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August 07, 2007

Annals of Illegibility 2 -- TOCs

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

As far as I'm concerned, the way that computers have altered the balance of power between words and visuals is usually for the better. Still, there are times when the egos and values of the design crowd get a wee bit out of hand -- and ain't it fun to take note of these times. An earlier entry in this series is here.

In today's installment, I revisit a topic I originally looked at back here: the Tables of Contents of magazines.

Have you been following the evolution of TOCs? It's remarkable how different they are these days than what one might think of as the classic TOC.

In the pre-digital days, a Table of Contents was generally a straightforward guide to the contents of a magazine. It was nearly always presented in a linear way -- from beginning to end. (In other words, the magazine in hand was conceived-of as something with a beginning, a middle, and an end.) Visuals were subdued, except perhaps in flashy publications like fashion mags. In any case, the general understanding was that a TOC should present essential help and information in an easy-to-understand way.

The new TOC is a very different experience. For one thing: Visuals! Color! Graphics! Pop goes the layout.

For another, the front-to-back way of organizing information (subject matter, page number, authors' names, etc) has in many cases been thrown out entirely. The new basis for organizing the TOC is thematic and / or conceptual.

The new pattern is that the big, long articles ("Features") are grouped together; the magazine's regular columns and such are grouped together, often under the rubric "Departments"; and the junkfoody stuff that usually runs at the front and the back of the magazine is grouped together in one way or another.

Another thing that's remarkable about the new TOC is how settled a form it has become. That has been the big change since the last time I visited the topic four years ago: Nearly all magazines are now using close variations on what I'm describing. In my earlier posting about TOCs, I was taking a snapshot of a form in the process of being born. These days, the new TOC is simply what a TOC has become.

Funny, isn't it, the way that what a magazine is can seem like a completely settled thing? During a period when nearly all magazines feature celebs on the cover, it can seem like a god-given fact that a magazine is a publication that has a celeb on the cover. Publications seem to cohere around certain templates. Then something comes along -- an innovation, a change in technology -- and it's all up for grabs. Everyone scrambles and experiments furiously, and then everyone settles on a new template.

By the way: As far as I've been able to tell, this is often done without any reference to the customers or audience at all. (Where TOCs are concerned: Were readers consulted about how they use magazines, and what they want from a TOC?) It's often more a matter of editors and designers imitating each other -- chasing each other around in a great, big "What's the other guy doing?" anxiety-circle -- than it is of thinking clearly about how best to serve readers and subscribers.

Oh, two more elements that come standard as part of the new TOC: The TOC is usually spread over two pages; and it's usually punctuated by pulled-out highlights -- eye-popping visuals trying to attract attention to a select few stories.

One of the most scrambled, er, remarkable, er, typical of the TOCs I've clipped in the last year is an example from the magazine once known as Modern Maturity and now called AARP Magazine.

Have you had occasion to look at this mag recently? A year or two ago it went through a dramatic overhaul and re-emerged not as a stuffy old magazine for retirees, but as a kicky, poppy magazine for retirees -- in other words, a retirement magazine for Boomers. In layout terms, this has meant that it's colorful, it's hip (in a mainstreamy way). It looks a bit like Rolling Stone, in fact, only with worries about Alzheimer's and 401Ks replacing the gossip items about Jimi and Janis and Kurt and Courtney.

Here's page one of AARP's Table of Contents.


And ain't that a hoot? Viewed charitably, it's a cheery, inviting playpen / nursery-style jumble. Viewed less charitably, it's a damn mess.

Read in what I, as an oldtimer, persist of thinking of as the "normal" order (left to right, top to bottom), the page numbers presented by this layout go: 64, 56, 72, 24, 36, 66, 52. To me, it looks like a Lotto-game number-sequence, or perhaps one of those math puzzles where you're supposed to figure out what number comes next.

Is there any reason behind that sequence at all? I confess that my brain wasted a few seconds first asking then failing to answer this question. Well, actually what my brain did was ask the question, fail to find an answer, then feel a micro-moment of intense annoyance about the way my energies were being made to go through these contortions. After all, shouldn't "instant comprehensibility" be what a guide to content is all about?

OK, then: So you're not meant to be hungry for guidance and information. You're meant instead to browse and graze, and to let your eyes and brain be tickled. Let whim dictate the experience; let the entire experience be one of whimsicality.

