An Editor Tries to Make Sense of Editorial Design: What Are They Thinking at SI and the Atlantic?

By Jack Limpert

As a beginning magazine editor, I struggled with the design side of the business. In my first year at the Washingtonian, I just let the art director do his own thing, figuring he knew best. As the months went by, I began wondering, “What does that design do to help the reader better understand the story? What does that design do to make the reader want to read the story?”

After several years of struggling, I went to a Washington brunch where I was introduced to Ed Thompson, who had edited Life magazine before starting and editing Smithsonian magazine. I asked for advice on working with art directors. He paused, looked at me as if I’d asked a dumb question, and said, “When you notice the art direction, fire the art director.”

That gave me the confidence to be more assertive on design and one of the smartest decisions I made was going to the publisher and convincing him that the editor should control the art department budget as well as the editorial budget: The old idea that if you control their budget, their hearts and minds will follow.

My instinct now is that lots of editors need some assertiveness training in dealing with art directors. Sports Illustrated, locked in a battle for survival with ESPN magazine, still has lots of great photography and writing but its design is all over the place. The Atlantic, with almost no good photography but lots of great writing, also seems chaotic on the design side.
I recently began looking at design because I wanted to see how magazines differed in the readability of their type, which affected how much time I wanted to spend with each magazine. The New Yorker seems a pleasure to read compared to most the magazines I get. Why?

Looking at pages, the type in the New Yorker does look more inviting. So I looked at the basics: How many characters in each line of type? The count varies a little by line, depending on capital letters and punctuation, but a rough average of New Yorker copy is about 37 characters per line. The type doesn’t look crowded; it looks inviting. There are three columns of type on most pages. Nothing fancy, just readable and worth paying $99 for a two-year subscription. It’s probably not a very exciting place for a designer to work.

Sports Illustrated, long one of my favorite magazines, is, by contrast, all over the place typographically. On every story a designer seems to be thinking, “What can I do to be different?” The type looks smaller than the type in the New Yorker, and many of the pages have two columns of type, not three, so the lines of small type seem longer and more challenging to read. Most of the lines have more than 60 characters. SI also isn’t bashful about reversing type out of dark backgrounds, making it even harder to read. What may seem creative to the SI designers to me just seems harder to read.

The Atlantic, with lots of interesting words, doesn’t have much inviting photography so they seem to want to play with the type differently with each story. Its March cover piece, “What ISIS Really Wants—and How to Stop It,” is easy to read. Like the New Yorker stories, it had under 40 characters a line. But its other big March piece, “Among the Hillary Haters,” was eight pages of wide copy, with more than 60 characters a line. You look at it (if you can get by the grotesque illustration that leads it) and think: This is going to be like homework. Do I have to read it?

What I read the most are the Washington Post and New York Times. Stories in the Post have around 34 characters a line, and in the Times about 31 characters a line. (Pages and columns in the Times are a little narrower than those in the Post.) The type in both papers seems easy to read. I also read a lot on an iPhone: About 40 characters per line there.

The type in Time magazine, with about 41 characters per line, seems a little harder to read than that in the New Yorker, with its 37 characters per line. The type in Vanity Fair (and the Washingtonian) seems to challenge the reader with about 43 characters per line.

Okay, I know readability can’t be judged only by the number of characters per line but it does seem to make a difference.
The two books I’m reading? Citizens of the Green Room, by Mark Leivovich, has type with about 64 characters per line but it’s big type and very easy to read. Likewise The Whites, by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt; it has 72 characters per line but again it’s big type and easy to read. A couple of wonderful reading experiences.

Two magazines I once liked but found increasingly unreadable? Esquire and GQ. I suspect they both win design awards, which makes me think that Ed Thompson now might say:  When the art director starts winning design awards, fire the art director.


  1. Edward Kosner says

    Ah, design: I suspect we’re at a twilight of the gods moment. In five years or so, no one will care. But I agree with you completely on this. It was the hardest issue I had to deal with at Newsweek, New York and Esquire.

    When I parachuted into NY Mag in 1980, the now immortal Roger Black was the art director. He approach was to give each of his junior designers a feature and let he/she lay it out with no reference to each other. The result was a chaotic mess that made the magazine look unstable, if not demented. To get New York back to its classic roots, I decreed that there would be only three formats: The Glaser template for the upfront columns and b-o-b reviews, one serif face for newsy stories, and another, lighter serif face for features. It worked, and Roger soon decamped for glory as a newspaper designer. Bob Best succeeded him and over the next dozen years, we kept evolving and updating the design so that the magazine seemed fresh but there never was an identifiable “redesign.”

    I had a later, more successful experience with Roger at Esquire (although he was the only art director I ever worked with who literally couldn’t draw at all).

    Anyway, my point, such as it is, is that I fear design of the print edition of magazines is a lost cause. It will still be a factor going forward for fashion and interior-design books, but less for general interest mags.

    Having a good, clean tablet edition, as The New Yorker and The Economist do, will be the enduring priority.

  2. Bob Kelleter says

    Too many designers would prefer working in cyrillic, in which case readability is irrelevant. The page is just a blank palette on which they may arrange beautiful shapes and colors. I’ve seen too many pages with 7 point red type on a black background.

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