Like a lungful of fresh air when you’re used to dirty city smog, minimal magazine design feels nourishing, pure, and healthful. Until it doesn’t. As we’ve discussed previously, tastes in indie-mag land are a changin’. And while minimalism and clean design aren’t going anywhere fast, the launches getting everyone’s juices flowing right now are the messy ones: they’re rude, vulgar, and bad. They don’t so much as break the grid as live in a land where the grid is kicked to the ground and used for toilet paper. But just what is it about bad taste that feels so damn delicious right now?
When clean, pristine magazines like Kinfolk and Cereal first broke through, they provided a much needed counterpoint to mainstream magazine publishing’s race to the bottom. Where cheap paper, finger-staining inks, and shrinking pagination blighted the magazine racks, these mags showed that print could be luxurious. They invested in content and materials. They gained gravitas through heavy paper stocks. Less-is-more defined both the aesthetic and the print schedule, with quarterlies and biannuals supplanting weeklies and monthlies. And their biggest extravagance? White space. Acres of it, stretching out like so many Michelin-starred tablecloths. As the economy went off the boil and austerity started to bite, the magazine was reinvented as an aspirational object, a steal at just $15-25.
That was then. This is now. In 2017 it’s cheap, chip-paper publications that feel fresh. Many of them are of and about women’s media (chick flicks, if you will). There’s Mushpit, with its first-time-on-Photoshop feel, 50% a satire on the teengirl mag, 50% nostalgia for it, and 100% two fingers up at the whole woman’s mag establishment. And there’s issue 1 of SOFA with its lurid colors, starbursts, and youthful poses. See also: Polyester, and, outside of women’s press, Editorial Magazine, Buffalo Zine, The Smudge, and many more. They call up all the “rough” idioms: rough and ready, rough around the edges; rough diamonds.
But don’t be fooled, a dirty read can take as long to create as a clean one, and just as much skill.
With its flimsy feel, cheap paper ,and highbrow content, Real Review is the intellectual in scuffed shoes. Likewise, the Happy Reader keeps its heaviness for its content, staying light in the handbag and light on the wallet—although its design is really too neat to count as a truly dirty read.
Perhaps this is just the natural return swing of the pendulum. We love this, then we love that. Blue is the new black, now red is. But why here? Why now? Is it the print equivalent of eating quinoa all week then craving a filthy burger, a new spin on that delightful British phrase “dirty magazine.” Or is it something more? Some might say its nostalgia, a harking back to the trashy titles creatives read in their youths. An indulgence in guilty pleasures.
Rosie Findlay, researcher and lecturer in Cultural and Historical Studies at London College of Fashion, points to “the rise of ’90s in other areas, with digital magazines like Rookie publishing content in a zine-y Riot Grrrl way. Bratty, anti-establishment ’90s fashion is ‘in;’; velvet bodysuits, chokers, Reality Bites vibes. It’s all of a piece. Where does that feeling come from? That’s a bigger conversation, but I believe it’s to do with malaise, feeling helpless and disenchanted with the world as we’re inheriting it.”
There are good arguments for viewing bad taste through a political lens. When arbitrary design standards are upheld, some groups will always be excluded, normally those with the least power. When bad taste is good taste, anyone can play, no matter their experience or budget. Bad taste celebrates clashing palates, energy, ideas crammed into every inch of the page, the absence of polish, the absence of design training. These elements speak to youth at a time when youth is under attack and when we need more young voices in the media.
Bad taste is also gendered. The aesthetics of “girl media” have long been associated with low culture and bad taste. Combine them with the naturally elevating nature of indie magazine publishing and the result has a pleasingly feminist flavor. Findlay says, ‘Those kinds of aesthetics are aligned with girlhood, not just youth, but girls and tweens. It’s unpolished, childish, a shorthand for behavior usually discarded in adulthood. I’m thinking about symbols of girl culture like stickers, bubble writing, collaging. It’s all about covering and sprawling. It’s a choking, colorful look that’s wild, expressive, and messy. Girls are often socialized not to take up much space, to apologize if they do, to be contained and pretty and polite. So when aesthetics are crowded and loud, when they sprawl and visually grab you, they’re resisting that expectation.
“These magazines aren’t satirizing girl media, but actually claiming a space for it and demanding legitimacy for those aesthetics.”
Perhaps the magazine doing the most to reclaim girl-media right now is Mushpit. Co-founder Bertie Brandes, describes the magazine as “inherently political, both explicitly, but also through the representation of the apathy and confusion felt by much of our generation. A lot of magazines present themselves as revolutionary or progressive because the 17 year olds they depict aren’t signed to a major agency, but underneath it all they peddle the same ideas of youth beauty and aspiration.
“We’re not interested in presenting an aspirational idea, and we hope the intuitive approach we take to our design separates us from that.”
The launch issue of SOFA magazine was dedicated to Generation Z, and creators Caia Hagel and Ricarda Messner say they took “’90s trash nostalgia” as one of their first visual cues. Having produced one of the hottest launches of 2016, Hagel and Messner are unapologetic about their goal of making a magazine that’s more than just pretty. They say, “We’re of the mind that publications like Kinfolk are all very gorgeous, but they don’t cure anything. They might provide escape as a temporary sedative, but they don’t get at what we really feel and obsess over and worry about in life. SOFA is not afraid of the dark or the weird or the new. We do get a kick out of being perceived as naughty, ‘bad,’ or rebellious. But SOFA is not about creating something of good or bad taste. It’s not trying to sell a visually aspirational lifestyle. It’s more realistic than that. It engages with and is inspired by culture outside the visual elite. We’re interested in reaching a wider audience than our peers.
“There’s a huge area of culture beyond what’s considered ‘good taste’ that we want to explore. It would be almost snobbish to ignore it. If bad taste is somehow linked to phenomena like the Kardashians and the Trumps, it’s also dangerous to ignore it.”
Politics aside, part of the allure of bad taste or anti-design is the way it pushes our tastes to evolve. As legendary art director and design critic Steven Heller says, “Sometimes minimalism is nice. Sometimes it’s boring. I don’t think it’s a matter of good taste and bad taste. It’s about what captures the imagination, that freshness in design or content.
“Bad taste is whatever doesn’t fit into the annuals or competitions. If something considered bad is put in a museum, well then it’s good. Design trends come and go. What’s next? Anything we like until someone says it sucks and everyone believes it.”
“I used to maintain that anti-design was a political act against established of professional standards,” he continues. “It can work the other way too. Ugly can just be ugly, or there can be a grander motivation. When I started, all my magazines were ugly because I didn’t know any better.”
Anti-perfection, anti-establishment, a raising up of youth voices, re-claiming of girl media, and a general freshening up and politicizing of indie magazines, these are the things making dirty design feel so good right now. Time will tell when the pendulum swings back and why. As Brandes says, “Who knows, maybe our next Mushpit will be the minimal issue.” Watch this (not-so-white) space.