Whether standing in line for checkout at a supermarket, sitting in a local coffee shop, or browsing in a modern bookstore, it’s not unusual to see magazines with $15, $20, even $25 price tags. Deluxe paper, niche topics, beautiful design; at a time when there are plenty of articles about the decline of newsprint sales, where on earth did these elegant creations come from?
They’re known to the world as independent magazines, as if this emphasizes their maverick attractions. There are the lifestyle giants that fall into this category, like Kinfolk, the magazine about slow-living that’s cultivated a huge audience of alternative aspirationalists, and Monocle, the high-end bible for business entrepreneurs and jetsetters. You might know Cherry Bomb, a magazine founded by two restaurateurs in Brooklyn that features interviews with women chefs, or Gather Journal, the digest for the organic food movement that comes complete with rustic art direction. (We’ll even give our own Ninety Nine U magazine a plug here.) Designers inevitably love these lovingly-designed magazines: they collect them, they read them, they study them. Some even make them.
The idea that print is dead has been prevalent for over a decade, digital warriors saying print is dead and buried whilst print devotees proclaiming with reverence that its fighting back. Digital vs. Print: the two pitted against in a bloody battle to the death. Which will win? The presence of the defiant, glorious spines of Cherry Bomb, Gather, and more, along with their vibrant online community of followers tells a whole different story though, as does a recent report showing that the number of magazines in the U.S has stayed consistent since 2008, varying from around 7,100 to 7,300 over the years.
The truth it, there’s no real battle. Print is in a co-dependent, productive relationship with digital, and the function, meaning, and use of a magazine is simply evolving as times and habits change. It’s no surprise that the Internet does fast, cheap disposable content and vital, instant news much better than print does, which is why newspapers have had to adapt: its true a certain kind of print is dying, but digital media has created a space for more interesting, thoughtful, and innovatively-designed printed material.
The central change is a liberating one. Print is no longer the business model: print is the heart, the core expression, of an idea. And it’s this shift that has allowed graphic design to flourish. The idea given visual presence; the idea as an object.
The turn of the century is always a moment given to apocalyptic predictions. For print in the 2000s, several things began happening all at once to create the kind of landscape where people could easily—and with style—self-publish.
Large publishers became distracted and obsessed by the developing power of digital—there were countless conferences about how the iPad would change publishing, and titles like Wired and the Guardian poured huge amounts of cash into digital projects. Meanwhile technology gave way to better versions of InDesign and desktop equipment steadily democratized, making it a lot more accessible for people to experiment creatively with page layout in their own homes, in coffee shops, in libraries, wherever they were.
In 2009, a small, idealistic Glasgow-based printing company, The Newspaper Club, helped shift the landscape even more. Inspired by the original power and presence of the newspaper, the small company would allow all types of clients—from students and photographers to large tech companies—to self-publish by uploading their designs online. In the same year, Kickstarter partially solved problems of funding. Print self-publishing flourished because, some might say ironically, of the Internet.
For graphic designers with passion for editorial, the change in technology was a revelation. At mainstream magazines things like the quality of paper often gets cut in order to keep costs down and a lot of design decisions are driven by marketing and profit requirements— a cover’s design often determined to be what spurs mass market sales. When creating their own magazines, people could do something different, outside of market place constraints. And because of low print runs, they were able to experiment. They could do more with die cuts, they could select higher quality paper if they wanted to.
This freedom and potential was especially revealed to others when they saw the success of a small group of film enthusiasts in 2005 in the UK. While sipping beers in London pubs after work at their jobs for commercial publishers, the group dreamed up the idea of a different, cooler kind of film magazine from the uninspiring commercial glossies around them, one that would reflect the independent cinema they loved. They called it Little White Lies, which is now a film buff’s favorite.
“Film magazines at the time were dominated by clouds of cover lines. We felt like these were a cheap marketing knee-jerk response that most magazines on the shelf were blindly perpetuating, and didn’t seem to be questioning,” says the founding art director of the title, Paul Willoughby. Today, he works with the Little White Lies founding editor Danny Miller at their Human After All design agency; after they first published Little White Lies and it gained attention, they then went on to publish a magazine for Google and started up another magazine, this time about subcultures, called Huck.
“With Little White Lies, we aimed to make a magazine with a very pure visual approach, eschewing the design conventions that were steering magazine culture towards a homogenous mass.”
Illustration was their prime differentiator; a signature strength, and one ripe for a renaissance in editorial design since it had died away during the arrival of Photoshop compositions. Presenting illustrated portraits on each cover with little or no cover lines, and illustrating the magazine’s interior in its entirety, Little White Lies catered for intelligent, curious readers, and their appetite not just for intelligent film writing but for fresh perspectives on design. On the other side of the globe in San Franscisco in 2003, a similar tactic had been taken by best-selling author Dave Eggers for his literary magazine The Believer: each cover of the magazine beautifully illustrated by notorious comic artist Charles Burns.
Both magazines were probably aware of each other online, drawing confidence from the other, as several blogs had sprung up showcasing the work of innovative editorial designers. One such blog is magCulture, founded by self-proclaimed magazine enthusiast Jeremy Leslie, a graphic designer who has art directed numerous titles including Time Out and the very design conscious 1980s style bible Blitz. The blog loves print, but celebrates it using the Internet, seeing it not as a threat but a way of transmitting forward thinking enthusiasm.
