Rolling Stone’s recent print redesign—with its over-sized format, streamlined logo, perfect-binding, and heavy paper stock—chimes with a larger movement in publishing. Following the lead of smaller, indie magazines over the last decade, it has turned its attention toward more luxurious print processes in a bid to create a valuable object and an experience distinct from that of the web. The magazine’s new format also pays heed to its legendary history of visual storytelling, made famous by the likes of Annie Leibovitz and others: brighter, whiter pages are a better space for photo-essays to pop, resonate, and breathe. An online redesign promotes photography through new gallery modules, and spaces on the homepage allow regular video and photographic content to take more of a central position.
The redesign is immense and all-encompassing; a bid to shuttle a brand so anchored to its famous history into the future, while crucially not losing touch with its past.
Design director Joe Hutchinson’s print redesign took inspiration from the magazine’s heritage, and his decision to create a more contemporary look that can work on smaller screens without losing its design identity is evident in the refined logo. As Hutchinson says in a video on Rolling Stone online, the shapes of the original are so iconic that it feels “scary to mess” with them. “There’s such history in this logo,” he continues. “We couldn’t afford to abandon it now.” To help with the difficult task at hand, Hutchinson reconnected with Jim Parkinson, the designer behind the distinctive logo used over the last 40 years.
“We decided early on that the logo was central to the brand’s DNA and that a departure toward an entirely new brand identity would be a mishap,” says Jay Penske, CEO of the digital media company Penske Media, which became the majority shareholder of Rolling Stone in December 2017. That understanding led to Parkinson’s restrained approach, stripping away antique styling elements “that made the logo overly complicated and hard to read at a smaller size.”
Before Parkinson, the original Rolling Stone logo legendarily emerged from an amazing mistake. When Jann Wenner launched the tabloid-sized, newsprint magazine in 1967 during the height of Haight-Ashbury’s hippie movement, he approached the popular local psychedelic artist Rick Griffin to create the logo. Griffin sent over a tight pencil sketch for approval before inking, and not knowing any better, Wenner accidentally printed it on the first issue. Griffin’s intricately crosshatched sketch crowned Rolling Stone for several subsequent years.
In the ’70s, Parkinson partnered with Roger Black to alter Griffin’s design from all caps to upper and lower cases, removing the swashes but keeping the 3D shadow that seemed to elevate the letters from the page. The lolling stem of the capital R was accentuated, rolling across the masthead like a visual onomatopoeia. This swoop remains in the new logo and has been extended for emphasis and impact, although with the 3D shadowing removed.
“During the redesign, Hutchinson reminded us of a pretty important factor,” says Penske. “He said that the logo is like a stop sign. You don’t have to read it to know what it means.”
In recent years, brands have chopped off the intricate flourishes of serif logo marks in a bid for legibility across digital platforms. As Quartz reported last month, a new “serif-redux” trend has developed in response to the “wasteland of sans serif logos;” a resurgence in expressive logos marked by soft detailing and ornamentation. Rolling Stone, in streamlining but retaining the distinctive flourishes central to its historic identity, is firmly in step with that.
Beyond the logo, Rolling Stone’s overall redesign, both print and online, takes it in an intriguing new direction, especially in a period when a lot of titles that emerged from the ’60s and ’70s counterculture are folding. The UK’s NME (New Musical Express), which first launched in 1952, ceased pulication of its print edition earlier this year, and a few months later, news of New York’s Interview magazine’s closure shook the publishing world. The Village Voice similarly closed in 2017. A few nostalgic cries of “print is really dead after all” could be heard, but on the other side of the coin, young magazines continue to be bought and read. It’s natural that some magazines fold while others take their place (and that’s a good thing, as Mushpit founder Bertie Brandes recently argued).
What’s smart about Rolling Stone’s current strategy is it follows the smaller, photography-led independent magazines (and young giants themselves, as we’ve seen with the likes of The Gentlewoman and Kinfolk), which pay special attention to production values and the quality of a magazine as an object. NME chose a different tact, churning out a low-budget, free publication which found little traction. In the coming years, it will be interesting to see how a legacy magazine of Rolling Stone’s size and scale fares using a design approach that we know has succeeded on the smaller scale.