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Old ladies in Dubuque do read The New
Yorker (a statement, not a request). How ironic, given
that founding editor Harold Ross discredited their demographic as
too provincial for his cultured publication.1
Is their interest merely a Pepé Le Pew attraction to something
meant to repel? Or has The New Yorker changed over the
years to suit them? The answer is, it hasn't changed.
At its inception, Harold Ross referred to The New
Yorker as not a magazine but a movement.2
Eighty-two years later, all movement has stopped. Now The New
Yorker is regarded as an institution, a fixture. Is that
youthful spirit gone, the one that defended cabarets to “Elders” in
its first-ever sellout article? (The popularity of this article
saved the magazine's life.3)
I think not. The New Yorker still produces articles
ever-daring, prose au courant and illustrations dandy—so
what has become stagnant?
The New Yorker, February 19 & 26, 2007.
Anyone not looking through a monocle can tell that the design is
dated. Apologies to Rea Irvin, who created the first New
Yorker layout—a three-column grid with Art Deco headings
(bordering on Art Nouveau) and Caslon body copy—still used today.
Some have argued in favor of its classic design, including the
venerated Michael Bierut (my former boss). Assuming he would be a
kindred spirit, I contacted Bierut to discuss my problems with the
New Yorker layout. Instead, he replied:
“Did you know that the last consultant on The New
Yorker was none other than Massimo Vignelli [his former boss]?
I did a piece on Design Observer called 'In Praise of Slow
Design' about the evolution of The New Yorker's format
over the years. I actually quite like it.”
Alas, Bierut's article was superb—well written and well
received—and compelling enough for a momentary sway. I thought
The New Yorker's design had been forgotten. Now I see that
it had just been forgiven.
Bierut wrote: “From a design point of view? Unbelievably boring.
Or, I should say, unbelievably, wonderfully, perfectly, exquisitely
boring. To a field that today seems to prize innovation above all
else, The New Yorker makes a case for slow design: the
patient, cautious, deliberate evolution of a nearly unchanging
editorial format over decades. And the case they make is—let's
admit it—pretty hard to argue with.” 4
I will continue with that hard argument...
Conventional design is fine, if it is functional. I believe that
the New Yorker layout is comprehensively flawed and a
revision is overdue. Any redesign is up against a begrudging
audience of grammatically-correct-but-graphically-unconscious
standpatters (and design giants as well). So how do you persuade
such obstinate admirers? The answer is, respectfully.
In 1930, Stanley Morison objected to the existing typography in
The Times, finding it outdated and hard to read. As a
typographer, he could identify problems that others could not, and
wanted to share that vision. In his “Memorandum on a Proposal to
Revise the Typography of The Times,” Morison made his
justification: “It cannot be doubted that the approval of such
readers will be gained if it be shown that a revision is called for
and that the new typography is worthy of The Times.”
His article led to a 1931 commission to make a new “fount,” Times
With that same kind of respect—for its readers and its history—I
propose a New Yorker revision. It's time to elevate design
standards to the same level that grammar and language are held.
First, we need to understand why The New Yorker has
evolved so slowly. Could it be for financial reasons? To dare a
redesign when sales are low or freeze your layout when profits are
high are both logical practices. The New Yorker underwent
a major amount of minor change in the 1990s, under then-new editor
Tina Brown. At a time when The New Yorker “no longer
[made] money,” 6
the layout saw new title treatments, added photography and expanded
color. Calling these changes a redesign is disputable (unless one
is only referring to editorial content). The new look felt a lot
like the old look. Yet this pièce de résistance was met by
a wall of resistance. New Yorkers like change; New Yorker
The New Yorker, October 5, 1992, cover by Edward Sorel.
Ross envisioned The New Yorker as a “magazine avowedly
published for a metropolitan audience [that] thereby [escapes] an
influence which hampers most national publications.” 7
Today, we find The New Yorker hampered by an influence
that other publications escape. Sorry, Mr. Ross. The content of the
magazine is unconstrained, yet the look of the magazine is locked
in tradition. An Edward Sorel cover illustration says it best: the
passenger is punk rock, but the vehicle is a present-day
horse-drawn carriage. Is it mere coincidence that tradition is only
a letter and transposition away from tardation?
The dormant anarcho-communist in me (everybody has one) was
awakened by a Peter Kropotkin expression in An Appeal to the
Young: “Reason instead of repeating what is taught you.…”
8The New Yorker layout is repeated, not reasoned. Flaws are
perpetuated in every issue because that's the way it has always
been done. “What could be better” is a question that needs to be
asked and answered.
Imagine a table of contents that clearly maps the layout,
instead of forcing you to “read from cover to cover, like a long
walk in the country.” 9
Suppose type size, line length and leading shifted to assuage
reading. Envision content not forcibly crammed into a three-column
grid. Consider variation in page design to help differentiate
sections. Visualize color that blows the magazine from Kansas to
Munchkin Land. They already pay for that color; why not use it?
Like a skunk, the overwhelming use of black and white stinks.
Comparing mastheads then (1925, top) and now.
“It is nice to know some things of excellence remain,” counters
a New Yorker enthusiast who participated in my redesign
I agree with the inclination but challenge the incarnation. Have
things of excellence truly remained at The New Yorker?
