Thursday, May 20, 2010

First Things, First

As a rule, all change is bad. This rule holds particularly fast when it comes to graphic design and print media. It's hard to think of many magazine or newspaper redesigns which do not substantially diminish their product. Which is why I was so nervous when I heard that First Things was working on a complete redesign of the magazine.

Regular readers know the esteem in which I hold First Things--it's one of my three desert island magazines, and has been for many years. Its old design was so austere as to achieve a certain elegance, a little like '80s era Volvos. I was immensely fond of it.

The redesigned First Things is out now. This link will show you a TOC, but give you no sense of what the physical magazine looks like. I haven't lived with the new book long enough to pass a final judgment, but my first and second impressions are both that the redesign is a near-total triumph, in both the aesthetic and the strategic sense.

The internet poses a different challenge to magazines than it does to newspapers. Newspapers are largely utilitarian tools. A good magazine is more of a sensual pleasure. As they confront the internet, magazines must find ways to leverage the physical virtues. I wasn't in the room as First Things thought through their redesign, but I'd bet that this goal was their lodestar.

For starters, the new First Things is beautiful. The new paper stock is soft and easy on the eyes. The fonts are absolutely gorgeous. (Font whores--you know who you are--will really enjoy the work put in on the design end here.) Everything about the foundation of the layout--the columns, the breaks, the drop caps--is elegant and inviting. The book now has art, which is done tastefully. You never think you're reading Time. (Though for whatever it's worth, my own personal preference would be for fewer photographs and more drawings, in the mode of the old WSJ.) The only real quirk is the decision to switch paper stock in the middle of the book, where you briefly have essays on the old FT paper. Some people will like this; some won't. I haven't lived with it long enough to know what I think.

Aside from the artistic virtues, First Things is now doing more of what can't--or at least, isn't--readily available on internet platforms: poetry and very long-form essays. For a variety of reasons, beginning with how we interact with our computer screens, people don't read 15,000 word essays on the internet. Ditto short poems, I think. These forms are by turns too long and too short to be good fits for the web browser.

Finally--and this is a small, but important addition--First Things has added a crossword. I'm not a crossword lover. Actually, I detest them almost as much as I do Scrabble. But lots of people like them. And while technically you can do crosswords on the internet, I can't think of any crossword lovers who do. The crossword adds an element of interaction with the physical book. It asks you to read with a pen in hand, to mark it up and work with it.

When she launched the short-lived Talk magazine, Tina Brown said that her goal for the book was to create an artifact--something to be picked up, folded, shoved into a computer bag, carried around, and lived with for a couple weeks as it was consumed. Talk didn't live up to that ideal. But while Tina Brown may be many things, stupid about magazines she isn't. Her idea for Talk has always struck me as the most viable model for magazines going forward.

The new First Things is, I think, the first magazine to accomplish what The Tina set out to do. You don't simply thumb through, read two essays, and toss it. You want to carry it around, to enjoy and savor it. It's a great success and if you're not already a subscriber, now is a good time to come aboard.


E R E said...

Haven't seen the First Things revamp yet -- thanks for the review. What are your other desert island mags?

The slight redesign you guys did at TWS last year continues to impress, by the way. I really like all of the added color.

As you know, color matters -- certainly when it comes to pricing (purple) cars! (loved your 'casual' piece)

Keljeck said...

I'll check out the redesign next week. When I sent them my college address it got lost in something and they kept sending it home.

Right now I'm debating on renewing my subscription. I haven't noticed much of a dip in the print magazine's quality, a lot of the website is atrocious and makes me afraid of the magazine's future.

ben said...

Sadly, I had virtually the opposite reaction. It seems very schizophrenic to me, like it's two magazines poking absentmindedly at each other with pointed sticks. I read two pieces and the tabulation of the number of blondes on Fox News and now it's gathering dust.

I love FT. But it's Commentary I now read cover to cover.