Forget white space, good taste, and luxury—in independent magazine publishing it’s the ugly, the untidy, and the cheap that rule right now.
There’s a growing movement away from the clean, oh-so-tasteful design of high-end indie mags. As the elements that once made a certain kind of independent magazine feel so fresh become, dare we say it, a little cliché, a growing subgenre of indies are shaking things up, ensuring that the most exciting print publishing phenomenon of our times stays just that. These “anti-indies” spit in the eye of the prevailing aesthetic of smart, minimalist restraint in favour of uneasy layouts, nasty fonts, and a more-is-more sensibility.
Classic indies have long been associated with luxurious mixed paper stocks, high pagination, high production values, and even higher cover prices. In contrast, anti-indies are experimenting with cheap paper, low-culture values, and latte-level price points. These aren’t magazines for neatly displaying on your coffee table, they’re more at home splayed across a bathroom floor. Where the heavyweight, highbrow indies of old feel too expensive to throw away, these rule-breaking upstarts feel all the more collectable for their apparent disposability.
The anti-indies are typified by London-based Mushpit, a satirical women’s magazine that’s as violent an assault on the senses as it is on the fashion magazines it harpoons. The publication is the creation of Charlotte Roberts and Bertie Brandes, who says “we were both testing out jobs in fashion and were already quite disillusioned by our experiences. After one too many tellings off about not packing a sample in the correct tissue paper, parodying the industry became a no-brainer. Our aim is to provide an alternative and honest voice for young women.”
Humor is crucial to the magazine, which Brandes goes on to describe as “at once the most beautiful and stupidest thing you’ll ever read.” Other key anti-indies include Editorial Magazine, the Montreal art and fashion title where bubble writing meets collage and Victoriania, often with a natty decorative border; and the UK’s Polyester, a self-described “backlash against the fashion industry’s infatuation with understated and over-conceptualized minimalism.” For its guiding principle, it looks to a John Waters quote:
“Have faith in your own bad taste.”
Meanwhile, Hanna Moon’s A Nice Magazine, is a sarcastic take on the polite uniformity she saw dominating fashion magazines. Poetry-focused Hotdog Magazine is carving a niche for itself with the use of terminally uncool features like Minion Pro, gradients, and QR codes. And Buffalo Zine is going from strength to strength with its maximal look and anarchic sensibilities, an approach that includes completely reformatting the magazine for each issue; so far it’s been a tabloid newspaper, an A4 zine, and a Victorian children’s book.
But being anti-indie isn’t just about look and feel, it’s about price too. At the more restrained end of the scale, the bookish Happy Reader juxtaposes precise, midcentury modern design and topnotch writing with back-to-basics production values, including newsprint-like uncoated paper and stapled binding. Crucially, it will set you back the price of a cup of coffee, rather than than of a bottle of wine.
In a sea of minimalism and luxury, these doing-it-wrong mags are the ones that stand out.
Steve Watson of magazine subscription services Stack and Sampler says, “Everyone talks about the magazines with lots of white space—the ones following the Kinfolk or Cereal aesthetic. A magazine with that approach has to work harder to hold my attention than one that’s doing something more unexpected.” For Watson, magazines don’t have to go against the grain to make it into Stack or Sampler, but it helps. “The real challenge is to look beyond conventional places to find the best,” he says. “For example, right now on Sampler we’re selling out of Voortuin, a weird Dutch magazine presented as a series of individual prints and objects masquerading as a business starter packt.”
If magazines sell a lifestyle, the rise of the anti-indies indicates that consumers are growing tired of chasing perfection, in favor of something more interesting and real. Liv Siddall, editor of Rough Trade’s new zine-like title wants the mag to offer an honest slice of the east London record shop. According to Siddall, the magazine’s design director, “Bruce Usher came in and the two things I showed him were the customer toilets and the doors. The doors at Rough Trade East are always wide open. I wanted the magazine to reflect that. My aim is to have someone smiling on every single page, and above all nothing wanky and nothing moody.” She plans to fill the magazine with features by Rough Trade staff and band members, adding that “You don’t need to be a ‘writer’ to write, and often those that just have a go at it produce something much purer and funnier.”
Readers and publishers are hungry for mags that challenge convention and offer a more authentic experience, but does that mean it’s all over for more minimal titles? Jeremy Leslie of magCulture reminds us that it’s important to pay due respect to the magazines that trail-blazed and popularized that look. “There are always clichés lurking. Right now Kinfolk and Cereal seem to be taking the brunt of complaints for inspiring the latest breed of copyists. Of course we should call the clichés out, but don’t tar the originals with the copies.”
Leslie adds that this particular Kinfolk/Cereal-inspired minimalism is only the latest trend to dominate the scene. “Other very different mags have suffered the same effect at other times: Apartamento, Little White Lies, Fantastic Man, The Ride Journal… the list goes on,” he says. “Trends spread like viruses, it’s unavoidable. A type trick here, a color combination, a paper stock… we’re all open to infection by a trend. Right now the cliché epidemic involves clean white pages of minimalist typography with overzealous detail of obscure coffee-making methods, etc. etc. But that’s not the only cliché. How about the use of ‘ugly’ typefaces in Mushpit and Destino? When does this become classed as a cliché?”
Perhaps the beauty of the indie scene is the rapidity with which trends appear, peak, and subside—the constant action and reaction. Where mainstream publishing evolves at a more sedate pace, new aesthetics in independent mags mutate with the speed of fruit flies in a lab. Of course indie mag land is a broad church; the modern magazine lover has room in their heart for many different types of titles. Any self-respecting mag addict probably has Little White Lies neatly lined up on their book shelf, Kinfolk on their kitchen table, and Mushpit crumpled under their pillow.
It’s also worth noting that so-called anti-design can be surprisingly difficult to do well, and that these new anti-indies aren’t just a reaction to the minimal hegemony; they also owe a debt to zine culture and to mags such as 032c, which has been breaking boundaries in this space for some time. According to Leslie, “032c shifted from white minimalism a long time ago and continues to challenge the visual status quo across all editorial disciplines. It has been called anti-design, but is overseen by one of today’s most visionary designer/art directors, Mike Meire. Anti-design is a clever name, but it’s still hardcore design and as difficult, or even more so, to successfully copy as Cereal et al.”
In many ways, the design tropes of the anti-indies are nothing new. The zine aesthetic has obviously been around for a long time, as has the anti-design’label. Mushpit feels fresh, but its makers admit it owes a great debt to Cheap Date; Editorial Magazine has been in print longer than Cereal, and the list goes on. Certainly there are many great-granddaddies of the anti-indies like 032c. And, of course, The Happy Reader isn’t the first magazine to cost the same as a birthday card. But this isn’t about what’s been on the shelf the longest, it’s about what feels right, right now. Today it’s the anti-indies that feel most exciting and most vital. Whether you like them or not, these are the mags that will inspire the next cycle of copyists. They’re the ones shaking things up, challenging readers, and keeping the industry on its toes (and throwing up on its brogues). In 2016 the indie scene belongs to them. For now at least.