“The networking of the Internet allows people who are making magazines in different countries to realize what other people are doing, to get inspired and see how they can do it,” says Leslie. “People say there’s now an independent magazine renaissance, but really, there have always been people making independent magazines. In the 60s, you had the alternative press, there was the avant-garde in the 70s, fashion mags in the 90s. The difference is today magazine makers can see one another around the globe.” A few lightening rod shops then stock these publications—Do You Read Me!? in Berlin, PRINtEXT in Indianapolis for example—and in London, to help distribute these magazines, a delivery service called Stack established in 2009 to sends subscribers a different indie every month.
mono.kultur, the interview magazine taking on one person at a time was established in 2005 in Berlin; in London, the first issue of Monocle, for the stylish world-traveller, in 2007; Fantastic Man, the ground-breaking men’s style tome, appeared in Amsterdam in 2008; Apartamento, for those with eccentric interior design tastes, in the same year from Barcelona; for stylish women carrying great books as well as solid purses, The Gentlewoman, from London in 2010; and then Kinfolk, for the aspirational creative, from Portland in 2011.
With each new magazine, a design and style emerged to react to and energize its reader: design directly expressing the identity of the person carrying it.
I contributed to the magCulture blog for two years between 2015 – 2017, and during that time, I’d receive around three or four new magazines each week. New titles crop up all time, some good, some great, some bad, and some wonderfully peculiar. When tracing the origins of these titles, it often is apparent that the idea for an independent magazine first appears online: people develop their opinions and voices writing blogs and sharing ideas on social media, they connect with like-minded individuals, and the next step from there is to create something permanent. To give visual shape to beliefs, opinions, and preferences through graphic design. An identity. There’s something defining about making a magazine: This is who we are. This is what we look like.
The ones I find the most exciting are by those who feel underrepresented in the mainstream; makers create their own space through self-publishing, an act of legitimization where design subverts the media norm. From New York, there’s Banana magazine about Asian-American creatives with a mission to obliterate stereotypes: its design is a lively, energetic assortment of stimulating cross-cultural references. From London, there’s Niijournal, a fashion magazine exploring issues of diversity in the British fashion community, showcasing shoots only by and with people of color; its title pages are the color of various hues of black and brown. There’s the fiery and fantastic Krass Journal from Adelaide in Australia; a third wave feminist title about queer theory and gender politics. Its active design breaks away from feminine stereotype; its typography jarring and loud as if demanding for people to pay attention.
In 2013, Riposte appeared in London, an alternative to mainstream women’s magazines fronted by a design curator Danielle Pender and creative director, Shaz Madani. Its name is a blatant proclamation that they are a riposte to mundane mainstream content shackling women with unattainable beauty standards. Instead, Riposte features strong, intelligent role-models with plenty to say. With a brave, all-type cover featuring the names of the women interviewed in the pages, the first issue visually expressed its aim: This magazine is about more than the way women look. This is about who they are. Their minds, their words. Their energy.
“The typographic cover was a way of stripping away the over styling and false glamour, to try and shift the focus back on to the women, their achievements and what they have to say,” says Madani. The design decision defied the conventional wisdom that all-type covers are newsstand disasters, and that year, the cover secured Riposte a nomination for the Design Museum’s Design of the Year Award in the UK, and it won them gold at the European Design Awards too.
“Now that we are a bit more established with our own voice, we’ve started to introduce photographic covers as we as the type ones,” adds Madani. “With this we aim to change the way women are perceived. As an indie publisher we can push and challenge what more traditional titles are not able or willing to do. On our last cover, we featured black activist and cancer survivor Ericka Hart with her post-double-mastectomy, post-reconstruction breasts gracing our cover.”
Design can perfectly express what magazine makers most believe in.
That’s not only for individuals creating initially self-funded, passion driven projects alongside their day jobs. Online media platforms and companies have embraced the creative potential of a magazine as a way of articulating core values. The traditional media enlivens parts of their business that other solutions can’t reach. Airbnb, Google, and Net-a-Porter, and other Internet regulars have made them. A magazine is a character: it can purely represent the voice style, tone, and look – the innate personality – of its makers.
The Vice magazine model especially articulates why print publications can be central to a brand: the publication that started the empire still exists, it anchors the world wide media giant, it defines and maintains their irreverent voice, even though money comes from partnerships, events, and TV channels. The media giants have also taken heed of independents and their flair for design as enlivening the meaning of a magazine: memorably in 2015 for example, The New York Times Magazine brought in Matt Willey as art director, who has his roots in the independent magazine community where he launched men’s mag Port and guide for the modern adventurer, Avaunt.
It’s safe to say that the idea that “print is dead” is dead. Print was never really going to go away in the first place, it’s simply evolving. If there ever was a threat to the future of magazines, graphic design saved the day; freed by the internet to not have to bother with certain kinds of content, designers can concentrate on new ways of producing and presenting the page and the image. They can create publications that complement the Internet, that emerge from it, and that feed back into it. In a new world magazines mean something different to what they once did, but they are as necessary as ever, as lovely objects, statements of intent, emblems of defiance, and personal and collective manifestos.