A couple of weeks ago, the magazine industry’s latest bunch of supernovas gathered in Portland, Maine — 314 miles from Broadway. It wasn’t the usual gathering of publishers clinking martini glasses or whining editors recalling 1974. This was a convening of the designers — the suppressed geniuses who have spent decades serving the demands and needs of their arrogant editors and demanding and ungrateful publishers, who, huddled behind slanted worktables spend their days and nights awaiting the return of the epoch of Alexey Brodovitch and Alexander Liberman.
But now in Portland, Maine, their day has come!
A clutch of the most brilliant designers in magazines brought their like together for The Abstract Conference, a cultural maelstrom of the new breed of digitally attuned art directors, creative directors and designers — enlightened rivals who are seeking and seem to be finally getting seats at the grown-up table — as the publishing business that once suppressed them finally seems to be turning to them for salvation.
There is a reckoning happening in publishing. With magazines tumbling through the anti-gravity chamber of the last few years, designers have stepped up as mystics in residence. They’re describing the future while everyone else is grappling with the present. They are figuring out the tablets. Along the way they’ve become more than just the artist who illustrates a writer and editor’s story on paper. They’ve become thinkers. They’re challenging the idea that editors are the brains behind the operation.
“Designers may be sensing that there is a land grab,” said Richard Turley, who has set himself apart as the designer to watch with his Bloomberg Businessweek redesign. “There’s a great worry within magazine designers that their industry is going to crumble when magazines and newspapers go out of print, at that moment when paper is no longer the medium.”
“When the iPad came along, for designers, suddenly they had a future,” Turley continued.
The jury is a long way away from figuring out if big redesigns — in the case of The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek and Bloomberg Businessweek — will save the magazine industry, but it’s definitely making designers feel more vital. And thanks to the iPad, and the heavy design work it requires to make a good app, designers are expanding their influence.
“It’s afforded designers a seat at a table that they haven’t always been invited to,” said Scott Dadich, the former design master behind Wired who has been kicked into Condé Nast’s executive suite. “Design has a role in business conversations, in editorial conversations, in conceptual conversations and in technology conversations.”
In Maine, each Abstract Conference attendee was given a bright yellow poster that fostered a cult of personality around the presenters. “Florian Dirk Scott Arem Luke & Gael Welcome you to Abstract,” it read, putting a friendly face on the first names of designers from Fast Company, Newsweek, Condé Nast, The New York Times Magazine, Pentagram and Martha Stewart Living, respectively. Beside each name there was a tiny caricature of the designer in a different pose. Arem Duplessis, the Times Magazine design director, is shown holding up a magazine cover with his right hand and pointing to it with his left, as if to say “Check out what I made.”
On June 10, the day of the conference, Newsweek creative director Dirk Barnett took the podium at a University of Southern Maine lecture hall. He was one of Tina Brown’s first hires when she took over Newsweek.
“One of my first meetings with her she was like ‘Let me be totally frank and honest with you, Newsweek is dying, it’s hurting and this is our moment to make it better, to make it survive,’” Barnett said, showing his first 12 covers on a big screen behind him. “I think for us the question is: What is our future? Do we have one?”
He broke into a big grin. “Well, in the first 40 days of the redesign, we’ve gotten 40 new advertising accounts, so there’s definitely proof that the redesign is working,” he said.
Also Yoko Ono had tweeted something — Lady Gaga’s Oprah moment — from the magazine. He took a breath. “Ah-mazing,” he said.
“Design has always been really central and there have always been well-known designers, but now it seems to be true that you’re hearing the names of designers more,” said New York editor Adam Moss. “They’re getting more ink — in some cases for good reasons: at lots of magazines, the design is really the star.”
The sudden increased visibility even has former legends of the field wishing, it seems, that they were a part of the pack. “With the iPad and the technology, they naturally have more power,” said George Lois, the legendary art director who made covers for Harold Hayes at Esquire in the Sixties and Seventies. “They can, quote unquote, get away with sh-t.”