Redesigning The New Yorker to a High Degree of Fussiness
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.” 5 His article led to a 1931 commission to make a new “fount,” Times New Roman.
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. Ain't it?
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 readers don't.
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 questionnaire.10 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 own.” 12 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
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).