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Magazine as Metaphor

The life of a magazine art director assumes many sources of inspiration.

By Randy Dunbar

Typography is ubiquitous in signs, billboards and graffiti. Design can be seen in the shapes of buildings, in sound, music, film, television and, of course, in print. All contribute to an endless store of visual wealth.

Among the “finds” have always been foreign magazines. Luxuriously printed, lush with endless spreads, frequent nudity, eloquent typography and mostly free of advertising [foreign magazines make their money from newsstand sales as opposed to American magazines, which make their money from advertising], foreign magazines have always been a source for alternative concepts to magazine design.

The fact is, magazines are but metaphors for the various cultures they represent. Japanese magazines are artfully packed with information with barely a hint of white space. There is energy, a pace to be found, in Japanese magazines, that speaks to and about its youth culture. The Old World, with a culture much more vast and experienced than America, is comfortable with space, while taking its time to tell a story. The light is different in Europe. The photography is different. The sensibility is simply different.

European Influence

Modern design began in Europe. The Dada period (1916-23) in particular created radical new forms of design. Type suddenly left the constraints of the parallel; words and images were combined and deconstructed in new industrial and technical ways that created forms that would later be borrowed heavily in magazine design.

It is no surprise that in the richest periods of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, Russian immigrants Alexey Brodovitch (Harper’s Bazaar, 1938–1958) and Alex Liberman (Conde Nast editorial director, 1962–1996) helmed both.

With careers that spanned decades, both Brodovitch and Liberman began as art directors and changed the way in which American fashion was photographed and designed. What both brought to their publications was a European sensibility, not only in the use of text and white space but also in the use of European photographers such as Munkacsi, Man Ray and George Hoyningen-Huene. Later, photographers Richard Avedon and Irving Penn would make their unique identities known to American magazines, though their photographs were clearly born from an acquired European sensibility.

Today, newsstands are rife with both American and European magazines. European magazines tend to be larger, printed on better paper and certainly more expensive. Foreign magazines cost $30 and upward for a single issue. But they have remained for art directors a sanctuary for the visual. Not as advertising-driven, European magazines take chances. Nudity is simply a fact of life (although a recent ad for Equinox Fitness Clubs featuring a bare-bottomed model albeit in a very European monastic setting managed to finds it way into American publications). The styling, the typography and the imagery tend be more adventurous than the American counterpart.

Fairchild’s group design director, Edward Leida, was influenced early on by the Italian architecture and design magazine Domus. “I feel that my life as well as my work has been inspired by European magazines. It’s hard to put my finger on one thing or nuance that I have found inspirational, but there has always been a “cool” element, and I mean cool as in cold and austere in the way they approach their layout and imagery.”

Magazines are ultimately metaphors for the culture they represent. Magazines incorporate and reflect the mindset of both editors and art directors. American magazines are quick glances at various niche markets, punctuated with niche market advertising, adhering to the 40/60 editorial/advertising equation. Foreign magazines, on the other hand, tend to reflect their countries as a consolidated idea. For example, IssueOne from England, a hefty 9x12, four pound fashion glossy that costs $20, has a gatefold cover, on both the front and back covers. The three panel gatefold inside, both front and back consists of bubbles, a three panel image of bubbles. No logos, no copy, nothing but bubbles. It’s hard to imagine any American publication giving bubbles six pages.

Randy Dunbar is an art and design specialist whose clients include Los Angeles magazine, Out and Muscle & Fitness. He can be reached at

By Randy Dunbar

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