Summer 2000

Visual journalism: magazines and technology

John O’Reilly
Overview

New technology has transformed the medium of magazines, and social diversity and fragmentation mean that a magazine’s appeal rarely crosses taste and lifestyle boundaries. So what is actually being sold in the stuff that surrounds the advertisements?

Mastheads may change, but the contents pages of magazine history have staple features. There is the development of the 35mm camera – an advance that led to Life magazine. There are the celebrity gossip magazines of the 1950s that would provide the format for Hello! magazine, but whose roots lie in the Hollywood scandal sheets eulogised by James Ellroy in his novel L.A. Confidential. And there is the 1962 birth of The Sunday Times Magazine, when the newspaper supplement became a means of generating colour advertising revenue.

There is a defining moment in the history of magazines tucked away in the coda to a book of essays by Roland Barthes. ‘Myth Today’ was the elegant mannequin on which he fashioned his analysis of ‘culture’ in Mythologies (1957): ‘I am at the barber’s, and a copy of Paris-Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolor.’ A haircut launches modern sociology, and Barthes fillets the cover image with the grace of a waiter delivering the plat-du-jour. The myth being sold is France’s self-image. That it is a great Empire whose sons of whatever colour serve it gladly and ‘there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors.

On the surface little has changed. The ‘barber’ has become the ‘hairdresser’s’. And now you would read Vogue, Red, Arena, Stuff. But dig a little, or sift as Barthes would have done and you can recognise the changes. The gym is the new barber’s. Looking good in Y2K demands a personal trainer, and rather than perusing a selection of magazines you jog to MTV, CNBC or CNN.

Yet there is no contemporary equivalent of Paris-Match because magazines are no longer iconic. Barthes was lucky to have his own ‘Newton’s apple’ in this metropolitan, fashionable journal, the official organ of mid-century, imperial Paris chic. No other magazine could have guaranteed the authority, hauteur and the worldliness of his analysis. Is there an equivalent magazine which a contemporary writer might choose to hang her theory on? Elle? OK!? Wallpaper*? Talk? And the cover? The only contemporary editor who would choose to put an anonymous soldier on the cover of a magazine is somebody who is looking for a new job.

A quiet revolution
Though desktop publishing made a huge impact on the print medium in the late 1980s, the pace of technological advance in the 1990s has transformed the medium of the magazine at every level – from design, to staffing, to distribution, to printing, to subject matter to colour repro. At its most basic the whole means of magazine production has quietly but dramatically changed.

Barthes’ Paris-Match example belongs to postwar Europe when images were rationed, and when a magazine, by simply putting something on its cover, would invest that image with charisma and magic.

It is not that we have necessarily moved on from a Golden Age of magazines (though there is a case to made for that). It is that new technology has completely transformed the medium. There can be no more Paris-Match because magazines cannot carry the semiotic power they formerly had, and they have been replaced as bearers of symbolic messages by fashion labels or trainer styles. Social diversity and fragmentation means that a magazine’s appeal rarely crosses taste or lifestyle boundaries.

For example, as a man I have never had so many magazines directly aimed at me – Arena, Esquire, GQ, Loaded, Maxim, FHM. But none of these magazines mean anything beyond their particular demographic slice. It is partly due to the fact that new technology has made it simpler and cheaper to put a magazine out that companies such as EMAP, IPC and John Brown can target magazines at particular groups and interests. You’re an angler who likes dressing in women’s clothes? Try Fishing Frocks. In short, the 1990s has seen the magazine enter the age of narrowcasting.

Mark Porter, who is the head of design at The Guardian, identifies the impact that new technology has had on magazine industry in the 1990s: ‘It has made it much cheaper to make sophisticated-looking magazines. Before the Macintosh came in the early 1980s, the only magazines that could afford to have sophisticated design were produced by big publishers with big art departments and a lot of investment in the production side of things. Whereas nowadays it is possible to have a magazine published by someone in their front room. You can see it in the big publishers like EMAP, they have got hundreds and hundreds of little sports magazines done with the kind of sophistication which even fifteen years ago would have seemed incredible. It also means that people have much more opportunity to launch publications to take on the big publishers.’

Porter’s CV is a model for an emerging generation of designers. His degree was in foreign languages and his first job was selling advertising for a wine magazine. Though he would later work with Michael Lackersteen at Redwood Publishing and Tibor Kalman at Colors, Porter had no formal training. Current magazines such as Mute and P.U.R.E were initially designed by people with little or no background in graphic design or magazine layout.

