Designer Claude Skelton has been casting his eye on type. Casting . . . type . . . typecasting . . . all right, look, it has been a tough week trying to get a winter issue out the door and on press, so cut me some slack. Better yet, let me turn this space over to Claude while I look for the martini shaker:
Thanks to all the UMag editors who have kindly included me on their mailing lists. A corner of my office is piling up with your publications—I hope they are fairly representative of what’s out there. In previous posts, I’ve talked about the quality of photography, and I can’t overstate the importance of great images on editorial impact. However, there’s another aspect of good magazine design that is just as important and too often overlooked: typography. Using type well is a skill that can be learned through observation and experience; using type creatively is an art form.
Legibility is not a problem in most university magazines these days. Vast expanses of unbroken nine-point text is becoming a thing of the past as editors and designers understand the importance of “entry points” for readers (subheads, callouts, quotes, captions, sidebars, etc). Font choices for body text are, for the most part, just fine. Maybe it’s a matter of taste, but for my money, classic serif fonts like Garamond, Caslon, and Baskerville (and their derivatives such as Hoefler and Mrs. Eaves) are hard to beat. Speaking as someone who’s been working with type for more than 30 years, these classics are still more attractive and easier to read than most “modern” serif families (actually, there are legibility studies, but I won’t get into that). As a rule of thumb, sans serif text is best used in small amounts or for contrast and, with few exceptions these magazines seem to understand that.
Similarly, many UMags are doing a good job with typography that’s used to organize and distinguish departments. News sections are the most difficult pages to design, requiring juggling of multiple stories, images, sidebars and graphics. Dartmouth, for one, maintains a distinctive look in their “Notebook” and “Alumni News” sections largely due to an appealingly chunky display font that’s also used in the cover nameplate. Along with a carefully balanced mix of contrasting serif and sans-serif text fonts, the overall effect is smart and professional. Auburn Magazine’s news sections and departments are masterfully designed with contrasting fonts, consistent type treatments, and varied column widths—not easy to achieve. Kenyon does some fun things up front—a “hot sheet” of short “things we love about Kenyon,” a box of “in & out” trends, a page of quotes, a few student profiles—all handled with typographic flair that remains faithful to the overall graphic brand of the magazine.
The main problem I’m having with many of the magazines I’m seeing is that too many designers are throwing the magazine’s typographic identity out the window when it comes to feature stories. The prevailing rule seems to be “anything goes” for display type in features. Many designers are attempting to use type to “interpret” the story. Once in a while this approach works (Denison manages to pull it off pretty consistently). Most of the time it doesn’t. Massimo Vignelli said it best: “I can write the word ‘dog’ with any typeface and it doesn’t have to look like a dog. But there are people that [think that] when they write ‘dog’ it should bark.” True, some consumer magazines use typography as art, and when it’s done well it can restore your faith in print all over again—but those publications have world-class creative staffs and budgets to match. There are just as many consumer magazines that have a strong, consistent typographic identity and they manage to use it creatively throughout, even in features. My suggestion to alumni magazine designers is simply to use what you’ve got, but use it creatively. Play with scale, experiment with color, pair type with images, turn it sideways, but don’t stray too far from the integrity and spirit of your magazine’s visual identity. For inspiration, take a look at Cambridge Alumni Magazine (this year’s CASE Sibley Magazine of the Year), Bostonia, LMU Magazine, and Auburn—all produce dynamic, original feature design without sacrificing the brand.