Magazine Design Notes

We have a project involving magazine design; the following are notes I made and have written up from our first lesson with Chris where he talked to us about the history of design for magazines.

While magazines seem like a relatively new invention, the starting point of magazine design was actually during the mid 1700s. They were typically produced with letterpress, consisted of several pages and were released periodically.

As people became more literate, during the early 20th century, magazines were aimed at a particular section of society, the upper class and the educated. Often, a magazine was read by the one person that could read to others living in that area. In the beginning, magazines looked more like books.

1844 saw the release of the first special interest magazine with the introduction of Mothers Magazine. During this time, magazines were seen as valuable and somewhere for the readers to find support on how to fill their daily role of a mother and wife. It seems unusual that magazines were produced especially for women at a time before they were emancipated and when they were typically uneducated. Penny Magazine was eventually made for the lower class people in society. They were much like a newspaper in their layout in that the issues featured a story on the front cover.

Coverlines were eventually developed in the late 1800s as a way for magazines to set themselves apart from newspapers and other publications. 1893 saw the arrival of Cosmopolitan and Readers Digest. Placing the table of contents on the front cover was a technique used by early Cosmopolitan and was a technique used by Readers Digest up until 1998.

In the early days of magazine design when they were still trying to establish themselves, they often tried to take reference from elsewhere. This can be seen in a front cover for Chaderone that features a design influenced by circus posters.

Covers were frequently decorated with illustrations that were irrelevant to their contents but instead used because they looked attractive or pretty. Illustrators were brought it to design covers that included artistic detail. This approach to magazine design was used up until the 1980s. An advantage of this seen by the magazines was that they were able to paint what they wanted the readers to see, and not the reality, providing a great opportunity for propaganda. This can be seen in Munsey magazine from 1898, it presents a painting of troops on horseback riding to battle in Cuba, in romantic realism, this obviously wasn’t what was actually happening.

Vogue is a magazine that has been quite adventurous in its designs throughout its history. This 1917 cover features a stunning fashion illustration.

It was at this point that covers started to feature a design that reflected the contents of the magazine. This can be seen in a Vanity Fair cover from 1933 (during the economic depression) that makes an editorial point by featuring an illustration of business men standing on a time bomb.

Fortune magazine launched in 1930 and designed a framework that conveyed its own personal style of communication. Its huge size, thick bulk, and dynamic optimism were broadcast through the beauty of its covers – a succession of modernist paintings celebrating industry and progress.

Poster covers appeared on many of the earlier magazines. They were illustrations designed simply to look pretty – they were engaging, but irrelevant. The front cover of Asia magazine in 1933 featured only an illustration and no text, the only hint of its contents is through the African themed illustration.

Life magazine has the same design today that it did when it first began. On the front cover, the pictures that are relevant to its content are the main attractions. The pictures were framed only by Life’s stock logo and publication data.

During the 80’s and 90’s computers revolutionised how magazines were put together. The designs became more crowded and they started to become more recognisable to the magazines of today. This new technology, however, meant that many designers started adopting similar techniques and lost some of their individual identity – if you walk into a newsagents now, all magazines have very apparent similarities.

Fred Woodward is the iconic graphic designer responsible for the design of Rolling Stones Magazine. His design allows for flexibility, it can feature a clean, simple design, like the Kurt Cobain tribute issue in 1994, or lots of different elements can be added to it like on the Jay Z issue below.

Esquire is another magazine that also has a flexible design. It can have quite a busy design like the one below that features James Franco or an extremely simple design. An example of this can be seen in the issue that features Bill Clinton after his affair (that he managed to get away with.) Other than basic information such as the magazines name, the only other visual element is a photograph of him. His expression is smug and the photo focuses on his groin area. The saying ‘a picture can paint a thousand words’ is relevant here and therefore no other text is needed to make the design work.


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