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May 28, 2005

New Graphics Language

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I spend so much time immersed in the media world that I sometimes forget that some visitors may not pay as much attention to it as I do. Are civilians generally aware that the world of graphic design has been revolutionized in the last 20 years? I'm going to assume that a few people might not be aware of this and might be interested in hearing a bit about it. Those who know better than I do will excuse my feeble effort at sketching out an introduction.

Short version: because of electronics and computers, the structure of knowledge has been changing. Many people have run into a lot of biz-chat about "disaggregation" and "horizontal hierarchies" and "connecting with customers." It may be jargon, but it represents efforts to discuss many real challenges and changes. The same changes are happening in the cultureworld as in the bizworld. Previously welded-together elements are falling apart; vertical ways of organizing information and thinking are flattening out; and new links and channels are riddling established structures, making them permeable in ways they've never been before.

These developments have found reflection in visual design: in magazines, in ads, in TV, in movie production design, and in much else. Twenty years ago, the traditional media were pretty stable, the product of many decades (or even centuries) of evolution. The basic media categories were discrete and well-understood: movies, theater, music, art ... Books were often thought of as being at the peak of the culture mountain. Book editors behaved loftily, as though they ran the admissions board at Harvard. Authors were looked to for opinions and for deep thoughts. And knowledge generally was organized according to principles adapted from this kind of book-centric hierarchy.

Thanks to computers, we've moved into a very different world. In it, the various media blend into and out of each other. Since the digital media all boil down to zeroes and ones, why not? Your cell phone's also a camera and a voice recorder; you might email someone a note that includes a photo or an MP3 track. Few people would pretend any longer that books stand atop the culture heap; in many ways, books now represent the low-end of the media world, the place where losers who can't make it in the snazzier media fields wind up.

The ways we organize information and knowledge have changed dramatically too. Where books and the Dewey Decimal system once ruled, our central organizing technology today is the searchable (and often interactive) database.

One consequence of these changes are herds of bewildered middle-aged and old people. Show a little pity for the aged, who feel as though everything they ever learned -- as well as every skill they ever mastered -- have been rendered useless.

But another consequence of these changes has been the revolution in design that I'm long-windedly getting around to discussing. Once upon a time, books and magazines were mainly meant to be read, not just scanned and flipped-through. When photos were present, they were there to illustrate the text. "Making sense" in a linear-text-like way was often the goal. Over many centuries, a number of conventions had evolved to serve creators and consumers who were interested in this "reading" experience. It was a language of design and presentation: headlines, subheads, taglines, illustrations, captions, etc. Even color was used in standard ways.

An aside: The design of this blog is an example. We Blowhards asked our blog-makers to create something that would offer the advantages of electronics (mainly linking and searchable-ness) without disrupting the traditional hierarchies of "reading." Our idea was to provide an isthmus between the old text-based world and the emerging electronic one. Even the size of the type we chose -- and the fact that it has serifs (the little crotchets on the letters that make it easy for the eyeball to grasp them) -- is meant to promote a familiar kind of reading ease.

Computers have vaporized the stable old world of reading and text. Now everything's a jumble. Color's all over the place, visuals have overwhelmed text, and impact has become more important than making sense in a traditional way. The text-based printed page is no longer anything anyone aspires to emulate. Instead, the printed page these days is usually created to mimic the electronic screen. Text itself is often presented in ways that are meant to make it seem to jump around, like animated electronic text.

For a number of years in the '80s and '90s, the design magazines and the art schools were full of revolutionary rhetoric and theory. French deconstructivist philosophy merged with skateboard style and punk attitude. Enthusiastic critics and earnestly radical profs went so far as to crow that "design has been set free." Who knew that design had previously felt itself to be un-free?

Typography designers -- font guys -- became superstars. Ad designers and magazine layout guys cut loose with Photoshop and Quark. Design was the new rock 'n' roll. Legibility itself -- how square legibility came to seem! -- often went out the window. At TV networks, movie studios, ad shops, and magazines, designers themselves -- once craftspeople dedicated to serving text and meaning -- moved higher on the mastheads. Today, design directors often sit next to editors and producers at the power table. All of them now far outrank traditional text people.

Ferment, upheaval ... The walls of traditional design crumbled, and one question became: Were we throwing out the old understandings only to replace them with a new set of conventions? Or were we entering a new kind of deeply radical life, a perpetual revolution where nothing would ever again settle down?

