Freaky mag is runaway success

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.One of the most disappointing aspects of the early 1970s was how rapidly 'the establishment' was able to turn the...

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the early 1970s was how rapidly ‘the establishment’ was able to turn the values of the ’60s into a marketing opportunity.

When Marcus Welby’s patients started to include drug-crazed revolutionaries, and hippie fashions began to appear on the set of the Brady Bunch, the sting of counterculture rhetoric quickly turned to honey, and then into money.

Thus began our long slow slide from hippiedom into yuppiedom.

Now, of course, the 60s have been nostalgically recycled for yet another run on the marketing treadmill.

But as we squeeze the last sawbuck out of the latest retro trend (and await in horror the re-emergence of the ’70s), the next generation has gained a far more polemical toehold in the mass media than we were ever able to.

One of the most disturbing and exciting manifestations of this trend is the recent emergence of a magazine called Ray Gun.

Billing itself as ‘The Bible of Music + Style,’ this publication may be the first fully fledged manual of Generation-X music, fashion and design to hit the global newstand.

Stylistically, Ray Gun is born out of the ashes of a defunct magazine called Beach Culture, a short-lived niche offering aimed at surfers.

Designed by David Carson, its idiosyncratic and unorthodox treatment of typography was acclaimed by design ideologues and iconoclasts everywhere.

Even as it was being removed from circulation, its controversial spreads continued to win kudos from several prestigious design annuals.

With Ray Gun, Carson extends the iconoclastic tradition and defiantly breaks form with almost every convention of magazine design.

The editorial text settings are punishing to eyes accustomed to type over eight point.

Lines are unleaded to the point of overlap, and paragraphs collide in a giddy soup of fonts that appear to have been assembled from old car parts.

The abrasive melange of original fonts was created by a roster of eight type designers, who are all credited in the masthead.

The masthead itself changes with every issue, as does the cover, with the result that no two issues look even remotely alike.

Of interest to print media buyers is the fact that this is a magazine in which, as one reader asserts, ‘even the ads are worth looking at.’

The traditional approach to magazine layout is to make sure there is a visible difference between the ads and editorial content. Ray Gun ignores those rules and borrows from tv, where the sitcoms are often as bland as the commercials.

The difference is, it has reversed that equation so that the ads look as wacky as the editorial. The result is a seamless ideological fabric from beginning to end.

Another valuable lesson it has learned from television is its composition – a sequence of short, digestible chunks of information. There are few articles more than a single page in length.

Turning the pages of Ray Gun is the print equivalent of channel-surfing; the reader can flip forward or backward with no interruption in continuity, thus overcoming a problem that has plagued magazines for decades.

Of course, critics with grey-haired ponytails may smugly retort that such brevity lacks editorial depth.

But how much do you want to know about a band called the Supreme Love Gods, who still live with their parents and play to audiences of no more than 50 people at a time?

Or the Swirlies, who specialize in ‘chimp rock, a smarmy brand of sloppily produced do-it-yourself pop?’

The life expectancy of Ray Gun is anyone’s guess. But, leafing through it, one wonders if it has not been purposely designed to self-destruct.

If so, is this the kind of unstable chemistry that marketers of the future will have to adapt to? Will the rate cards of tomorrow be obsolete before they fully emerge from the fax machine?

On the face of it, this magazine seems as though it may be impervious to the efforts of big-time marketers to penetrate it.

Indeed, any marketers reading this article (dare we flatter ourselves?) may wonder why we are even writing about it.

But with a circulation of 120,000, Ray Gun may represent the thin edge of the wedge that gives Generation-X the ammunition it needs to blow traditional marketing principles out of the water.

Will Novosedlik and Bob Russell are principals of Russell Design in Toronto.