First published on MobyLives September 20, 2013.
When The New Yorker was founded, in 1925, by Harold Ross, it was conceived as both a bastion and a parody of cosmopolitan sophistication: As Ross famously put it in the magazine’s founding prospectus, “The New Yorker will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” And from the beginning, its design, conceived by Rea Irvin, reflected that premise. Sparse but witty, heavy on text and short on almost everything else, the magazine’s only distinguishing visuals were Irvin’s quirky, eponymous typeface, and the black-and-white cartoons sprinkled throughout.
For decades, this aesthetic remained wholly unchanged. Throughout the Lifeera, and as photography became widespread in newspapers, The New Yorkerstuck to its three-column layout and squiggly cartoons. Over time that began to change, especially when Tina Brown became editor; it was under her direction that the magazine published its first full-page photograph, by Richard Avedon, in 1992, and her art editors, Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, expanded the use of topical spot illustrations to accompany features. But through it all, it retained its iconoclastic appearance, free from the glossy excesses seen elsewhere on newsstands.
A new redesign, led by creative director Wyatt Mitchell and launched with the September 23rd issue, promised to be the most thorough revision to the magazine’s layout since Brown’s tenure, and after witnessing some disastrous test flights conducted this spring and summer, longtime readers (myself included) assumed crash positions. It was a relief, then, when the issue landed softly this week with a series of wise updates to the front sections: “Goings On About Town” now emphasizes contributions from the magazine’s critics, and the sprightly new incarnation of Irvin’s typeface restores some of its original whimsy and humor.
Only one decision came as a surprise: “Briefly Noted,” the weekly summary of books worth watching, received an airy new format to accommodate the inclusion of — surprise! — the books’ covers, a first for the magazine. As a cover designer, I’m thrilled (finally, my chance to be published in The New Yorker!) but as a reader, I’m concerned. While I take great care to make sure each of our books is a beautiful object, I will allow that the covers are, essentially, small advertisements for the contents within, and their appearance alongside reviews would seem to undercut the magazine’s editorial authority. It’s the kind of confusion between marketing and criticism you might recognize from The Entire Internet.
You needn’t look further than the first review to find a worrisome example. The New Yorker was unimpressed with Thomas Pynchon's new novel, Bleeding Edge, but no matter — the publisher still gets to make its pitch with the book’s eye-catching cover art. In effect, it’s like running a movie poster next to a film review, or allowing a chef to write the conclusion to a review of her restaurant: “Just try it, you’ll love it!”
With this change The New Yorker joins The New York Times Book Review in its recent adoption of cover art alongside editorial coverage, but there’s a reason they held out for so long: We need space for serious discussion of writers’ ideas on their own merits, free from spin. While The New Yorker‘s new format may count as a win for publishers (and we’ll take whatever we can get), it’s a loss for readers.