Will Magazine Design Flourish or Fizzle on the iPad?

Last week a parody of Dwell magazine made the viral rounds. Unhappy Hipsters consists of photos drawn from the magazine, each showing cool young homeowners looking forlorn in their expensive interiors. Tagline: “It’s lonely in the modern world.” 

I suspect a magazine has jumped the shark when it invites parody, but that’s a topic for another day. What interests me most about Unhappy Hipsters is its timing: it went viral just as Apple unveiled the iPad, practically to the hour. While Steve Jobs looked to the future of periodicals, Unhappy Hipsters spoofed a print magazine culture that already seems quaint.

Even before the iPad launched, David Carr, the media columnist for The New York Times, called it the last, best hope for publishing. Maybe so, but can it save publishing’s editorial soul? In other words, can the vivid identity created by Dwell, Wallpaper*, The New Yorker and so many others exist on the iPad and mobile devices where art directors are obliged to work in a format invented by programmers? Is it possible to duplicate the palpable pleasures of pulling a lively distinctive magazine from the mailbox?

 

The New York Times anticipated this question three years ago when it created The Times Reader, software that allows one to download a digital version of the newspaper and read it on anything from a 3-square-inch portable device to a wall-mounted plasma screen. It’s an experimental effort to create an electronic presence that duplicates the look and experience of an old-line newspaper.

By and large it succeeds in conveying the paper’s typographic identity, with its family of Cheltenham fonts and the Timesian balance of photos, captions and text. The Times Reader is not well known, but it will no doubt pay dividends as editors and programmers adapt the paper to the iPad.

Both Wired and Sports Illustrated mocked-up tablet versions of their magazines with repurposed editorial content in the months before the iPad’s debut. Bonnier, the Swedish media conglomerate, created its own e-reader prototype to demonstrate how its 150 magazines might look on a tablet. All appeared to be overtures to advertisers more than earnest efforts to find a yeasty and original online identity. It did not go unnoticed that Jobs’ presentation did not include any magazine mock-ups.

These efforts remind me of 1920s movies that retained all the conventions of the stage: They’re using new technology without really adapting the content. Which returns us to our original question: how will art directors distinguish themselves online?

The iPad will likely help designers rethink magazines simply by providing a consistent format and a standard software development kit, according to Nick Bilton, one of the creators of the Times Reader and now a writer for the newspaper’s bits blog.  “If you’re designing for the web you’re faced with 10,000 different size screens out there,” he said. “With the iPad there’s one size.” As a result, he said, “designers like Jason Santa Maria can really push what they can do online.” They’re aided, he added, by the availability of typekits which provide alternatives to the default online fonts.

Steven Heller, a prolific commentator on graphic topics and a former art director at The New York Times, says the new breed of creative directors, like Behive, RG/A and Number 17 are learning to combine their typographic skills with video to create the kind of memorable experience an older generation associated only with print. The result is a kind of hybrid of graphic designer and videographer--Milton Glaser crossed with Spike Jonze. “Maybe programmers can’t see it, but if they’re paired with smart editors and savvy designers there is no telling what the next generation of online magazines could be,” Heller said. As long as the public can have access to great stories, good typography and superb visuals, it's possible we'll forget all about paper magazines.

 

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