Editing 101: More About Editors, Art Directors, and Design

By Jack Limpert

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

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.’”

What Ed Thompson actually told me was: “When you notice the art direction, fire the art director.”

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.
Update: Looking at the January 26 issue of Sports Illustrated, the picture captions seem more interesting and readable than in past issues.


  1. I find it hard to see how one can compare People and The New Yorker, the former having almost no sense of design at all and the latter having design that is not offensive to one’s eye (the way People is) and is well laid out, utilizing what The New Yorker calls “illustrations,” their cartoons, and other art.

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