I'm nothing but a fan of design, so beware my amateur generlizations. But it seems to me fair to say that the revolution is settling down. Mopping-up operations continue, but the era of guillotines and frenzy has passed. Today, we're living with a new -- if only still roughly-sketched-out -- media language. And we've got ourselves a whole new set of conventions, if not cliches.

Fun to take note of them. I've blogged before a bit about some of what has been emerging. A few of these postings can be accessed via the "best-of" list in the bar just beneath the name of this blog. Tonight? Well, scanning is tedious and it's getting late. But I'm still feelin' the urge to blog. So here are a few of the elements of our new media language. Do they qualify yet as cliches? Do we like them any better than the old cliches?

These images are pop-ups. Click on them, and you'll be able to see the pages I scanned more clearly.

Everything's now a catalog -- or, rather, everything's now a database.

Here's an example of what I think of as "Whoa! photography" -- imagery that has been created and is used more to have a socko impact than to tell us about its subject matter. You might say that impact is its subject matter. Hey: looking at many magazine, TV, and ad images these days, I'm often reminded of computer-desktop wallpaper. Is anyone else?

I see at least three elements of the new media language in this car ad.

  • Backlighting. The effect of this ad on my eyeballs is less of registering ink on paper than it is of staring into a shining light -- ie., of looking at a computer screen. I feel like I'm looking into a strobing lightbulb over which minute color gels are being passed.

  • Jittery, moving type. Look at the way the white numerals twitch and come out at ya'. pop-Pop-POP.

  • What I think of as "The Blur." The effect of the photograph -- speed and rush -- isn't meant to happen in our minds. The effect is actually in the photograph itself. As far as I can tell, the photograph is having our reaction for us.

Computer symbols used as decorative elements. Nonsense brackets and nonsense paragraph marks -- what's all that about? As far as I can tell, they come from computer programming. Why would anyone be attracted to anything as offputting as computer-programming symbols? My guess is that it just seems -- or once seemed -- new, "in," and cool. Computer (and IM) symbols have a kind of under-the-hood chic; they're like in-group, adolescent slang. These days, nonsense brackets and other computer symbols have been locked-in as standard design elements.

Check out too the way some of the headline type has been colored. Why one word rather than the others? Pages these days are full of color, often used in ways that don't relate to the sense of the text. The color is just there to make the page look pop-y. Looking at adult books and magazines these days, I often find myself thinking that they're very lively. I also find myself thinking that they look like children's books. They're so very happy and smiley!! and full of fun distractions!!! The new technologies and the new design language are great in many ways. But much of the time they're being used to treat us like kids.

Rules (straight lines) and even arrow-symbols are widely used to boss our attention around the page. I often find this pushy and abrupt. But I'm an old fart; arrows, rules, boxes, whooshiness, and color-for-the-sake-of-color are all now part of the general graphic-design language. I'm reminded of the way hiphop kids strike attitudes, use funny names, and wave their arms and hands about. "Quit moving around so much," I often want to say to them. "Just talk clearly and make sense." But hiphop kids inhabit a universe where venting-and-semaphoring is what you do. "Making sense" in a traditional way is most certainly not what you do.

Imagine the surface of this ad's page as a plane of glass. We move through it into the contents of the photograph. The scene opens out before us; as far as the photograph goes, the plane of glass is a window that we're looking through. But the plastic badge-holder in the upper right seems to have been placed on top of the plane of glass. It moves in our direction; it pops towards us. Plus: what is it, exactly? How do we take it? The photograph is easily understood as a conventional scenic photograph. But the plastic badge-holder is perhaps experienced more as a plastic badge-holder than as a photograph of one.

As a visual experience, this ad is about disorientation and clashing gestalts. What is the pane of glass that mediates this ad? Perhaps it's the glass surface in a scanner. Perhaps it's the glass of a computer screen. In any case, on it appear a variety of elements, each of which has its own internal logic.

... I'm hallucinating now ... The elements of the new graphics language exist on the computer screen. They don't have much to do with each other, at least not in an old-world, conventional sense. Perhaps one window shows a web page; one a word processing document; and one a photograph. Perhaps one of them displays the contents of a folder in "list" view ...

