Why Are Some Magazines Ugly?

Matt Holden is a writer, editor, small press publisher, translator and bookseller. From 1999 to 2009 he was magazine production editor at Fairfax Media in Melbourne, and from 2011 to 2014 he was the editor of The Age Good Cafe Guide and a regular contributor to Fairfax Media newspapers and websites. He now writes commentary, opinion and editorial leaders for The Age and Fairfax Media online.


Graphic design is one of the key elements of a magazine, because magazines are a graphic medium as much as a text-based one.

Graphic design plays several different but related roles. The most basic is the arrangement of text and images within the frame of the page or the spread to make them available to the reader: the organisation and display of the content to make it readable. Design also creates the magazine’s wayfinding system: because we don’t necessarily read a magazine from front to back, and because we don’t necessarily read all the content, the design tells us where stories start and end, and where we can enter them and exit them (which is not necessarily the same as where they start and end).


Design Hook Baited With Tasty Morsels

The editor and the designer provide “hooks” to get readers involved in stories: headlines, kickers, pull quotes, photo captions, breakouts and infographics are all hooks that lead readers down through levels of engagement with a story.

The cover design and the cover lines attract a potential reader’s attention on the newsstand, and design elements attract the actual reader’s attention to particular stories once they open the magazine.

Magazines also use various forms of visual storytelling: each article is a package of text, illustrative and graphic elements; sometimes stories are almost entirely graphic – Wired magazine tells stories in the form of infographics without any “body copy” – and sometimes stories consist of just photos and captions; for a good example, see “We Stand With Her” in the April 2018 issue of Marie Claire, which over a series of pages offers readers photos of women standing up to power through history, with explanatory captions. This story needs no other copy.


Who On Earth Is This Magazine For?

Design is a key part of a magazine’s identity. How a magazine looks is the first clue to the reader of who the magazine is for and what the magazine is, and this starts with the cover. Time, for example, uses a red frame around the cover image (usually an internationally recognisable political or business leader shot in a close-up portrait) and the magazine’s masthead in a sober serif typeface. After nearly a century, people understand that this means “serious news magazine”. The Economist uses a similar red frame and serif masthead to send the same message, while Newsweek and the Italian news magazine L’Espresso work with variations of the red and black masthead to mark themselves as similar.

The women’s lifestyle magazine Cosmopolitan is instantly recognisable from both its bold condensed sans-serif masthead and the characteristic three-quarter-length posed shot of the cover model, usually a female celebrity looking the reader in the eye, hands on hips: a pose that projects the magazine’s assertive female (hetero)sexuality.

A screenshot of a Google search for 'Cosmopolitan Magazine'
A screenshot of a Google search for ‘Cosmopolitan Magazine’

One of the key strategies of the Australian alternative women’s lifestyle magazine Frankie has been the use of low-key design – matte paper, naturalistic photography, a restricted palette of type sizes and colours, illustration as much as photography – to distinguish itself from the brasher design of more commercial women’s “glossies”. Readers who might find the glossy lifestyle magazines too trashy or commercial will be attracted by Frankie’s “indie” feel.


Design As Discourse

These are the functional aspects of magazine design, working at increasingly abstract levels. Design also has what you could call a “discursive” function.

Kinfolk is a “slow lifestyle” magazine that was founded by four young Americans in 2011 and is now based in Copenhagen, Denmark. It’s printed on matte paper and uses a cool, restrained minimalism in its layout, typography and photography.

Within its pages, Kinfolk creates a world of people, places, experiences and objects that are hip and well-designed, made of real materials, coloured in muted tones, often produced using traditional methods and technologies. There are recipes for home-made comfort food, and people dressed in stylish (but comfortable) clothes cooking and eating the food.

The typography and layout are restrained – a limited, carefully chosen palette of typefaces and type sizes arranged in tidy but not always symmetrical blocks on the page.

The overall impression is of something carefully “curated” and hand-made. But what Kinfolk is also doing is creating a universe that contains the kinds of objects that the magazine itself wants to be – and Kinfolk, the object, is an essential part of that world for the reader who wants to inhabit it.

The Australian men’s lifestyle magazine Smith Journal, published by Frankie Press, uses the same strategy: the people featured in Smith Journal (which has the strapline “thinkers adventurers makers writers inventors”) and the people who read the magazine are the same type of people, and the objects featured in the magazine are like the magazine itself as objects: quirky, indie, bespoke, not part of the mainstream.

Both Kinfolk and Smith Journal create a “discursive universe” and posit themselves as part of that universe through their design.

Kinfolk Magazine Covers
Kinfolk Magazine Covers: Image from kinfolk.com


Design Should Be Lovely, Right?

The word “design” implies an aesthetic as well as a functional dimension – we feel design should look good as well as work well.

So why are some magazines – such as, for example, the celebrity gossip magazine NW and the pig-hunting quarterly Bacon Busters – “ugly” (why don’t they look good, even if they work well)?

Their ugliness derives partly from busy-ness and discord: “beautiful” magazines such as Kinfolk are restrained and use plenty of negative or white space. In print, space is a luxury: there is a limit to the page size, and a limit to the number of pages available to put editorial on. Negative space says “upmarket”. Cheaper magazines such as NW pack their pages full of content, creating a sense of value in the appearance of surplus. The “busy-ness” translates to “ugly” for a sensibility that sees the aim of design as creating order.

But these magazines are also part of their own discursive universes: NW is a window onto a world of celebrity excess, the world of tacky celebrities whose names start with “K”.

And Bacon Busters is a scrapbook of trophy shots of dead feral pigs and the men, women and sometimes children who shoot them, and its layout – amateur photos framed with white borders, arrayed on the page as if spread out on a table, with explanatory text and captions underneath – marks it as a scrapbook for the people who live in the pig-shooting universe.••


The image of the Kinfolk covers can be found at:


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