Late in the winter of 2005, Dutch contemporary art magazine Metropolis M ran an unusual ad in the back of its December/January issue. A block of text reminiscent of a classifieds ad, headed with the proclamation FOR SALE, advertised a “Design for a contemporary art magazine. As new.” The purchase-able design included images that were large-format, of the finest quality. It’s text pages were “v. readable,” the margin area “considerable,” the binding stapled. The design would be available as early as January 2006, and in fact, interested buyers could view it for themselves in those very magazine pages. The editorial design that was for sale was the one that Metropolis M had been using for the last three years, created by Will Holder and Stuart Bailey.
Holder and Bailey were also the people to get in touch with should you want to make an offer. The designers had come up with the design for Metropolis M when they pitched the editors in 2003, taking on the mantel from Armand Mevis and Linda Van Deursen, who had designed the magazine for years. Holder and Bailey believed that to truly change a magazine—not just alter the design or the style—one had to start by reconsidering the editorial. That became the premise for their design: simple, constrained, exceedingly readable, and described in the ad as a “basic container” that adjusts to specific content.
That editorial position was also why Holder and Bailey decided that the design couldn’t simply end with their tenure at the magazine, only to be replaced by a redesign of the aesthetics-only kind they had petitioned against. So they decided to sell it, second-hand.
Sixteen years after it was originally conceived, the design, as described in the ad, is still being used. Holder is currently working on an ongoing (from 2012) series of publications for the Amsterdam contemporary arts organization If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution that uses the “MM template,” as he calls it. In 2009, Holder sold the design to the ICA (London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts) for it’s publication Roland, designed by Sarah Boris. A 2003 issue of Holder and Bailey’s magazine Tourette’s, as well as Just In Time!, a publication for the Stedelijk Museum, and a Sternberg Press book about The Otolith Group called Long Time Between Suns, all use the template design. More recently, others besides Bailey and Holder have put it to use in their own projects (that includes the latest issue of our own Eye on Design Magazine, for which designer Na Kim adapted the template in the spirit of the theme, “utopias”).
“Our proposal was more of a position in relation to magazine-making and editorial, and we thought it would be futile if it’s not continued indefinitely.”
The continued use of the template, more than it’s “sale,” is testament to it’s durational quality, or at least of the durational quality of the ideas behind it. “Our proposal [to Metropolis M] was more of a position in relation to magazine-making and editorial, and we thought it would be futile if it’s not continued indefinitely,” says Holder. “Then it would have just become another redesign.”
Bailey and Holder were living in Amsterdam when they heard that Mevis and Van Deursen (who run their renowned eponymous design studio in Amsterdam) were no longer going to design Metropolis M. Bailey and Holder both had experience in making magazines—Bailey was running Dot Dot Dot with Peter Bil’ak at the time and Holder was making a magazine called Catalog. They were also friends with Mevis and Van Deursen, whose work with the magazine they’d followed with interest. Sitting in a bar one night, they decided to pitch Metropolis M before word got out that the magazine was looking for a new designer. As it turned out, the editors had been thinking of reaching out to them as well, so the pair brought them their proposal.
“The premise, and I think we felt very cheeky at the time, was basically, ‘It’s fine if you think you’re going to change this magazine by redesigning it, but the magazine is not going to change inherently unless you reconsider the editorial,’” says Holder. They urged the editors to consider the other aspects to production, like distribution, budget, and price, instead of only a change in its look. They suggested making it an English language magazine, and brought in ideas for writers who they knew or admired. The simple idea behind those suggestions, Holder says, is that as designers, they “wanted the magazine to be read. That was because we have a hell of a lot of respect for writers, who are always producing content in an extremely labor-intensive way.”
“The premise, and I think we felt very cheeky at the time, was basically, ‘It’s fine if you think you’re going to change this magazine by redesigning it, but the magazine is not going to change inherently unless you reconsider the editorial.’”
The idea of privileging the reading of writing and imagery was also the driving point for their design, which they felt should be thought of primarily as a container for the content. “We realized that Metropolis M was typical in the sense that, like most magazines, it just wanted to be browsed, not read,” says Holder. In art magazines in particular, images are run large and given full pages or spreads, and the writing can feel like an afterthought behind photography, art direction, and design decisions. For this next stage of Metropolis M, Holder and Bailey wanted the magazine to reconsider its content, bringing in interesting writers and more concrete, in-depth forms of writing, and they wanted the design to offer the best experience for reading that writing.
To start designing the template, Holder and Bailey first looked toward the book page. They took the elements of book layout design that enable people to sit and read comfortably for 100+ pages—black ink on matte white paper, legible type (13 pt.), with a large portion of the page dedicated to body copy. This was translated into the specs for the magazine text pages. Image pages would be full color, centered on off-white glossy paper, with a caption running beneath the image. “It really was those two most mundane 20th century modes of reading images and text that we brought together on these pages, that’s all it was,” says Holder.
The most distinctive element to the template Holder and Bailey designed is the ample margin space that wraps around the text pages, meant to be inhabited by thumbnail-size reference images or footnotes (in 10.25 pt font). This came about somewhat naturally: the text pages were designed after the standard trade paperback book (think Penguin classic, but slightly wider), with a little less text on the page (again to aid comfortable reading). Putting that book-sized page onto a magazine-sized one freed up space for large margins, which could then be used to anchor the text with references and make it understandable to a wide audience. In that way, Holder says, the margins privileged “reading and reading’s side-effect: thinking relationally.”
Finally, the design calls for staple binding, which as Holder points out, necessitates a symmetrical layout organized from the center spread out. In other words, since the sheets that are printed are folded at the center and stapled at the spine, the same number of color pages and black and white pages, for example, or glossy and matte paper, will need to be repeated in both the front and the back. “It’s a massive, massive constraint and makes the editorial more like a very material, very physical Tetris,” says Holder. It also indicates that the “template” they created is not just a replicable InDesign file: for a designer to use it, they need to consider both the material and the content, which will be unique to their specific project.
This last point nods back to the original intention for designing the art magazine template, and the reason that Holder and Bailey wanted to sell the design after Metropolis M stopped using it. Their proposal was less a new design for an art magazine, and more a new way of thinking about the design of an art magazine; distilled into a set of constraints, design elements, and dimensions that was meant to privilege content and minimize the subjectiveness of design decisions.
Their proposal was less a new design for an art magazine, and more a new way of thinking about the design of an art magazine.
In that way, the changes to the magazine—the “redesign” Holder and Bailey were hired for—would only become truly apparent to the reader over the longterm use of the same design. But in 2006, Bailey was about to move to New York, and the pair felt that they were no longer able to design the magazine together the way they had proposed. They asked the editors if they could put it up for sale, to ensure the continued use of the template and demonstration of their point of view, and they agreed.
In the years since, the design has mainly been used by Holder and Bailey on magazines they’ve been commissioned to design, and “sold” in the sense that they pitch the concept and adapt the specifications to the needs of the project. In the case of the ICA magazine Roland, for example, Holder brought the design in to one of the initial conversations with the curators, and when he agreed, Holder adjusted it for the smaller trim size he wanted. Frédérique Bergholtz, director of If I Can’t Dance, was already a fan of their design of Metropolis M, so the idea didn’t take much selling. But the “template” is also replicable in the sense that the specifications in the ad can also be used by anyone. Both Bailey and Holder have talked about the template in presentations and with students. “If I can sell it occasionally, that’s cool,” says Holder. “But of course, it’s everybody’s. It will only show it’s true potential if everybody uses it, and it gets used over time.
“And here we are, you and I, having this conversation 16 years later.”