• Editorial Design

Why Not Something Different?

With revenues down and the battle for attention and sales so vicious, it seems that no good deed goes uncopied.

In the world of graphic design, most wisdom is conventional. There are certain rules to live by — some hard and fast, sense and what works. Some are based on trends and opinions. Most are based on suppositions and hunches and being influenced by what the competition does. If you look within different some a bit more mushy.

Some of these rules are based on common industry categories, you’d almost start to think there are graphic design rulebooks filled with misguided directives:

  • When designing for kids, put type and photos at wacky angles with lots of layering to make the printed page look like a video game. Otherwise the tots will lose interest.
  • If you’re a technology-based company, think very seriously about having an oval as part of your logo. It will show you are cutting edge and kewl.
  • To show that you’re a player in the fashion world, do an ad using a nice full-bleed B&W shot by a famous, difficult photographer. Plop your logo in white (or maybe black) at the bottom center of the page. Welcome to the club.
  • If you’re doing an infomercial, make sure the “here’s how to order” screen has white, centered lettering against that oddly specific shade of electric blue.

However, the number-one unwritten rule seems to be: Why bother trying something new? After all, the easiest thing to design is the last thing you did. Actually, an even easier thing to design is the last thing someone else did. In such a competitive industry, with revenues down so sharply and the battle for attention and sales so particularly vicious, it seems that no good deed goes uncopied. The result: a lack of differentiation.

Let’s take a look at the magazine industry — an industry that’s close to my heart and one in which a lot of people do the same things. If you’re designing a magazine and you want people to pick it up on a newsstand, the thinking goes like this: Make the logo huge, with at least part of it at the top left, and have lots of cover lines (with numerals in them—Top 25 Hairstyles!) to attract as many people as possible. And never use black as the cover’s background color. That’s death.

To be sure, some of these rules make sense and are based on what has worked. Somewhere along the way someone found that putting a number in a cover line increased sales. So that became the way to do it. And now everyone looks the same and resorts to the same tricks. (PS: If I see another picture of Jesus on a newsweekly with some conceptually shoehorned excuse for a cover line — you know, like “Faith in America: Are We Praying? A Special Report” — verily, I shall smite myself.)

Nevertheless, people often try to break through with new ideas. When Vanity Fair was relaunched, it experimented with B&W cover photos and minimal (or no) cover lines (the prototype cover was a Milton Glaser illustration). When Premiere launched, it had a very large trim size. When Talk (remember that?) launched, it was printed gravure, with multiple images on the cover (a no-no for a monthly).

All these approaches were scrapped when it became obvious that economies dictated standard trim sizes; advertisers demanded coated paper stock; and newsstand conventional wisdom called for the use of celeb photos, lots of cover lines, and specific, tried-and-true layouts.

Not always, though. Look back to the February 2002 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, the first produced under new editor Glenda Bailey. They printed the magazine with editorial content on the back cover. The press attention they got for this move far outweighed the loss of prime advertising revenue.

I’m sure we won’t see that particular solution again anytime soon, but it worked perfectly that first time. It signified a change and a new way of thinking. It gathered attention and reinforced the brand. It reflected the type of thinking that one must have in an industry that is more “me too” than most. And it represented a way of thinking that should serve as an inspiration for any type of business.

— Alexander Isley


Adapted from an essay that first appeared in reveries, an online marketing journal.

© 2005 Alexander Isley Inc.