The elements are arranged haphazardly yet very specifically. Some overlap. A few extend beyond the edges of the computer screen. We might shrink or expand any of them; we might at any moment rearrange them. There's nothing stable or hierarchical about what's before our eyes, except insofar as someone has organized them for convenience or delight.

The experience strikes me finally this way: We're hit first with tons of grabby, pop-y impact. Then we're put in the position of thinking our way into the creative thought processes that left behind a computer screen full of these elements, arranged in this way.

Once upon a time our culture-brains were a combo art museum/concert hall/library. These days, culture-consciousness takes the form of a computer screen displaying a variety of windows in various states of process.

My favorite place to visit for design-yak is Design Observer.

I'm curious to hear about other cliches -- er, elements -- of the new graphic-design language that people have noticed.



posted by Michael at May 28, 2005


Could this simply be a result of form following function? I know that cliche is anathema in these parts, but the sort of serif-driven linear textual representation that you're talking about for me evokes academic journals -- or perhaps back issues of National Geographic.

I don't think the purpose of the magazines you're highlighting is to be read from cover to cover in any linear sense; that's not why I buy magazines, anyway. A magazine is likely to be 100 pages or more. If the content is meant to be that (for lack of a better word, sorry) linear, I'd rather it be presented in book or journal format. Things like Maxim, National Geographic, Popular Mechanics, GQ -- whatever -- I read them to bounce among the articles, maybe to look at pictures and different presentations of clothing or consumer goods.

The Economist is one of the few magazines I'll read from cover to cover, and then only occasionally, but while its articles are grouped generally and more specifically by content, the magazine can still be browsed with ease. Wouldn't it make sense to design for that type of perusal? Just thinking out loud here.

I'm hardly illiterate, but I wasn't even born in a time when magazines looked like books, design-wise. And I love looking through typographical collections. (If you want some examples of what someone my age is doing in design, typography, media, etc., look at friend Dante's work here:,, and I think it demonstrates very clearly what you're talking about, which I understand. I just don't know anything different.)

Posted by: Michael non-Blowhard on May 29, 2005 2:50 AM

When done well the new styles of presentation do impart information. But when done poorly, they can discourage one from pursuing the matter any further. The question comes down to, what are you trying to do and how are you trying to do it? Sometimes a new style works best, when you can make it work.

But, dazzle for dazzle's sake does little more than dazzle. If it informs that is a lucky accident.

Paizo Publishing produces Dragon, the official player's magazine for the Dungeons & DragonsŪ RPG. A year ago it featured the elements Michael mentioned in his post. Today it is rather staid in comparison. Why? Because the people at Paizo got complaints about readability. The magazine was too busy, the page elements and presentation too distracting. The eye candy was getting in the way.

The periodical's graphic design was getting in the way, instead of enhancing the reading experience, and so it was altered. Modified to a more traditional form that enhances the reading experience.

That, really, is the goal of most presentations. To inform. To tell people about things. There are times when a new style does this best, and there are times when an older style does it better. Dragon returned to a style of design more akin to that used by National Geographic and Scientific American because it works for what Dragon is trying to do.

As time passes you'll see this more and more. When and where it works best. We're in a transition phase right now, a modernist phase in the best sense, where people try out new things to see how they work. To see where they work. When we have that knowledge, when we now where the new styles work and where they don't, you'll see things start to settle down and new conventions come into play.

BTW, I've posted the above to Mythusmage Opines

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on May 29, 2005 4:33 AM

what do you mean by "traditional design"? traditional from the viewpoint of the modernists? or from classical typography? or even from a post-modernist standpoint? what tradtition is there for a young profession thats constantly changing? tools have a very important role in the development of a graphic language, this is true. but at the same time, cultural idioms (such as computer symbols as decorative elements) act as markers and indicate as to what kind of society we live in, and what particular things we value. we live in an age of computers, and the use of these elements are just a reflection of our values and interests. asymmetrical typography was the result of historical and cultural influences (WWI, Freud, DaDa, Constructivism/Supremetism), and like anything else, was seen as "non-traditional" and even radical. but now we see it everywhere.

i also think that the bulk of your examples show only a small slice of what is out there. true, there is a lot of crap out there, and they have their own vernacular, but that isn't to say that there are other languages out there. (nor can we honestly say they are prime examples of what 'design' is) there are plenty of fine examples of magazines that are more thoughfully put-together and considered, such Colors, Cabinet, Anthem, The Believer, etc. Also, there is a distinct difference between American and European design, and that may, again, reflect more cultural differences than technological ones. Examples of work from the Netherlands, Swizterland, Germany, England and France have been consistently lucid and straight-forward in their approach to design, unlike most American magazines out there. But do they not have computers also? And have they not been exposed to television and other multimedia as we have? Surely the technological debate can only go so far as to explain this difference.

