Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

HOW Magazine's Redesign

HOW Magazine has taken three issues to explore their new design, and I can’t help but feel they completely dropped the ball. Their excellent content is buried under bad type and uninspired layouts, and I am already looking forward to their next redesign.

In the middle of 2004, HOW Magazine announced they were working with Pentagram to redesign their publication for its 20th anniversary. The forums buzzed with the news—it was exciting to see what a leading design magazine and one of the world’s most eminent design firms would devise.

When the first issue launched at the end of the year, the response was overwhelmingly disappointed. I could almost hear the collective subscriber base mumble, “This is it?”

I have given HOW Magazine three issues to really breathe the design and explore the space. Unfortunately, the whole thing is just not clicking. The design, well, sucks. A letter in the most recent issue summed it up nicely:

I just finished your new, redesigned issue. The only thing I can say is, when will you be redesigning it again?

The biggest single problem with the new layout is the management of white space. There is a clear difference between white space that exists to give the design character and environment and white space that just looks dead. Some pages have huge swathes of emptiness, with nothing to anchor the eye, and what is there is thin, recessed and boring. And where content does dominate the page, poor typography choices fight the reader.

Type consideration is the single most important part of magazine design, and it’s hard for me to accept Pentagram and HOW dropping the ball this badly. The body text is thin and too traditional; what character it has works against the progressive feel of the publication. The subheads are a disastrously weak choice. The combination feels like the magazine staff wanted something funky—but not too funky—and picked the weakest option. The previous design used DIN Schriften for the subheads, a solid, beefy sans serif that nicely balanced the columns of text.

Unfortunately, the rest of the design doesn’t help. Weak editorial layouts contribute to the mess, and the random spreads of design masturbation feel tired and “trying too hard.” (The June issue has an eight-page spread by Laurie Rosenwald and it leads off “here are 8 pages for no apparent reason.” Yikes.)

The one new thing that has improved, however, is the cover design. I love that each issue has a unique, illustrated masthead. The latest June edition features the work of Chris Sickels, who did the “Hey Fred, Nice Red Thread” project that won every design award last year.

HOW’s single most redeeming quality, however, is still the most important. Their content is consistently the best in the industry, and their focus continues to be on real-world design issues, not the pie in the sky aesthetic dreamery Communication Arts likes to espouse. They also continue to give space to in-house design, a topic not even acknowledged by other publications.

Our department subscription is renewed for the content and the hope that the presentation improves. I can’t help but feel that both HOW and Pentagram were cheated; what could have been a high-water mark in mainstream design has fizzled into a mediocre and uninspired mess.