Michael Bierut | Essays

In Praise of Slow Design

The New Yorker cover: “The Endless Summer,” by Mark Ulriksen.

This essay was originally published in January 2006. 

I got what I wanted for Christmas: The Complete New Yorker, which, as you probably know, is a digital archive of every issue of the weekly magazine since its first on February 21, 1925 on eight DVDs: every cover, every page, every story, every cartoon, every ad. I've been going through it compulsively ever since. I've read the work of Dorothy Parker, J. D. Salinger, Robert Benchley, Pauline Kael, Robert Caro and Raymond Carver as subscribers first did; wallowed in the nightclub listings that conjure a lost world where "there's Billie Holiday to listen to" at the Downbeat on 52nd; and gaped at covers, funny and tragic, by Charles Addams, Saul Steinberg, Art Spiegelman and Maira Kalman. From a journalistic, literary and historical point of view, the New Yorker archive is endlessly fascinating.

And from a design point of view? Unbelievably boring. Or, I should say, unbelievably, wonderfully, perfectly, exquisitely boring. To a field that today seems to prize innovation above all else, The New Yorker makes a case for slow design: the patient, cautious, deliberate evolution of a nearly unchanging editoral format over decades. And the case they make is — let's admit it — pretty hard to argue with.

Incongruously, the magazine that set the standard for sophisticated urbanity for much of the 20th century was founded by (in the words of playwright Ben Hecht) "a man who looked like a resident of the Ozarks and talked like a saloon brawler." Harold Ross was a Colorado miner's son and high school dropout who worked as a journeyman reporter and editor of the U.S.'s Army's newspaper before arriving in New York in 1923. There he fell in with a group of writers and artists, many of whom, like George S. Kaufman, Alexander Wollcott and Dorothy Parker, already had established reputations in the city, and who would become the core contributors of a magazine he started two years later. "The New Yorker will be a reflection in word and picture of metropolitan life," Ross wrote in his prospectus for potential investors, adding that it "will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque." He would be its editor for the next 26 years.

Rea Irvin was a member of Ross's original circle, and more than anyone else, was responsible for the way The New Yorker's first issue looked and, to a remarkable degree, for the way it looks today. An artist and art director most recently of Life magazine, Irvin established the visual conventions that would endure through the publication's history, including the logo, set in a handdrawn font used throughout the magazine and still referred today as "Irvin type," and the first cover, which introduced the monocled dandy "Eustace Tilly" as the magazine's de facto mascot. It also created the basic format for all the covers to come: a full bleed illustration, the subject of which seldom if ever had any relationship to the issue's contents, with a band of color down the left hand side.

Many of the magazine's most idiosyncratic conventions bespoke an almost neurotic reticence. For 45 years, The New Yorker had no table of contents. Ross's successor William Shawn introduced them without comment in 1969. Until the October 5, 1992, issue, bylines were placed unobtrusively at the end of articles, when they appeared at all, almost as an afterthought. "Regular readers of The New Yorker will note in this issue a number of changes in the magazine's format and design," warned the magazine's fourth editor, Tina Brown, and beginning with that issue, bylines finally appeared beneath the headlines. In the following months, le deluge: Brown would introduce brief article summaries (a.k.a. "decks") and photography to the interior, bringing in Richard Avedon, Gilles Peress and Robert Polidori as regulars. The incorporation of these features — a table of contents, bylines, photographs — utterly commonplace in nearly every other general interest magazine on earth, were each regarded as a revolutionary, even shocking, innovation within the pages of The New Yorker. Nonetheless, a comparision of that first issue to the one that arrived in my mailbox last week reveals more similarities than differences.

Publication design is a field addicted to ceaseless reinvention. Sometimes a magazine's redesign is generated by a change in editorial direction. More often, the motivation is commercial: the publisher needs to get the attention of fickle ad agency media buyers, and a new format — usually characterized as ever more "scannable" and "reader-friendly" — is just the thing. In contrast, one senses that each of the changes in The New Yorker was arrived at almost grudgingly. Designers are used to lecturing timid clients that change requires bravery. But after a certain point — 80 years? — not changing begins to seem like the bravest thing of all.

There is a slow design movement out there. "Daily life has become a cacophony of experiences that disable our senses, disconnect us from one another and damage the environment," say the designers of the not-for-profit slowLab. "But deep experience of the world — meaningful and revealing relationships with the people, places and things we interact with — requires many speeds of engagement, and especially the slower ones." Inspired by other global "slow" movements in food and city planning, slow design is not just about duration or speed, but about thoughtfulness, deliberation, and — how else to put it? — tender loving care.

