This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture


Redesign Diary #2: "With a little sex in it."

This Magazine Staff

The first thing we did when we set out to redesign This Magazine was get together all of our staff to talk about what we wanted at the end of the whole process. The magazine has been around for a while, after all, and you don’t survive in the magazine business unless you’re doing something right. We wanted to identify that secret sauce that’s kept people reading and subscribing, to make sure that the things people love about This didn’t get thrown out in the flurry of activity to follow.
We all felt kind of goofy about it, but we sat around and drew up a list of adjectives that we felt applied to the magazine — and another list of terms we’d like to add with the refresh. I won’t post the whole list here, but here’s a telling selection:

Keywords that we felt This Magazine already embodied: Keywords that we want to add with the redesign:
  • serious
  • smart
  • progressive
  • contrarian
  • curious
  • national
  • skeptical
  • fearless
  • lefty rag
  • middle-aged
  • alternative
  • poor [financially! — ed.]
  • hip
  • visionary
  • prescient
  • attractive
  • investigative
  • provocative
  • idea-generator
  • web-savvy
  • rich
  • sexy

It’s an interesting pair of lists. Now, you and I may disagree on which of these adjectives actually apply to the new incarnation of the magazine, and its previous iterations, but you can see a general trend here. I should note that the crowd around the table was a youngish one (just like most people working in the magazine industry) but that we had quite a range of ages, backgrounds, talents, and professions represented. The feeling generally seemed to be that the magazine does a lot of things right: it’s a home for serious, long-form reportage; it has a clear and stated progressive perspective without being pigeonholed; it values its independence and aims to speak truth to power; it loves discovering new things, especially new talent.
But oh, we take ourselves awfully seriously sometimes. Often, that’s the right attitude: when you’re taking on issues of social justice, poverty, racism, governmental negligence, environmental degradation, violence, and the other kinds of issues we care about, a certain seriousness is necessary. But other times, especially in the realm of politics, you’d better laugh — because otherwise you’d cry. Overall, there was a strong appetite for lightening our touch sometimes, to make the magazine a pleasure to read, and not a slog through a 48-page mire of despair. Does that mean we’re going to be flippant or frivolous? Not for a minute. But we pledge to cheer up a bit: after all, progressive politics is about changing the world for the better, and that’s worth smiling about.
Mostly the feeling around the table at that first meeting was that we wanted the magazine’s existing strengths to be amplified by its design, not be swamped by it. We’re going full colour, of course, and that’s a big step for us after decades of mostly black, white, and grey. But frankly, colour will only serve to get us up to par with nearly every other publication on the newsstand. We believe what the magazine says is still the most important thing, and the design choices we’ve made are intended to reinforce the contributions from our writers, illustrators, and photographers. It’s what’s on the inside that counts, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want a nice outside too.
Early on in the great 1941 Preston Sturges comedy Sullivan’s Travels, the earnest director, John Sullivan, explains how he wants his movie to deliver important social messages, while his producer pushes for crass commercial appeal:

Sullivan: I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity — a true canvas of the suffering of humanity.
Producer: But with a little sex.
Sullivan: With a little sex in it.

We want to be a serious document of the dignity and suffering and struggle of humanity — but we also want our magazine to be read by lots and lots of people. That calls for a dash more sex appeal, which is what we hope our new design brings.
This will be a delicate balancing act, so as always, tell us what you think by emailing me at [email protected].
In the next blog post I’ll be talking about some of the other magazines we looked at for inspiration as we embarked on the redesign. Look for it here later this week.

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