Education arises through a visual examination. Match Irvin's
masthead to the current one. The original has a soft, hand-drawn
feel. The latest (first appearing in the 1980s) has a cold,
ultra-crisp look. Aside from better letter spacing between the “T”
and “H” (in “The”) and “Y” and “O” (in “Yorker”), the type is
prickly and feels unnecessarily sharp. It has lost touch with
Irvin, and it has lost Irvin's touch. To be traditional, shouldn't
it uphold the same ethos and attention to form as the original?
If The New Yorker is locked in tradition, or a false
sense of tradition, does anyone have the key? Yes, it can be found
in the missing room of a Bruce McCall illustration. McCall's recent
“First-Ever Guided Tour of The New Yorker” lists befitting
departments such as the “Filing Department of
Unsolicited-Manuscripts Division,” the “Editorial-Mistake
Correction Facility,” the “Cartoon Department,” and the
“Naughty-Word Review.” 11
Illustration by Bruce McCall in The New Yorker, February 19
& 26, 2007.
But where is the Design Department? How about the “No Two
Hyphens in a Row Department”? Or the “Avoid Mixing a Caslon Italic
with an Irvin Department”? Not to forget the “Adopt the Orphan,
Marry the Widow Department.” The lack of a prominent in-house
design department could lead to outhouse design. When asked to
describe the commonality among all New Yorker writers,
Joseph Mitchell divulged: “None of 'em could spell... and really
none of us, including Ross, really knew anything about grammar. But
each one of them... each one had a kind of wild exactitude of his
Editing to a “very high degree of fussiness” 13
is what The New Yorker does best. But it fails to set the
same standard for design, which needs some of that wild exactitude.
And that's the key.
Like Eustace Tilley, the New Yorker design is an
anachronism. If this butterfly-lover were alive today, wouldn't he
be sporting a pair of glasses instead of a defunct monocle? Break
the gridlock (literally and graphically) and change. Irvin's
three-column grid is a good foundation, indeed. But it needs to
work harder. Make every word tell, as Strunk and White instruct,
but on a page that sings. Then consult a range of Massimo Vignellis
and Michael Bieruts. Listen to them. Locate the impotent
typographic and design components. Fix them. Develop the tightest
InDesign file, with perfectly considered formatting, so that no
decision is by default. (Make that last part a life lesson.)
And when asked at your next magazine symposium, “Would you
redesign an institution like The New Yorker?” reply as
unbelievably, wonderfully, perfectly, exquisitely boring as Ronn
Campisi did back in 1985:
“Sure. It's only a magazine.” 14
here for a step-by-step visual critique of The New Yorker
1. Ross, Harold, “Harold Ross'
Vision for The New Yorker,” Urban and Urbane: The New Yorker Magazine in the
“The New Yorker will be the magazine which is not edited
for the old lady in Dubuque. It will not be concerned in what she
is thinking about.” 2. Brendon, Piers, “Smart and
Smarter,” Columbia Journalism Review (May/June 1995):
Review of Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of theNew Yorker, by Thomas Kunkel (New York: Modern
Library, 2000). Harold Ross told E.B. White, “This isn't a
magazine—it's a movement!” 3. Remnick, David,
Highlights from the Complete New Yorker (New York: The New
Yorker, 2005), pp. 7, 9, 15. 4. Bierut, Michael, “In Praise
of Slow Design,” Design Observer (January 15, 2006). 5. Morison, Stanley,
Selected Essays on the History of Letter-forms in Manuscript
and Print, ed. David McKitterick (London: Cambridge University
Press, 1980). 6. Kolbert, Elizabeth, “How Tina
Brown Moves Magazines,” The New York Times Magazine
(December 5, 1993). “Today it is widely acknowledged, even by the
magazine's president, Steven Florio, that the New Yorker
no longer makes money.” 7. Ross, Harold, “Harold Ross'
Vision for The New Yorker.” “This is not meant in
disrespect, but The New Yorker is a magazine avowedly
published for a metropolitan audience and thereby will escape an
influence which hampers most national publications. It expects a
considerable national circulation, but this will come from persons
who have a metropolitan interest.” 8. Kropotkin, Peter, An
Appeal to the Young (Chicago: Charles H Kerr Publishing Co.,
1984). 9. Kolbert, Elizabeth, “How Tina
Brown Moves Magazines.” “Brown's changes have altered the rhythms
for readers of the magazine as well. While the old New
Yorker read from cover to cover like a long walk in the
country, the new magazine moves to a snappier and more irregular
beat.” 10. Questionnaire graciously
supplied by Sandra Markham. 11. McCall, Bruce, “First-Ever
Guided Tour of the New Yorker,” The New Yorker
(February 19 & 26, 2007), p. 168. 12. Gopnik, Adam, “Essay; The
Voice of Small-Town America,” The New York Times (December 3,
2000). 13. Yagoda, Ben, About
Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (New York:
Scribner, 2000). Ross's letter to H.L. Mencken: “We have carried
editing to a very high degree of fussiness here, probably to a
point approaching the ultimate. I don't know how to get it under
control.” 14. Heller, Steven, ed.,
Design Culture: An Anthology of Writing from the AIGA Journal
of Graphic Design (New York: Allworth Press, 1997).
In part two, Meaney presents a step-by-step visual critique of
The New Yorker.
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