Steven Heller | Essays

History of Aggressive Design Magazines

Neue Grafik, September 1958 

Graphic design evolved during the late nineteenth century from a sideline of the printing industry into an autonomous field with its own lore, icons and personalities. The missing link in this evolutionary process is trade magazines. Initially they established professional standards for printing, typesetting and bookbinding, yet viewed ornamental design as ephemeral. However, by the turn of the century, when businesses demanded printers provide more sophisticated layout and typography, trade magazine editors were forced to analyze and critique new advances. These magazines did not just reflexively report the current trends instead some aggressively codified key methods and mannerisms that in turn defined a profession. 

Trade periodicals also cautiously tweaked the status quo. Indeed most of the early ones were neutral but occasionally contained articles about novel design mannerisms. In the late 1890s The Inland Printer introduced a variant of French Art Nouveau to America and this unconventional curvilinear style challenged accepted taste while making posters and handbills more eye-catching. The Inland Printer became the clarion for American Art Nouveau in the same way that a hundred years later Emigre was the clarion for digital post-modernism.

Les Maîtres de l'Affiche, May 1896

At the turn of the century, European art — Impressionism, Expressionism, and later Cubism — influenced the design of letterforms and illustrations. Late nineteenth century poster designers in France, Germany, and England adopted modern concepts of space, composition, perspective and color.

Maitres de l’Affiche (1895-1900) was the first periodical devoted to late Nineteenth Century French poster art. With portfolios generously filled with poster miniatures printed in color on one side of each page, Maitres was a model of how trade magazines could integrate art, commerce and aesthetics into a single editorial entity. Consequently, the advertising poster was an ideal theme on which to build a trade magazine because it integrated art and craft, which could elicit stories about type, image and message applicable to all graphic design genres. Early Twentieth Century magazines, such as The Poster, which published separate editions in England and The United States, sprang up as the advertising industry became a more integral part of commerce. Although most were not as conscientious about the quality of their reproductions as Maitres, there was one magazine, the Berlin-based Das Plakat (The Poster), which given its focus on conventional and avant garde sensibilities emerged as a more historically influential review than any of the others. 

Das Plakat, June 1921

Das Plakat, September 1921

Founded in 1910 by Hans Josef Sachs, a chemist by training, dentist by profession and poster collector by preference, Das Plakat was the official journal of the Verein der Plakat Freunde (The Society for Friends of the Poster). Its purpose was to champion art poster collecting, increase scholarship among amateurs and professionals and promote the advantages of poster art to would-be clients. In the process it covered the poster scene by raising aesthetic, cultural and legal issues too. As well a survey of significant German (and ultimately international) work, the magazine addressed plagiarism and originality, design in the service of politics, propaganda and representation versus abstraction, raising the discourse of poster art from purely trade to cultural. Through the years its influence on designers increased, so did its circulation from an initial print run of 200 copies to over 10,000.

Sachs was inspired by a progressive group of German advertising artists known as the Berliner Plakat who practiced a new style called the sachplakat (object poster) that transformed the bold linearity of German Jugenstil into a reductive graphic language. In 1906 Lucian Bernhard invented this method with his poster for Priester Matches showing only two large wooded matches on a solid maroon background. This poster became the hallmark of sachplakat, characterized by the rejection of ornament in favor of an unambiguous focal image of the product with the only the brand-name as headline. Sachplakat monumentalized the ordinary, whether a pair of matches, typewriter, shoes or light bulb.

During World War I Das Plakat featured articles on the design of war bonds, stamps and posters produced by allied and belligerent nations. After the war, Sachs published a supplement exclusively devoted to political posters and turned the magazine’s attention towards media other than posters, such as trademarks and typefaces, which made it even more professionally oriented than when it began. 

Sachs acknowledged the European Modern avant garde but never wholeheartedly embraced its more radical tendencies. Yet by Das Plakat’s demise in 1921 commercial artists and typographers were indeed influenced by Futurism, DeStijl, Constructivism and Dada and some of the keepers of tradition gradually began to apply these methods to their quotidian work. Nonetheless, it took an acute visionary to truly see how avant garde ideas could be efficiently applied to commerce. It was not until 1925 that a mainstream printing and design trade magazine, Typographische Mitteilungen, the monthly organ of the German Printer's Association in Leipzig, shocked the professional nervous system by sanctioning the most radical of approaches.

