Paul Pensom on the curious power of the magazine
I’ve been involved in the creation of magazines for twenty years now, and was a reader of them for at least fifteen before that. Look-In and Dr Who Weekly were kept aside for me behind the newsagent’s counter, and visits to my grandparents’ house were always enlivened by the pile of Reader’s Digest back issues by the side of the bed.
What particularly appealed to me about my favourite publications was the feeling of being involved in an ongoing conversation. To familiarise myself with a magazine was like making a new friend. I got to know their peculiarities, I enjoyed their humour, and perhaps turned a blind eye to their shortcomings for the sake of amity.
I could talk to them too; I wrote to the ‘Letters Pages’, and next month, if I was lucky, there would be my message — sometimes appended with a reply, signed by the enigmatic ‘Ed.’.
“I soon came to realise a good magazine and its readership are in fact one and the same; the chorus who contribute to a magazine’s editorial voice are usually drawn from the ranks of its admiring readers. Seen in this light, the magazine is a self-perpetuating organism. Given sustenance through subscriptions and advertising, the good magazine will regulate itself.”
As I grew up my choice of magazines changed, but what I wanted from them didn’t. If anything, my need for comradeship grew stronger. The Face and i–D were trusted familiars, introducing me to new sights, sounds and sensations, and encompassing me within a wider circle of associates, scattered far across the globe.
Colors, launched in 1991, was perhaps the first publication to fully exploit this idea of the magazine as fulcrum of a global community. It was billed as a magazine ‘about the rest of the world’, and in exuberant infographics, art director Tibor Kalman anticipated the forthcoming online revolution, posing questions such as ‘What are you doing right now?’ to a host of international respondents.
Shortly after the launch of COLORS I began working in magazines myself. I remember the excitement during my first months at i–D, seeing the treasured, oft-consulted pages I knew so well taking shape on the pasteboards and screens before me. I soon came to realise a good magazine and its readership are in fact one and the same; the chorus who contribute to a magazine’s editorial voice are usually drawn from the ranks of its admiring readers. Seen in this light, the magazine is a self-perpetuating organism. Given sustenance through subscriptions and advertising, the good magazine will regulate itself.
Things have changed immensely in the twenty years since then. It’s becoming increasingly hard to fund magazines using traditional sources, and even the smallest publication is expected to have many limbs, as octopus-like, it reaches across tablets, smartphones and monitors.
This attenuated reach affects the very role of the magazine too. Some authority has been sacrificed on the egalitarian altar of the internet, but the best publications should still be both the orchestrator and moderator of the conversations they stimulate.
Whenever I become involved with a magazine, whether it be a redesign, a consultancy or a launch, I always try to put myself in the position of the reader; to see it from the outside in, if you like.
This may sound trite, but it’s surprisingly easy to lose sight of why we make magazines in the first place. If you can recapture the spirit of the enthusiastic young reader you once were, you’ll find it informs the decisions you make now. How do I scan a page? How clear is the architecture and furniture which helps me navigate my way through these spaces? If you can do this, you’ll appreciate why drastic change usually attracts more fury than plaudits. If magazines are indeed our friends, then a redesign is akin to them turning up one day with a different face and new clothes; we may prefer it after a while, but our initial reaction is one of discomfort.
Editorial design is a peculiar discipline. Unlike many other specialisms, its chief concern is systematic. Though there is an end product every week or month, in a sense the design is never finished. The design resides in the process, the most tangible artefact of which is the template, not the issue. There’s something quite Platonic about this: the idea of the perfect, inchoate ur-issue, inherent within the template, but never given form.
The best magazines see art direction and journalism as two indivisible strands of the same thread: storytelling. Neither takes precedence and each supports the other. Conversely, the fault with a failing magazine often lies in the imbalance between the two areas.
A magazine can be visualised as a huge puppet, the editorial team hidden in the cavity, working the strings and making the giant speak. It can be an arduous task, and sometimes a thankless one, but the rewards can be great too. I recommend it to any compulsive communicator, or perhaps frustrated actor.