In Defense of Roger Black and Ready-Media

In Defense of Roger Black and Ready-Media

Arthur Hochstein was the art director of Time magazine from 1994 to the end of 2009. In addition to creating over 1000 covers of the magazine (and putting together Time's annual Top 10 magazine cover list), he has done a number of very smart redesigns and projects for other magazines. We asked him for his thoughts on the new Roger Black Ready-Media project and the controversy that has surrounded it on the SPD site..

Arthur Hochstein: I'm hearing an echo of the Luddite movement here (although I understand that this discussion isn't about resistance to new technology). Like my friend Luke Hayman, I don't quite see what all the fuss is about, and I admire Roger for having the impulse to do this and not be cowed by the criticism of his peers. As others have pointed out, he's always put the business of design on equal footing with designing itself (as if there is something inherently unsavory about that).

I'm not saying this is the greatest thing since sliced bread--but using sliced bread as a metaphor, we live in a world where Wonder Bread co-exists with healthful and flavorful whole-grain artisinal products. Who chooses to consume what is a function of cultural context and economic means. It seems that Roger believes he sees an untapped market niche, in a manner not unlike Martha Stewart, or Pottery Barn, or even Banana Republic.

In its purest form (I'm thinking of the Fred Woodward paradigm), bespoke design does elevate a magazine and reach the level where "design is content." But all too often, it is a substitute for content, and many of the potential clients of Ready-Media may not have the resources to attain that kind of execution. And let's face it: Once a bespoke format is created, the top-level talent that created it moves on to other projects, leaving beind a staff with a wide range of skills to carry on. Unless that staff has the requisite talent and leadership, many of these designs often devolve over time anyway.

When Luke Hayman redesigned Time magazine, he left behind a beautiful and functional set of guidelines, but they were visual and intellectual seedlings that couldn't have grown without the understanding, enthusiasm and efforts of Time's staff, including its editor and photo editors. I'd like to think that's a success story. But in the absence of Time's resources, many smaller publications (and maybe even not-so-small ones) could benefit from a strong structure and typographic taste level that are bound to be "customized" over time--some well, and some poorly. And by not over-focusing on format considerations, maybe some smart young designer will discover the power of visual--and verbal--content. Scores of beautifully-designed magazines use well-worn typefaces and simple grids to great effect.

We all rhapsodize over the legendary George Lois Esquire covers of the 1960s. Can anyone recall the typefaces he used (OK, usually it was Franklin Gothic, but I cheated) or what the "design" was like? (I remember reading The Man Himself say that there was no place for "design" on a magazine cover.) It was the concept, the emotional resonance and the ability to capture the zeitgeist that we remember. Lois was an ad guy, not a magazine designer. But to a lesser degree, that kind of format-independent thinking can enliven the inside of a magazine as well.

Paula Scher's great typographic posters could never be reduced to a format, nor replicated by a lesser talent. They were (are) sui generis. But most magazines, by their nature, need to use repetitive structural elements; what separates the great from the pedestrian is how the art directors and editors create the captivating content from issue to issue. Just because the format is pre-cooked doesn't mean an ambitious--or even merely competent--designer can't bend it and make it his or her own and infuse it with original content.

There will always be work for the talented and the innovative, on platforms currently in use and ones that haven't even been dreamt up yet. I agree that in a perfect world every publication design would be original and compelling. But this is, after all, a business. If this idea sucks, it won't thrive in the marketplace. And if it succeeds, it'll be just one more competitive element in our very, very fast-changing industry. All the outrage in the world won't change that fact.


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  • randylee

    As someone who teaches publication design I can think of only this analogy: in the visual communication department they produce these brilliant, funny, arch and stunning windows from time to time. Little do these students know that once they leave the womb of art school, they will face a corporate world of display where everything is generated from a corporate point of view. Templates.

    I can now go into class and tell them they don't really need to learn a craft, because what they do need to learn is how to modify templates?

    Web design, not the most engaging of projects uses templates and this is good because there is so much programming behind the design. This can't be said of magazine design.

    The best magazine design has always been a kind of poetry: a mingling of typography, images and concept that forms to tell a story.

    A template based world is a sad reality, not something to celebrate.

  • AntonShmerkin

    I totally agree with Arthur. In fact, I just left a comment on the original article (just add butter...) not having read this here. Now I have and I must say, I don't see anybody getting hurt by this. No "kid outa art school", nobody. The kid out of art school is going to intern for somebody for a few years any way, learning how not to spill coffee while tidying up the design room, learning the corporate ropes and whose ass needs to be kissed to push through what... No one is going compete with a template service because no scott daddich or fred woodward is going to Atwood, TN to redesign the "Atwood Sentinel".

  • Arem Duplessis

    Arthur, in all fairness there’s a HUGE difference between what Luke did for Time magazine (respected partner at a respected firm meeting with editors, discussing the magazine's mission, demographics, what’s working for the brand, what’s not) and a generic template that a prospective client can choose from like a rack of frozen dinners.

    Does Ready-Media hurt the established art directors and firms? The answer is no. But it does deliver a massive blow to that kid right out of school who is trying to make a name for himself. Most of the comments defending Ready-Media were from whom? Established art directors. Come on people, think back to that summer when you graduated from art school and your heart was pounding with anxiety. Competing with a fellow student is one thing, but competing with a template service is unacceptable. Creating good magazine architecture is incredibly hard work, difficult work. But it's work that MUST be driven by the content. It's hard to imagine how this Ready-Media approach, accessible to numerous clients, will result in a unique look from publication to publication.

    I say good luck, we all want to be part of a profitable business, but I doubt our industry can be reduced to a simple one-size-fits-all solution.

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