Mother Jones’ Redesign Spoke To The Times

“The Left is so screwed up now. It doesn’t know what it’s for; it knows what it’s against. It doesn’t have a coherent set of goals,” Klein said in his living room in the Berkeley hills late last year, shortly after his departure from the helm of Mother Jones. (He remains on the masthead as consulting editor and teaches journalism at Stanford University.) The magazine, named for the turn-of-the-century labor activist Mary Harris Jones, “was founded at a time when there was some optimism that the Left was coming to a mass movement,” Klein says. “Which it hasn’t done.”

climateAnd while its circulation of 130,000 isn’t cause for alarm, publisher Jay Harris hopes to revive the numbers within three years to its early-’80s peak of 200,000. But he also wants more independence from the Foundation for National Progress, the 501(c)(3) that funds the magazine substantially. “We get 60 percent of our revenue from traditional commercial sources–ads and circulation–and the balance comes from nonprofit sources,” Harris says. He hopes to shift the ratio to 80-20.

Given its financial aspirations, Mother Jones intends for its redesign to deal less with how people vote and protest than with how they read and gather information. Rubinstein’s bold, frenetic (“post-Web,” in Klein’s eyes) look is not the first visual rethinking Mother Jones has had; last year’s cosmetic surgery is the magazine’s fourth. And high time, too, wrote one critic in The New York Times: “She’s gotten a little, well, frumpy.”

“If you get a redesign job,” says veteran magazine designer Roger Black, “there are two things you’re asked to do: a spraypainting–a window dressing–or a fundamental redesign, because the basic, core idea of the magazine is going to change.” Mother Jones’s changes are more fundamental, though its “core idea” seems in continual flux. It’s a bigger change than Black’s redesign of The New Republic, which broke in April, but possibly less so than that of another title, The American Prospect, now readying its own reinvention (see “Left to Their Own Designs,” page 45).

Art direction and editorial have always been closely teamed at Mother Jones. That longtime art director Kerry Tremain became the magazine’s acting editor briefly in 1997, after Klein took a leave following his wife’s death, indicates the close ties between the two departments–as well as a hallowed tradition of internal disorder. (Once, in the mid-1980s, filmmaker Michael Moore took a turn at the wheel. He lasted three issues.)

One of the magazine’s innovations, Klein says, has been its commitment to photojournalism. “Photographers have a hard time getting serious social documentary work–they don’t have much of an outlet for it. We were willing to run photo-essays at quite a considerable length, eight to 10 pages,” he says.

“The European socialist magazines in the 1920s and ’30s were the first magazines using photography,” Rubinstein notes. “That’s where photojournalism was invented. The idea of our design is about the juxtaposition of pictures and words and how they create an inferred reality.” The magazine’s feature “Wide Angle” juxtaposes such photographs disarmingly: One recent issue paired an image of a homeless teenaged American punk in a dainty living room with a Tokyo subway shantytown of cardboard refrigerator boxes.

But in redesigning their magazine, Klein and Rubinstein saw Mother Jones’s top challenge as, Klein says, “the search for a younger, Web-savvy, libertarian group.” And Rubinstein’s resume seemed tailor-made for such a search; Mother Jones hired her from Wired Ventures, where she’d been art director at Neo, a stillborn start-up magazine, after having founded a New York shop, R Company, and art-directed Esquire and the departed Smart. “I saw that the potential in the magazine wasn’t being realized by its design,” Rubinstein said last year at Mother Jones’s sparse (yet somehow cluttered) office on Market Street in San Francisco. “It wasn’t as aggressive as the content, not as provocative; it was polite and pretty.”

Reason in design was a founding tenet of the magazine, Rubinstein says. “Its design in 1976 was much more newsy, with less art, centered headlines, and two columns of text on a page.” But today, design has to be part of the magazine’s voice: “Twenty years ago, the magazine’s mission was not to preach to the converted, but to speak to a larger audience to effect change. Today, we need to speak in a contemporary language to reach a broader audience–we’re not just using style to grab attention.”

Rubinstein clearly approaches ideas less as a traditional photo editor than as an editorial illustrator; her covers rely on disjointed, conceptual photographs rather than the more literal images Mother Jones had used previously. “At the newsstand, you have to decide whether this magazine is for you, so that has to be telegraphed rather quickly,” Rubinstein says.

A telegraph is one way to communicate; a bullhorn is another. And while screaming type may seem playfully rude, it certainly helps the magazine stand out. Its November/December cover is mostly contentious bold type–” The top 400 RICH WHITE GUYS BANANA FARMERS BIG GUNS GET-RICH SCHEMERS RELIGIOUS FANATICS & HOLLYWOOD MOGULS who really won this ELECTION”–with a photo at the bottom cropped to show three pairs of cufflinked, folded hands. The headline of the next cover–“AMERICA [the brand]”–is set at an imposing 102 points, as large as the cover logotype; the cover’s dominant image is of a hand waving a pint-sized flag, with the face of the man holding it fully obscured by the cover’s bar code. (Rubinstein enjoys a good joke with the UPC symbol, transforming a visual blind spot into an element that literally screams for attention–as it does on the March/April cover, where it serves as the placard of a tiny, shouting protester.)

Part of Mother Jones’s newfound boldness comes from its typeface, with its stripped-down, sans-serif look based on Jackson Burke’s Trade Gothic face. “It’s versatile, not offensive,” Rubinstein says. “The letters are very easy to read, with almost no character.” But such rudimentary type offsets the highly caffeinated visual language inside the magazine, which leans heavily on reading tastes informed by the rise of the Web–emphasizing quick bursts of information arranged in modular paragraphs rather than longer, flowing articles. The front of the book is fragmented into the newsy Outfront and the more whimsical Exhibit sections, followed by columns on marketing, health, and other topics. Outfront and Exhibit in particular show real Web sympathies, with article categories (“Cause Celeb,” “Global Eye”) labeled like Web links.

And the feature photography is no less edgy than that of the cover, with faces shown out of focus or bisected down the nose. In the September/October issue, Rubinstein reworks a visual cliche the omnipresent face of Monica Lewinsky, by bleeding the photo off the bottom edge of the paper and printing only her instantly familiar eyes and bangs.

Although Mother Jones refrained from trumpeting the redesign in its debut issue beyond a paragraph sidebar on Jeffrey Klein’s letter from the editor, it did break a low-budget print campaign, including an ad exchange in other magazines and a limited, three-month outdoor stint in San Francisco last October. (One message read, “Our reporting is never knee-jerk. It’s more like a swift kick in the groin.”) The campaign was handled by local agency Underground Advertising.

Rubinstein’s design seems to be helping the numbers, Harris says: “Our ad revenue is up substantially, and the last two issues of ’98”–the most recent tallied–“were record issues for us.” But efforts to transform Mother Jones’s image entirely might be a tall order. Even as the editorial and design approaches adapt, quirky advertisers subtly reinforce its Leftist heritage. (Recent full-page ads hawk Floradix herbal supplements, Zap electric bicycles, Asko environmentally conscious washer-dryers, and Deep E sneakers, made from hemp.) Still, though the magazine’s advertising might seem predictable, its design defies expectations. “I don’t think anyone’s out there saying, ‘Put it on cheaper paper just to show them we’re part of the masses,”‘ Klein says. Other Leftist magazines, he says, “tend to be super-earnest and think that their verbal message is the only thing that counts.”

“You dig yourself into a hole by assuming it has to look dull,” Rubinstein says. “There are people who equate the Left with dull, black-and white pages and drab, minimal art. If that’s their perception, we can change that with this magazine.

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