User-friendly new technology means that an increasing number of magazines are being designed by people who have no historical baggage. Their memory of ‘graphic design’ is a virtual one provided by the hard- and software of their computer. In this way, conventional design rules are not actively broken as they may have been in titles such as Raygun. They are simply passed over in a magazine like P.U.R.E which stirs a cocktail of unorthodox fonts into its design mix. And, what is more, if people have no formal qualifications, no official stamp, the obvious question to ask is how do you identify a graphic designer? A Helvetica haircut?

There are of course other consequences to design being driven by technology. As Mark Porter argues: ‘To do a successful piece of editorial design you have to have the editorial priorities in your mind. I’m a great admirer of what Tom Wolsey did for Town and Mark Boxer’s Sunday Times Magazine in the 1960s. Production was so constrained that 95 per cent of the energy had to go into thinking about the pictures. The actual design tricks were the very last things that you did.

‘The Macintosh enabled us to do so much, to indulge ourselves in so many tricksy things that there’s always a temptation to do everything it allows you to do. I think that led to a lot of work which is self-indulgent. To me the significant thing is always making people want to read the story and making it readable once they start. Doing everything the computer allows you to do can actually come between the content and the reader.’

Porter raises an issue that has shadowed design since the early 1990s. Has new technology encouraged ill-disciplined, indulgent design that has obstructed communication? But what appears like an obviously direct question is built on some deeply loaded assumptions concerning our relationship to technology. Coming at it from a different direction, perhaps technology trains people’s perception? Maybe it is the case that each technology creates its own aesthetic – one that we get used to – and what seems like an indulgence is in fact the refinition of a new visual environment.

To some extent Porter agrees: ‘Of course magazines are only part of an enormous media soup these days. People are getting a lot of information from TV and the internet. It’s inevitable that the way that print is presented has to respond to other things that are going on. While I admire a lot of the work that was done in the 1960s (and my kind of approach to magazine design is a lot like that), I wouldn’t suggest that we should be in some kind of time warp.

‘But it seems to me that if you have something important to say, there are a few basic tools that we have to do those things. To get too hung up on typography – which a lot of designers do – is a fundamental mistake. Typography is generally playing a secondary role to the pictures in terms of seducing someone into reading a story or explaining what is going on in the story.’

The story of the 1990s, From A to B
From a British perspective at least, the story of 1990s magazine design goes from Accessories to Blokes. In between, magazines such as Wired appeared as cultural navigators for the new technology on which these magazines were built. The content and impact of the early 1990s ‘ladmag’ phenomenon have been dealt with at length (see ‘Mags Out For The Lads’, Eye no. 24 vol. 6). But from a graphic perspective, the most common remark about Loaded was that it looked ‘busy’. From text-heavy covers to the lists and chart-based features (The ‘World Cup Of Crisps’ for example) Loaded was as busy and boisterous as its readers – out of college and making money, spending it and ‘necking’ pills and pils.

Loaded’s dark twin was another 1990s launch – Dazed & Confused. Both magazines were a consequence of new DTP technology and the technology of ecstasy. If the former revived the New Journalism of the 1960s (and the childhood fantasies of its readers), Dazed & Confused represented ‘post-e’ journalism. Friday night transcendence, the consciousness of PR, and post-depression cashflow merged into an advertorial for product, whether that was art, fashion or music. Aside from the inventive eccentricity of (its founder) Rankin’s photography, Dazed & Confused was praised for the innovation of its inverted back cover, replacing ads with photos of new bands – in effect giving its readers two covers for the price of one. Inside the back cover was a feature on the band. The costs of the glossy back cover, through an arrangement that readers might not have been aware of, was paid for by record companies.

One of the consequences of the new DTP technology was fewer full-time staff and more freelancers chasing the same stories. Just as Hollywood PRs could choose favourable publications for ‘exclusives’, British PRs had a wider pool of freelancers and magazines through which to place their stories. And this is what gives a magazine like the Canadian Adbusters a kind of refreshing innocence. The problem is not the values being sold and the clichés of advertising images. Increasingly the issue is concerned with what is being sold in the stuff surrounding the adverts.

One magazine that perhaps unconsciously picked up on this aspect of commercial magazine publishing and made a ( very profitable) virtue of it, was Wallpaper*. The asterisk refers you to a footnote under the title – ‘*the stuff that surrounds you’. Launched in 1996, Wallpaper* has its critics. To some it marked the moment where ‘good taste’ became inflated, where the ‘just-so’ ballooned upwards and mutated into an asterisk. Wallpaper* didn’t disguise the fact that it was simply a sophisticated consumer magazine, a Which? magazine for the emerging twentysomething Prada-wearing info-class with plenty of disposable income. Perhaps, as Emily King suggested (see ‘Here, there and nowhere’ in Eye no. 34 vol. 9), Wallpaper* was an example of Modernism without any of the ideological content. But it is important to remember the cultural moment at which Wallpaper* was launched.

