Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Anatomy of a Magazine

An admission. I subscribe to a lot of magazines, but if you put a gun to my head and said, "Pick only one" I would likely say New York. It's the perfect blend of celebrity gossip, politics, fashion, food reviews, and thoughtful feature articles on urban life. It's like several magazines rolled up into one, compact weekly fix. But lately, things have changed. New York has undergone minor plastic surgery on its interior design. It's not a full face lift, nothing too drastic, but it's enough of a procedure to have altered the reading experience for me.

Magazines serve different purposes. There are some you pick up knowing it's going to be an experience. Take Cabinet. It's a quarterly publication filled with wonderfully off-the-wall speculation, research, and art. It takes focus to read an issue. It's chewy.

New York
is more like a cold beer. It's refreshing and you know what to expect. It's got a certain formula to its content. The front-of-book departments, like Intelligencer and Party Lines, flow into longer form articles, which are followed by back-of-book departments like food and art reviews, The Look Book, and the wonderful Approval Matrix. A good magazine functions a bit like a sitcom: you know the conceit, you know it will follow a certain rhythm and pattern and that's part of the beauty—you don't have to think too much about the construct, you can simply enjoy the contents.

So the first thing I noticed was a change to the Intelligencer department. Nothing too bad—it seems they are plumping up these shorter, newsy pieces and giving over more real estate to this department. But there are other design changes that are annoying. Several of the layouts in a recent issue ran the double spread on vertical and some features included inverted headlines and images, which meant that you had to turn the magazine around to read them. This was usually employed in the magazine for the Look Book department, but now its metastasizing to other layouts. The Look Book, in the meantime, has shrunk down to a quarter of a page and is included in a riotous and chock full spread of all things shopping and culture. It's too much on one page.

The latest Look Book image from New York magazine.

There is also this annoying gossip reader along the margins of one of the busier layouts. It runs along the outer edge of the magazine upside down, requiring you to literally turn the magazine 360 degrees to read its minuscule red type. It's like they tried to shoehorn the moving scroll of the Bloomberg reader onto the printed page. The result is that the wonderful cadence of this publication is gone. Instead of a steady rhythm of articles and concise design, I'm forced to reevaluate every page, to turn the magazine this way and that, to squint at text. It's jarring. It's fussy. It's very un-New York magazine-esque. So dear art department: Quit over designing. Thank you.

(And if you're as obsessed with magazines as I am, sign up for my magazine class this spring at Johns Hopkins. Details are located on the sidebar of this blog.)