Modernist. There is nothing wrong with Modernism, but applying a Modernist approach to the layout of magazine constructed along the rules of horror vacui generates new conflicts. For instance, there is now emptiness to fear in the table of contents, with its fields of white space. The magazine also occasionally runs short articles set ragged right among the normal justified columns. A similar mix of the symmetrical and the asymmetrical is seen in the heads and subheads, which are now treated in two ways: either centred or left-justified. All of which gives a feeling of doubt to the layout.

     And let us not forget that The New Yorker has its roots in Art Deco and not in Modernism. Mixing the two is like pushing the pointy tower of the Art Deco Chrysler building to one side, or moving the slanted top of CityCorp’s Modernist building to the centre. As they are, both buildings are refined pieces of their own time.

3. Any colour as long as it’s black. After the face-lift, some of the subheads and lines in the listings were highlighted in colour, blue and red, mostly. I wonder why. A good typographer can work with only one colour, black. The use of colour in grey fields, made out of the black type, creates a relationship with the colourful illustrations and advertisements. Using only black type for editorial helps to separate the components of the magazine. And that, too, is common sense.

4. Change for the sake of change. The body text of the listings was changed from Caslon to Sabon, which is now also used for quotes in the feature articles, although the text of these is still set in Caslon. So what was wrong with Caslon, which is still performing well for the features? And why have two typefaces in one column, when one, Caslon, managed it well for decades? The Vogue subheads in the listings, which used to hang out into the margins, have been pushed over to the ‘right’, Modernistic side of the flush. Now, with a boring straight left flush, it is even harder to find the listing you are looking for. Also, with its flush-left headings, this section has started to look like every other magazine on the Manhattan newsstands. In short, ‘Going On About Town’ has lost most of its typographic soul in an unnecessary clean-up. And that doesn’t make much sense to me.

5. The ad rules. A painful loss is the removal of the little shake from the rules dividing the text from the ads. Those lines were a beautiful New Yorker detail. It is hard to imagine that they could bother anyone.

6. The last details. The last typographic misdemeanor is the use of lining numerals and the imitation of small caps by reducing the height of normal capitals, which reduces the weight of the strokes as well. What The New Yorker should do is to reintroduce proper small caps and old style numerals. The columns will probably read more easily, and look better for sure. If the chosen fonts are not equipped with such basic typographic ingredients, one of the many skilled American type designers could do the necessary revisions overnight.

     Making good typography is like baking a cake: all you need is some basic ingredients and a recipe. Get a few fonts with some extra typographic elements – lines, frames etc. – and by carefully following the instructions the result will be really appetising. When a magazine has its visual roots in Art Deco, you should stay away from recipes that say: ‘form follows function’, ‘ornament is crime’ and ‘less is more’. The New Yorker is in danger of losing its distinctive flavour. A magazine that puts so much emphasis on reading needs to respect the way their readers digest the typography and take in the content: two fragile processes that take place (simultaneously) in the minds of the readers, rather than on the printed page.

Familiarity and contempt
Reading is a complex process, which is not yet completely understood. When reading our brain works on two levels at once. It is like being able to think while walking up stairs. Once we have ‘captured’ the rhythm of the stair, the repetitive movements of our feet on the steps induce a thinking mood. Then our thinking goes really well. The same thing happens when our eyes ‘walk’ over lines of text, slowly sinking into the columns. Two different memories in different parts of the brain are at work simultaneously. What tells us how to ‘walk’ the typography is our memory of procedures. This is where we store our knowledge of habits and other routines. And it is this that tells us how and when to use familiar things, such as stairs and typography. At the very same time, another part of the brain is consulting the memory of our factual knowledge. Here, new facts are continuously compared with old ones, old knowledge is altered, and new facts stored. While we read the characters – that is, the typography– and take in what is being said – that is, the written content – each memory works upon the other. For this reason, typography that is constructed according to measurements that are familiar to the reader will enable greater concentration on the exchange of knowledge. That is why it is not smart for a magazine to change the typography that its readers are comfortable with.

Although a magazine can simply be looked at by its readers, the magazine cannot return the gaze: putting out a magazine comes close to sending regular letters to people who almost never answer them. Both parties do know each other very well, and small changes will be forgiven, just as a good friend will be forgiven a weird haircut – it simply will grow out. If, however, one side is changing a lot, the other may start to re-evaluate the relationship, and this goes for magazine readers, too. The readers of The New Yorker are sensitive ones. Some overseas subscribers still mourn the brown paper wrapper in which their copies used to arrive. That was replaced by a transparent plastic wrapper – more than fifteen years ago.

Of course magazines should not look the same way forever and experiments have to happen, but changing the appearance frequently can be seen as a sign of insecurity. (And insecurity is defined in psychology as not being able to match with your own idea of a perfect self-image.) Brands with a great history, such as The New Yorker, should have more confidence, and be less vulnerable to suggestions from the marketing department. For so long, The New Yorker managed to block such signs of insecurity by refusing to make unnecessary changes to its design; visually it was frozen in time, but its talented writers wrote on. For this reason, I remain a subscriber, because their articles are what make me read the magazine – the kind of content that demonstrates there are more important things than typography. But still … maybe The New Yorker can get back into shape with its next birthday?

Chris Vermass graphic designer, typographer and educator, Amsterdam

First published in Eye no.40 vol. 10 2001

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.


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