At the height of the ideology of the Bloke and Blokette, of Euro 96, of British TV’s Fantasy Football and the Girlie Show, Wallpaper* offered an alternative to the ersatz working-class taste of the New Lad. Just as Loaded at its best unlocked a repressed history of Carry On films and saucy postcard humour (‘Ooer Missus!’), so Wallpaper* gave permission to those who actually enjoyed design. And because its design is so tasteful, and ultimately fussy, if you scratch the surface of Wallpaper* you will reveal a highly unique and utterly contemporary kind of camp. The fashion shoots transform the models into Duane Hanson dummies. And the photo-sets of products reflect the standardisation and seriality of Modernist production, tuning expensive luxury items into generic objects, extravagant goods into objects of utility. Equally significantly, Wallpaper* made design popular in a country whose ruling establishment is resolutely ‘bookist.’ From The Spectator to Prospect, the in-house magazines of the British powers that be are built on the values of the literary.

But in any case, Wallpaper*’s humour was lost in the emerging cultural trend into which it found itself – middlebrow Modernism. As Thomas Hilland (now with design practice Mother), who worked on German Vogue, Conde Nast Traveller and Colors argues: ‘There’s a whole design philosophy that’s kind of tired. It’s like a package-holiday of design. McDonald’s for trendspotters. Like it became fashionable to follow football, but when you were growing up these people were laughing at football fans. Design has become something similar.’ While scientists were busy working on Dolly the Sheep designers were busy creating their own clones.

This fashion had economic and political roots. By the mid-1990s Labour had become New Labour, and its upgraded ideology made enterprise culture, and work itself, a socially sanctioned good. The resulting design culture reflected the rebirth of a Protestant work ethic. The middlebrow Modernism (Protestantism is the middlebrow religion) of designer bars, restaurants and clubs suggested that spending money and having fun was fine as long as it was done in stripped-down puritanical environments. It was as if the chaos of the IT revolution and the entrepreneurial frenzy of those engaged in it were soothed by the uncluttered structures and functional spaces.

The post-Web Magazine
Launched in the early 1990s Wired became the bible of the new technology culture. Its West-Coast dayglo optimism was reflected in the fluorescent and metallic specials, and though its layered design mirrored the expectations of the Web, its gaudy inks echoed the neon culture of Las Vegas. McLuhan may have been nominated their ‘patron saint’, but the Wired designers had some sense that the new IT economy had created a business world where winners were willing to gamble their savings on a throw of the dice in pursuit of the jackpot. This culture was peculiarly American, and possibly one reason why the UK version of Wired didn’t work. The pragmatic British may have had no time for the expansive theories of West Coast capitalism, but its lack of appeal was also a question of design: Wired’s look was too emotional for the tastes of the audience it wanted to appeal to.

By the middle of the decade the UK had a native technology publication – Mute. Launched in 1994, Mute’s budget hardly matched the size of its pink eight-paged broadsheet. Though Simon Worthington was instrumental in setting out the design features of the magazine, his background was Fine Art and he had no experience of graphic design. Worthington chose the format because ‘historically the newspaper was from another information revolution. The era of print. In 1997 Mute became a magazine partly because we used to print with the Financial Times and the FT closed their own press. They gave us a very reasonable rate, and let us use their downtime.’ So was he tempted to imitate the layered look of Web pages? ‘We decided to reject that and go in the other direction. It was out of the kind of politics we were encountering, not necessarily the politics that we put forward. If you think back to the time when we started, you had the David Carson typography which had been co-opted by Bank Of America. Those kind of things were being used by Wired. I think also we didn’t want to be boyish and techno.’

Mute’s aesthetic does display traces of the Web. The pixellated type of the headlines and the emails that flow directly into boxes all lend the page a kind of immediacy derived from reducing the processes involved. And the boxing of the headlines have the look of a frame-set. But the current designer Damian Jaques says that the new-look Mute (now partly funded by the Arts Council of England) isn’t really inspired from websites. ‘The things that informed it were certain ideas I have about German magazines. A kind of simplicity of approach, a slightly brutal approach which is a crossover between print and particularly Web-based graphics. You have just got to be pretty damn simple about things to make things work. You can see it as a kind of framing, but it’s not why I’m doing it. I have to be clear about that. But there are resonances there and I think because of the nature of the material we are dealing with it is an honest resonance.’ Mute’s brutality comes from intensifying functionalism: it is the rusty scaffolding behind middlebrow Modernism – Dresden rather than Geneva.