Under the guest editorship of the typographic prodigy Jan Tschichold, Typographische Mitteilungen showcased graphic design and typography from the Bauhaus, DeStijl and Constructivism as functional for use among the widespread profession. It was the first time that the German printing and graphics industry was offered a full dose of type and layout, later known as The New Typography, produced by what was largely considered, if considered in mainstream circles at all, to be an aesthetic fringe with socialist political implications. 

Typographiche Mitteilungen, 1915 

Typographiche Mitteilungen, October 1925 , art directed by Jan Tschichold 

Nonetheless Typographische Mitteilungen, founded in 1903, did not intend to radicalize design. The magazine’s regular editorial policy was fairly restrained when it came to promoting experimental work and showed little regard for radical schools or movements. The magazine’s basic style menu included conventional German Black Letter typography with occasional moderne examples of letterheads, logos and book covers sprinkled through its monthly issues. While Typographische Mitteilungen’s responsibility was to report on the status quo it nonetheless allowed Tschichold an unprecedented opportunity in his issue titled “Elementary Typography” to showcase the form-givers, El Lissitzky, Kurt Schwitters, Herbert Bayer, Max Burchartz, among others and totally redesign the entire format and masthead of the magazine in their manner.

Tschichold’s October 1925 issue was a kind of October revolution of its own right, given the strong dose of avant garde dissonance and asymmetry injected into the otherwise straight-laced, central-axis commercial advertising of the time. Yet though Typographische Mitteilungen inadvertently made history, the very next month it returned to its regular staid layouts. Still the deed was done and it inspired other trade magazines of the period to be more open. In fact, German journals like Gebrauchsgraphik, Reklame and Archiv devoted considerable space to avant garde and avant garde-inspired approaches which effectively mainstreamed these ideas until the rise of Nazism in 1933 and its prohibitions against Modernism. 

Gebrauchsgraphik, September 1930

Gebrauchsgraphik, November 1931 

Of these assorted trade magazines the most cosmopolitan and far-reaching was Berlin based Gebrauchsgraphik, founded and edited by Dr. H.K. Frenzel in 1923 just as the chaos caused by devastating postwar economic inflation was causing severe privations. Gebrauchsgraphik was a bi-lingual (English and German) chronicle of “new” international graphic art styles and techniques, yet it was truly distinguished by the guiding editorial notion that advertising art was a force for good in the world. Frenzel held the idealistic belief that commercial art educated the public because “He saw advertising as the great mediator between peoples, the facilitator of world understanding and through that understanding, world peace,” Virginia Smith explains in The Funny Little Man. Frenzel was a free thinker and Gebrauchsgraphik had no direct or subordinate ties to any ideological, political or philosophical movements.

Despite his social idealism, Frenzel was professionally pragmatic enough to balance traditional and progressive aspects of contemporary design in his magazine. He also understood the psychology of the mass mind, knowing that stimulation would be achieved through novel, sometimes challenging visual approaches. So he used the Bauhaus ideal as a model for integrating graphic and other design disciplines into one overarching practice and promoted designers who exemplified this ideal, like Herbert Bayer who was showcased in Gebrauchsgraphik’s portfolios and on covers. However, compared to Jan Tchichold’s Typographische Mitteilungen, Frenzel’s magazine was a much more conservative graphic environment.

Frenzel’s advocacy for the new, stopped short of making Modern design himself. His magazine visually toed the line between what the public would find as acceptable or see as unacceptable experimental progressive principles regarding legibility. Perhaps for this reason Gebrauchsgraphik survived through the early years of the Third Reich more or less unscathed. Yet Nazi dictates ultimately transformed the magazine by forcing out unsanctioned “degenerate” Modern design. After Frenzel’s death in 1937 (purportedly a suicide) Gebrauchsgraphik’s new editors cautioned gebrauchsgraphikers to “avoid Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism and Futurism” thus severing those ties to the avant garde that Frenzel had proudly established.

