Editors Can Kill a Magazine But So Can Designers

By Jack Limpert

Sports Illustrated will be 60 next year and over the years it has published a lot of great writing and photography. Frank Deford, Dan Jenkins, Gary Smith–the list of terrific SI writers goes on and on. Back in May I wrote about one of SI’s new writers, Thomas Lake, who did the kind of great narrative piece that makes a magazine worth paying for.

As a magazine editor, I’ve long admired what the editors at SI have done: Some of the best photography in any magazine, stories that showed the human side of winning and losing, stories that went after what’s wrong in sports, and above all great writing.

Now the designers are trying to make the words of the SI writers almost impossible to read.

Magazine design always has its hazards. Plenty of designers don’t like to read and their art direction can be at odds with what the words are saying. Lots of designers are more interested in impressing other designers than in attracting readers. If you look at design awards over the years, there’s almost an inverse relationship between design awards and circulation growth.

The newest challenge to good design is the fear that younger, digitally-savvy readers won’t read a magazine unless it somehow mirrors the web. The current Folio has an interesting piece on “How Digital Informed Inc.’s Redesign.” Eric Schurenberg, editor of Inc., says “The new navigation of the magazine was ‘totally borrowed’ from the way people navigate websites.” Seeing the changes in recent issues of Sports Illustrated suggest that SI designers now think that magazine stories don’t have to be any easier to read than what you see on an iPhone screen. What they’re forgetting is that you usually don’t read much more than 100 words on an iPhone.

Look at the July 29 issue of Sports Illustrated: A so-so cover subject (“The NFL’s Most Voluble Player” ) and very busy cover type. It’s what editors do: When your main cover story isn’t that strong, sell the hell out of as many other pieces as possible.

Lots of stories is the issue about the upcoming NFL season, a good book excerpt on “The Sports Gene,” great photo coverage of Phil Mickelson winning the British Open along with an okay piece on why Tiger didn’t win, and the usual little stuff that SI does so well. Not a great issue but good enough

What’s going to probably make me throw the next SI renewal notice away is the magazine’s increasing tendency to make too many of the words too hard to read. The designers seem to be telling the writers: We’re in charge now—you can write all the fine prose you want but we’ll put your precious words in a very small, very thin sans serif type. And we’re not done. The type that’s easiest to read is black on white. Too easy: Let’s put the type on a gray screen. Then we’ll make the type a medium shade of red. Small, skinny dull red type out of a background of  boring gray. A trifecta of bad design.

How does print stay strong in the digital age? Lots of promising strategies but making a magazine page mimic an iPhone screen isn’t one of them.

Speak Your Mind