If I had to explain the design ethos of Jacobin to someone who’d never encountered the magazine, the phrase “Ikea guillotine” would inevitably come up in the first sentence. The cover of its 10th issue (Spring 2013), features a spare, black-and-white illustration of a guillotine (or GILJOTIN, as it’s labeled) in the style of an Ikea assembly guide.
Jacobin describes itself as “a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.” Part of serving that role, it seems, is reclaiming the derisive and sensationalized terms in which American socialists have been described over the decades—its name is just one example. Rather than hedge its own radicalism in an attempt to appease its naysayers and the curious-but-cautious, Jacobin is willing to unabashedly go there, with righteous solemnity, or interjections tongue-in-cheek humor, or a bit of both. And it owes its success in doing so, in large part, to its design.
Leftist publications vying for a general readership face some very specific design challenges. Their creative direction must aesthetically separate them not only from the magazines of the right and center (The National Review, The Economist, The Atlantic), but also from liberal standard bearers such as The Nation, The New Republic, and The New Yorker. This is something Jacobin knows and understands well. And in many ways, the magazine has led the way for other leftist publications, such as The Baffler and Current Affairs, by attesting to the power of good editorial design. For these radical publications, design has become an opportunity to have a similar appeal and heft as other titles on a newsstand, but without compromising their political position.
“Even timid design has semantic consequence.”
Jacobin’s creative director, Remeike Forbes, recalls the time he joined the team in 2012 as one during which few leftist magazines were fully utilizing design. Instead, the majority were opting for a text-heavy journal aesthetic. “Most publications on the left fell into one of two categories,” says Forbes. “One was sort of academic, kind of jargon-y, hard to digest, and on the other side were more on-the-ground movement publications. Jacobin tried to tread a middle path between those two things.”
Dylan Matthews of Vox wrote in 2016 that Jacobin is “the single most gorgeous and visually clever magazine currently being published in print,” and his assessment holds water. Jacobin’s pages feature striking color palettes, and its illustrations are kinetic and lively, with a bold sense of line. Its spreads never feel monotonous or bound to a template; they are often minimal, but never for minimalism’s sake. It’s the rare magazine whose style is so consistently compelling that it doesn’t show off with overly-abstract layouts or excessive white space, instead designing in service of the content.
“Why should leftists have to make a choice between visual content that’s honest and impassioned and sober political analysis?” wrote Forbes in a 2013 essay explaining the magazine’s visual identity. “Ironically, leftists who scoff at bold imagery suffer the same delusions of the Guy Fawkes Left; they opt for lazy applications of style over an attempt to grapple with a world of meaning, because even timid design has semantic consequence.”
Jacobin is far from the only magazine to successfully use design to propel leftist content into the mainstream. In 2016, leftist politics and literary magazine The Baffler received a makeover from a team led by Eddie Opara at Pentagram. For the redesign, Opara replaced an old-school Didone logo with an angular sans serif type, flipping the “L” in “BAFFLER” backwards. The logo reads straight across on the magazine’s print covers, but on the web, it folds in on itself along the corner of the browser page, alluding to the publication’s tagline, “the journal that blunts the cutting edge.” While The Baffler operates in a longform journal style on a consistent grid, Opara created major distinctions between the various sections of the print edition, using different fonts as well as using different colors for the fiction and poetry sections.
“We found that there are so many different types of characters in the magazine,” says Opara. “It’s a magazine for people who love to read, so one of the things that we tried to do was elevate that longform reader into different worlds, instead of dragging it on in a monotonous thread.” The Baffler’s redesign has lent it a hip, accessible vibe fit for its profile as a literary magazine for in-the-know leftists.
“Some of [the stories] end up being 16-18 pages,” says Lindsay Ballant, The Baffler’s art director. “We know that we’re a magazine where you don’t really come to be entertained by the page design. So I think having these hero images in the front, and always having opening illustrations that are full-page, gives you this kind of art gallery sensibility, especially because there’s white space built into the redesign.”
While Jacobin illustrations tend to carry a consistent use of color and line, The Baffler makes use of a wide range of art styles. Each issue contains an Exhibit section, dedicated to commissioned artworks; in a recent issue, a series of four illustrations by Bran Dougherty-Johnson titled “Terms and Conditions” depict the overwhelming, under-compensated life of a freelancer with bold typography and simple, cartoony shapes. In the current issue, a series of photo works ran as the Exhibit.
“I definitely feel like we can inject a lot more humor and a lot more irreverence,” says Ballant. “Because of the nature of The Baffler always poking fun of the elitism of [more mainstream magazines], we can still look serious and use fancy typeface choices, but we can also not take ourselves so seriously, and give artists creative latitude to be able to do something more fun.”
Unlike Jacobin and The Baffler, the socialist bimonthly magazine Current Affairs has no creative director, and is designed in large part by its editor-in-chief, Nathan J. Robinson. Launched with the help of a Kickstarter campaign in 2015, Current Affairs faced the dilemma of building a serviceable brand on a tight budget and with little name recognition. Robinson looked to Jacobin as an example of how to use design as a tool to infiltrate mainstream audiences.
“The first task was, how do we convey a sense of professionalism and legitimacy with this magazine?” says Robinson. “How do we use the design of this magazine to get people to take us seriously? And that’s one of the things that I had respected about what Jacobin did, in that they made a magazine that looked as if it fit naturally next to The Atlantic and The Nation and such on newsstands.”
“We really want to lampoon these existing institutions while stealing their visual appeal.”
While Jacobin and The Baffler punctuate their pages with modern serifs paired with lithe sans serifs, Current Affairs opts for old-timey fonts like Oranienbaum and Garamond. Its pages feature wide columns, plummeting drop-caps, and large headlines—all the elements one might expect of a legacy publication. There’s a palpable sense of irony to the old-school get-up: each issue opens with a spread of satirical ads and editor’s notes in the style of an early 20th-century newspaper (one such square from a previous issue reads, “Current Affairs is sponsored by the fossil fuel industry, because everything you come to love will eventually turn out to be terrible.”)
“I also wanted to parody the aesthetics of those kinds of magazines,” says Robinson. “We really want to lampoon these existing institutions while stealing their visual appeal.”
While the three magazines are ideologically aligned, they differ in their aesthetic treatment of their relationship to mainstream audiences as leftist publications. The Baffler juxtaposes its style with its content in a way that is at turns amusing and haunting. Jacobin, by contrast, integrates design elements tightly with the content, giving each story a spread tailor-made to clarify and elevate its content; the magazine fits in with the likes of The Atlantic without indicating that it particularly cares about doing so. The design of Current Affairs, on the other hand, is acutely aware of its status as a small magazine on the political fringe, splitting the difference between mocking and earnest appropriation.
Perhaps what best distinguishes publications of the left from their centrist counterparts is the ability to recognize and embrace the fact of the inherent politicization of design. As Forbes writes, “no image is truly neutral, and attempting to dissolve a visual identity in the acid bath of high modernism isn’t a design solution.”
NOTE: This article was corrected on 12 December 2019, and revised again on 16 December 2019.