Which is one route out of the current biosphere of designer clones. Mute’s approach is not too dissimilar from the redesigned Sleazenation. The fluorescent colours in a British context belong to the era of punk. There’s a rawness to the colour as if it’s straight out of the tube. The first cover of its redesign has bright yellow lettering on a magenta cover with the phrase ‘This is a Style Magazine’ echoing PIL’s Album (also released as Cassette). Inside, Blackletter script headlines spill over on to the Bell Gothic straplines. A feature on Lemmy from Motorhead is an excuse to place mini-photos of Lemmy throughout the magazine.

Unlike most style magazines which are resolutely po-faced, scared of adopting the wrong attitude, the new Sleazenation has fun. Like the excellent Adrenalin, which markets itself as a ‘surf>>skate>>snow>>soul’ magazine. It mixes illustrated fashion spreads with cropped typography running down the side or on the top of the page. Its spreads are clean and liquid rather than clean and monumental. Its contents page becomes part of the cover of an image of a courier bag, and the words of each article title are run together, as the verbal tries to catch up with the speed of the surfer. And throughout there’s the dynamic photography of the skater, snowboarders and surfers. Very Beach Culture. Which brings us inevitably, to David Carson.

Coffee-table anarchy
When I began this piece, doing the interviews, Raygun was a reference point for a particular use of new magazine technology. In my mind’s eye I remembered it as the Platonic idea of graphic design gone wrong, the zenith of self-indulgence. Raygun was often regarded (and attacked) as crazy golf for graphic designers, the A Clockwork Orange of magazine layout where content gets beaten and kicked to death with stunning choreography. It was ugly, coffee-table anarchy. But I looked at a collection, Raygun: Out of Control, and its energy was infectious.

Raygun’s design, by Carson, Chris Ashworth and others, appears to have had no lasting impact on magazine art direction. If the individual components were ugly, the ugly repeated becomes beautiful. The fact that the typography and design danced off the page meant that the style would find a home in motion picture graphics in the title sequences of films such as Seven. But it is the paradoxical mix of liquidity, and the way design has almost been fused by technology that makes Raygun seem so contemporary.

There has always been the belief that media innovations and technology bring us closer to reality, whether it was the photograph, or the 24-hour news of satellite television. The idea is that new technology = greater transparency = clearer communication. But what if, as Marshall McLuhan argued, technology is an evolutionary extension of the central nervous system. In this instance, new technology brings a greater sensitivity to the environment, bringing us more noise and interference. Raygun was an evolutionary moment in magazine design that was left behind by the print medium, and only explored elsewhere.

And that is why Raygun is closer to the contemporary cinema of The Blair Witch Project with its handheld DVD. Like Raygun which was criticised for its illegibility, much of Blair Witch was so murky it was unwatchable. Another example is the cinema of Dogme 95 with its minimal directorial intervention signalling honesty and intuition. The Idiots is the Scandanavian negative of Wallpaper*, a kind of anti-design design. Which is the philosophy of new magazines such as Whatever and Tank.

Tank processes information in a different way because new technology does not signal the end of magazines as such, just of certain types of magazines. Masoud Golsorkhi, Tank’s joint editor, argues: ‘We don’t do any kind of trickery with layout or design. With exciting graphics that I see, like i-D five years ago, I loved it at the time. But within three months you are really sick to death of it. It fights against you, it’s an aggressive thing. The look of Tank is to have an undesigned approach, as we have a non-vision in terms of editorial policy. An undesigned design. The future of magazines will be less about disseminating information because information is available everywhere. The function of magazines will be to function as a kind of household object, as a collectible, adorable, totemic object.’

This concept of eliminating editorial control is increasingly the aesthetic response to the availability of new cheap technology. The principle of Dogme 95 and magazines such as Tank are not so much out of control as letting the technology take control to see where it leads them. Paradoxically, this lack of individual intervention is a more creative response to the media clones on the magazine shelves that have used evermore elaborate DTP technology to make themselves more like each other. It’s the clean design – not of the Modern but of the mortuary.

Which brings us back to Barthes. While ‘Myth Today’ decoded the message of the Paris-Match magazine cover, Barthes also famously questioned the notion of the auteur when he wrote that ‘the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.’ Now such an idea appears at best slightly fantastic and as ideologically loaded as the conventions it was attacking. But applied elsewhere it makes more sense. New technology has encouraged the most interesting magazines to use this principle in their design – the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the designer.

John O’Reilly, writer, London

First published in Eye no. 36 vol. 4 1994

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, back issues and single copies of the latest issue.


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