Sunday, 1 August 2010

Words and pictures

Cool Tools website lists its "the best magazine articles (in English) ever". Interesting – especially to a confirmed magazine fan like myself. (Cool Tools was started by Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine.) The Guardian thought the list might be compiled with an eye out for the iPad. Funnily enough, in the current Wired magazine there is an advert promoting print magazines – which claims that magazines have been increasing in circulation alongside increases in digital device use, which I must admit, gave my heart a tiny lift.

Meanwhile, some of the Cool Tools articles I know by reputation, many are unknown to me, and some I've read: as a designer, the magazines I've kept for myself have tended to be kept for their design only. But the two – design and article – are really inseperable. Or they were – it remains to be seen how the "flat" design of the iPad etc impact on such inseperability. New ways of design will clearly come along, but even then the designs will all be for the same size and surface, and there's the possibility that, like the internet, people discover they like such digital devices primarily for information. (And on the whole, one doen't remember a single internet article for its design.)

A magazine designer (was it David Carson?) was once asked the rules of magazine design and he gave three – read the text, read the text, read the text. Whatever the final layout, it was for conveying the content of the article.

As for my favourite articles? Well, I tend to forget details (while remembering design).

I've enjoyed foresighted or timely articles in "unexpected" publications: a Spin (music magazine) article of more than 20 years ago on the impact of global warming, for example. Perhaps too much of a "scare-story", with simplified arguments, but, 20 years later, who's now to say we didn't need scaring (apart from the many a dissenting commenter when climate-change articles appear online). But back then this was the "alternative" view, and presented in a music magazine to a general audience. Or on perhaps similar lines, an Esquire article about the over-fishing of bluefin tuna (sorry, I don't remember the date or author, but it was a good 15 years ago). It began with imagining yourself into the place of a tuna – the streamlining, the fit-for-purpose freedom – as you were unexpectedly herded into capture by methods comparable to those that prehistoric man used to herd other such wild animals into possible extinction. Another worrying and foresighted article: after all, even just this week a New Yorker article reports in a book review on official denials of over-fishing into the 1990s, the current "victory" of Japan in blocking restrictions, and the very real chance that bluefin tuna could go extinct (while fish "stocks" fail and the sea is irreparably damaged).

The New Yorker, of course, regularly has excellent articles – and occasionally great ones, and is an expected listee on the Cool Tools list.

On a "lighter" note, I remember an article in the Village Voice (a paper for which I sometimes worked as a photographer in both London and New York around that time). It was a theatre review (which, again, I can't find archived online). Shocking in its language, you couldn't deny the passion with which the reviewer felt the insult he saw to theatre in the production he had witnessed. I seem to remember suggestions in passionate, well-worded langauge of the violent use of baseball bats, and possibly the enforced starving of the producer's children. Perhaps its nowhere to be seen online out of embarassment, perhaps there's no room for such language in a review, but it beats the snide, blunt, short opinions of internet comment boards. (No-one comments on this blog, but if they did, there'd be some in response to that.) Perhaps remembered for the wrong reasons.

For some 20 issues, Speak magazine came out with wonderful design, and an attempt to go its own way – and by the way by-pass the PR world of current "best" bands and the like. They had an hilarious editorial (pictured left) about the time they gave in and tried to go along with PR and feature a timely piece on Roni Size and his band. The magazine wasn't into it, the band wasn't into it, there was a fire at the photo shoot, one of the band broke a leg on a collapsed fire escape – and there was no article, let alone cover, to show for it. Again, nothing funny for the band member (as above there was nothing funny for the theatre producers) but this time there was a black humour in the way in which promotion, magazine tie-ins and the whole kit and caboodle of making an article in the mainstream worked – and how it didn't if you wanted to go your own way.

So what about the best magazine design of articles that I remember?  

Speak's layouts still stand out for me – pictured above, an article on gays who try to make their sexuality go away, which used copyright-free images of magicians.  (Poof! Now it's gone.)

"Interior and house" magazine, Nest's idiosyncratic approach, before 26 issues proved too much, was memorable and the issues are still stored under my desk to adore into the future. Pictured at the top of this post, an article on a homeless man's lodging, self-built from Coca-Cola boxes. (In a self-refering revelation of the magazine's need for advertising, the whole issue featured Coca-Cola images in a – semi-mock – attempt to interest Coca-Cola to advertise. That didn't diminish the impact of the story – Nest always featured the unimaginably wealthy next to the "aristocratic" next to the "bohemian" next to the functional next to the shanty town without one being judged a priority).

Dazed and Confused's article on moustache competitions was laid-out simply with portraitphotographs yet was an impactful look at history and age (unexpectedly) in a fashionable youth magazine. The elderly German and English competitors' comments that such competition was immeasurably preferable to some unwanted competition on the battlefield were simple and very moving.

The Village Voice's art-and-story combination (especially under Robert Newman in the 80s and early 90s) for both news and arts was excellent – with hard-hitting news stories featuring apposite illustration, like their report on a Central Park jogger's rape in 1989.

The Wired ad gives me some hope that the process will continue…

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