Posted by: Dante Carlos on May 29, 2005 5:01 AM

and i also think discussions like this are a little tired, and instead of focusing on and picking at the impediments of heirarchical structures in typography and graphic design, we should be addressing the idea of people increasingly showing an un-willingness to read in general.

Posted by: Dante Carlos on May 29, 2005 5:13 AM

Rummaging around in my parents' attic, I found some old Time magazines from the Vietnam War era. I was astonished. Each page was filled from top to bottom with three columns of black-on-white eight point type, pictures inserted one every other page or so, and no pictures more than one column wide nor more than three inches high - and nearly all of them in black & white. Heck, it almost looked like a serious magazine!

Posted by: Brian on May 29, 2005 6:43 AM

"... dazzle for dazzle's sake does little more than dazzle..."

When some new technology comes along, people who are interested in it want to push it as far as it will go, for its own sake. After a while, people who want to use it to do something, like make money, get the creative guys to settle down.

Linearity will never go away because people can only understand things one at a time. Overall impressions and the buzz off of a page, paper page or webpage, may arrest the reader or viewer, but does it make him or her read and understand what is there? Or buy something?

The ancient volume of lore Ogilvy on Advertising talks about a lot of this same stuff, but decades ago. What the advertisers found was that people don't like reversed out lettering. But you still see it in ads because it looks cool. But it still doesn't work as advertising. We have, to some degree, been here before.

Another field which has been through this is powerpoint slides used in litigation. At first, people were designing all these really cool looking slides, and it was all very artistic. Then, mock juries were tested. The same results over and over again. White background, black lettering, yellow highlighting -- that was understood and retained. Other ways of doing it, much less so.

White pages with black letters, and your yellow highlighter in your hand, all developed over centuries (decades for the highlighter) because they work.

Count on things calming down in the design field.

Incidentally, this all reminds me of Witold Rybczynski's discussion of the development of the chair in his excellent book "Home". The optimal chair for the human body was reached in the late 19th C. Designers who wanted to innovate with new shapes and materials in the 20th C gave us unfunctional chairs which had snob appeal. This same process repeats itself all the time.

Posted by: Lexington Green on May 29, 2005 1:13 PM

Here's the website for the Cooper Union program in all this stuff:

They put on good graphic-design exhibitions.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on May 29, 2005 3:24 PM

Enjoyed this post. This takes me all the way back to Marshall Mc..... (oh gads, I forgot how to spell his last name..) The computer. Lots of changes. I do some haiga work in addition to free verse. What once used to be solely on rice paper with ink lettering can now be found done in Flash with music playing. The universe is expanding. I say hooray.

Posted by: Pris on May 29, 2005 5:24 PM

Lexington Green -- I'm not sure how your statement that people "can only understand things one at a time" has anything to do with linearity.

But we may be talking past one another. I'm considering the design of an entire magazine or periodical at once. If self-contained bursts of information are scattered throughout a single magazine issue, what is to prevent those bursts from being digested and understood? On the other hand, wouldn't placing two-page advertisements in the midst of a long article disrupt the flow sufficiently that the advertisement would either go unnoticed or the rest of the article itself ignored? I think this is obviously not the case, and I think it's because many people (myself included) are capable of holding one idea while considering another.

If you're talking about nonlinearity incorporated into a single page, a single article, the creation of essentialy insensible material, well, that's difficult to defend. But I don't think the examples MB has presented in his post really follow that standard: the BMW ad, for example, is particularly linear, while the first scan is a group of tangentially related bursts of information that are no less comprehensible for their presentation "catalogue"-style.

Posted by: Michael non-Blowhard on May 29, 2005 6:11 PM


What if it's just not worth reading?

Writing is not just a matter of putting words on paper; if you want people to read what you write you need to learn how to do it well. It is an art, and like any other art requires practice. You can provide all the flash and dazzle eye candy you wish, but if the writing just lays there on the page like moldy pudding tis a rare fellow who's gonna read it.

