Metropolis magazine, redesigned: when less is still too much

Metropolis magazine, September 2009
Metropolis magazine, September 2009

The printed version of Metropolis magazine has shrunk as of last September. The result of a publishing crisis-induced redesign (in corner-cutting times, every inch counts), the magazine’s new size did not resolve its two other most pressing ills: an unclear international ambition and an art direction that doesn’t seem to know its place.

Metropolis was founded in 1981 as a large format, black and white tabloid newspaper with an ambitious subtitle: The Architecture and Design Magazine of New York. In 1999 both size and subtitle changed: following Paula Scher’s redesign, the magazine lost a few millimeters off the top and off the side, a trim deemed necessary for its newsstand success, but gained the Bodoni Book and News Gothic Condensed look that lasted for several years. By then Metropolis was about “Architecture, Design and a Changing World”, but it tough the world kept changing its subtitle remained the same from 2000 until this year: “Architecture < Culture > Design.”

Under the title “What is Good Design now?”, the March 2009 issue was one of the magazine’s best yet. The collection of essays from writers such as Deyan Sudjic, Peter Hall, John Hockenberry, Bruce Sterling, Niels Diffrient and Karrie Jacobs made it worth reading, not to mention contributions from the magazine’s editors and writers. This issue showed how Metropolis could instigate a broad, timely debate over the state of design six months after the global financial crisis started. It was an example of how a magazine can influence law makers, inspire professionals and educators, nurture students. It was also a good initiation on what design is for the common man. It was something you save from the bookshelf in case of a fire.

Metropolis, March 2009

Regardless of its content, this issue was also the epitome of Metropolis’ growing graphic mess. From Gail Anderson’s crazy busy cover to the magazine’s interior spreads, it seemed there were no graphic gimmicks left unused, no visual tricks left in the bag. There were tons of illustrations, color bars everywhere, oversized photos, (Philippe Starck’s Juicy Salif coming out of the page!). There is hardly any publication that does not go through a slow and destructive process when it comes to its design; like anything else on Earth, magazines—but also newspapers and websites—are also victims of entropy. By this issue there was hardly anything left of Paula Scher’s design, apart from the Bodoni Book typeface used in most of its text. Until last month.

March 2009 was also the month Metropolis started calling itself “The Magazine of Architecture and Design”, a title it has carried through the September redesign. A rather pompous, if ambiguous title at that: is it New York’s, USA’s, the World’s magazine? Where does this ambition or quest for authority come from? Despite covering subjects from all over the world, there is an undoubtedly American (not to say New York-centric) tone to Metropolis. A clear example of that is Suzanne LaBarre’s (excellent) cover article on Emilio Ambasz, where one reads: “The green-building movement has enjoyed a meteoric rise, evidenced by government subsidies and LEED’s dizzy growth, but it lost an art component around the time green ceased to be a color and instead became a metaphor.” LEED, an US environmental standard for buildings, is not contextualized in a piece about an Argentinian architect and his most recent building in Italy. So what is Metropolis talking about, or talking to?

Emilio ambasz story. Notice the byline placement
Emilio Ambasz story. Notice the byline placement

Also, in her September editorial editor-in-chief Susan Szenasy’s mentions the several virtues of the redesign, which include increased white space and an integrated approach to sidebar design. She says, “We think it works particularly well with this [Ambasz] piece, which goes deeply into the reclusive designer’s poetic aesthetics. You’ll also note that the outside margins—the seventh column—are sometimes used for factoids related to the story.” In the case of this article, some of the factoids include thumbnail photos of 1960s Italian furniture, whose connection to the story is esoteric at best.

Emilio Ambasz story. Why the chair and the lamp?

Granted, Metropolis does look a bit cleaner and “tamed”, but creative director Criswell Lappin still seems to be allowed the occasional graphic folly and typographic gimmick. He seems to have most fun in placing the article’s byline; it surfaces in the most unexpected, usually absurd places, ruining photographs and type treatments. Another example is found in the six spreads containing Julie Taraska’s article “Is the Death of American Design Greatly Exaggerated?.” Again, a great text accompanied by photos of images of chairs, lamps and tables arranged in pathetic, starry kaleidoscopic patterns. For a piece of writing that attempts to find some kind of future for US design, a more dignified treatment of its outcome would be expected…

The star-studded death of American Design.

I have to say I’m a big fan of Metropolis. I was a subscriber for several years, and am a frequent reader of its insightful writing, highly researched features on iconic designers and architects, not to mention Karrie Jacob’s excellent America column. I acknowledge its role as a champion of sustainable architecture and design practices, and find it a great source to understand American design.

But Metropolis is not an international magazine; it’s not made by an international team, and is not even aimed at an international readership. That is made clear also by the magazine’s advertising, largely made up of ads for American contract furniture and lighting companies and other architectural suppliers. These ads, (in their vast majority, far from attractive), which the magazine’s publishers have not been able to deter advertisers from placing on most desirable, right-hand pages, make for a choppy reading, made worse in the front of the magazine as editorial content shares space with half-page ads.

But then again, you don’t even need to buy Metropolis and be troubled by its printed advertising. You can find both full articles and ugly ads online at The magazine’s website, where virtually the whole issue’s contents can be found, read and shared, offers little else than the visual chaos of its printed version.

All in all, the renewed (not new) Metropolis is an improvement. Julie Taraska, one of the magazine’s contributors, summed it up nicely on a recent tweet: “Metropolis magazine’s redesign: Small trim size, clearer font, more white space, fits better in the tote bag.” But despite the therapeutic nature of its redesign it still seems to be suffering from chronic grandness and horror vacui. Publishing may be a tight business these days, but we all can use a little more space to breathe and think. If less paper and more white space prove to be good for Metropolis, further constraint and humility can be a lot better.

I wrote this post as an assignment for the ‘New New Media’ D-Crit course, taught by Elizabeth Spiers. This was supposed to be a segment of a larger assignment, called Reading Room, an online venue for discussion and critique of design and architecture magazines. This post and the 360ºChair post were examples of content created for different sections of this website. This one dedicated to the design and redesign of magazine, the other to innovative magazine sections and writing formats. Other sections include “Popular Subjects” (where one subject, product of person that having widespread coverage in magazines around the world would be regularly picked in order to analyze/discuss the way it has been talked about offline and online) and Editors, dedicated to the figure of the magazine (something I’m quite obsessed about) and how a publication can become a mirror of its editor’s personality and preoccupations, or completely  change from one editor’s tenure to the next. This section would be made up of a series of interviews with living editors on how they do what they do, and discover the people, the work and the legacy of historic and influential past editors. Reading Room would actually be something I’d like to actually turn into a reality, but maybe when I’m done with my thesis