When I was a young teen, I devel­oped an inter­est in archi­tec­ture. I think it was animated by many of the same impulses that would soon draw me to typog­ra­phy and graphic design—primarily, a natural curios­ity about why things look the way they do. I’ve recently been revis­it­ing this old inter­est via my read­ing list, and in a trip through Stewart Brand’s 1994 modern clas­sic How Buildings Learn—a book as wonder­fully idio­syn­cratic as some of the build­ings it discusses—I was surprised to find a plethora of paral­lels to the field I’ve made my career in, publi­ca­tion design.

An initial design or redesign for a publi­ca­tion is some­what like a design for a build­ing in one impor­tant respect: Ideally, you have a good grasp of how the thing you’re making will be used down the line, but things change—so you need to build in enough flex­i­bil­ity for uses that you may not currently envision.

A few big concepts that I took away:

Beware of over­spec­i­fi­ca­tion. Brand exalts what he calls “Low Road” build­ings. Utilitarian and often unas­sum­ing, they’re easier to alter—and they frequently earn second or third lives because their under­ly­ing qual­i­ties are bene­fi­cial for many kinds of uses. (Think of an industrial-​age factory whose high ceil­ings and large windows are prized when it gets converted to condos.) In contrast, Brand says, “grand, final-​solution build­ings obso­lesce and have to be torn down because they were too over­spec­i­fied to their orig­i­nal purpose to adapt easily to anything else.” Similarly, a publi­ca­tion design needs a certain amount of flexibility—for instance, if a depart­ment template only works when the image is a partic­u­lar dimen­sion, that’s going to tie the hands of the ongo­ing designer in ways that won’t be toler­ated for long.

Maintenance is under­rated. Brand devotes an entire chap­ter to the topic of main­te­nance, which he says that few archi­tects or builders consider at all. This made me think about how, in a peri­od­i­cal publi­ca­tion, “poor main­te­nance” can snow­ball: slop­pi­ness compounds over time when design­ers repeat­edly use the previ­ous issue as their start­ing point for the next, contin­u­ing any kludges or workarounds and build­ing precar­i­ously atop them. Instead, a well-​managed template and set of styles, regu­larly updated to reflect evolv­ing design choices, is the unglam­orous but vital main­te­nance work that saves time in the long run.

When a design is meant to impress rather than to func­tion, you can tell. Brand talks about “Magazine Architecture”: the prac­tice of design­ing build­ings primar­ily to photo­graph well, and only secon­dar­ily to work well for their occu­pants. This tendency reminds me of what I call “Instagram Design”: graphic design opti­mized for impact in a 1080-​pixel square rather than for the context the actual piece will be used in. With publi­ca­tion designs in partic­u­lar, an Instagram Design prior­i­tizes ideal­ized, splashy mockup spreads but gives little thought to how the design will func­tion in future issues, once the initial public­ity of its launch has faded away. 

The truth at the heart of all these ideas is that every build­ing (and every publi­ca­tion) changes over time—that’s inevitable. You can only choose to design with that in mind, in a way that makes future evolu­tion easier. Brand’s idea is that “build­ing” is both noun and verb: “a ‘build­ing’ is always build­ing and rebuild­ing.” So is a publication.