Graphics work best when they work with the message, instead of against it. But even the best graphics can do nothing with bad writing.

Time and time again I hear that people don't want to read anymore. That there are too many things to do besides reading. That the decline in reading is their fault. Is it? Or are we simply not providing people with good reasons to read? Good, compelling, engaging writing for example. Does the fault lie not in our audience, but in ourselves?

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on May 29, 2005 8:15 PM

An excerpt from the Judges' Report of the 2003 Best Dutch Book Designs:

"Ever since the days of the Arts and Crafts Movement, graphic designers have absorbed developments in the visual arts. But with the growing dominance of the image culture and the rise of media in which image and text can move, film and television are increasingly interesting as a source of inspiration. [...] The techniques of the new media are now being fed back, suitably changed, to the old medium of the book. If there is an author at all, he is usually no more than a producer of text: the principal role is reserved for the designer/director. It is he who tells the story (mainly in pictures) and determines the number, size and positioning of textual elements.


"It seems likely that we are in for a reshuffling of disciplines in a new configuration, for the graphic designers now going through college stand to gain more from interacting with directors, cameramen and editors than with artists, fashion designers and 3d designers. But even in this new configuration, graphic design will only be able to stay afloat as a separate discipline if it makes a better job of maintaining its core domain -- typography -- than it has over the past twenty years. [...]"

Posted by: Enzo on May 29, 2005 9:41 PM

Michael, I was thinking more of this kind of thing, as you put it. "...nonlinearity incorporated into a single page, a single article..." There will be linear subcomponents at some level -- articles, images, what have you. We are frequently subjected to efforts to make us "take in" a bunch of stuff at once. But we just go ahead and disassemble it. What I am getting at is that the technology allows you to do all kinds of neat stuff, when it is new, people will want to try out all the neat stuff, but as time goes by customers, readers, paying clients, etc. will cull out what actually works to convey information or make a convincing pitch and that will be far less than what the technology will allow you to do. An example of something that works is a page on Amazon. There is a lot going on, but is organized for use, with the most important stuff in the center, on top, in larger print, etc. Not a terribly exciting visual use of the technology, just a proven and functional one. I am not yet ready to dispute you on the oft-predicted death of the book as a medium, but I tend to disagree with it. Let's see how it looks in five years.

Posted by: Lexington Green on May 29, 2005 9:55 PM

I make my living in this arena. I'm a multimedia designer, which means that I am a graphic artist, as well as an animator, musician, videographer, etc. I'm good at it.

I'm not very impressed with the zap, pow, wizbang stuff, although I'm constantly asked to produce it. And, I do it.

I can only express my reservations by analogy. I almost never go to the movies any more, because the movies are almost always about special effects, and nothing else. Actual original content (as it is called in the trade) is almost non-existent. This means that most movies are little more than chase epics. Who cares?

It also seems to have been a 30 year downhill slide in music, another business in which I work as a performer. The emphasis on video has produced an endless parade of posers, who almost never have anything to say.

I'll pose a rather radical rejoinder. This obsession with PR facade has become depressing and boring. What I'd like to see... well, how can I define it? In music, I'd almost always prefer to watch 5 old farts standing still on stage and really concentrating on playing music.

Is anybody besides me bored and fed up with PR for PR's sake? I remember well the dot-com hysteria of the 90s when the sales pitch was thought of as the product itself. What BS!

Yes, it's a way to make a living. But, it's empty. Shouldn't artists aspire to something more? The old farts have not become useless and expendable. It's time for a return to basics... good story-telling, depth of experience and a moral approach to life.

I live in a world of millions of ego-driven, party going, empty shells. The hype about just how exciting this is leaves me dead cold. It's all PR masquerading as intrinsic value. Sooner or later, this house of cards, like the dot-com frenzy, will collapse. Pretending that something of value is going on, just because the hype is so intense, is a dead end.

Posted by: Stephen on May 29, 2005 11:55 PM

Thomas -- As far as movies go, dare I say that The Incredibles (not to mention Pixar releases in general) was a good movie? I might reveal my low-brow nature if I do, though it's probably a bit late for that now. I also enjoyed Connie and Carla, which I saw in a theater in Chelsea (so appropriate!). Or for more serious subject matter see Million-Dollar Baby or Mystic River.

