A Death in the Family (or The End of Print)

This is what happened:

Silently, quietly, almost weirdly, Print Magazine ceased publication this month. I only know this as I asked the librarian at the university in Tokyo where I teach to subscribe a few months ago. PDF versions of the past two issues arrived in my email inbox, but no printed copies have arrived (though I’ve seen evidence of their existence online), and a brief check on the subscription form on Print’s website leads to a page which reads:

Print and HOW have suspended publication and we are no longer taking orders for these titles.

It is an odd thing — that this magazine which I have personally complained about for years for its lack of criticality and unceasing devotion to the mundane aspects of graphic design — is now gone, potentially to live on as a blog, possibly a series of PDFs, but most likely to just be resigned to just fade away. Print’s ill-maintained website says nothing about the end of the magazine other than that lone line, and a casual Google search shows nothing, as well.

It is odd that nobody seems to have taken notice, but then again, it makes sense in a way… The situation is somehow akin to when a garrulous but bland distant family member dies — he or she always provided atmosphere, the sense of someone being there, but also definition. Sure, she was bland, but her presence helped define the boundaries of who was family.

It is somehow fitting that I am tapping these words away in my parents’ living room in Arizona on Christmas morning writing an obituary. I asked my dad for some sage, fatherly advice as to what he thought of the dissolution of a magazine that helped define my choice of careers. What he came up with:

Well, it helped you focus on what you didn’t want out of your career.

True, but Print helped connect people — prizes won in the regional design award issues mean something to the people that have won them. It also helped boost the profiles of designers featured within. For VCFA alum Chad Miller, recognized as one of Print’s 2017 Emerging Visual Artists, his reaction was mixed:

For me personally, Print Mag has unfortunately just turned into one of those things from my past that gets taken for granted. They’re like the Green Day of graphic design magazines. They were integral at one point in your life, they got huge, but now you’re surprised when you find out they released a new record.
I remember scouring back issues of Print when I was 19, writing down the names of designers and studios to look up later. It was a good jumping off point for hunting inspiration in the days before Pinterest and Tumblr. I remember being stoked when my friends would get featured and the New Visual Artists edition was like a right of passage for the next wave of designers that were going to get huge. Eventually I discovered international mags like Grafik and Eye that were more aligned with my tastes and Print took a backseat.
Even though my interest waned, I appreciated what Print did for me and always assumed that it still held that role for younger designers. The one thing that always seemed to stay relevant to my network though was the NVA winners. Without fail I saw it pop-up in one way or another so it was still a huge deal to me to be included. A ton of designers I look up to have been on that list, it meant a lot to be in their company. It was the last year I was eligible, and now learning it’s the last year for the list — at least in print-form — I’m even more honored to be a part of it.
I’m sad to see Print go but can’t say I’m surprised. I scoured Manhattan and Brooklyn looking for the issue I was featured in and came up empty handed. The only place I could find it online was through their own website and it was a shockingly antiquated e-commerce experience. The price tag was perhaps equally shocking.

Fellow VCFA alumna Aldrena Corder writes on being an award winner in Print’s final issue:

I was so excited to be featured and recognized by such an esteemed and important resource. I was excited and honored to be a part of such an important resource for designer and creative field. I’ve always felt like one’s “made it” if one’s work was featured in Print and similar well-respected publications. Having just found out about Print’s final issue makes me sad but proud.

In the final issue, Editorial/Creative Director Debbie Millman led off one of the two intros to the final issue making the claim that “In publication since 1940, Print is the oldest graphic design periodical in the world”. This is the issue with hyperbolic uncles who have a bit too much in the self-esteem department — in regards to graphic design periodicals, the Swiss publication Typografische Monätsblatter started out nearly a decade prior and is still in publication, and there were a ton of periodicals that preceded Print — from printing journals to trade magazines globally.

I guess that’s the biggest thing in some way — Print was always a bit seemingly overconfident in the American design landscape because it was pretty much the only thing there that had national distribution save for the decade that Emigre was in publication. Sure, there are other design rags on the American scene… CMYK, Communication Arts, and the assorted how-to software magazines, but they are no Print.

The folks at Print made some smart moves on occasion — for example when they let a handful of some of the best graphic designers globally take over the design of chunks of specific issues — notably, the 2011 issues designed by Counterspace, Kokoro et Moi, Metahaven and others. That they allowed the designers to generate content (http://www.printmag.com/article/autoreply-modernism/) was incredibly insightful, as well.

Sometimes, Print was just confused — the Winter 2016–2017 issue had the headline “Is Design Criticism Dead?” emblazoned on the cover, yet featured “Singing the Surface”, an exquisite piece of prose by Kenneth FitzGerald about writing about design as much as design’s connections to music.

Representing graphic design as a surface obsessed activity is a charged charge. While a simple truth, to designers it’s a frequent slur decrying an alleged obscuring of an underlying emptiness. Yet that surface resembles our body’s. Like skin, or the paper upon which graphic design is performed, design itself is a cultural membrane composed of multiple layers. Its fine depths emblematize subtle strata of meaning.

“Singing the Surface” was not criticism per se, but it sure was critical, and a large part of the essay was about the role of the critic and championed criticism while positing that “discourse has secondary, subservient status to the art”.

That a piece of writing with this much thoughtfulness had made its way into Print gave me hope. When asked about having “Singing the Surface” published in Print, Kenneth FitzGerald replied:

After I realized I’d become a writer by title and not just of habit, it became a gap in my record not to have been in arguably design’s magazine of record. So it was gratifying to finally make its pages and have access to that audience.

FitzGerald said it there and then — no, design criticism is not dead. Not as long as critics write and seek to publish.

These are the lone issues of the magazine that I have kept — they sit at the end of the bookshelf overlooking my desk in Tokyo and helped define that duo of brief moments of hope that I had for Print.

The problem is that these moments were too few and too far between. Print had a sense of ‘same-ness’ that both undermined the editorial direction of the magazine, as well as bolstered it in some way. The final print issue featuring the 2017 Regional Design Awards was judged by Aaron Draplin, Jesica Hische, Pum Lefebure, Ellen Lupton, Eddie Opara, and Paula Scher — a cast of judges that reinforces contemporary American tastes in graphic design. The work of the judges blends in to the work featured — so much so that in large part, it is nearly indistinguishable save for the judges’ names printed in 60pt. text.

Yet, for all of its missteps, Print helped define graphic design in the American context for my career to date — and in large part, like my father said, much of what I did not want out of graphic design as a culture and a practice.

What I mean by this is further reified by another quip from my dad, that graphic design “is defined by trade and the market” — while true in some ways, that’s the kind of design that I let go of almost immediately after professionalizing as a designer. I was more interested in content/container synthesis that is authored and is of prosocial value, be it commercial or not. In short: expanded graphic design.

As so much of what Print perennially flaunted was just surface-oriented, I wanted to take the opposing position… and being a lifelong contrarian and skeptic, well, Print was the perfect adversary in the American graphic design landscape… but that’s the thing about nemeses — when they atomize, what is left to combat?

The disassembly of roles in graphic design as a sector of cultural production into the extremes of precarity-based digital multi-tasker or tech industry-supported digital product designer and the wide swath in-between are so varied, yet so similar. With one less prominent title to look toward in terms of leading industry publications, we will witness the overall sense of cultural identity that graphic designers bask in presently to fall away. And that, my friends, is troublesome: how will designers know who they are with one less tentpole of identity?

Like the villain Elijah Prince in the movie Unbreakable stated:

Do you know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world, to not know why you’re here.