The last Sunday magazine

ISN’T the new cover of The New York Times Magazine “the design that Ruth Ansel tossed in 1979?” I asked in a tweet today. The alert blog The NYT Picker immediately asked me to explain, and I answered that this first cover recalls the magazine of the 60s, with a flush-left logo, black-and-white photo and some white space. Ruth Ansel, former art director of Harper’s Bazaar, came in around 1979 and ushered in the new use of color with an all-bleed cover and a big New York Times Magazine logo across the top. Her approach was to make the magazine an antidote to to the gray grittiness of the big Sunday paper, and the readers loved it. So now, no bleed, and no color on the cover. But it looks good!

Inside, they evidently revived R. Hunter Middleton’s typeface Karnak, a black slab-serfied font that goes back to the old composing room. I’ve missed the Karnak since Paula Scher mistakenly subbed Stymie or Beton for it in an otherwise elegant redesign ten years ago. Gradually most of the old fonts from the metal era disappeared from the newspaper. Ludllow versions of Cheltenham, Bookman, Latin Elongated as well as Karnak were reassembled in the hot-metal composing room to become centerpiece of the robust, versatile typography of the great Lou Silverstein, the first designer AME at the paper. He added only Franklin Gothic.

There is still some Franklin, as well as the Intertype Imperial text left in the newspaper, but new versions of Cheltenham replaced the others, blanding it down. On one level that makes a logical typographical consistency for the Times, but I miss the variety and the strength of Silverstein’s mix.

So it’s reassuring for an old reader to see the Karnak again. Then, they added a new face which I don’t recognize, a bold condensed old style with bracketed serifs. Not an obvious historical mix for the Times magazine—I mean, hey, a Cheltenham bold condensed would have worked better, looked more like the rest of the paper, and you could have had Matthew Carter in for a quick update. (He did the other Chelts.) Nonetheless, it’s an interesting font, and adds some original personality.

There should be some tension in designing a Sunday supplement: You want to make it fresh and original, but it is nevertheless part of the whole paper. I think Janet Michaud achieved that with the smaller, slighter Washington Post Magazine. But at least the Post still has a Sunday supplement, so the Times doesn’t actually have the last.

But what’s the story with the text font? It’s a generic contemporary Roman in the tradition of Minion—forgive me if I don’t recognize it either. Why not go back to the print text font, Imperial, which is also used on the iPad app and the HTML Skimmer, thanks to Typekit. Seems like it would work better for the rotogravure printing—less spindly and contrasty.

The design of the magazine, nevertheless, make a lot of sense for the direction of the magazine. It just looks more interesting than the previous design. (It would have been nice if the editor had credited the designers in the explanatory note.) It’s better suited for the small page size and the short takes in the front and back.

All in all this magazine rethink argues for the continued existence of print. Look what a better experience it is on paper, as compared to the app version, or the New York Times Reader version, or the web. Some day we will get to the richness and browsability of print in the digital world, but we are not there yet. When Abe Rosenthal interviewed me to take over after Ruth left, he asked me what I thought the magazine was. I said it was the reward you got when you took on the whole Sunday New York Times.

Abe said, “No, no! It can’t be an additive. There is already too much in the paper. It has to be the antidote!” Abe was always right.

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