I hate to be a jerk, I really do. But sometimes, my sense of design-snobbery gets the better of me and it happens. This was the case a few years ago: the agency I was working at had some issues of Cycle World laying around in the media department. We always had fashion magazines lying around, but anything automotive or motorcycle-related was a rare treat. I read through them, noticed some truly questionable design choices, and eventually the visual faux-pas accumulated to the point that I felt compelled to take to Twitter and berate @CycleWorldMag for it. Yeah, I know: jerk.
Three years passed. Last month, I mentioned the instance to my sportbike-obsessed friend Mark (of Shift & Drive), and I called out @CycleWorldMag, once again, to try to get a reaction. And I got one: someone at Cycle World, who's not a jerk and actually a really nice guy, contacted me and said they've made some changes. They wanted to mail me a couple issues to see what I thought. Incredible, right? I was happy to oblige, and really looked forward to seeing if this magazine had finally arrived in the 21st century. It couldn't still look the way it did in 2009, right?!
Bad news: it's the same. I don't really see what's changed. So instead of me being obnoxious (again), I’m going to try to point out the things that seem like obvious problem areas to me. I hope that this comes off as moderately constructive and, at the very least, explains why I feel this way.
Any asshole can say that something sucks. Maybe it's the mark of a slightly lesser asshole to explain why.
You're going to see me write the words "drop shadow" in a disgusted tone. A lot. Sorry.
I must stress: I'm not attacking any of the editorial content of the magazine at all — I wasn't looking at that sort of thing. Actually, I was really drawn to some of the content when I was flipping through to photograph these images. That part is probably just fine. It's the wrapper that contains the content that's out of touch.
I'm focusing on the June 2012 issue, which I picked at random out of the three. Click the images to view higher resolution versions to see what I'm referring to in detail.
Most magazines these days have hideous covers, so it sort of gets a pass here, but let's look anyway. There are five bike images on the cover, and four of those are ridiculously clipped out on white (the May 2012 cover had eight bikes!). There's no hierarchy among these clipped bikes and no page division. Moving on.
The Yamaha shot is the most bizarre: a high-energy jump photo with no background and no context. And no energy. But what led me to focus on it was the drop shadow, which overlaps with the masthead drop shadow – it's like an M.C. Escher drop shadow!
The main story about the Harley softail gets the most real estate and therefore the most extravagant type treatment. What is this communicating? There are five different type styles happening in one statement. Does that make it better, or more readable? No. On top of that, these type treatments are sloppy and badly executed, with unnecessary strokes and yet more drop shadows (get used to that complaint). The kerning of "Softail" makes me cringe. No comment on the "Tested:" rubber stamp look.
Table of Contents
All of the text, with the exception of the author credits, is in Helvetica Bold or Black. Why so heavy? Like most of the magazine, you get the sense this hasn't changed much in 30 years, aside from adding a surplus of drop shadows.
Here's a typical opening editorial. Why the giant red bar with Black Extended Italic type labeling the section? As we'll see, the magazine uses italics a lot and for no apparent reason. The scattered, random layout of the images combined with the lack of white space force the text into a phonebook-like density that makes it as unappealing to read as possible.
A news section. Every last fraction-of-an-inch on the page is crowded and claustrophobic. Honestly, I think a smaller type size might be easier to read if it meant more white space around the lines and paragraphs. And who doesn't love a nice yellow starburst?
I focused on this section: a callout looking back on the June issue from 1987, 25 years ago. I honestly believe that the 1987 issue probably looks better than the current one. The style is likely similar, but devoid of all the hackneyed drop shadows and digital InDesign laziness.
The abrasive black bars and Helvetica Ultra Black Extended Italic section callouts is a recurring pattern. This "Hot Shots" section looks particularly cheesy and could be lifted out of the 1987 issue. The body text? That's Times New Roman.
With the regular departments out of the way, let's look at the features. This is the real meat, the important part, right? This CW First Ride is fairly inoffensive at a glance. Large photography does the initial storytelling, and even the tiled sub-photos (with simple white dividers) underneath are fine.
