We used to think newspapers would be the last to realize they were doomed to extinction. (Maybe they aren’t. Maybe I should say they were the last to realize extinction could really happen.)

Nope: Truly the last to come to that realization are design magazines.

On top of what I’ve written already, which has had no effect at all, let’s take a few moments from our busy day to consider what you never or almost never read about in design magazines.

  • Book and magazine body-copy typography. You can’t show it in illustrations. It’s too small (also too wide), and it has to be understood in the context of a full page or a spread, which again cannot be illustrated in a thumbnail. It extends over many lines, some of them discontiguous. You can sit there alongside your friend and show body copy to that friend, but it is pretty much unphotographable. (Quick example: What do you know about the use of f-ligatures in Vanity Fair? Could you write down what you know and get it published in a magazine?)
  • Fine print. The warnings on a pharmaceutical ad or a chainsaw cannot be reasonably depicted in a magazine. (Corollary: You need to see the exact documents if you’re trying to determine whether or not George Bush draft letters were a fake.)
  • Large print. Any kind of type that’s intentionally bigger than normal, unless in a readily photographable display spread, cannot be rendered. You couldn’t write an article about large-print books for grannies because you couldn’t illustrate it. And – this one is near and dear, of course – large-scale signage is consistently misrepresented in tiny photographs. (You can reduce that effect somewhat by including items of known scale in the photo, like people or cars.)
  • Letterpress. Type that digs into the page cannot be rendered in a two-dimensional emulsion of ink on paper.
  • Unprintable colours. Fluorescent and metallic inks require, at minimum, six-colour printing, which no design magazine uses, save for certain of the advertisements (often the result of contra deals) that keep the magazine afloat.
  • Transparency. What if you wanted to write an article about overhead projections in business presentations pre-PowerPoint? You couldn’t. Corollary: X-rays are hard to write about because they’re hard to print. So are slides, SX-70 photographs, and medium- and large-format and glass negatives.
  • Paper stock.
  • Many Web sites and all Web applications. I argued previously – in Eye, ironically – that Web sites look glittery and jewel-like in reduced thumbnails. And those same sites look shitty and washed-out on a WinNT box with a busted CRT. You don’t get subpixel rendering or any kind of interactivity. If you want to show a change of state, you have to pretend you’re writing another piece on Kyle Cooper’s film titles and give us little still images. (It’s not just an intrinsic contradiction, it’s a dodge.)
  • Any intentional sequence that defies the design-canon narrative. Let’s say you’re the next David Carson, or half of that. And somehow Steven Heller discovers you. He can’t really write about your work because he’d have to show many little snippets from it to make a case. We know that showing little snippets is the problem. But – and here we diverge from the issue of illustration – if you aren’t part of the accepted design narrative, which assumes a continuous evolution from Lascaux to present, you won’t get written about, either. (Ask Natalia Ilyin.)

Maybe something along those lines would be expected with, say, geology or archæology, with its immense object-artifacts, but what I’m talking about here is graphic design used to discuss itself. And it HAS FAIL in ways no one wants to talk about; people are silent about what design magazines are silent about.

All the foregoing are simply excluded from the record, from the human collective memory of graphic design. One or two people here or there might remember they happened, but they can’t prove it because Poynor or Heller never wrote about it. Because, even if we could stand reading what they wrote, they wouldn’t be able to write anything; it’s structurally impossible.

While the Web can handle many of these cases, it cannot handle all of them. In essence, large swaths of graphic design have been and will remain undocumented because it is impossible to document them. The chief culprit, however, is the print magazine, which cannot go the way of the auk, the dodo, and the oryx fast enough.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2008.01.20 16:09. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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