I imagine there are designers who would find The New Yorker exasperating. And certainly its timelessness can be interpreted as an attempt to hold on to a fantasy, an idea of the way life should be lived, against all odds. As onetime Design Observer contributor Momus observes on his site in a discussion about slow magazines, for their readers, "magazines, as well as representing lived lifestyles, also represent aspirations, dreams and compensations for lifestyles they don't show." Or, to quote a letter the magazine received in 1956, after Ross had rerun — for the 25th time — the same illustration of Eustace Tilly to celebrate The New Yorker's anniversary: "Since we have been subscribing since 1926 or '27, I feel I can address you as a close friend. I just want to thank you for the February 25th cover. The sight of Eustace Tilley cheered me, so unchanged in a chaotic world (from a doctor's wife in Albany to a widow in Nebraska)...Please don't change, ever."

But The New Yorker has changed, and will keep changing. The latest update happened in 2000, when current editor David Remnick decided, among other things, to restructure the typography of the theatre and movie listings and commissioned — are you ready? — the ultimate modernist, Massimo Vignelli. To his credit, Vignelli fully understood the delicacy of the situation and acted (unnoticed by nearly everyone) with the precision of a surgeon.

That delicacy has seldom been demonstrated as effectively as in the magazine's issue of August 31, 1946. Like many others, I read John Hersey's book Hiroshima in high school. I only found out much later that this account of the dropping of the first atomic bomb had been commissioned by The New Yorker, and that upon its receipt William Shawn convinced his boss Harold Ross to run the entire piece in a single issue. I was curious to see the article as it first ran, and it was the first thing I looked up once I had The Complete New Yorker loaded on my computer. On the opening page is the following note: "The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the convinction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use." At the top of the page sits Eustace Tilly in his customary spot. The story continues through the customary cartoons and ads for luxury goods. Any other magazine, I'm convinced, would have broken with convention and run a huge SPECIAL ISSUE! banner on the front. Instead, the cover is a pleasant summer picnic scene by Charles Martin.

Shawn and Ross urged Hersey to make the devastation as immediate as possible to their magazine's readers. It begins: "At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk." In effect, it was an everyday moment, no more significant than the moment depicted on the cover. And, presented between the covers of a seemingly changeless magazine to creatures of habit expecting comfort, a devastating reminder of how quickly everything can change.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Media

Comments [22]

Wow, Michael...thanks for this great reflection on my favorite magazine, and your thoughts on slow design.

So many institutions and corporations are ever-chomping at the bit to change their logos, names and identities, when what they really need to focus on is their core businesses and their customers' needs.

Look at the joke that "stadium naming rights" has become. Or even the new Kodak logo...(sigh)

A couple of years ago I was looking at a presentation of award-winning student work, and evidently someone had assigned that the students redesign The New Yorker (with the predictable results of Marthaesque banners and headlines and masses of white space). I just about went through the roof—what a group of barely-twentyish Vancouver kids would know about an 80-yr old publication from New York is beyond me. (It was at that point that I thought that it is teachers' assignments that should be judged, not the students' work.)

Issue #40 of Eye magazine takes a good look at the slow evolution of the Magazine; and since then I have noticed a few more changes. Each one creeps in and causes me a flutter of nervousness before I get used to it.

A big change, recently, was the treatment of the back page for cartoons. As usual I was skeptical, but as I'm always behind in my reading, I've discovered it gives me a good, quick, visual indication of whether or not I've read the issue and whether I've missed an issue. Remarkably useful.

Anyway, on the subject of the DVD, is it scans of every single page of every issue? If so, I imagine it's not searchable, but I would expect a very good index. What's the interface like, for finding and viewing things?
marian bantjes

Odd that you didn't mention the lack of a masthead above. I seem to recall that little detail infuriates a lot of people.

Marian: The DVDs contain scans of the pages. This was pretty much the only practical way to realize the set, due to some copyright junk I can't recall the details of. But imagine having to get clearance for all of that content, if you could even track down who owned the rights in the first place. I came across a piece on this somewhat recently that I'll try and find.

As far as searching, they indexed things extensively for topic and possibly identifying phrases and such, but no, you can't do a full-text search. *grumble* It would be so much fun to run the thing through a concordance generator(!).

I wonder, though, if they've modified their licensing such that they would be allowed to use the text going forward, at least.

