The Chronographical Survey #2: The Atlantic

My longest-running magazine subscription is for the Atlantic (Monthly), going back some 20+ years. I can’t recall exactly where I first encountered it, likely someone I was staying with or visiting frequently had a subscription. Though I was just out of art school, I ponied up for my own subscription when my borrowed access ended. However tight my finances got, I kept the magazine coming. I felt a little extra connection as it was prominently and resolutely headquartered in Boston, where it was founded and I lived.

As I listened only to music on the radio, and watched little TV, The Atlantic provided me a regular connection to the serious, adult world of ideas, politics, and culture. I appreciated the depth and breadth of its topics, and the length at which its feature stories investigated subjects. Whatever sophistication I have about politics and an intellectual life derives in large part from reading The Atlantic.

It also played a revelatory role in my creative life. A 1988 article by David Owen (all his stuff was great, I missed him when he moved on) introduced me to the term “ephemeral states.” From the short piece on imaginary countries and their colorful founders, I evolved a conceptual center for all my imaginative pursuits.

In a way, I never really felt I was supposed to be reading it. From its’ advertising, I recognized I was miles (and $0000s) from the target demographic (and I’m hardly much more now). Akubra Hats from Australia? BMWs? Private banking? By sending me an issue, it felt as if the magazine was slumming. Maybe I’d luck out and become a well-known artist. The only ad I’ve identified with over more than two decades was a surprise 1991 fractional-page promo for R.E.M.’s Out of Time. I almost expected to find the ad had been tipped-in over a “real” one just in my copy.

Both The Atlantic and I are long gone from Boston. It’s remained a constant as I’ve swerved through career and life changes. It’s undergone a number of adjustments in direction and focus on its own with as it worked through publisher and editor changes. Over the years, my attention and interest has flagged at times. But I stuck.

If I’d noted The Atlantic’s design, I recognized it followed the mainstream design styles of the times, with a better application. The magazine design was serious but not dour, in keeping with its devotion to culture and entertainment. There were always elements I particularly appreciated, often illustrations, and some that seemed stale.

Lately, I’d liked some of the iterations it had been making on its layout. It was great to be able to haul an issue into Typography class and show them hanging punctuation in a monthly journal. If there was anything in the design that consistently bothered me it was the covers. The face of the magazine was usually dull and too frequently unsightly. And the masthead? (Shrugs.)

And so the latest issue comes in the mail and I find The Atlantic has undergone a redesign. Not only that but my magazine opted for a top-shelf renovation by Pentagram, specifically Michael Bierut and Luke Hayman. Like the magazine’s ads, the choice tells me I’m still way out of the demographic. Selecting Pentagram is a bit disappointing to me, for the safety and brand-namedness. It’s unsurprising, as Bierut has worked tirelessly to be one of the field’s most Literary designers. If not him, I’d expect the next choice to be Winterhouse (I wonder if there’s some envy in the Design Observer empire.)

That the resulting design would be creditable and defensible goes without saying. But the new design makes me feel even more estranged than the adverts. Along with the rationales Bierut provides in the new issue on the redesign, I’m sure there were pragmatic, demographic ones that are unstated. For me, the redesign is, at best, a lateral move. But elements of the magazine I appreciated before have been purged. And that I’m somewhat let down may be good news for the magazine.

If I had to guess at a pragmatic, unspoken demand on the redesign, it was to trend younger. That seems a safe assumption for any product, especially one that’s been around for 150 years. If so, I feel doubly old, as while I can admire the redesign as a design artifact, it doesn’t particularly appeal to me as a design aficionado.

What makes me feel old on its own is how big and bold the graphic elements have gotten. Rules are single and thick, and the title face (Titling Gothic) is a Condensed Black with squinty-eyed counters. Even the text face, Hoefler & Frere-Jones’ Mercury, looks bulked-up from the magazine’s previous face. Bierut regards Mercury as “elegant,” which, in comparison to most faces, can certainly apply. However, I’d toss in a modifier of “spiky” or “jaggy,” with that (and, hey, now that I read the founders’ own description of the face, I see they use ‘spiky,’ too.)

It’s a nice typeface and I think Hoefler & Frere-Jones are probably incapable of producing a dud font. Its curves are a bit too “taut” for me, here.

In addition, the layout clears away what were evidently deemed “graphic tricks.” The sense of “urgency” in the design that Bierut hopes to achieve (balanced with “ideas”) predominates, and the result is kind of bland. A sense of constant to-the-chase-cutting is across the pages. There was a sense of contemplation I found in the previous design that has been cleared out. It’s all text, rules, and a cordoned-off gallery of hit-or-miss “image arguments” (to paraphrase the editor) sprinkled throughout. To me, the magazine now looks like the “homework” look, Bierut sought to avoid (though I’m still furrowing my brow over that descriptive).

If there’s any graphic whimsy to leaven the overall tone, it’s in Felix Sockwell’s miniscule illustration buried at the bottom of the table of contents.

How this makes me feel old is that, like that R.E.M. ad, I wonder if The Atlantic knew I just got my first pair of bifocals recently (maybe Michael B. got it off my Facebook profile) and everything had to be graphically demonstrative. I’m also off-put by the funeral, white type on solid-black background opening page to the Features section. It’s like a memento mori to the old magazine—or a way of reading.

One element that’s a solid genius move is the revival of a long-standing masthead (the issues from the 1950’s employing the masthead are the pick of the lot). I can only hope it’ll be given some breathing room in the future. The first cover is a jumbled mess of a layout, and then down to the fitted-text composition. The left-hand vertical band makes practical sense to eliminate waste but adds to the clutter here. The use of this masthead makes me wish that that sensibility had been brought inside the magazine. It’s a wonderful idiosyncrasy that deserves more play. Then again, for most, it may have seen as a nostalgia-wallow.

But the punctuation still hangs and the content makes me put everything aside when the new issue comes in. I won’t complain to the editor about the remake but I won’t be celebrating it either. As Bierut says, the new design will evolve and I’m content to wait and see. From this outlier on your sub list, The Atlantic could use more idiosyncrasy, curves, and graphic entertainment. See you next month.

3 thoughts on “The Chronographical Survey #2: The Atlantic

  1. I suppose it not for everyone. I don’t care for this cover but from what I’ve seen the new design is sumptuous and minimal. Hayman is actually a better editorial design than Bierut so it can’t be bad. Theres just no way. I used to work with him and hes a genius/ wizard with type.

  2. I wouldn’t say—and don’t—that it’s bad, or even approximating something that’s poorly done. I just don’t feel the redesign contributes or improves anything significant. I see typographic skill but no wizardry. Hmm, “sumptuous and minimal.” Not a pairing of terms I’d usually make. Minimal it is.

  3. Kenneth,

    Haven’t seen it yet. Will have to (gasp!) buy an Atlantic issue soon.

    Thanks for sharing those articles in the past though. Thoughts and ideas are much appreciated.


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