Unintelligent design

I have nothing against the idea of redesigning the New Yorker. The most recent tweaks have made it more pleasant and readable than ever. But KT Meany's argument for sweeping changes to the magazine's look provide an inadvertent case study in the dangers of redesigning-for-the-hell-of-it.

In her introduction Meany writes:

It’s time to elevate design standards to the same level that grammar and language are held. Ain’t it?
The cutesy grammatical mischief of "Ain't" would be more convincing if the previous sentence weren't so illiterate. The same carelessness is evident in Meany's suggestions.

She starts with the table of contents:
First, create more space by removing any ads from the contents page. Territorially speaking, we own that space!
What a great idea! Just get rid of the ads! The editorial designers will have much more room to play with, and the result will be so pretty and readable that Conde Nast will be happy to print the magazine for free! Why didn't Rea Irvin think of that?
(However, I acknowledge the importance of advertisements, and, if they are necessary, simply extend the ToC across two pages.)
Even when making concessions to reality, Meany loses touch with reality. If you give the ToC another half-page, you have to lose half a page of editorial content somewhere else. Where does it come from? Or is that something for the editor to worry about while you're busy designing?

Anyone can make a table of contents look and function better if they're allowed to say
"First give it twice as much space." The challenge of magazine design is improving things within the space you actually have.

Her dumbest suggestion, I think, is this one:
The magazine prints in four colors but predominantly uses only one: black. The 2 x 2-inch advertisement in the margin is bursting with color, yet the whole spread is sedately black and white: an inedible garnish amidst this rice-and-beans meal.
Pay attention to that metaphor. What does the garnish represent? That's right -- the text, i.e. the New Yorker's journalism and fiction.
If The New Yorker pays for CMYK, as the ad suggests, shouldn’t the spread sing with color? To make the most of money spent, let’s rethink color choices. Any one of the New Yorker sections could easily be differentiated with a subtle page tint. This would help one flip to desired articles. Illustrations could be colored, too. How devilish: Hell could look quite hot!
Well now. Since Tina Brown opened the door, the New Yorker has begun using color in ways that would once have been hard to imagine: in photographs and illustrations and in the red display type throughout. (If you have the August 6 issue nearby, take a look at pages 6, 43, and 72 for examples of the effective use of color.) Meany thinks that's not enough, and that there should be color on spreads that contain nothing but running text. Why? Because the publisher pays for color printing. This is the worst kind of design thinking: if it's available, use it! ("Where can we put this cool <marquee> tag?")

Her specific suggestions for color are as bad as you'd expect from the fucked-up premise. (1) She wants a "subtle page tint" for different sections -- maybe salmon for the listings, lime green for Talk, eggshell for fiction. This is such a great idea it's astonishing that not one of the zillions of magazines that print in full color has ever done it, perhaps because it would look totally moronic. (2) She wants to add color to the cartoons. This is the other worst kind of design thinking: the content is a tabula rasa for me to work my design magic on. Cartoons in the New Yorker are a particular kind of drawing with a long history. They're typically done in black lines and (sometimes) gray washes on a white background. The lack of color is not a sad concession to technological or economic realities -- it's a feature of the style. It allows for a particular kind of expressive linework that gets trampled on when you add color. Of course, certain drawings look good in color (there's one on page 65 of the same Aug. 6 issue), but they're not what we mean when we talk about New Yorker cartoons. If you want to replace the New Yorker cartoons with a different kind of drawing, you're welcome to suggest it, but you're not talking about design anymore, you're talking about cartooning.

And note the implication of that dopey "Hell could look quite hot" remark: apparently it's impossible to convey heat in a black-and-white illustration. Redesigning the New Yorker is a fine idea, but it should probably be handled by someone with more respect for writing and drawing than KT Meany.