Redesigning The New Yorker, Pt. 2: A Visual Critique

Would you redesign an institution like The New Yorker? Previously, KT Meaney argued for why the answer should be “yes.” Here, she presents a step-by-step, section-by-section visual critique of how she would do it: 

1. The Table of Contents

The Table of Contents Forgets the Content
This crammed list needs more text, believe it or not. 

Fig. A

From 1925 to 1969, The New Yorker had no Table of Contents, and some could argue today that it is still missing. Offered here on page six, sandwiched between two advertisements, is very little space to say much of anything. (Fig. A) What is said comes through the design: The New Yorker wants you to quickly recognize its authors, who have been given the most amount of space and typographic attention. Outside of that, content is difficult to locate. This stems from a poor visual hierarchy—limited typefaces, type sizes and line spacing. The choices made here create congestion. Outlining the magazine in its entirety is out of the question. Thus, Goings on About Town and The Talk of the Town have collapsed to a mere line or two (even though these sections are a third of this issue).

The last paragraph is a content-fitting apology: “Sorry, we have run out of room. So for this issue, Cover, Drawings and Spots [which are indeed three separate headings] are now together, in one awkwardly wide paragraph.” When there is ample space (special issues allot two pages to the ToC), that catch-all paragraph expands back to three, and aligns systematically to the center. A design slinky!

If the ToC were typeset differently—in two columns, not one, with enhanced typographic hierarchy—one could add all necessary content and improve clarity. This way, more text would feel less cramped. A furnished room looks bigger than an empty one. (Fig. B)

Add Another Column of Type
The new left column will play the role of “supporting actor.” 

Fig. B

First, create more space by removing any ads from the contents page. Territorially speaking, we own that space! (However, I acknowledge the importance of advertisements, and, if they are necessary, simply extend the ToC across two pages.) Expand Goings on About Town and Talk of the Town. These sections are important to list. Combine Cover, Drawings and Spots into their own new category: Illustrations. List the endpage, too (in this issue, the Cartoon Caption Contest). This left paragraph is typeset slightly smaller and in gray to set it back. (Fig. B)


Enhance the Main Column
Change the type style, size, and leading. 

The main column is highlighted: the column now sits in the middle of the page; the type is larger and darker. (Fig. B) Authors stand out in red for quick viewing. A new heading called Features is added, to keep consistent with the system. All headings are typeset in the New Yorker font Irvin. All subheads (now) are not. Instead, they are set in Caslon small caps. The variation allows for quick recognition. (Plus, Irvin doesn't work perfectly well with Caslon italic, so we've tried to separate the two.) There are line breaks between essays, which create openness and ease of reading. These spaces are very important, and if left out result in typographic collisions. Essay titles are set large, in Caslon Ulc. Tag lines are in italic, and seem conversational (as if someone is explaining the essay). (Fig. C)

Fig. C, Fig. D, Fig. E

Type Punctilio
Attention to typographic detail. 

Cut back on how often Irvin is used. Page numbers are now set with Caslon old style figures. Numbers are added next to artists, under drawings. This helps the reader locate their work. (Fig. D) When typesetting a title in quotations, hang your punctuation outside the margin. (Fig. E)

2. Goings on About Town

Goings on about the Grid
The current grid system is inflexible and redundant. 

Fig. F

The New Yorker is set on a tight three-column grid, established by its first art editor, 82 years ago. (Fig. F) Seldom does the column break the margin to utilize mathematical variation. Virtually every page, no matter what part you're reading (Goings On About Town, The Talk of the Town, The Critics, etc.), is based on this one-size-fits-all design. The problem: The New Yorker is a visually sectionless magazine with repetitive page design. The solution: let the content design itself. Lists, reviews and essays should dwell in different places. Column sizes would naturally vary, making each page distinctive and reflective of its own section.


The Callout Column
Narrow column needs to be wider. 

Fig. G

Three-to-four-words per line makes for an awkward read. Let the first column extend into the second, if need be. Those grid lines are not prison bars. Break them. (Fig. G)

Headings and Subheads
Display type is hard to read and the color system, confusing. 

Fig. H

Rethink the use of this Art Deco typeface for both headings and subheads. Having one part UC and the other Ulc would work better visually and systematically, making it clear which is a heading and which is a section. Hire a typographer to extend Rea Irvin's base font to include lowercase too. Furthermore, the use of red is perplexing. It makes you think that “Studies in Amber” and “The Theatre” are hierarchically equivalent, which they are not. (Fig. H)

Hyphenation and Justification
Ditch the default settings to avoid multiple hyphenations. 

