Update: Thursday, May 20

First off, there’s an interesting conversation going on over at Big Other. To get the whole idea, read this first, then this, then this. These people are smart and thoughtful in an exciting way: go read! Tadd and I are in the process of having a number of conversations about this topic, and other PR-related topics, with AD Jameson and amongst ourselves, so we’ll see what comes of it.

Secondly: I recently rediscovered a friend who I knew at summer camp when I was younger, Liz Tapp, and it turns out she publishes a culture magazine called Mule. I ordered a copy posthaste, and it came, and I looked at it. It is beautiful!

It also has advertisements, color ones, that are well designed. And not ads for other magazines necessarily. (Not that I love ads, but I love ads that seem like they might generate income for either the publisher or the ad-buyer.)

Which I think could be linked up to the Big Other conversation, if one wanted to make that connection. About funding, etc., and PR, and saleability, etc.

But what really stood out for me was the design. The magazine makes you want to hold it and read it, and their design is exciting, mentally stimulating, while being immensely readable (something I often find is lacking in magazines, although my copies of the New Yorker do it for me well enough).

Design has been something I’ve been thinking about a lot this week, particularly since my computer (on which I do the layout for Artifice) has become unmanageably slow, especially if I try something crazy like having Illustrator and InDesign open at the same time.

Last weekend I was working on doing a draft layout of one of the longer pieces in Issue #2, Brandon Blackburn’s “Black Sails by Sunrise,” and ended up having an actual tantrum, with tears and stomping. “Black Sails by Sunrise” isn’t typographically complex, either: it’s a longer story with labyrinthine textual notes that are kind of like footnotes but not exactly. (Sidenote: over here at Artifice we are so excited about sharing this story with you. It’s like the story equivalent of this piece of knitted 22k gold and the Infinity Room at House on the Rock.)

And because I couldn’t really work on designing Artifice, I’ve been thinking obsessively about the Artifice design.

The Artifice design is intentionally plain. I almost typed “bland,” but that’s inaccurate. It’s plain, it looks almost “undesigned,” a decision we made so that when we broke the plainness, or made a change, it would be because the designing of a certain piece demanded it. Design is in service to words, here.

Here are three sample pages from Issue #1 from Lance Olsen, Jessica Bozek, and Kyle Hemmings, as an example.

As you can see: the default setting for prose text in Artifice Magazine is left-justified. There are only two fonts in the default design: Adobe Jensen (I love Jensen-y fonts. And the Adobe Jensen has an enormous family. Very useful. In fact, it’s the font that my arm tattoo is in. It’s a Robinson Jeffers quote.) and Gill Sans.

But sometimes I get a little insecure about this. I like cool design as much as the next person. I get all fluttery when I look at Proximity or Ninth Letter or anything that featherproof books touches. And now Mule.

Because highly designed is “in.” It’s part of what makes the “celebrity culture” of indie presses run. How many times have you bought a book based on the cover design on a website?

Tim Jones-Yelvington (an Issue #1 contributor who has become a good friend) and I were recently at Quimby’s, a local indie bookstore, picking up books published by Green Lantern Press.

They make me want them. All of them. They flip the consumer switch in me, which doesn’t want fancy jewelry to show off, but rather understated little jewel-books. Is that bad? It is true that I first said about them, “I love Green Lantern Press; their books are so gorgeous” rather than “I love Green Lantern Press; the authors they publish are so good.”

Is this a problem? Are presses and magazines that focus on highly designed layouts giving people the carrot in order to try and convince them to like the stick, too? I don’t know: as soon as I sat down with a couple of Green Lantern’s books, I revised my thinking. “I love Green Lantern Press; their books are so gorgeous and the authors they publish are so good.” 

So: while I sit around, trying to figure out the busted-computer situation, I’m considering all this (And reading Issue #6 of Mule). Are we doing the right thing with design?


5 responses to “Update: Thursday, May 20

  1. I’ve said this in a blog post before but as much as I love Ninth Letter, their magazine is way too over-designed. No matter how strong the writing (which is very strong), it is the design that leaves the lasting impression and I think that’s a real problem.At the same time, there are magazines who don’t give nearly enough attention to design, who think hey I’m just going to vomit some words on a page without any thought to typography, visual structure or the smart use of white space. I’m equally distracted by such magazines, and I won’t name names but there are plenty of them out there.Design in literary magazines requires achieving that fine balance between form and function. One of the things I appreciate most about Artifice is that you put all the artifice in the words and not in the design. When I first opened Issue 1, I was relieved by the elegance and simplicity of the design, and the really rich choices like the embossed lettering on the cover. I think it’s great that you’re willing to interrogate your design choices but I love what you’re doing. The only thing I might suggest is perhaps using a line somewhere on the page but I love lines so that might be just my own personal issue. Artifice = EXCELLENT all around. Few magazines can say that.

  2. Aw, thanks Roxane! You know, I kind of hate lines. And the lines that are in your piece in the issue? Kind of stress me out. Tadd kept saying, "No, they’re the right width, they’re the right width," but lines always feel either too wide or too short for me. But maybe I just don’t understand lines? Entirely possible.I agree that leaving with the design being the primary lasting impression is a problem. If you want to do that, I think it’s ok to say, "I’m going to make an art book." There’s nothing wrong with art books. They’re actually awesome. But they’re not the same as lit journals. (Someone could make a "continuum" argument, but there’s no need. I know that.)One journal that I think is really quite good in terms of being designed-but-not-TOO-designed is Salt Hill. Their editor right now is also their designer – Nadxieli Nieto Hall – and she’s a fantastic designer, I think. (Also super nice. We met her at AWP.)Salt Hill is attached to Syracuse, I think? Yes.

  3. Salt Hill is exquisite and a perfect example of a harmonious blend between content and design. I understand your stance on lines! I am a little obsessed with them.

  4. @ Roxane: Ninth Letter is a design magazine, not a literary magazine: the writing is there to illustrate the design. I personally don’t care for it, but I’m sure it lifts some folks’ luggage.I used to read a lot of design magazines, back in college. I stopped when I grew tired of how over-designed so much of US culture is—which is what happens when artists are herded into "practical degrees" like graphic design, interior architecture, etc. (It’s not dissimilar to how writers are encouraged to major in practical things like comp/rhet, ESL, tech writing.)Disclaimer: I’ve worked as both a tech writer and a layout/design editor.

  5. I think some of the over-design is a symptom of the same dying era of super-glossy bubble-filled web 2.0 site designs—when people finally got the tools that made it easy to *do* things, they just couldn’t help themselves. I honestly think there’s a serious backlash to that brewing in the design community. I think clean lines and good use of whitespace and typography should be the goal of anything with words in it. I think minimal (which means different things to different people) is coming back. If I had to pick another magazine that I think strikes a nice balance, I’d volunteer Annalemma.Roxane is also right, because so many lit mags are just awful(ly designed). The text bleeds to the edge of the page or the margins are completely unequal or unbalanced because they forgot to take the binding into account. Or they use twenty fonts. Or or or. Minimal may appear simple, but it requires a kind of restraint that I think is to be cherished.

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