What Two Smart People, John Maeda and Ed Thompson, Would Tell Editors About Design

By Jack Limpert

A tweet yesterday from design guru John Maeda: Only when design fails does it draw attention to itself; when it succeeds, it’s invisible.

Maeda, an interesting visual mind, headed the Rhode Island School of Design for the past five years and is now with a California venture capital firm.

I couldn’t resist tweeting back: Advice in 1970 from Ed Thompson, editor of Life and Smithsonian: “When you notice the design, fire the designer.”

Maeda and others then retweeted that Thompson quote.

What Ed Thompson actually told me was: “When you notice the art direction, fire the art director.” I apologize for the change; while the meaning stayed the same, it was changing a quote to fit space and I should know better.

That said, the reader-comes-first spirit of Ed Thompson lives on and I can’t help wondering what that great Life editor would say to the editors of Sports Illustrated and Time, the two Time Inc. magazines I read every week.

Sports Illustrated continues to be worth $39 a year—lots of good reporting and writing, plenty of great photography. But channeling what Thompson might say to the SI editors: What the hell have you done with the picture captions? Readers look at the pictures and they want to know what’s going on and a good picture caption makes them want to read the story. You’re ganging the picture captions so the reader has to work to match the words with the picture? You’re letting designers hide the captions in small type, and it’s not even black type? I never thought the editors at Sports Illustrated would let the editors at People show them how to edit a magazine. I can see why readers of People pay three times as much as the readers of Sports Illustrated. It’s because the editors at People don’t let the designers run the magazine.

What would he say about Time, which is $30 a year? My guess is he’d be glaring at the editors and saying something like: The magazine is only 64 pages and you don’t have much advertising and you have only 47 editorial pages and you’re letting your designers use up all that space with undisciplined layouts? I love good photography but you’re burning up spread after spread with big pictures that designers may coo over but do nothing to invite readers to read. When Henry Luce started Time in 1923, he wanted to help readers understand the world. The world is now much more complicated and Time editors should be focused on helping readers understand it.

As for People, I knew some of the Time editors when People started in 1974 and they had a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding attitude toward what they saw as a lightweight celebrity magazine. People now costs more than $100 a year to subscribe. I pay $59 a year for the New Yorker. What do those two magazines have in common? They’re run by the editors.

John Maeda and Ed Thompson would agree that design works when it’s so good you don’t notice it. You just keep reading. And subscribing.

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