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What Killed I.D. Magazine?

The magazine’s demise is a good example of why big challenges require full attention–and not half-measures.

i.d. magazine

The big design news of the week–first broken here–was the closing of I.D. Magazine, an institution in the industry whose demise came as a shock to many. In its 55 years in publication, it influenced and educated generations of designers.

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But why did it die now? The recession played a role, for sure. Meanwhile, Bruce Nussbaum has blamed American business culture, for failing to support design. But the story, as offered by several former staffers, is different. (Full disclosure: I was a staff editor at I.D. from 2005 to 2007, and a
freelancer there before it folded. Some of the following reflects
events I witnessed, but I’ve verified these with other former I.D.
staffers for accuracy.)

I.D. was treated as a one-size-fits-all commodity, no different, really, from any other magazine in F+W’s stable,” says Julie Lasky, I.D.‘s editor from 2002-2009. “Requests to give special consideration to our readers, advertisers or culture were usually considered whiny and gratuitous.” The chief example of that: As the Web exploded as a profitable design destination–on sites such as Core 77, MocoLoco, Designboom, and DezeenI.D. was left behind, without the resources to follow its audience. “We presented lots of ideas on how to fix that,” says Jill Singer, I.D.‘s managing editor from 2005-2009. But one look a the magazine’s site proves that didn’t happen.

To be sure, I.D. faced problems common to any magazine; the souring business environment put ad sales in dire straits. But ad-sales managers were never sure about how to market the magazine to begin with. Through the late 1990s and onward–excepting a catastrophic interlude from 2000-2002 when, in an effort at cost savings, the magazine was moved to Cincinnati–I.D became a magazine about cool stuff and ideas. It’s audience–spanning across disciplines ranging from Web design to industrial design–never boiled down to an easy demographic. “Defining the magazine was always a struggle,” says Stephen Kent, who was F+W’s CEO from 1999 to 2005. “Smart people argued for hours whether it was a consumer book or a trade book.” That left F+W without a clear idea about how to sell the magazine to advertisers and without dedicated sales staff that could tailor a pitch for I.D.* “Obviously we reached out to American design firms to advertise,” says Singer. “But we never expanded our reach to people we covered all of the time or those interested in them.”

Though well-placed for the rise of “design thinking” and the mass-popularization of design, I.D. still lacked a good circulation model, partly because it was so expensive on the stands, owing to printing costs. Even accounting for hindsight, the magazine’s Web site should have helped solve that problem. “It’s ironic that as design embraced the Web, the magazine for designers failed to,” says Singer. According to several former staffers, there were fights about having a
broadband intensive, image-rich site; at one point, even getting a
slideshow player took a year of negotiations. “We had the exact same
template as that of our sister publication Deer & Deer Hunting,”
says Lasky. According to Singer, “We always treated the site like a repository for magazine content, which is exactly what you’re not supposed to do.”
F+W, meanwhile, shrank the editorial staff for four to two, making additional online content impossible to produce.

I.D.‘s heyday probably came in the late 1990s, when it won five National Magazine Awards–the industry’s highest honor–under editor Chee Pearlman. But it’s not necessarily true that the magazine fell off. (It was a finalist for the 2007 General Excellence award.) A niche that once seemed novel became less so, as competition became fierce–magazines such as WIRED and Fast Company started to cover innovation from a business/tech/design perspective; others such as Dwell covered the consumer/shelter side. Meanwhile, the very freshness of the magazine was being challenged by the Web: “There was an ability to astound and surprise in print in the 1990s. We had wide-open field that wasn’t being covered,” Pearlman says. “But that’s not possible anymore with all the blogs out there covering the same news.”

*One detail I learned in my reporting which didn’t make it into the main story above: Financially, I.D. was hobbled from the outset. I.D.‘s books were never credited
with profits from its cash cow, the Annual Design Awards. Even though
I.D.‘s editors ran the awards, the profits it made, of around $200,000 a year, went instead to a competitions division at F+W. That money would have made I.D., which roughly broke even on costs of around $2 million a year, a profitable enterprise. F+W plans on continuing the awards, despite the magazine’s demise. 

**Gary Lynch, F+W’s Design titles publisher & editorial director, did not respond to the specific criticisms above, but had this response:

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I think our challenges are shared by many legacy print media companies. As you know from the media press, industry-wide, including I.D., 429 print titles have been shuttered so far this year; 613 were shut down in 2008, while 643 were closed in 2007. Frankly, all things considered, even though our “numbers” – paid subscribers, newsstand sales, and advertising sales — were down pretty significantly since 2007 we think our team hung pretty tough. Looking into the crystal ball for next year, we’re not prepared to call a print advertising recovery, and our research shows that our readers won’t pay more for the magazine (confirmed, unfortunately, by one of your blog respondents from yesterday). The closing of I.D. magazine in print was a conclusion reached after a valiant effort over many years on the part of its staff; we mourn its closing and the dislocation to its staff just as much – if not more – than you.

 

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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