Wired magazine turned 25 last week. There have been a number of classic magazines celebrating an anniversary recently—including Time Out, New York Magazine, and Interview. The latter just relaunched with the cover star from its original first issue, Agnes Varda, 50 years later—an assertion of the magazine’s historical role in framing our cultural icons. As more and more staple titles celebrate their longevity, the anniversary cover is becoming the place to affirm one’s legacy in the print game, but also for analyzing how the recent, rapid transformations of the publishing industry have played out for individual titles.
Wired’s new anniversary cover balances the tension between past and present with a grid made from the magazine’s spines—stripes of checkered colors that flicker downwards like a screen coming into focus. It’s an instantly recognizable pattern, and one that’s been part of Wired’s design DNA since its 1993 launch. “The spines emphasize the binary nature of digital tech,” say Wired’s original designers, Barbara Kuhr and John Plunkett of Plunkett + Kuhr, who were invited by the title’s current editorial staff to design this one-off celebratory cover. “On a business and packaging level, we wanted Wired to have its own visual language, one that would be instantly recognizable on a bookshelf or coffee table.”
Plunkett was a friend of founding editor Louis Rossetto; he had worked at Pentagram for three years, directing projects for Saul Bass and Deborah Sussman, before opening Plunkett + Kuhr in 1990. In 1988, Rossetto called the two creative directors with the idea of launching a magazine about computers; met with confusion, Rossetto memorably exclaimed, “You don’t understand—computers are going to be the rock ’n roll of the ’90s!”
Now Plunkett and Kuhr have taken over the anniversary cover to evoke those jarring early years as an unknown and impending digital culture began to take shape. In the place of Wired’s current sans serif logo is the original blocky wordmark, a design that originally signified the digitized, pixelated nature of communication in the ’90s through a jagged combination of a serif and a sans serif. “We’ve always seen Wired as a bridge between the ‘People of the Book’ and the ‘People of the Screen.’ The original logo conveys more of that dynamic—the tension between the print and electronic media worlds.”
It’s intriguing to consider this logo now, at a time when magazines are attempting to design print in tandem with (rather than in tension with) their online counterparts through intertwining visual systems (see the Guardian’s redesign this year). Wired’s own 2012 redesign and its streamlined logo represented a moment when former editor-in-chief Scott Dadich was attempting to digitize the platform through iPad editions (which were all the rage at the time), and a clean sans represented that drive towards unity.
Looking back at its more fragmented predecessor recalls a moment when the relationship between online and off felt uncertain. “The digital culture we tried to imagine and visualize in the mid-90s has now become the air we all breathe,” say the design duo. “‘Digital Culture’ is no longer a newsflash.”
When they reflect on how Wired‘s design has weathered the whims of the publishing industry over the past two and a half decades, Kuhr and Plunkett note the loss of the newsstand with a sense of liberation (an effect we recognized last year in our analysis of the new rules of cover design). “A magazine cover is now better off communicating a single, strong idea, not a laundry list of features,” say the designers.
“Back in the day, people would ask whether Wired signaled ‘the end of print.’ We always answered no—the future of print will be extraordinary ideas presented in ever-more extraordinary ways. That’s even more true today than ever before. We always wanted Wired to be more like a book you collect, and less like a magazine you throw away.”