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The Before-and-After Morph

by Christine Hummel

I'm sorry. I really tried to read every word of the redesigned Before & After magazine. But every time I turned to the next spread, my head started to ache shortly thereafter.

Where to look first?

What to read first?

I don't know!

What flow mechanism is there to direct my eye? A backwards "6" and later a "Z" were the flow mechanisms I learned. Neither is present on any of Before and After's pages.

This issue takes as its single theme the design of a "look" for a sporting goods reseller. Pages 2 and 3 jump right in with an explanation of the history, culture, and tradition of sports, along with sporting references to sight, sound, taste, character, voice, and touch (yawn). I finally decided this was to be a brainstorming exercise, but I'm not sure....

Pages 4-7 address type and logotype, and pages 8-13 cover style concept and designing print material and a web banner. Page 14 contains an obviously "planted" letter from a reader with a response doing little more than promoting the new Before and After. Page 15 contains a couple of tips, one a step-by-step how-to -- but nothing like we were used to seeing in B&A.

There do appear to be some good tips on each page, but I didn't absorb them because I was so distracted by what else was going on. And the magazine severely overuses metaphors -- in image and text. B&A publisher John McWade explains:

You'll see on page 6 that weight, meaning the relative boldness of a typeface, is depicted by a wrench, and that style, meaning italics type, is illustrated with a salt shaker.... These terms don't need explanation. Is there a designer who doesn't already know what bold or italic type is? What's not so clear is what they feel like on a page.

I counted eight other direct metaphors that were IMHO too cutesy. And are such metaphors necessary? McWade defends this by saying:

Why the unalphabetic depictions? To help grasp it all.... It's really hard to get past the dictionary and see that letters are literally graphical things, harder than anything else in design. More designers mess up type than anything else. Their feel for it is dull; they can't see.

Well, sorry, John. I don't agree. What designers have you been hanging out with?

On the back page, which obviously should be read prior to opening the magazine, McWade explains the revised B&A:

The new Before & After is a classroom in visual thinking. It is part index, part narrative, part lab. It works like this. Our visual index depicts the graphical principle of technique, the narrative tells the story, the lab shows the results. Read the index for the principle, the lab to see it in action. Each issue will have the same index but new actions.

I was confused. Their site points out which parts of a spread are the index, narrative, and lab -- but shouldn't that be made clear in the magazine itself? And I didn't see any connection being made between what was said in the index and what was happening in the lab area.

OK, so you might be thinking I am resisting change. No...I'm always open to new ideas, but I don't understand where this magazine is now coming from and where it's headed. The prior 29 issues offered before-and-after examples and precise instructions on "How to design cool stuff," as the subtitle says -- suitable for all levels of designers and able to be applied to a variety of projects. Maybe the subtitle should be changed to "How to design cool stuff -- but first figure out what we are saying"!

Oh, and one more thing... Publication frequency is changing from 6 per year (when was that?!) to four per year (ha! we'll see!).

I'm sorry. This redesigned Before & After leaves me cold. And that's exactly what I said when I asked them for a refund on my remaining subscription of six issues. I used to anticipate the next issue of B&A, wondering what new effect I would learn to apply in Photoshop or what new design element to try in PageMaker. Now, I won't miss Before & After at all.

Christine Hummel

Graphic Designer/Editor,

University of Missouri-St. Louis

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