How bad design gets the best results

The idle reader loves ugly pages jam-packed with pictures and punchlines, says Nat Pettinger

They all look the same:
Star. An unavoidably virulent strain of British publishing, characterised by a fluorescent rash, is spreading on the newsagent's shelves. The magazines with the uniform format, hazy celebrity photographs, scandalous straplines and brightly coloured panels. The ones our eyes are drawn to.

They all look the same: Heat, Closer, Now, Reveal, New, Star. An unavoidably virulent strain of British publishing, characterised by a fluorescent rash, is spreading on the newsagent's shelves. The magazines with the uniform format, hazy celebrity photographs, scandalous straplines and brightly coloured panels. The ones our eyes are drawn to.

That so many Identikit titles thrive in today's crowded market is testament to the remarkable power of a format. Two of the most successful ( Heat and Closer) are even published by the same company. Demonstrating wild creative abandon, only Now stands apart, eschewing the regulation magenta palette in favour of a blue logo. And, while the success of these titles is commonly attributed to a celebrity-dense, dense-celebrity focus at a time of unprecedented fame fixation, a more vital source of their power remains unacknowledged: their design. It is the marriage of the celebrity-dominated content to this format's particular design-style that has proved such a powerful union.

This is actually a kind of "un-design", a design that undermines its very principles. Students of graphic design are taught that good practice demonstrates sensitivity to balance, harmony and clarity; an intelligent pursuit of the efficient arrangement of information carried out with minimum distraction, a respect for content and sense of aesthetic purity.

With this in mind, a quick peek at the celebrity weeklies will leave you in no doubt that you're keeping company with design's unkempt, populist nemesis. And yet you may not be able to stop peeking, something the format employs various techniques to ensure. Clearly, the notion that design influences consumer behaviour is not new. Within publishing itself, companies pay more for a visually dominant right-hand page advert over a comparatively unnoticeable left. But the unique strength of these publications is that they've gathered a collection of fairly pedestrian visual gimmicks into an arsenal that undermines the better judgement of even the most trash-averse consumer.

Their indiscriminate, hypnotic appeal is evolutionary, based on a tried-and-tested formula as much as cold calculation. As the precocious offspring of a lineage that includes titles such as Hello!, tabloid newspapers, advertising art, The National Enquirer and, more distantly, comics and glossy magazines, today's celebrity weekly is the ultimate in lowest common denominator un-design. That's not to say that cold calculation doesn't play a role. Weekly circulation figures are closely analysed in relation to covers and focus groups are employed, while the format does the rest.

The first principle of un-design is distraction. Offices for these publications abound with adjectives such as "Busy!", "Punchy!" and "Vibrant!" for the desired "feel" of a page. I know because I've been there as a naïve graduate sobering up fast to the principles of market populism combined with the devastating potential of the Apple Mac under despotic command.

As is often the case, the most successful employees truly believe in their products. The designers suspend their rational design sense, turning out pages routinely; producing layouts most of whose appeal is on a particularly primal emotional level. Here, where more is always more, "white space" - the Holy Grail of the design purist - is exiled by a collection of elements resembling clutter. As the layout progresses, more and more elements are added: pictures, captions, panels, outlines, straplines - ostensibly with a view to creating pages that appear alive with flesh and insight. "Can you make it more... bitty?", another instruction from above, would commonly require the introduction of yet more dotted borders, navigational arrows, speech bubbles or faux rubber stamps effecting hot-off-the-press urgency.

The resulting mêlée is as uncomfortable as it is seductive. It is also bad design but that's not the point. "Pure" design and layout works on the principle that the content has inherent value, a principle largely without foundation in this case. Visual trip wires set, the readers are confronted by a chaos they seek to unscramble, to make sense of. Attached to the imagery, the words scream out: J-LO!, SCANDAL! or, less sensitively, in a recent edition of Closer, NEW AGONY!

Where, traditionally, large bodies of words were illustrated with a single picture, the text in these magazines is presented in small, digestible units annotating confused pictorial backdrops. This has shifted a vital balance: text and picture information now meet in the middle, where they can receive our attention simultaneously.

At the core of the format is its lifeblood: paparazzi photos. These are the weak, bare bones of the celebrity weekly. They are the content around which an illusory editorial package is woven and without which only a handful of random poor-quality photos lie on the editor's desk. There are few considerations for their selection: (quality is not one of them). They must be aesthetically pleasing or salacious and ideally both, e.g. a good-looking celebrity who is drunk. They will also be numerous; it's not uncommon for the cover alone to feature more than eight familiar faces.

Pretty faces (and bodies) sell magazines. And it's a trait peculiar to the female gender (and understood by the editors of a largely female readership) that they enjoy scrutinising other women. Partly as a result of this, the average head count comes in at a third higher than in the Daily Mirror and more than twice that of Marie Claire.

Ten years ago, photos of celebrities with closed eyes, twisted expressions, visible G-strings or half-obscured faces would have been disregarded. Now, photographers and their agents increase their profits - remarkably - by finding a market for their wastage. Celebrity moments are suspended in paparazzi shots that are sometimes enlarged to the point of abstraction. Dilated pixels, grey fuzz and other dark matter are seen as assets, supplying real, sweaty, lascivious intimacy for voyeuristic demand.

Repetition is one of the format's most favoured and effective void-filling tactics. The seemingly counterintuitive notion that monotonous visual repetition actually increases impact is used to great effect. These publications offer repetition through hairstyles, partners, events, dresses or tans. Indeed, any common factor will link otherwise disparate images. These magazines offer virtual duplication by printing adjacent photo frames. Akin to a comic strip, we read of said "Celeb's Primrose Hill pooper-scooper shock" frame by frame. Yet all we are really offered is repetition masquerading as variety.

To provide visual depth, the pages display imagery on a multitude of layers, confusing foreground and background. Elements are rotated and placed horizontally over one another. It's a perverse twisting of the Gestalt theory that gave rise to many principles of layout design, in which the parts never quite add up to a whole.

Elsewhere, photos are tightly cropped into frames, disposing of dead, irrelevant areas and bled off the page to heighten impact. Celebrity figures may be "cut out" from their backgrounds in a hackneyed bid to provide visual variety. It is this technique, often mistakenly applied to pictures with indistinct edges, that has led to the mysterious prevalence of malformed heads among celebrity circles. Overall, the most fundamental elements of the format are most comparable to design aimed at infants. Think bright dazzling colours, friendly faces, large letters and big pictures. Think baby's first picture book.

But for all the platitudinous 21st-century responses regarding, "24-hour Britain" "time impoverishment" and "multi-tasking culture", defending equally platitudinous accusations of dumbing down, the truth may be more primitive. To borrow a term from Ellen Langer, professor of psychology and social relations at Harvard University, "Humans are cognitive misers". That is to say, having evolved from hunter-gatherers, the brain doesn't want to think and prefers to conserve the calories expended on it. The brain really wants to idle, something that these magazines, in common with television, allow us to do. And our inherent laziness in the face of celebrity culture and some visual jiggery-pokery can be translated into record sales this week as yet another benchmark is set in the market's intensifying battle for our attentions.

The writer is a magazine designer

There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Life and Style
life“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

(Junior) IT Systems Administrator / Infrastructure Analyst

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly ...

Sales Engineer - Cowes - £30K-£40K

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Sales Engineer - Cow...

Web / Digital Analyst - Google Analytics, Omniture

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Sales Perfomance Manager. Marylebone, London

£45-£57k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice