The story of Il Sole 24 Ore’s men’s magazine and how it changed the face of graphic design.
From the nineties onwards, the proprietors of Italy’s national daily newspapers began building publishing groups serving readers a rich constellation products – from magazines to books – that filled the shelves of newsagents across the peninsula.
A particular focus has always been colour supplements, the glossy magazines that come with newspapers, usually at the weekend. Some of these, like Il Venerdì from La Repubblica or Sette from Il Corriere della Sera, come out on a Friday. Saturday is traditionally dedicated to women’s magazines, like D from La Repubblica and Io Donna from Il Corriere della Sera, while the Sunday supplement is devoted to culture (Robinson for La Repubblica and Il Domenicale for Il Sole 24 Ore).
Today we’re going to take a closer look at one supplement in particular that, for over a decade, was widely recognised as the best-looking magazine in Italy.
A WEEKLY MEN’S MAGAZINE
In 2008, Il Sole 24 Ore decided to create a new magazine aimed at men, the newspaper’s biggest audience. It would be called IL, an acronym that stood for intelligence in lifestyle. Indeed, these were the supplement’s twin lodestars: intelligence understood as culture and technology, and lifestyle in the sense of trends, fashions and ways of life. In terms of graphic design, IL was characterised by an oversized format and the extensive use of photography, like fashion magazines, with a section for features. It was a sort of male version of women’s fashion magazines, except with articles and interviews on travel, events, books and technology.
You could find it in newsagents all month where, for 50 cents, you could buy it without the newspaper. In fact, IL was more standalone magazine than supplement in the traditional sense. And it brought genuine innovation to the market by broadening readership to people who didn’t buy the newspaper.
The first editor, Walter Mariotti, put together a small, young editorial team with a flat hierarchy in which everyone was involved in decision making. As art director, he hired Francesco Franchi. Franchi had not yet turned 30 but could already boast a stint at innovative design studio Leftloft and, crucially, had done his degree dissertation on newspaper design. He believed that designers should not act as if they were the “expression of a superior will”, but instead be involved in putting together the magazine from the very start, giving content the chance to shine visually.
By his own admission, in the early years Franchi borrowed from the graphic design of the great magazines of the past, giving IL an elegant vintage look.
It wasn’t until 2012, when journalist and writer Christian Rocca took the helm, that Franchi’s creative flair really began to come through, ultimately leading to a revolution in graphic design.
IL’S REVOLUTION IN GRAPHIC DESIGN
As we saw before, IL’s structure was horizontal and collaborative: editors, art directors, graphic designers, fashion editors and everyone else involved in putting out the magazine worked together and took part in decision making. There was a skeleton staff of about ten people, but their ranks would be swelled by the many collaborators who were brought in.
The art direction was clear and consistent from one issue to the next. This was undoubtedly one of the magazine’s strengths, because all too often in journalism, the need to meet tight deadlines can start to alter the initial visual identity; but in the case of IL, the content couldn’t exist without the form, which was carefully crafted week in week out with input from all the staff.
The covers were iconic, managing to catch the eye in a magazine landscape that has a very bold visual style. The spacious, almost square page format placed photographs and illustrations centre stage. The minimalist headlines, bold fonts and thin borders conveyed an intelligent approach and a sophisticated writing style. And this was confirmed when you opened the magazine.
FROM VINTAGE TO MODERN
The magazine’s first three years were characterised by an elegant and vintage style: the colour palette consisted of muted beiges and greys, the fonts were functional, as was the grid, inspired by the Swiss graphic design that Franchi loved.
The layout of the photos, the structure of the headlines and the shape of the grid all harked back to the magazines of the 60s and 70s.
But upon the arrival of the new editor, Christian Rocca, IL changed its graphic identity, becoming colder to allow the content to stand out: there was more intelligence and less lifestyle, or rather, the lifestyle content was oriented more towards people who were curious and keen observers of societal change. There was a shift towards a simple and modular grid that enabled many combinations, thus making the pages both dynamic and easy to put together.
As a result, every story, every article, every feature could have its own tailor-made graphic design. What’s more, each issue had its own specific colour palette to match the cover theme.
Rocca and Franchi’s goal was to “combine languages to enhance understanding” using all the techniques known to graphic journalism and attempting daring but never pointless or trivial experiments.
To be truly innovative, you need to take a look around you: newspaper sales are falling, younger people are getting their news from the web, and the trend is for shorter texts and more visual information.
As the very same Francesco Franchi said in a 2011 TEDx talk “writing is no longer enough”. We need to move beyond writing and provide alternative ways of telling stories and presenting information.
IL was already using infographics in an original manner, but with the redesign, they became the beating heart of the magazine, combining them beautifully with photographs and, above all, illustrations commissioned from a host of regular collaborators.
Infographics were used for critical interpretation of data and complex visual storytelling alongside deep-dive articles. Big synaptic maps were created to provide an overview, while key data points were accompanied by drawings and illustrations, photos and boxes. A team of three would work on these pages: an information designer, an illustrator and a journalist, all overseen by the creative director.
Perhaps for the first time in graphic journalism, we saw infographics on literature: plot diagrams, links between characters, timelines and maps explaining work by Jorge Luis Borges, Stephen King, James Joyce and many other authors.
The magazine’s “Rane” section, which gave readers an original take on culture, became a testing ground where creatives could be really bold in graphic design and create visually exciting pages through an open-minded use of typography.
Franchi believed that illustrations should provide information rather than elicit emotions, offering an alternative to writing. This resulted in double-page spreads in the form of maps or posters that could be considered as features in their own right. So much so that they would frequently be shared by readers on social media, and even reproduced by other publications around the world, making IL a truly unique magazine.
So well-designed was IL that the prestigious New York-based Society of Publication Designers named it among the world’s best magazines for three years running, and awarded the publication the gold medal for best design in 2012.
A SORRY END
Sadly, even the world’s best-looking magazine could not escape the crisis that engulfed the Il Sole 24 Ore group in 2016. Francesco Franchi jumped ship to the La Repubblica and the magazine was completely redesigned. Returning to the old format oriented towards fashion and lifestyle, the title invested in a stylish and contemporary new visual identity, with beautiful photography and bold colours. But it wasn’t enough: the magazine closed in 2020.
Beyond beautiful graphic design and stunning infographics, IL’s legacy was to show just what can be achieved when graphic design is elevated to the same level as journalism.
For a few years, the most beautiful magazine on the planet convinced us that current affairs were the new lifestyle, just as its creators had intended.