In United States during the early Thirties avant garde graphic design was only promoted by the trade press once the dust had settled in Europe. England’s premier journal, Commercial Art (and later Art and Industry) were far ahead of America in its embrace of the avant garde and provided one of the earliest English language introductions to the Bauhaus and its affinities. In America during the twenties the advertising industry was surprisingly cautious about changing its time-tested methods of selling products through clever slogans, headlines and tag-lines, more so than images alone. Few American design pundits were so bold as to advocate advertising or commercial art as utopian — it was realistically viewed as a capitalist tool. Nonetheless, two magazines that were often favorably compared to Gebrauchsgraphik, were Advertising Arts and PM (later renamed AD). These two, advanced the practice of progressive graphic design which had been brought to America, in part, by émigré European designers and influenced by native born Modernists. 

Advertising Arts, January 1932

Advertising Arts, May 1934

The premiere issue of Advertising Arts on January 8,1930 was the first mainstream attempt to integrate Modern art into an admittedly antiquated commercial culture. Although Dada and Surrealist art journals had published in the United States in the twenties, this perfect bound, monthly supplement of the weekly trade magazine Advertising and Selling, offered ways to institute design programs in everyday practice in a way that was noted as “adopted by radicals.” The magazine became a vortex for progressive American graphic and the newly christened field of industrial design. Yet Advertising Arts is not to be confused with the radical European design manifestoes that introduced The New Typography. The modernistic design (i.e. Modernism with the edges dulled) proffered in its pages as a tool of the capitalist concept known as style obsolescence. As devised by advertising man Earnest Elmo Calkins, programmed obsolescence was a means of exploiting “modern art” to encourage consumers to “move the goods” and sell, sell, sell.

Advertising Arts debuted during the throes of the Great Depression when the economy was at its nadir and desperation was at its zenith. Design was a weapon in the war against stagnation. Editors Frederick C. Kendall and Ruth Fleischer had a mission — to encourage innovation while celebrating advertising designers who manipulated consumers to consume. So rather than publish the usual diet of trade gossip and technical notices, Kendall and Fleischer made their magazine into a blueprint for the marketing of modernity. Its writers, including influential graphic and industrial artists such as Lucian Bernhard, Rene Clark Clarence P. Hornung, Paul Hollister, Norman Bel Geddes and Rockwell Kent, whom passionately advocated contemporary art as industry’s foremost savior. In “Modern Layouts Must Sell Rather Than Startle” author Frank H. Young summed up Advertising Arts’ ethos this way, “Daring originality in the use of new forms, new patterns, new methods of organization and bizarre color effects is the keynote of modern layout and is achieving the startling results we see today.” At the same time, Advertising Arts also cautioned against flagrant excess: “In some instances enthusiasm for modernism has overshadowed good judgment and the all-import selling message is completely destroyed,” continued Young. The design of the magazine itself lived up to his words for each issue had a striking cover by a contemporary designer, illustrator or photographer that signaled a rejection of the old.

Advertising Arts promulgated a uniquely American design style called Streamline. Compared to the elegant austerity of the Bauhaus, Streamline was an bluntly futuristic mannerism based on sleek aerodynamic design born of science and technology that included ornamental flourishes symbolizing speed, in contrast to the right angles of European modernism. Planes, trains and cars were given the swooped-back appearance that both symbolized and physically accelerated velocity. Consequently, type and image were designed to echo that sensibility. The airbrush was the graphic medium of choice and all futuristic visual conceits, practical or symbolic, were encouraged. 