I mean, sure, people tend to be amused by flash -- look at the success of the tepid Revenge of the Sith or Kelly Clarkson's continuing record sales strength.

But there's good music out there, I think. Nine Inch Nails has been making consistently impressive records since the release of The Downward Spiral in 1994. Marilyn Manson's Mechanical Animals is another fantastic record.

Antony and the Johnsons (especially their second release) are a less hard-core example who've garnered comparisons to Nina Simone. Bic Runga and Emiliana Torrini are both awesome and contemporary, too.

The sort of five-man rock I assume you're talking about has definitely changed somewhat, too, and a heavier emphasis on production is partially the cause. System of a Down, Coldplay, The Wallflowers, The Golden Republic, Third Eye Blind, Three Doors Down, Soundgarden, Matchbox 20, Garbage, and Green Day all come to mind.

Then again, as I reread I see that you're looking for a "moral approach to life" in the music you listen to -- Trent Reznor's laments on subjects of drug addiction and recovery might not appeal to you. Maybe you could check out Mae's newest album, The Everglow? Or Vienna Teng's Warm Strangers?

Maybe you could give some more concrete examples of what you like?

Lexington Green -- my point wasn't that the book is a doomed medium but that magazines and books serve different purposes in contemporary culture and that their design should differ accordingly. I spend more on books than anyone I know, and that's despite my constant use of a University library system. There are few things I like better than the smell and feel of crisp, high-quality paper freshly opened.

Alan Kellogg -- Do you think that the recent explosion in graphic novels might be indicative of this as well, that the novel as a format, with its chapter-length blocks of text devoid of illustration, is being superseded by more immediately interactive constructs? What about attempts to bridge those formats with others, such as the movie Sin City? Umberto Eco's most recent release, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, described as "an illustrated novel", also comes to mind.

Posted by: Michael non-Blowhard on May 30, 2005 2:42 AM


I'd attribute the new interest in graphic novels more to coming of age than any other cause. The first graphic novels appeared back in the 70s, and an entire generation has grown up since then.

A graphic novel is simply one way to tell a story. Text is another. Which gets used depends upon the teller.

At the same time pictures, among other graphic elements, add substantially to the cost. In the one publishing field that I know of, an interior black and white illustration costs the publisher about $20.00. A full page color illo can cost upwards of $300.00. And we're talking about small time publishers at that. A name artist can cost a publisher much more. All in all plain text is a lot cheaper.

The first question you need to ask if you plan on publishing a graphic novel is, can you afford it?

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on May 30, 2005 4:14 AM


A man after my own heart. Be substantive and do it well.

BTW, shouldn't your link be to:

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on May 30, 2005 4:23 AM

There are few things I like better than the smell and feel of crisp, high-quality paper freshly opened." Oh yes. The only thing I like better is the smell of old, musty paper from some old book that sat in someone's garage or attic -- but is a great find amidst the detritus.

Posted by: Lexington Green on May 30, 2005 11:40 AM

McLuhan famously observed that the newspaper page was a mosaic to be pored over. Designers have rather perverted this idea. Text has become a servant of style. Bastard measure type, particularly unreadable when it is used as a runaround to a picture cutout, abounds. White type on a colour, a strenuous read. Obliteration of textual space (thus depriving the reader of depth) by large design concepts -- not even slightly ameliorated by "Turn to page 172".

The fact is that the average reader of newspapers in particular doesn't even notice design (indeed, it is the last resort of desperate editors to redesign the product, usually with no effect whatever n the circulation figures).

I have worked in print media for a good 30 years. All I see is deterioration and truncation of content amid the welter of competing design extravaganzas. Posturing ponces! Give readers something to get their teeth into, or continue to die.

Posted by: Dave F on May 31, 2005 8:37 AM

Hello Michael non-Blowhard,

I can specifically answer your question about music. I never listen to rock. Even when I was a kid, rock didn't interest me. When I was 15, I was listening to guys in their 50s and 60s and beyond. Most of the kids playing rock don't even know their scales and chords.

When I go out to hear music, I go to a dive in Harlem to listen to guys, all over 50 years old, stand still on stage and play jazz and blues. That's what I play, too.