A closer look at the title reveals business as usual. Poor letter spacing (look at "2013"), a horrendously cramped initial cap to start the article, and lot of unnecessary bold italics, which remind me of the Motor Trend issues I started reading back in 1992. The paragraph has no space on the right margin, and the black section meets the photograph with, you guessed it, a big blurry drop shadow.
The Yamaha WR450F story opens with one of the prettiest spreads in the issue. It lets the photography shine and its not festooned with borders and drop shadows.
Without a photo credit next to the author's name, I assumed it was a photo provided by Yamaha — until I found the photo credit, buried at the bottom in 8-point type. Real magazines don't bury this information.
The Zero Story is the most ambitious attempt at visual drama in the issue, but it's sloppy. If the Z was centered on a cleaner page, without all the shadows and ugly Times New Roman body copy, it would be a start. But there's nothing geometric about it, there's too much copy crammed into the negative space and the "Z" is forced to be both a compositional element and be read as part of a word, which isn't working for me. We're left with just a giant Z, but why?
The spread for this story is toned down and actually pretty clean. Still a lot of boring Times New Roman to read.
These author photos need the drop shadow and stroke to really jump off the page! Note that the drop shadow in the layout looks nothing like the actual shadow behind the magazine in my photo.
This chart layout looks like it hasn't changed in over 20 years. That's because it hasn't! I managed to find an identical chart in a April 1990 issue of Cycle World through a quick web search. Incredible.
I'm not sure where to begin on this one.
This article about Dan Gurney does the man a disservice by cramming way too much text on the page in between bold italic text and drop shadows. Look at how little space is allowed under the photo.
Finally, the last page. The garish giant bar at the top indicates that this is the 'Slipstream' feature.
I didn't just cherry-pick these pages because I thought they were ugly. This is a fair representation of the contents of the magazine. A magazine being produced in 2012. You can say that a lot of these things are insignificant nitpicks that don't affect the content of the magazine. And maybe if there were dozens of other magazines on the rack that were also stuck decades in the past, I would agree. But there aren't. Most magazines either modernize or fail and go away. Even Motor Trend shaped up a decade ago. If you're in the business of communicating, good design and layout is essential. Sure, maybe I'm the only one who is annoyed by the choice of Times New Roman, but everyone suffers when they have to stumble through a jumbled headline that uses five different type treatments. All readers get turned off by pages crammed with text and no white space, whether they know it or not. And a bad layout cheapens the work done by talented writers and photographers.
Do drop shadows suck?
Drop shadows don't have to suck. I use them sometimes — they can create a depth, a richness, and a greater separation between light type on a light or busy background. The key is to finesse the settings... modify the distance, edit the size and maybe reduce the opacity so it looks natural or believable. The default settings in InDesign suck. Turning on a default drop shadow results in an unsightly black poof that hovers 45 degrees away from the object or text. Every single drop shadow in Cycle World is a default drop shadow. Why? Why not even bother making it look good, or why not leave it shadow-free and unfettered?
What gives me the right?
Cockiness? I may not have the right, but I have the qualifications. I live and breathe this stuff everyday and have a lot of experience making things that don't suck. If the opportunity came up, sure, I would love the chance to art direct an issue of Cycle World, but that's not really what this is about. I'm really trying to express why this doesn't work, and make light of it, so that maybe it won't have to suck. A magazine that's designed is a better value for readers, content creators and advertisers alike. I would even say it's essential for the long-term outlook of any magazine.
I'm sure that designing this magazine has challenges that I haven't even considered, but I'm also sure that in skilled hands they could be overcome. The current layout needs to be thrown away and re-imagined. I would love to hear the
excuses reasons why the designers have done things this way [for apparently 22+ years], but without that I have to guess it comes down to laziness and lack of real design training. Prove me wrong, Cycle World.
Cycle World completely has the right to tear apart my writing skills, by the way.