Design November 2008

A Question of Balance

How do you redesign The Atlantic?
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Slideshow: "150 Years of Atlantic Covers

View the evolution of the magazine's design

For a graphic designer, few jobs are as challenging as designing a magazine. Unlike a logo or a poster, the design of which can rely on blunt simplicity, a magazine is a complex organism, the result of an intricate interplay of words and pictures. Any single issue represents thousands of minute decisions about typography, layout, photography, and illustration. And these decisions are made within an accepted system of conventions—preconceptions we all share about how a magazine is read—and more practical and mundane limitations like budgets and schedules.

For these reasons, I was both honored and daunted to receive the commission to create a new design for The Atlantic. I know the magazine well, having been a faithful reader for the past 20 years, and unlike many designers, I have a sometimes unhelpful suspicion of change. How could we make it new and better without threatening the things that readers like me enjoy so much? It’s a hard problem.

Yet every magazine that you and I like has a personality. We are drawn to it, issue after issue, by a combination of the comfort of familiarity and the promise of surprise. The process of redesign, then, is simply one of discovering the right visual analogue for a distinctive editorial voice, one that allows for both constancy and change.

We began with the nameplate, the way the magazine’s name appears on the cover. No one buys a magazine because of the nameplate, but as a starting point of the design process, it can provide important clues about the publication’s overall direction. How traditional? How modern? Bold and authoritative, or quiet and elegant?

Working with the magazine’s editors and its art director, Jason Treat, our team at Pentagram—which included my partner Luke Hayman as well as designers Joe Marianek and Ben King—looked at many possibilities for the nameplate, including dozens that we invented. But we kept coming back to one: an adaptation of a design that had appeared on the magazine for more than 35 years in the middle of the last century. We weren’t tempted by its nostalgic characteristics: indeed, since it was from before my time, I had no associations with it, and I suspected most readers wouldn’t either (although an issue from that era did make an appearance as a significant prop on Mad Men last season). Instead, we were struck by how it managed to look both contemporary and timeless. Based on the classic 18th-century typeface Bodoni, it featured an italic A that to our eyes provided just the right note of idiosyncrasy. (I assure readers with a political bent that there is no significance to the direction of the letter’s slant.)

With the nameplate nodding to the magazine’s heritage, we were free to try out some very contemporary approaches to the cover. The Atlantic, we discovered, demands a careful balance between intellectual engagement and entertainment. In a magazine of ideas, writers depend on words to build their arguments, but we didn’t want The Atlantic’s pages to look like homework. Nor did we want to diminish the gravitas that its subjects demand by larding the book with graphic tricks that could be rightly dismissed as eye candy. The challenge with the cover, then, was to navigate a course between the look of a starchy academic journal and that of an overheated newsweekly.

The two fonts we settled on for the cover provided the necessary ingredients: Mercury, an elegant serif typeface, and a bold sans serif called Titling Gothic. A vertical information band aligned with The Atlantic’s distinctive A on the left of the cover provides a place to highlight important authors and stories for the benefit of subscribers and newsstand browsers. (It will eliminate, we hope, a wasteful scourge in the magazine world, that floppy and redundant half cover created to support newsstand sales.) The cover’s two typefaces are the main font families used throughout the magazine, where that balance between ideas and urgency is played out in what we hope are surprising and engaging ways.

I’m pleased with the solution, both as a designer and as an Atlantic reader. And I’m also pleased that, because a magazine is an organism, not a poster, we’ll be able to guide the design’s development—and, I hope, make it better and better—with every new issue. Stay tuned.

Presented by

Michael Bierut is a partner at Pentagram design firm.

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