Feh. Found the article, but it's locked in the Wall Street Journal archives. CopyCense hints at the details at the URL below, and links to the article, in case you happen to have an account at WSJ.

Copy the following, and add a period in the space before "com". There's some sort of content blocker rule in place denying it:


I found a backdoor copy of the article at this location.

This article in today's Times breifly points out the frustration NYer readers are having— non-transferable disks. What next? Fonts?

That Eye Magazine article (#40) is an excellent one. As I recall it went into certain decisions in regards to hand drawn vs computer elements and so forth.

As far as the design/ art direction of The New Yorker itself, I have to echo Beirut's sentiment- yes, it is terribly regressive. My illustrator friends and I wail about it all the time. From a content perspective, its a progressive magazine! Some of the illustrators chosen for it's pages are so trite, dated, and weak... it only makes the good ones stand out more. Obviously, there are several cooks in that kitchen. I'm not going to name names but theres a reason the Air Brush Club went out business in 1993.
felix sockwell

I quickly we have gone from 'knowledge' to 'design' and now we are primed to 'innovate.' Maybe that's the excuse behind the design of the new AT&T logo. All innovation and not much else.

While I'd be the first one to admit that I don't think I'd be doing what I am without the help of a computer, I also think so much of today's design is overly driven/influenced by the tools and not the creator. (Mr. Sockwell's work, of course, being one of the many exceptions.)

What I think Michael was celebrating, and I hope I'm right, is the lack of 'technology' used throughout the history of the New Yorker. Their instict or decision to maintain their 'look' and 'feel' with jumping onto the "Flashdance/3D/What ever is cool" bandwagon. And to their audience, it's been the right move.

I guess they clearly understand, and have understood for 80 years, that change for the sake of change is rarely good.

Su, the lack of a staff list in The New Yorker never seemed peculiar to me, mostly because its absence doesn't really get in the way of reading — unlike, say, the absence of a table of contents, or the disclosing of the author's name at the end of a piece rather than the beginning. Many of these conventions were attributed to the insecurity of Ross, who supposedly left out the t.o.c. because he didn't want newsstand buyers to find out so quickly how little content there was in the early thin issues. Similarly, he had pieces signed at the end (or with pen names, or not at all) because he was embarrassed by how many pieces in a single issue were written by the same writers.

For years, and perhaps to this day, it was unclear to anyone, including the magazine's own staff, who exactly did what at The New Yorker. The lack of a masthead was already hopelessly idiosyncratic by the time Tom Wolfe made his reputation in 1965 with his "profile" of William Shawn, "Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street's Land of the Walking Dead!", a cruel but funny look behind the scenes.
Michael Bierut

The New Yorker continues to be a magazine for the reader; something designers should think about. We should service the reader, not ourselves . . .
Alex Abatie

I like the cartoons. :)


In suggesting slow design as an idea or movement, shouldn't one expand the idea beyond designing or evolving slowly — the primary point of your smart analogy to the The New Yorker. After all, the slow food movement is not about cooking slowly — doing that turkey at 175 degrees for two days. As you note, slow design is not only about speed. The ultimate benefit of slow design may not be about designing slowly, but, to use your words, creating artefacts and experiences that encourage "thoughtfulness, deliberation, and — how else to put it? — tender loving care." The New Yorker, creates precisely this environment for its readers — a space that requires concentration and deliberation and, frankly, time. Just as the slow food movement is not only about the cooking (it's about the larger experience of food and people and and lighting and weather), isn't slow design more about readers and users ... and ultimately impacts and outcomes that affect environments and experiences?

Of course, we'd never use such silly language at a dinner party.
William Drenttel

Am a fan and long time fan of The New Yorker -- have been collecting covers since the '70s -- and its pace of change, especially since Tina Brown increased it a bit. However, I don't agree with the supposed contrast between innovation and The New York / slow design. The New Yorker has a proud history of innovation, in, for example, commissioning and running John Hershey's Hiroshima and in covering over the years important new ideas and inventions as they emerged. Designers interested in innovation that I know aren't interested in the latest design fad, or in fast design churn, but in using design thinking, skills and methods to help clients come up with new offerings that serve their customers better and help their clients grow.
Peter Laundy

Thats great I'll have to check that out.
matt stevens

Peter, although I dropped the I-word, I didn't mean this to be another one of my diatribes against innovation (or rather the promiscuous use of the word innovation).