Fig. I

Two hyphens in a row is a problem. Three is embarrassing (especially for an upper-crust literary magazine). All of this is avoidable. Set your InDesign file with typographic care. (Fig. I)

The Curse of Content-Fitting
The decision to justify most of the text likely comes from a need to fit as much content in as possible. 

Fig. J

The schooled designer knows this is not a good excuse. Through placement, type-size variation and a flexible grid, one can design a page for both quality and quantity. In the end, a list can be a list (and, not, a, long, line, of, type, delineated, by, commas, or, dingbats). (Fig. J)

Typesetting Numbers
Find a font with depth.
These numbers act like capitals, standing while all other letters sit. (Fig. J) To visually level them, try using old style figures (as opposed to lining figures) while occurring in paragraph form. Old style figures share the same ventilation as lowercase. If the current font does not include OSF, pick one that does. There are so many full-bodied typefaces available that it's not an acceptable argument to use short-sheeted typography. First, try Adobe Caslon!

3. The Talk of the Town

Word Count Fits the Layout
Less to talk about here. 

Fig. K

The commentaries in this section are short (varying from 800 to 1200 words). Hence, the three-column system suits them well. Of course, we can always improve upon this format. (Fig. K) Here's how:

Body Copy
Think of type size, leading and line-length in relationship.
Try to find the typesetting sweet spot. The point size/measure relationship can either offer unduly results or magical moments. The New Yorker seems to have an excess of broken words (hyphenation), tight letter spacing and widows/orphans. That means the point size is too big or the line length too narrow. If the page size is a given and three columns desired, the question remains: how do you set type within these constraints? For starters, take the point size down and notice the reflow.

4. Essays and The Critics

Fig. L



The ample space around the poems is a welcome breath amidst the crowd. The point size could be slightly smaller. The font could change altogether, for something surprising, but it is not necessary. (Fig. L)


Wimpy Drop Cap
Big drop caps are beautiful, but probably not “fitting” on a justified column 13 picas wide. 

Fig. M, Fig. N, Fig. O

To accommodate them, The New Yorker drops its caps only two lines down, throughout an entire article. They look awkward. (Fig. M) Maybe this inelegance stems from their closeness to the title size. Your eye compares the 30-point Caslon to 26-point Irvin, and for once, you're on Irvin's side. (Fig. N) (Caslon doesn't seem to offer optical sizes—different master designs based on specific type sizes—and the letter looks stocky compared with the text weight.) Or maybe this two-line drop cap works only if the opening cap is grand. Back in 1925, the initial drop cap was a whopping three lines tall (which sounds minor, but looks major). It was followed by a word in small caps, which visually glued the disjointed letters together. Alas, our New Yorker is no longer like that. (Fig. O) And here I am becoming a proponent of the past—but only when the past functions better than the present.

The High Price of a Low Budget Look
The magazine prints in four colors but predominantly uses only one: black. 

Fig. P

The 2 x 2-inch advertisement in the margin is bursting with color, yet the whole spread is sedately black and white: an inedible garnish amidst this rice-and-beans meal. (Fig. P) If The New Yorker pays for CMYK, as the ad suggests, shouldn't the spread sing with color? To make the most of money spent, let's rethink color choices. Any one of the New Yorker sections could easily be differentiated with a subtle page tint. This would help one flip to desired articles. Illustrations could be colored, too. How devilish: Hell could look quite hot! (Fig. P)


The Margin
Where did it go? 

The margin on bottom is smaller than on top. Hence, the layout looks bottom-heavy. Reverse order and ditch the last line, if necessary. We'll find space elsewhere. (Our intention is not to make the magazine longer or more expensive, merely more functional.)

Running Footer
Change the font. 

Try the Futura-like font from Goings on About Town. Loosen up the letter spacing. Tighten up space near the folio. Try setting the date with numbers. Most importantly, give it more room in the margin.

Block Quotes
There is no simple solution here. 

Fig. Q

A smaller point size, and a tighter lead fits more words per line, yes, but the overall feel is ghostly—like the quote is not speaking but whispering. (Fig. Q) Plus, a tighter lead produces inconsistent spacing at the end of the quote. If we can agree that this looks bad, let's then attempt to keep the block quote on the same baseline grid as the body copy. Take the point size down; then make it italic or bold or whatnot. If the column were wider, you could left-indent, too.

Image captions
Treat them differently 

Fig. R

Image captions are 12 pt Caslon italic. Bylines look exactly the same. Given this visual link, I naturally want to call the artist Mr. Flying Rat. (Fig. R) My suggestion is to introduce a new font altogether, as done in Goings on About Town—one that contrasts to the body copy.