I picked up a copy of Desktop magazine’s newly revamped edition the other day, now covering ‘the culture of design’ that places me at the centre of their demographic I guess, not having come across any reviews of such, I thought I would throw my 2 cents in, for what it’s worth. I’d old enough to remember the early days of Desktop, when it really was as the masthead said, a magazine for the burgeoning field of desktop publishing, back when there were people who referred to themselves as desktop publishers. They were the ‘wilderness years’ graphic designers were just starting to consider the benefits of the new computer technology, though Desktop seemed more aimed at the early adopters, computer geeks producing newsletters and documents out of their Mac SEs rather than the Graphis and Novum Gebrauchgraphik crowd. I know when I was picking it up it was mainly to gain technical tips or tutorials or to get the Mac Warehouse catalogue that was often bundled with an issue. As the internet arose, the remit of the magazine seemed to change to service the rise in web designers and ‘the online’ experience, but still keeping its features on kerning type in Xpress and how to bevel a typeface in Photoshop, covering the technical aspects of design rather than its culture. Recent years have seen a turnaround in this attitude, with the culture of design becoming more prominent in the magazine, the technical aspects giving way to more of a focus on design studios and their work, which is were we are with the relaunch.
Australia has been poorly served over the years in regards to a genuine mass market periodical devoted to graphic design. We’ve mainly had to settle for articles bunled under the fold of Advertising in publications such as Creative, magazines covering the larger field of design in general, technical magazines such as Desktop’s earlier incarnations or the odd bone thrown to us in international mags such as Communication Arts, Print, Graphis, Eye and the like. There are of course home-grown publications such as Process Journal, Wooden Toy and Empty, but these seem to speak on design in a more world-wide overview and tend to concentrate on their own niche cultures rather than covering a mass market perspective on the business of graphic design that the new Desktop is trying to capture.
So my first impressions on the revamp. Being a designer myself the first thing I obviously looked at was the physical presentation and design of the magazine itself. The most obvious difference is the change from an A4 glossy format to a squarer uncoated publication. I’m not sold on the uncoated cover, as part of the cover design, the masthead is presented in a white rectangle at the top, the top of the magazine was already scuffed and looking a bit shoddy when I bought it. Maybe future editions won’t have this top rectangle and it is just a feature of this issues design, otherwise, a matt coated cover might have been a better option. And speaking of the cover, I love the work of Mark Gowing and think he’s a great designer to cover for the first edition of the revamp, but the cover graphic is just really bland, especially for your lauch magazine, the uncoated stock doesn’t help either, this just doesn’t stand out at all. It’s hardly helped by the digitally printed coverband the surrounds the bottom half of the magazine – rather than demonstrating the capabilities of the medium, it just confirmed that specifying a full bleed black on uncoated stock is probably not a good idea for my next digitally printed project. Now maybe it’s just me, but the masthead seems really awkwardly kerned between the ‘e’ and the ‘s’ and the ‘k’ and the ‘t’ especially. I know it sounds petty, and I might of let it pass if the magazine was ‘Desktop – the culture of online etiquette ‘ but this magazine is aimed squarely at graphic designers, we are going to look at these things and nitpick. I don’t really get the italics except for the ‘k’ thing either, but as a purely ‘design’ choice, I guess it’s neither here nor there.
As a magazine featuring articles that you want to read rather than just pretty pictures, the choice of typefaces is important. Kris Sowerby’s Founders Grotesk has been chosen as the sans font which is an excellent choice, nice that they picked something designed within the confines of Desktop’s market. I’m a little baffled by the choice of Lavigne Text as the serif, as a text font there is certainly nothing wrong with it, I just wonder why they didn’t decide to ‘keep it in the family’ and chose a serif from among Kris Sowerby’s designs?
Apart from the shape, the other physical difference you will notice is that the magazine is thicker, this has a lot to do with its new ‘minimalist design’ template – there is a lot of white space on the pages for those who love it (and who doesn’t?) The text for the sans has been set quite large, and strangely, set quite small for the serif , the leading text blocks is set wide enough to drive a truck through. It feels slightly uncomfortable to me, but I’ve noticed that the relaunched Grafik magazine is set similarly, is this some new trend that the kids are into? So I attribute the thickness more to this than any apparent increase in content, it’s a quick read in any event, the whole thing seemed to take about twenty minutes to read. The layout as a whole is pleasant enough without delivering a lot of surprises, it’s almost too cold for the ‘warmth’ of some of the features (I promise I will get to the actual content soon!) It’s beautifully printed and the photographs and sufficiently bright and inviting on the uncoated stock.