If these are the the layout's values, then how does the page function on its own terms? I don't know about you, but -- fond though I am of color and graphics -- I found this page too hectic for me. That screaming green "Contents" at the top of the page ... The hyper-active photo, as chaotic as an Ab-Ex painting ... The bossy arrow pointing from the photo to the highlighted text and page number beneath it ... The yellow of the mock Post-It trying to turn yet another element on the page into a highlight ... Nope, the volume level is just too damn loud.

Here's page two of AARP's TOC.


What to make of this somewhat-different page? There's a big photo, jazzed up by a cartoony dialogue balloon. There's a bossy arrow pointing from the photo to a page number -- a story is being highlighted, in other words. There are two story-groupings that wear labels: "Navigator" and "LifeEtc."

Do you instantly know what's meant by either "Navigator" or "LifeEtc"? Do you have any hunches even after giving the question some thought? I certainly don't. Why would one story be assigned to the "Navigator" section and another to the "LifeEtc" section? Curious, I poke around inside each category, and come away baffled. Why is a story about fitness listed under "Navigator" instead of "LifeEtc"?

Then there's the largest story-grouping, running under the big photo. Why doesn't that bunch of stories have its own headline? And why has it been plopped down there? No answer to these questions leaps out at me.

As far as linearity goes, there's a kinda-sorta, not-quite-really linearity in the order of the stories listed on this page. The Navigator stories do come early in the magazine, while the Life Etc stories do come later. But the stories grouped beneath the large photo? They're scattered all over.

The organization of this page, I'm reluctantly concluding, has nothing to do with sense, and everything to do with editor's concepts -- editors love themes and departments -- and with designers' love of visual poppiness.

As I puzzle all this out, I find that the only information payoffs I'm experiencing have to do with the TOC itself, and not at all to do with the magazine's contents. As this fact dawns on me, I take a deep breath and reach a conclusion, namely: "The hell with it, I'm gonna forget these stupid pages, and I'm just gonna leaf around in the magazine on my own." Have I mentioned how much I hate being made to puzzle anything out? Life is puzzling enough -- why add to the puzzle-burden?

A few musings.

  • Where the old TOC was a guide to a magazine's contents, the new TOC is a labyrinth to be explored. Yet even when it has been explored, it offers no satisfactions, except to those who value labyrinths, editorial concepts, and design poppiness for their own sakes. Perhaps what's needed by people like me is a roadmap to the TOC -- a TOC for the TOC.

  • As far as I can tell, the central drive behind the new TOC is the desire to persuade the reader that everything in the magazine is a highlight. Is it fair to be reminded by this of the way, in present-day America, every child is special? I sometimes suspect that our editors, producers, and designers aren't going to stop until they transform all of life into a Greatest Hits collection.

  • Does anyone really use magazines' TOCs any longer? If so, how? Me, well, I let my eyeballs run over the layouts; I try to enjoy the tickling sensations; then I move on to leafing around in the magazine, guidance-free.

  • Although editors and designers seem convinced that grouping articles under headlines is a helfpul thing to do, how helpful is it really when every magazine has its own system for categorizing its articles? Each time you pick up a new magazine, in other words, you're stuck having to figure out how to use its TOC. It's the new post-post-modern world, where everyone gets to express himself, but nothing finally is said.

  • Is the media life generally turning into a giant computer-game quest-adventure?

Some previous musings on graphic design can be read here, here, and here.

Do you use the Tables of Contents in magazines these days?



posted by Michael at August 7, 2007


I couldn't agree more about the "not really using TOC's" comment. I don't find them helpful at all. Often there will be a tease on the cover of a magazine, not the main cover story, but a note in the corner---So-and-So visits with Bill Clinton on his new passion---or something like that. Which is often what made me buy the mag. Then I go to the TOC---and can't find the Bill Clinton article anywhere!! I flip through the mag because that is what I am reduced to. Once I went searching through the TOC of "People" magazine for several minutes--looking for the cover story itself!---and thought I couldn't find it. Then I saw the big pop-up photograph---above the TOC text---with a page number beside it, and finally figured out that was where the cover article was. Silly me--I was looking in the actual text of the TOC for it.

What also drives me mad, and "Vanity Fair" and "Vogue" are two prime offenders of this, is the first page of the TOC is often separated by several pages of ads from the second page of it. You think you simply can't find an article, and then you bump into the second page of the TOC after flipping through several perfume ads. The only way you learn this is the hard way. There is nothing on the first page that says "con't on page 12" or whatever.

