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.