How bad design gets the best results

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

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