As noted in my previous entry, on May 14, I inaccurately dissed Wired’s new house body and headline font as Helvetica. on June 28th, Wired Creative Director Darin Perry dropped by to set the record straight. It’s actually Aksidenz Grotesk.

Prompted by this unexpected turn of events, I’m taking the opportunity to write more thoughtfully about Darrin’s recent changes to the magazine in the context of its’ design history. First, it should be recognized that I have a more emotional relationship to the magazine than I do to any other mag that I read. Wired’s first couple of years, before the website opened for business, were a magnificent – and frankly transgressive – reading experience.

Editorial direction was wide open. Contributors wrote about the infinite possibilities for change that the developing new technologies opened up. Everything from alternative, technophilic non-capitalist economics to the impact of the new technologies on democratic decisionmaking processes were written about. It was inspiring, exciting, and fired my imagination.

The look of the magazine during these years reflected the excitement of the content. Graphic design was the first industry to be powerfully affected by the emergence of personal computers. Just at the time Wired debuted the first round of really committed, highly technologically literate designers were hitting their stride.

The magazine, during this time, acquired the reputation of being ‘illegible’ (unfairly, in my opinion), mostly due to the use of flourescent inks for captions or body copy in some cases and for a willingness to experiment with layering and unconventional ink choices (silver captions printed on top of duotone photos, for example).

To the public at large, these looked as radical and confrontational as the subject of the magazine, which at the time was the utopian possibilities inherent in the development, exploration, and exploitation of the new technologies.

As Wired entered middle age, around the third or fouth year of publication, there was a distinct shift in editorial tone. An initial redesign may have accompanied this shift. Articles critical of international global capitalism were nevermore seen; fifty-something white guys dominated the cover; advertisements for the status toys of our overlords predominated in the pages. I regularly become enraged while reading it, and dropped it as a subscriber.

The redesign de-emphasized some of the wilder aspects of the early years but kept, in a somewhat tamed fasion, many of the others. Flourescent inks, for example, were still used on a regular basis. However, the era of wild exploration was past. Interestingly, the magazine kept the reputation as a wild design leader long after the spark of these experiments had dimmed, and the look of the magazine actually employed a combination of conventional magazine layout approaches and evolved design solutions that descended from the earlier experiments.

At about this time in the magazine’s history, I was involved in a long discussion on the Graphics List concerning, oh, I guess the semiotics of both incarnations of Wired. The conclusions I reached from this discussion were:

  • The orginal design approach reflected both the “opening” created by the new technology and at the same time reflected the danger and difficulty created by the new technology: fragmented and “hard to read” type and photo design is the future;
  • A desirable side effect of “hard to read” or dissonant design is that it acts as an encoder which automatically separates those in the know from the clueless, much as jargon or fashionable clothing;
  • By successfully maintaining a reputation of being “hard to read” or edgy while in point of fact becoming much more accessible in design and mainstream in subject mater, Wired successfully expanded their readership and consumer appeal while maintaining premium pricing and creative requirements for advertisers, a real grail for lifestyle magazines.

In effect, Wired created a myth of an exclusive club, and then turned it into a tourist attraction without letting the tourists become aware of the change in status. While the editorial change (not the design change) drove me out the door, cursing and muttering imprecations, I must say I found the excercise admirable and informative.

Today’s Wired, beginning with the issue that first featured the current look (it had Steven Spielberg on the cover), gives some evidence of an editorial shft away from celebrating wealthy white corporate leaders. In all fairness this is predictable in light of the onging economic tragicomedy we are all observing daily. I certainly hope they’ll pick up a bright pen and run it through each and every one of the companies we’ve watched melt away – beginning with Enron and Andersen and moving up through Xerox and WorldCom. Wired could choose to assign, for example, Bruce Sterling or (now this I like) William Gibson to cover the fraud and theft which are currently wrecking the economy. But I’m not gonna hold my breath.

Although an outcome like that is unlikely (and in all honesty I don’t think Sterling could be critical enough to meet my desires for such a piece; Gibson’s dark glasses would be just right for me, I think), so far since then both the Spielberg issue and the current “Nike project” issue had a sufficient amount of interesting material to hold my attention. The intermediate issue, in which the Wired Index was re-introduced, was, not successful in so doing. In the current issue my favorite piece was the “Infoporn” on nulclear material, and I must say a part of my enjoyment was derived from the presenation of the piece: phosphor green on black, very nice.

The redesign, which employs Aksidenz Grotesk (Thanks, Darrin!) to effectively do away with the early-nineties visual noise while still employing layered printing, da-glo colors, and other signature elements of all of Wired’s looks, also reflects the direction street design has taken over the past five or six years, on rave cards, club flyers, and the like.

This school of design combines a retro-seventies futurist esthetic in the use of understated sans-serif fonts with softened, regular geometric shapes such as squares or rectangles with rounded corners to convey a cool, polished sensibility.

This mode of presentation is derived from the work of Swiss designers on the eve of World War Two, and became very influential in American design in the late sixties and early seventies, when it projectd a ind of intenational, eurocentric futurism. Think of Kubrick’s “2001” and Woody Allen’s “Sleeper”, and you’ll know what I mean.

It’s interesting to note that each time this high-modern approach to design becomes predominant (and Wired is not the only mag to undergo a retro-mod restyle of late – a href=””>MacAddict just unveiled a similar, sans-all-the-way look in print if not online), it was in times of economic turbulence, with no clear upturn in sight and a great deal of uncertainty in the air.

In the case of Wired, does this affect the sense of exclusivity the magazine still strives for? I’m not certain. I suspect it does; after all I doubt that a subscriber in Chinchilla Flats, Texas has seen as many rave cards as I have here in Seattle; and while I can see the magazine as a manstreaming of this design approach, it probably still looks pretty cutting edge to our imaginary Texan.

At the same time, simply becasue it’s a less confrontational design, it may provide greater accessibility at the newsstand, which in turn might translate into a spike in circulation. So Darrin, I take back my flippant dismissal of your hard work, and hope you enjoy reading my more honest and thoughtful reflections on both your place of work and the specific contribution to it you have made of late.

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