So onto the most important aspect of the magazine, its content. For the first issue in its new format it is very encouraging. Different sections are clearly indicated and navigation through the whole mag is very simple. Aaron Moodie gets the ball rolling with his article in the ‘Talk’ section on sharing ideas, it is beautifully written and succinct in presentation, I look forward to reading more of his writing. Hannah Cutts and Jack Mussett also present interesting pieces on finding the right spaces to live and to work. The projects presented in the aptly titled ‘Projects’ section didn’t really do it for me this time around, I think the problem was that they were either projects I have read a lot about before (such as the Marian Bantjes piece) or were too short to cover in the depth that they probably deserved such as Stephen Banham’s ‘Town Projects’ article. The same problem befalls the ‘Occupation’ section covering Pompas & Parr, I’m still not sure exactly what they do or why they are featured.
Under ‘Logo’ we get an article on the updating of the Triple J logo, it gets about as much depth as is required, the story has been covered before and nothing is really added to it other than a kind of ugly new typeface. I could probably get by without reading another article on Jeremyville such as in the ‘Space’ section, I get it, they are incredibly cool. It’s nice to see that they have retained Vincent Chan’s type design section, he’s obviously passionate about a subject that we don’t hear a lot about locally, the month features another beautifully designed face by Stephen Banham called ‘Jones’. The culture of design is important to designers, as is our little (or big) design trinkets such is featured in the ‘Want’ section. This month it’s notebooks, interesting to see that I own 4 of the pieces features, I know, how many notebooks does one man need?
The main article of this months mag is on designer Mark Gowing, interesting in parts, once again it’s not really long enough, but it’s good to hear his thoughts and see some of his work. We get a glimpse inside the ‘culture’ of his studio with a page on some of his favourite objects within, I would definitely like to pocket his modular building blocks, I’ll stay clear of his copy of The Fountainhead though. The ‘Studio Culture’ section takes up too many pages to basically say that you need a good studio culture to produce good work, I never would have guessed. The next feature is another all too short article on Suzanne Boccalatte, stunning work, a very underrated designer in my opinion. ‘Project Wall’ features new design projects from top design firms around the country (well the eastern states anyway) we all came here mostly to see the pretty pictures, so more of this would be welcome. ‘The Question’ could turn out to be a great forum for designers to discuss pertinent issues effecting the industry, unfortunately, this months pertinent issue is ‘which piece of design would you like to see inspire a fashion collection’. Christopher Doyle at least has a groovy beard.
The highlight of the magazine for me was this months ‘Retrospective’ on legendary designer Harry Williamson. It’s a great article by Dominic Hofstede (quit legendary himself in my books!) with some beautiful work from the 60s to present day discussed. Pity this is only bi-monthly, there are plenty of unsung home-grown designers to discover (Dominic’s site Recollection is a great resource for uncovering the history of graphic design in this country). I like the idea of the ‘Desktop’ photo spread, quite literally a photograph of a designers desktop, hopefully this won’t just be month after month of screensavers with bookshelves piled with Wallpaper mag, Tibor Kalman’s book and Kid Robot figurines in the background. The last page, and possibly the most exciting and the one with the most potential is ‘Emerging’. Each month will feature an emerging talent, it’s great to see new talent and ideas – unfortunately, the feature at the moments reads more like a plea for employment. I would like to hear the thoughts of the featured designer, rather than their enthusiastic University lecturer telling us what a good employee that would make, with a bit more thought, there is a lot of potential for this section.
So there you go, our own magazine on the culture of design makes an encouraging debut. I still think there is a way to go to making it feel as inclusive or inviting as a Grafik or Eye. I would like to see more experimentation taken with it, more risks, as designers with passion we are actually quite open to these sorts of things. First issues I know tend to be a little more conservative until they find their feet, but now is the time to be bold! The last thought on the magazine I will impart is for the makers of Desktop to remember that the confines of the Australian graphic design community do not stop at the borders of the Eastern states. There is great work being done all over the country (even in New Zealand!) so it wouldn’t hurt to cast your eye over in our direction as well.