As magazines go through a seemingly unstoppable resurgence in popularity, questions still hover over their digital counterparts. Is a beautifully designed piece of print enough, or does a title need to stake its place in both the digital and the physical realm? And if so, how can magazines reconcile the reading experience across these two very different spheres?
As publications redefine their identities and embrace the power of excellent print design, so too are their online personas, as many titles seek to replicate the beauty and power of paper on the screen. Consider the beautiful yet minimal online presence of food bible The Gourmand, which subtly references the print magazine; or the equally elegant online persona of The Calvert Journal, which seems to convey all the charm of print without paper counterpart at all.
Bloomberg is a particularly relevant example of a title that’s taken great strides in both its print title and its online presence, showing that it’s not afraid to push design boundaries in both worlds. It caused a stir earlier this year when it unveiled a site redesign by Code and Theory, which Venturebeat described as “beautifully bizarre.”
Bloomberg’s deputy creative director Tracy Ma explains that Code and Theory took inspiration from the look and feel of the print magazine, and digital editor Josh Topolsky made it a clear goal to translate the fun and vibrant tone of the magazine into its new digital platform with elements like “the gridded Helvetica frenzy… that let the tone of the magazine poke through.” Ma goes on to say that “there are more trinkets you could apply online to amuse the reader,” explaining that half the challenge is about knowing when to hold back and not take advantage of endless digital possibilities.
What Bloomberg has achieved is something that, up until now, had always seemed like a stretch: creating a digital version of a magazine that feels as appealing and engaging as holding the paper itself in your hands. Of course, reaching this point doesn’t come without its own challenges—the union between print and digital is still far from perfect. “You kind of feel that you’re enslaved to templates on the web because most pieces need to be published very quickly,” Ma says. “A lot of energy goes into finding workarounds for them. Photos we art direct and shoot for the magazine are especially difficult to reconcile with online templates. That’s an area we’re trying to improve on.”
Cult food magazine Lucky Peach has also made a home for itself online with a site designed by The Killswitch Collective (they also worked on the excellent Pitchfork.com) that clearly reflects the identity of the much-loved magazine. With each issue created as a kind of standalone object, the site needed to convey the same feeling. Art director Walter Green comments, “I think the site reflects the main tenets of the magazine: simple design, a lot of real estate for illustrators and photographers, and letting the writing be the most important element.”
He also agrees that more magazines are putting their emphasis on strong web design and creating a digital presence that’s less of a straightforward translation of print, and more about applying lessons learned from that medium to a new one. Yet despite the many possibilities and the somewhat transient nature of online publishing, Green surprisingly admits that to him, digital feels “more finite, design-wise.”
“With the magazine,” he continues, “each article can be designed totally different from the next, and there are so many things you can control about the way a reader takes in a piece… with a website, without a developer on staff, as soon as the CMS is built it can be kind of hard to stray from it or mess with it too much. The challenge, or opportunity, is just trying to figure out what we can do within those constraints that can be as fun or inventive as the things we do in print.”
So why does now feel like a time of such rich opportunity for magazines to reclaim this much-contested space? The irony seems to be that as we focus attention on other ways of reading, like mobile, it gives designers and publishers the freedom to be braver and more experimental in their approach.
“I think the 2010 redesign of Businessweek kicked in when most people shifted their reading attention to the web,” says Ma. “So it allowed the print magazine to be a lot more artful. I think the same thing is happening to the web, where most people are getting their information on their mobile devices. It opens up the web to be a place where you get sucked into an experience, get dazzled, and be entertained.”