De­sign Plus: Hot to Re­design a Magazine


When the highly re­garded de­signer of the UK’S Guardian news­pa­per re­vamped the lack­lus­tre French newsweekly L’ex­press, the re­sult was…well, news­wor­thy. The man be­hind the re­design is Mark

Porter, who set up his Lon­don stu­dio Mark Porter As­so­ci­ates in 2010 af­ter 14 years as cre­ative direc­tor of The Guardian, where he over­saw the paper’s switch to the “Ber­liner” for­mat in 2005.

So far, The Guardian has seen no rea­son to tam­per with Porter’s award­win­ning de­sign. With a touch of English self-dep­re­ca­tion (he was in fact born in Scot­land) he says: “It’s grat­i­fy­ing, but to be frank I think most of their en­ergy is go­ing into dig­i­tal now, so they can’t be both­ered to start re­design­ing the news­pa­per.”

His re­design of L’ex­press in­jects a sense of vi­brancy and pur­pose into the 63-year-old newsweekly at a piv­otal mo­ment in its his­tory. Un­der new own­er­ship – it was ac­quired by en­tre­pre­neur Pa­trick Drahi’s Altice Me­dia Group last year – and in the midst of a dra­matic cost-cut­ting ex­er­cise, it is shed­ding staff and cir­cu­la­tion.

De­sign-wise the magazine had been tread­ing wa­ter; its cov­ers were func­tional but un­likely to jump out from a kiosk. Porter’s new look in­cor­po­rates a bold sans serif type­face and a vis­ual pun that turns the ti­tle’s apos­tro­phe into a speech bub­ble.

Trea­sure in the ar­chives

Porter says the re­design was com­pleted on a short dead­line. “We started talk­ing late last year. I came to Paris to meet the publishers and the ed­i­tors, and we had a good con­ver­sa­tion about what me­dia brands need to be these days, and how the de­sign needs to work harder than just in the magazine.”

The next step was a solid brief – and Porter says L’ex­press had a clear idea of the chal­lenges it faced. “Print in gen­eral is de­clin­ing – in fact it’s re­mark­able that France still has four news week­lies – and they re­alised the de­sign was tired and not work­ing very hard for them.”

Af­ter that the re­search process be­gan. “L’ex­press has an in­cred­i­ble his­tory. It’s been a very im­por­tant part of French cul­tural life in the past. Al­bert Ca­mus wrote for the magazine; Françoise Sa­gan re­ported from Cuba. So of course we wanted to re­flect that.”

Porter spent “a fan­tas­tic day” in the magazine’s base­ment look­ing through its ar­chives. Among the trea­sures he came across was a 1970s de­sign by leg­endary US graphic de­sign­ers Milton Glaser and Wal­ter Bernard. In fact, the witty use of the apos­tro­phe is a nod to their vi­sion.

“There were some graphic el­e­ments from the 60s and 70s that still seemed po­tent and felt very con­tem­po­rary again now, so they fed into our de­sign.”

He also took a close look at the com­pe­ti­tion. It struck him that two of the ri­val ti­tles looked more or less the same as L’ex­press, with a white logo on a red back­ground. There was clearly an op­por­tu­nity to break out of the pack, hence the graph­i­cally strong ti­tle piece.

“To­day it’s not enough to just have a logo that works on the front page of the magazine – you need a logo that can work in other con­texts: on the web, social me­dia and so on.”

A sense of ur­gency

In­side the magazine, an “ex­tremely read­able” type­face was cho­sen. “Although the re­design was done partly to at­tract younger read­ers, the magazine still has a lot of older read­ers, so we wanted to make the text com­fort­able. Af­ter that, we tried to bring in some type­faces that looked con­tem­po­rary and fresh, but were still recog­nis­ably the kind of ty­po­graphic lan­guage you would find in a newsweekly. We were not try­ing to break away from the con­ven­tions of news magazine de­sign, but to rein­vent them in a more con­tem­po­rary form.”

One trick, he re­veals, was to bring a sense of scale to news sto­ries by us­ing big­ger type for head­lines. “There’s a kind of ur­gency about news pre­sen­ta­tion that makes it ap­pro­pri­ate. The old de­sign was very mono­tone, so we’ve tried to move up and down the scale more.”

Porter’s team also im­proved nav­i­ga­tion by di­vid­ing the magazine clearly into sec­tions – news, anal­y­sis, cul­ture and so on – by colour cod­ing them and “al­most giv­ing each section its own cover and ta­ble of con­tents”.

Although Mark hasn’t worked on the magazine’s web site, he says that with any print project, other plat­forms must be borne in mind: “Along­side a logo with a strong per­son­al­ity, we also try to cre­ate a set of ty­po­graphic con­ven­tions that are recog­nis­able wher­ever they ap­pear, so you get a feel for the brand in other con­texts.”

We had a good con­ver­sa­tion about what me­dia brands need to be these days, and how the de­sign needs to work harder than just in the magazine.

In­ter­na­tional in­flu­ences

Un­usu­ally, Porter is a self-taught de­signer. He stud­ied Mod­ern Lan­guages at Ox­ford and learned de­sign on the job, with stints at Benet­ton’s Col­ors magazine and the UK edi­tion of Wired. But he ad­mits to be­ing in­spired by 60s and 70s de­sign, cit­ing the Ger­man magazine Twen and its art direc­tor Willy Fleck­haus.

As for Mark Porter As­so­ci­ates, it’s any­thing but un­der­em­ployed. Right now its myr­iad projects in­clude launch­ing a new online news­pa­per called El Na­cional in Barcelona (“This be­ing 2016, when you launch a new news­pa­per you don’t do it in print, you do it on the web”) and con­tin­u­ing a part­ner­ship with the in­flu­en­tial Rome­based news magazine (and web­site) In­ter­nazionale.

“One of the best things about what we do is that we get to work in so many dif­fer­ent places,” Porter says. “I can’t de­sign like a French per­son, be­cause I’m not French, but we do try to im­merse our­selves in the lo­cal de­sign cul­ture in or­der to do some­thing that’s ap­pro­pri­ate, with­out be­ing a pas­tiche. It’s tricky – but fun.”

Mark Porter

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