In fact, one might argue that the discipline that The New Yorker has shown in its gradual evolution has made true innovations, like Hersey's "Hiroshima," really dramatic. Another example is was its all-Target-advertising issue, which (although disorienting) was a brilliant, and innovative, subverion of the magazine's familiar conventions.
Michael Bierut

In defense of some modern magazines, there is a more even use of design throughout the pages. Rolling stone for instance. Graphically, The New Yorker covers bring little of their beauty to the inside.

Have you come across Mary McCarthy's magnificently wrong-headed response to the Hiroshima issue? It's in On The Contrary, which I no longer own, so I can't quote exactly. But from what I remember her main remarks are that (i) allowing the bomb to obliterate an entire issue of your magazine is a tribute, not a condemnation; (ii) interviewing survivors misses the point -- to tell the only truth that matters about the bomb, you would have to interview the dead; (iii) the survival of the adverts means that atomic warfare becomes simply another comfortable part of the New Yorker world, along with the Hotel Carlyle ("Every time I stay at the Carlyle, I feel like writing a thank-you letter"). Payoff: "It is all the same world."

In making the opposite case to yours, that is, she arrives at more or less the same point.
Jasper Milvain

Thank you for articulating what I've always felt as a long-time reader of the NYer. I appreciate anything subtle or gradual in the 21st century.
Alice Wygant

I got it for my wife, but now I feel guilty because I use it more than she does..

It is the best purchase I have made in quite some time!
Andrew Gatto

Michael, as always your comments are the most stimulating and interesting. The New Yorker story is not an exception, and confirms your ability of going to the core of the issue.
I have been a reader of the New Yorker for more then half a century and I always treasured the tremendous visual equity of its design.During its long life, many technological developments happened in the typographycal field. Type design and typesetting became more accurate, but these technical innovations were not reflected in the magazine. When we were asked to redesign the New Yorker, we immediately discarded the idea of a complete restyling and focused instead on the notion of restoration, as we would have done on an historic building damaged by years of bad weather and other calamities.
So we looked at every detail of the magazine, evaluated its merits and kept or changed them whenever necessary, with better alternatives. Therefore we changed many details, from the basic typeface, to the basic grid ( It did not existed before) to mantain consistency throughout the magazine. We introduced color to better highlite certain sections, and on the overall consolidated the structure for better legibility and apparence. At the end, the magazine looked like a New Yorker after a shower.
I do like very much the term " slow design ", it reminds me of "slow food", it rings to me just as good and wholesome.
Just the opposite of "fast design" of which the world abounds.
Massimo Vignelli

The New Yorker is an acquired taste. Not many people pick it up for it's design, they pick it up because of it's reputation and it's literature inside. After you've gotten used to it's design however, it starts to grow on you and you like it because of it's quirky and unapologetic approach to the current trends going on around it.

I do not like the new yorker, but design is good too :)
Website Design

I feel the same way about the New Yorker;give it a chance and it finds a way to grow on you.

A great history of the New Yorker by James Wolcott appears in the current issue of The New Criterion.
Michael Bierut

Although Michael's post is about the slow evolution of the printed design of the magazine, I can't help but comment on the magazine's decision to issue the archive on DVDs. Whenever I am tempted to buy The Complete New Yorker, I am remember the fate of my Complete National Geographic. (Source)

The Complete Geographic was first issued in 1997 in a lavish 31 CD-ROM box set at a list price of $200. The system requirements were Windows 95, Windows 3.1 & Macintosh. 'Macintosh' meant OS 8.x, and a PowerPC (if you were lucky). I used my beige G3 tower. Needless to mention, the custom application is not compatible with current machines. And it sits on my bookshelf, next to a slew of other defunct CD-ROMs and floppies.

What does Geographic suggest to do? "There have been four previous iterations of the National Geographic Complete package (108 Years, 109 Years, 110 Years and 111 Years), and each was released by different companies. All are incompatible with each other and act as stand-alone products ... The only way to have a complete and fully integrated product is to purchase the current full set, National Geographic 112 Years. We apologize for any inconvenience."

The Complete Geographic, just like The Complete New Yorker, has been created to be used with specific hardware and software. Its format cannot adapt to changes in technology or content (new issues, corrections). We're left with The Completely Outdated Geographic, and The Complete, but only for now, New Yorker.

It is laudable to preserve the original form of the New Yorker (albeit a legal mandate), as it is an important part of its history. But in its current format, it is neither preserved nor archived. Past issues, as with future ones, should be placed in a Web database so they can be accessible for a maximum amount of time, to anyone on demand, with minimal reformatting and no packaging. I'd call that good design.
John Caserta

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