My favorite CD of the past 15 years is "Junk Food" recorded by my friend, A.C. Reed, a Chicago bluesman. It was never even issued on a record lable. A.C., since deceased, was in his 70s when he recorded it.

Kids generally have nothing to say. I hear better music in the Baptist church I attend on Sunday morning than most rock bands play.

I do have to say that the web offers real musicians a way to be heard, if they have the skills to present themselves well. I've spent a lifetime in the music business. The commercial music business is simply a sick mess that destroys people. I often wonder how anything good every gets by the people who control that business. Very little does. It's mostly about exploiting stupid kids.

I am always amazed when I hear anything even remotely interesting from the commercial popular music business. About the only exception is country music, where a few good things somehow manage to filter through.

Posted by: Stephen on May 31, 2005 10:00 AM

It's important to remember the objective of the publisher when looking at this sort of design -- to sell magazines. Keeping that goal in mind, there are (at least) two vastly different sales techniques: 1) You can build an audience base by providing consistently satisfying content. 2) You can rely on impulse sales. The same design seldom works for both.

When your audience is coming for a known quantity, you don't have to sell, but you can't consistently disappoint. Into this category, I'd put magazines like The Economist and Dragon*. Sales are driven by people who have bought the magazine before and who are buying for content. I find it interesting that Dragon said that it had changed its cover design (to a simpler-typeface logo, among other things) to facilitate newsstand sales. I see this as an indication of success in audience building. Their customers aren't looking for a random fantasy- or gaming-themed magazine, they are specifically looking for Dragon, and Paizo's objective was to make it easy to find that magazine on the shelf.

Into the second category, I'd put bridal magazines, gardening magazines, gun magazines, and so on. They look like catalogs because that is one of their major purposes for consumers and their dominant role for the advertisers (and publishers, by extension). They don't count on keeping a customer for very long, usually only until the customer has at least temporarily lost interest in their subject. (Because the gardening season ended, the wedding is done, or the gun is purchased).

The hard case is the magazine that tries to straddle the boundary between these two goals. In the past that role has been the province of the weekly news magazine -- widely read, but also a common impulse buy. 24-hour cable news and the internet are stealing their subscribers, leaving only the impulse purchases. Not surprisingly, their designs have changed.

This isn't to say that the new tools have had no effect. I can testify from personal experience that laying out pages with a good scanner and Pagemaker or Quark is orders of magnitude easier than doing the same job by getting a service bureau to do half-tones and pasting up with rubber cement. When the basic stuff is easy and the hard stuff is easier, there is more time to be creative. Sturgeon's law** applies to these creations as to most things.

I suspect that the worst excesses of page design will gradually diminish like the worst excesses of ransom-note typography have (largely an artifact of the first wave of dtp), though only to the extent that they don't serve the publishers' goals.

*How's that for cognitive dissonance?

**I've usually seen this as, "Yes, 90% of science fiction is cr*p, but then 90% of everything is cr*p."

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on May 31, 2005 6:12 PM

I know you are all talking print, but these same gimmicks are everywhere these days - especially TV. Every car commercial has the spinning car. And since that movie "Seven" came out there was a tremendous burst in edgy psycho-graphics (leters are suddenly big and out of frame, jerky images, weird black streaks on the screen). For "Seven" that intro was brilliant - but the look was ripped off non-stop and for non-psycho products. Luckily that has toned down, but I still see it just watching a baseball game (especially on Fox). Jerky graphics to tell you who's on first. And then a spinning baseball stadium comes out of nowhere!

Its like we are suddenly a society of babies needing constant movement.... Short articles on celebs.... Spinning cars... its rediculous.

Posted by: Jerome on June 1, 2005 6:11 PM

Jerome, that "Seven" look you're mentioning began really with the work of graphic designer David Carson for the magazine Raygun. Carson started off working at surfing and skateboarding mags. He's probably the most famous graphic designer I can think of. His work saturates the last decade or so. Also, you can see more like the opening credits of Seven in the videos and artwork of Nine Inch Nails which predates Seven. I think NIN is actually used in Seven.

Posted by: lindenen on June 2, 2005 11:50 PM

Quick comment about books: I feel that books are returning to their original purpose of being compendiums of information rather than quick guides. Just like McSweeny's canonizes all of its best material from the ether into print so does all who pundit from this space.

Posted by: Skyler on June 7, 2005 2:06 PM

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