PM, May 1932, cover by Paul Rand

PM, May 1937, cover by Lester Beall

PM (Production Manager) later re-christened AD (Art Director), did not advocate the Streamline aesthetic with the same fervency as Advertising Arts but did champion both Modern and modernistic methods. Founded in 1934 by Dr. Robert Leslie, a medical doctor by training, type aficionado by choice and co-founder of the Composing Room Inc, a leading New York type house, PM was a trade magazine imbued with missionary zeal. Leslie and co-editor Percy Seitlin committed to explore design with a blind eye towards style or ideology and gave progressive designers a platform that underscored the viability of The New Typography in American advertising and graphic design. The small 6” x 8” bi-monthly journal explored a variety of print media, covered industry news and often celebrated the virtues of asymmetric typography and design. It was also the first American journal to showcase the emigres Herbert Bayer, Will Burtin, Gustav Jensen, Joseph Binder, M. F. Agha, as well as native-grown Moderns Lester Beall, Joseph Sinel, E. McKnight Kauffer and Paul Rand. Like Das Plakat, et al, PM/AD’s covers were each original and unique. Kauffer's, for example, was characteristically cubistic. Bayer’s was objective, and Rand's was playfully modern. Matthew Leibowitz's prefigured new wave in its Dada-inspired juxtaposition of discordant decorative old wood types.

Three years after starting PM Leslie opened a small room in The Composing Room office as the PM Gallery, the first exhibition space in New York seriously devoted to graphic design and typography. The magazine and gallery had a symbiotic relationship; often a feature in the magazine would lead to an exhibition in the gallery or vice versa. Thanks to these additional events the magazine’s following grew and with it a lively appreciation for the avant garde that by 1942 was effectively adopted by mainstream businesses.

By the April/May 1942 issue, World War II was in full throttle, the editors ran this solemn note: "AD is such a small segment of this wartime world that it is almost with embarrassment and certainly with humility, that we announce the suspension of its publication...for the duration. The reasons are easy to understand: shortage of men and materials, shrinkage of the advertising business whose professional workers AD has served, and all-out digging in for Victory." The magazine did not resume after the war but did leave a documentary record of how American and European designers forged a universal design language in the service of business. World War II ended the idealistic stage of avant garde design, but PM/AD helped to define a commercial stage that continued well into the fifties. 

Graphis, 1967

After World War II graphic design was intensely covered by dozens of trade magazines published in countries where industry and design were integral bedfellows. But the most significant of the postwar graphic design clarions was Graphis. This Zurich-based, multi-lingual, international magazine was founded in 1946 by poster designer Walter Herdeg and was an outlet for iconoclastic designers and illustrators from around the world, especially Soviet Eastern European countries, which he believed was the seat of a new underground avant garde. Graphis was a newly opened window on the design world’s most ambitious emerging movements and individuals. In addition there was a handful of significant design and typography magazines published from the late forties through the early fifties that emphasized art, commerce and indigenous trends — these included: Word & Image in England, Print and CA in the United States and Graphik and Nouvum Gebrauchsgraphik in West Germany. But the most ground-breaking was Portfolio (from 1949-1951), which truly celebrated interdisciplinary design serving as a direct link to postwar avant garde thinking.

Edited for three issues by Frank Zachary and designed by Alexey Brodovitch, Portfolio defined a late-Modern sensibility that viewed the concept of good design as weaving throughout culture as a whole. Portfolio leveled the field between high and low art and so doing changed the fundamental definition of a trade journal. Portfolio was not merely a professional organ but a mainstream design magazine with its roots firmly planted in culture. Much has been written about Portfolio, suffice it to say, it markedly influenced the fifties and sixties magazines Neue Grafik in Switzerland, Typographica in England and even U&lc in the U.S. which are the forbears of Emigre, Eye and Baseline today. 

Early graphic design trade magazines are missing links in the development of styles, propagation of standards and canonization of the profession. Although current periodicals have come a long way since the late Nineteenth Century periodicals, the common editorial mandate to analyze, critique, and showcase contemporary and avant garde achievement is what makes these journals integral to graphic design history.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Media

Comments [8]

It's pretty astonishing how much of a difference there is between the content of the magazines like Gebrauchsgraphik and what we're now taught about that era through either general design history courses or a book like Meggs' History. When I recently looked through early issues of the magazine, I had to remind myself that this was the time of the bauhaus and even published in the same country. Excluding Bayer or Herbert Matter, from the issues I viewed (an incomplete collection) I saw no bauhaus "names." In fact volumes of issues went by without glimpses of anything I think we would currently term "modern." There was some early German trademarkers, a lot of Expressionism (I guess thats Bauhaus if you want to be factually correct), a lot of Art Deco and a whole lot of French posters artists (That's really a story in itself--it seems that French artists like Cassandre and Carlu were really able to straddle the line of modern-pushing and public acceptability, which obviously earned them a lot of international publications. A magazine like Arts et Metiers Graphiques, probably their biggest proponent, is missing from this list, but perhaps it didn't have a social component to it like these others). Gebrauchsgraphik pre-Holscher looks downright stodgy in its chosen published work when one considers what else was going on. The same is certainly true of Printas well.

