Help! Lost in the Labyrinth of Design

Recently GraphicDesign&, a pioneering publishing house in London, asked seventy international designers to give the first page of Dickens’ Great Expectations a new, jazzy look. They collected results in a book titled Page 1: Great Expectations that can be ordered from their website for $25.00 plus shipping. The website offers pictures of a sampling of the varied layouts and typographical styles, ranging from tabloid and magazine inspired presentations to what’s called infographics and data visualization that translates text into charts and graphs. The pieces are accompanied by brief though sometimes lofty explanations of the designers’ approaches to Dickens’ iconic first page.

Many of the approaches are fun and visually playful but unfortunately some designers fall into the trap of allowing the text to become secondary to the design. I can’t see wanting to relegate one of the most famous novel openings—“My father’s family name being Pirrip and my Christian name Phillip, my infant tongue could make of both nothing more explicit than Pip”—to a miasma of tables, bars, charts, grids and graphics. The layouts sometimes strike me as the visual equivalent of a post modern novel run amuck.

I am a casual connoisseur of book and magazine design but no expert. Most of my knowledge on the subject comes from being a regular reader of Print magazine, and whenever I am in Vancouver I drop by Emily Carr School of Design and sit in the current periodicals room and page through their selection of art and design magazines. Also a lot of literary magazines come through the office of TMR, and I peruse them for visual elements that I like and ones that I don’t.

One of my favorite magazines both in terms of production value and design is Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature & Culture published by the Korea Institute at Harvard. The weighty journal has looped linen cover stock, French flaps, and block color front matter that picks up the interior spot color. Inside the text is reader friendly with plenty of white space.

When I’m feeling frazzled by hyper overdesigned books and publications, I turn to the New Yorker, which hasn’t changed its font or layout design since 1925 when Rea Irvin gave the magazine its distinctive design personality. The New Yorker has avoided needing a makeover because Irvin was able to create such a distinctive visual voice right from the start.

I’d love to know which books and magazines that you admire for their design flair.

Kris Somerville is the marketing director of The Missouri Review