Peruse the periodicals section of most bookstores and boutiques and you'll find that many of them bear an eerily similar sensibility. Aspirational photographs, paper so thick it's borderline cardboard, tasteful typography—you get the drift.
When Alana Newhouse—editor of Tablet, an online publication about Jewish life and culture—decided to launch a print edition, she wanted the opposite: something messy, off the cuff, and gritty. New-school journalism that hearkened back to old-school magazines through design.
In an era where print is perceived as the past, and digital is the future, many publishers have poured cash into web and mobile publications while physical magazines have folded. (RIP Details and More.) Newhouse, who comes from a newsweekly background, began to anticipate a bit of backlash—and felt that it was hard to absorb Tablet's long-format stories in the right way online. She founded the publication in 2009 as a web-only magazine, and originally thought that format didn't matter as much as editorial voice.
"I wanted to bring a considered, sophisticated wry look to Jewish life," she says. Yet, "at some point, I did feel like the medium was becoming a problem. It didn't matter how great your personality was, if your form wasn't something that people could experience and absorb, the whole thing started to fall apart, certainly for a particular audience."
Newhouse got the urge to branch into print a couple of years ago, but it took some time for her staff and publisher—the nonprofit Nextbook Inc.—to realize that they themselves didn't want to read a 20,000-word piece online, a sentiment likely shared by their readers. "It wasn't the easiest thing in the world to convince [people] that the truly radical move at this point was to start a print magazine," Newhouse says.
Tablet focuses on Jewish life and culture, which isn't homogenous—and neither is Tablet's editorial focus. "This magazine comes out of a group of people, narrowly and broadly, who are not homogenous," Newhouse says. "Jewish life and Jewish history is less interesting when you make it homogenous and it's less correct. There are rich and poor, right and left, religious and secular. That's whats nutty and interesting. The more you try to make this particular group of people try to seem like it has no rough edges, the less interesting it is."
Similarly, the graphic expression needed to share this sensibility. To help her develop the visual language, Newhouse tapped Luke Hayman, a partner in Pentagram's New York office, which is a few blocks away from her own.
After Hayman heard Newhouse's vision for the magazine, he went into his archive of 1970s issues of NOVA, a British fashion magazine. "Together we were sort of seduced by the sex of it, the wit, the high-low, and the stylishness—we started there," he says.
In addition to NOVA, the general tenor of '70s and '80s magazines resonated with Hayman and Newhouse, who worked very collaboratively on the creative direction. "It was a time when it was groups of people really doing magazines for themselves," Hayman says. That led them to discuss Newhouse's upbringing in New York City, her family's experience, and how to translate that.
One particular reference was incredibly influential to the concept Charivari, a now-shuttered Upper West Side boutique. Founded by a Jewish housewife in the late '60s, the store was famous for introducing designs by Yohji Yamamoto and Prada to the city while offering more affordable fashion right alongside the expensive garments. The dichotomy that the store represented—and that it was a place that all shoppers felt comfortable visiting regardless of their background—was what Newhouse wanted Tablet's print editions to embody.
To that end, Hayman and his team looked into their toolkit to see how they could translate that notion physically and graphically. The first thing you notice is that the cover of Tablet is glossy but the pages, which have a yellowish-gray look, are thin. Hayman even sent one of his old magazines into the printer so they could order an approximate paper stock.
"A lot of the niche magazines are embracing this beautiful paper—and rightly, too—with tactile qualities that are bespoke and boutique," he says. "We were deliberately making it feel ephemeral. There's no cover varnish or matte UV coating. It actually gets dirty."
Inside, the layouts reflect traditional newspaper column structures. The body text is rendered in Aldine, a traditional font, whereas the headlines are a mixed bag of custom treatments. For one story, Newhouse sent Hayman a scan of a newsletter a synagogue in Queens sent out in the '70s and said she wanted to use that type on a layout. Signage on a classic Jewish deli caught Hayman and Newhouse's eye and they adapted that for one story. On another, they used an Alvin Lustig typeface they found on Kickstarter.
The magazine's roughness is somewhat of a departure for Hayman, who works on magazines like Time and the Atlantic, and there are many things he does for Tablet that he would never do elsewhere. "Literally we're working on a story about Miami Jews in the '70s and [Alana's team] would send these horrific samples of tacky typography we would never use," Hayman says. "It was embarrassing and I said I didn't want my name attached to this. After we sort of stopped rolling our eyes and flipping out, we said what if we try this? Then it became so much more interesting to see what we could do."
Tablet's third issue comes our on May 29 and it will feature a new logo—a testament to the team's belief in experimentation figuring things out on the fly.
"There is a lot of humor in the magazine and a lot of fun," Hayman says. "But there's really sophisticated, serious writing as well. Although there are some rough edges and dirtiness, you can read it and the design isn't going to get in the way."
Because Tablet is subscription-based—its circulation is only 4,000 issues and it's published quarterly—and funded by a nonprofit, the designers were able to take more conceptual liberties. It is sold on newsstands, but appealing to one-off consumers wasn't as much of a priority as creating something unexpected and original for the people who signed up to get it in the mail. Interestingly, Tablet's print readership is actually younger than the online audience.
"What's impressive about this vision is this magazine may not be for you and [the editors are] comfortable with that," Hayman says. "Almost every other magazine wants to be for as many people as possible, often for very good business reasons. But if you make a magazine for everyone, you round the corners. Everyone is 'fine' with it, but no one is passionate about it."