I'm rambling at this point, but my main point is that much of our history (like any history) has been written by the winners. Its only through viewing these original documents that we can see what was really going on on the ground level—it certainly was far more pluralistic than most history books envision it now.
Derrick Schultz

Mr. Schultz raises something kind of interesting: how the actual artifacts don't really abide by what we have been trained to think they represent. It's as if we are all still pretty affected by a heroic modernist narrative that assumes that once the message was delivered via these magazines, that everyone fell in line. Not so much that history was written by the winners as it was by the ideologues. But lo and behold, you actually open up a copy of something like Gerbrauschgrafik or early Advertising Arts and you see reality in all its messiness. And design history so far has not really accounted for what was rather than what we wish it was. It's not to say that the work of the "Pioneers" is worth less just because it was rarer or not as immediately convincing as we've been prone to think it was. But even the issue of how artifacts are represented - like how you see the same magazine covers depicted, rather than some of their motley interiors - encourages this somewhat incorrect impression that there was a modernist juggernaut that just bowled everything over through pure aesthetic power.
To Mr. Heller: is "aggressive design magazines" really the right term for what you are trying to describe? And do you really think all these magazines are the same? Isn't a magazine like Portfolio really different in its audience and its intent, than say, PM? Though Portfolio is beautifully designed, why is it any more of a "design magazine" than, say, Fortune under Burtin?

"Is 'aggressive design magazines' really the right term for what you are trying to describe? And do you really think all these magazines are the same? Isn't a magazine like Portfolio really different in its audience and its intent, than say, PM? Though Portfolio is beautifully designed, why is it any more of a "design magazine" than, say, Fortune under Burtin?"

Good point. But these are two not necessarily related questions. "Aggressive" is a value judgement. I would argue that in each case, the magazines represented here, each in their own ways, aggressively propagated particular ethics and aesthetics. Advertising Arts was not just lumping together various current approaches, it was arguing for design that would help change the economy and place the U.S. in a position of commercial strength. Das Plakat was arguing against antiquated notions and fostering a new advertising industry. Each was in business to propagate points of view - commercial or otherwise.

Portfolio was not simply the design analogue of Fortune. The later was a beautifully designed business magazine (its art directors, inlcuding Burtin and Lionni were given license to make a smartly designed magazine that appealled to business persons). Portfolio was a beautifully designed DESIGN magazine that sought, against the publishing odds of the day, to aggressively trigger broader interest in visual culture (in this way it wanted a larger audience than PM). But in truth it was more like Arts et Metier Graphiques (although better designed, even though Brodovitch worked on a few issues of A&MG) than any other American trade magazine at the time. It folded while the 4th issue was being prepared - and was ahead of its time. Its children are everything from EYE to Wallpaper.
steve heller

Shorther than I'd like, but a really nice history review. It's alway usefull to track the evolution of a trend.

Very cool essay. One thing I would mention is that Maîtres de l'Affiche wasn't created as a trade publication. The plates were sent looseleaf, and though having them bound into a volume was one option, the idea was primarily aimed at individual collectors who could frame the miniaturized prints. What's really interesting about this was the concept of exhibiting advertising in your home - that it could function at a higher level of artistic appreciation that mere ephemeral commerce.
Michael H

Good essay.

Graphis was first published in 1944, not 1946.

I am looking to sell 6 rare issues of "Advertising Arts" the design supplement to Advertising and Selling. 1931-1934 would you be able to advise me on this. Please call me at 213-265-2150. Thanks Marvel.
Marvel Henry

I came across this site as I was researching my issues of Advertising Arts. I have 22 issues and am trying to determine value. Could you direct me? Thanks for your help.

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