Posted by: annette on August 7, 2007 1:58 PM

Vanity Fair has I think 4 pages in their TOC. Ridiculous. I think a big reason for this non-linear approach is to get more eyeballs on more pages, which is the result when the TOC doesn't do a damn thing in helping you find what you're looking for and you're forced to flip through the pages. Advertisers are made happy, and that's all that really counts in magazine-land.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 7, 2007 2:25 PM

I second Annette's point about trying to relate cover teasers to the TOC. It's often frustrating and sometimes just about impossible when the TOC uses a different label or description or the article title differs too much from the teaser. One solution would be to put page numbers on the cover by the teasers; this has been done, so the concept is out there. On the other hand, a magazine might well lock in the cover before the pagination is set, so page referencing might be moot.

I also hate multi-page TOCs, hate it when those pages are separated ("now where is that third page... oops! ... darn it, that one's just the masthead ... ") and I really hate it when the TOC starts 20 or more pages into the book.

Grouping items by topic might actually be a good thing. But only if the items were in list-form under a heading. Dropping in all those graphics introduces too much visual clutter, destroying whatever advantage grouping might have.

Final point: What in hell ever happened to the notion of ergonomics? Twenty or thirty years ago, in Industrial Design, ergonomics -- making stuff user-friendly -- was a big and helpful deal. It made sense. But I suppose that doesn't count in the present age of showing-off, which is what modern TOCs seem to be all about -- on several levels.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on August 7, 2007 3:47 PM

The more "creative" the TOC the less substance in the actual contents: ricpic's first law of magazine gravitas.

Posted by: ricpic on August 7, 2007 5:49 PM

I often try to use the TOC, but half the time I can't even find the damn thing in the thick pad of advertising. . .

Posted by: Derek Lowe on August 7, 2007 8:15 PM

Amen, brothers and sisters, and it looks like since AARP is following suit (likely run by kids in their 20s) then we have nothing to look forward to. Alzheimer's bad enough, we don't need a magazine for the older folks that has no sense of stability and recognition.

Posted by: susan on August 7, 2007 9:29 PM

Navigator stories seem to be about guidance through life's challenges; LifeEtc seem to be more snapshot/portrait style stories. But otherwise, your guess is as good as mine. As for the ungrouped stories, maybe they're regularly recurring items, maybe in every issue, while the Navigator and LifeEtc stories might not be a guaranteed thing(?). Oy. I think you've made your point, Michael.

And no, I pay no attention to TOCs anymore, especially the atrocity that is VF's. If I buy an issue, I just grimace and flip as quickly as I can through the whole farkin' mag until I get to the print-heavy part at the back.

Posted by: PatrickH on August 7, 2007 9:49 PM

Pretty much agreed with all of the thoughts on modern TOCs. I suspect, though, that the people who find modern magazine TOCs obnoxious, cluttered, distracting, and unhelpful are a minority of readers -- the sort who actually want to read articles. Modern magazines seem to want to present themselves more as multimedia webpage experiences floating around in the ether than as a sequential page-after-page bound physical object. In ten or twenty years I imagine a situation in which (if any print magazines are left) I'll open up the pages of one and be assaulted with moving pictures and sound blaring out of the pages. The Patriarch's thoughts on getting more eyes on more pages seems spot on as well.

Although I don't read any magazines regularly, my sampling of magazines while sitting in waiting rooms seems to indicate that the more a magazine is targetted at men, the less likely it is going to be a sensory overload experience. I'm not speaking towards the FHMs and Maxims, but things like Time and Newsweek, car magazines, gadget magazines, and science magazines strike me as a bit more restrained. These have their own design idiosyncracies ("swooshiness" and glossiness are emphasized), and their TOCs are still disorganized, but at least there aren't a hundred different design elements crammed on a single page with each one screaming for attention.

Posted by: Cineris on August 7, 2007 10:41 PM

Theme-grouping in ToCs is not new.

I have some science-fiction magazines from the mid 60s which have ToCs like that.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on August 12, 2007 2:40 AM

on a trade magazine, where every page counts, you can't waste two or four on the TOC.
Regarding the padded out TOC, I wonder if it is "filler" for those huge issues? Postal regulations require a certain ad/edit ratio. Stretching the TOC is cheep cause you don't have to pay a contributor. Also, creates more premium ad positions...
Regardless, the reader suffers...

Posted by: Elward on August 16, 2007 9:12 PM

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