The New Yorker, the ultimate magazine

The New Yorker, the ultimate magazine

Alessandro Bonaccorsi Published on 1/17/2024

Some people say that New York is different from the rest of America: that it is not representative of the country as a whole, and embodies its most elitist, progressive, culturally open and creative spirit. In general, the people who are mad about NYC live there, and believe they reside in the most interesting city on Earth.

It was with this premise that two journalists decided to found a magazine in 1925 that would go on to make history: they wanted it to only discuss New York and its inhabitants, and they did such a good job they ended up influencing how the rest of the world viewed their city. The New Yorker was founded almost 100 years ago, with the aim of describing the city from the inside – a beautiful and fascinating microcosm.

For almost 100 years, a slightly snobbish spirit, caustic wit and a melancholy tone underpinned by a celebration of the city and its mythology have made the New Yorker the perfect medium for describing the Big Apple to the rest of the world.

In 2019, its global circulation passed the one million mark: no mean feat for what is essentially a literary magazine, with lengthy articles and practically no photos.

It has to be said that the Americans have always been experts at convincing the rest of the world that everything coming from the Big Apple was beautiful, interesting and of paramount importance. Countless TV series and films from the last 30 years have supported the new myth of New York, which has morphed from a noisy, dirty and violent, albeit culturally vibrant city to a centre of fashion, glamour, art and good living. Literature has played its part too, with hundreds of books set in New York, such as the hugely successful novels by Paul Auster.

Without further ado, let’s explore the history and features – including the graphic design – of one of the world’s most famous magazines.

The magazine with the feel of a newspaper

One thing you notice when you hold a copy of the New Yorker in your hands is the lightness of the paper. While with other publications this could seem like an attempt to cut costs, here it is a trick to improve the reading experience: the pages are as light as a newspaper’s, because the publication is designed to be read avidly, and doesn’t need to use coated or thicker papers to make photographs or full-page illustrations stand out.

It measures 20 x 27 cm, or a little less than A4 (the size was reduced slightly a few years ago), making it easy to post and handle, and small enough to roll up.
In short, the New Yorker is a no-frills magazine, which focuses primarily on content: its pages promote culture, tell stories and describe art, philosophy and politics rather than lifestyle, objects or fashion. And it doesn’t try to sell anything: even the adverts are few and far between and not at all intrusive.

The magazine prioritises substance over style, and its spartan appearance supports this approach.

Intelligence and humour

The New Yorker is famous for its sometimes very long articles that blur the line between literature and journalism, and which feature both great writers and established journalists.

The literary pieces in the magazine are known as ‘short fiction’ and have included authors of the calibre of Haruki Murakami, Stephen King, JD Salinger, Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges and many more besides.

The graphic design is extremely simple and book-like, seeking to allow readers to read without distractions. The text is interspersed with occasional drawings, illustrations, cartoons and vignettes, in a colourful jumble of styles and qualities.

Famous names that have played a part in the magazine’s history include Saul Steinberg, French cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé, Art Spiegalman (the creator of the renowned graphic novel Maus) and gothic illustrator Edward Gorey, but it is impossible to list them all. All you can say is that many of the best illustrators of all time have been asked to create images for the covers and inside pages.

The journalist Harold Rodd, who was one of the New Yorker’s founders in the 1920s, said that ‘The New Yorker expects to be distinguished for its illustrations, which will include caricatures, sketches, cartoons and humorous and satirical drawings in keeping with its purpose’. As a result, as early as the 1940s, this focus on figurative art meant that over 2,500 drawings from aspiring illustrators arrived at the newsroom each week!

As each edition has at most 30 drawings and illustrations, plus a similar number of sketches (all done by a single artist), this gives you an idea how challenging the job of art director at the magazine has always been!

Minimalist and stylish graphics

A magazine that focuses almost entirely on its written content like this one requires a simple layout: the articles are split into three columns, with full-width drawings and illustrations, the odd photo and poetic text or quotations sometimes inserted in the two outer ones.

Sometimes the articles begin with a full-page photo or illustration, but there are no set rules on this.

Only two fonts are used in the magazine: an original font is used for the mastheads, designed in 1925 by the magazine’s first creative director Rea Irvin, while Caslon is used for the body text, a typographic classic that is an eighteenth-century, less whimsical derivation of the more famous Garamond.

‘The general idea of the layout of The New Yorker was based on the proven magazine formula of horror vacui, or “fear of emptiness”. Open fields of unprinted paper were avoided – which makes sense, after all, in a city where real estate is so expensive. Only poetry was accorded the luxury of space.’

This analysis by Eye Magazine – one of the world’s leading graphic design magazines – provides an excellent explanation of the magazine’s relationship with the landscape of the city it chronicles and symbolises.

There are a few, almost imperceptible touches that add interest, such as the use of wobbly, hand-drawn lines (rules) separating one article from the next, as the text is seamless, with each article or section able to begin anywhere, leading to a kind of uninterrupted flow of words.

Drawings and illustrations

One of the unique features of the New Yorker is its smart use of drawings and illustrations, both on the cover (which we’ll discuss in the final paragraph) and inside the magazine.

It is important to draw a clear distinction between the various image types: the magazine, as if time had stood still, continues to use black and white drawings in many cases, and not just for its historic vignettes (as an aside for Italian readers: these are now translated and published by Internazionale, but were previously the inspiration for the Italian-made vignettes that appeared in the historic Settimana Enigmistica).

Flicking through the magazine, you therefore find coloured illustrations, including some modern, digital styles, pen and ink line drawings , small sketches that break up the text and humorous vignettes, often with little artistic value. This pot pourri of styles and levels works because it matches the magazine’s aims and the city it represents: a true cultural patchwork.

The use of illustrations gives a hint of modernity to an old-fashioned graphic design that has remained true to its original concept, while the drawings, even when they are created digitally, have a fresh, vintage, elegant and timeless feel. The New York is renowned for its use of spot drawings, which are inserted overlapping two columns to break up the monotony of the text (another trick also borrowed by Internazionale in Italy).

As we mentioned above, countless famous artists have appeared on the magazine’s pages, but one more than all the rest was intertwined with the New Yorker in a successful creative symbiosis: Saul Steinberg.

Over the course of his long career, the Romanian-American artist produced an impressive 85 covers and over 600 inside drawings and illustrations, inextricably tying his name to the magazine, most notably in 1976 when he created what would later be recognised as its most iconic cover, View of the World from 9th Avenue, an ironic and ingenious metaphor reflecting how every New Yorker deep down thinks the world ends somewhere beyond its suburbs.

A century of memorable covers

A magazine’s cover is always important for generating news-stand sales, but for the New Yorker it is even more crucial, since readers tell the editions apart by the drawing or illustration on the cover, which is different each time and always original. These images do not necessarily have anything to do with the articles inside although, as long time art director Francois Mouly once stated, they try to reflect the spirit of the period in which the magazine comes out, which can change very abruptly from week to week.
Some of the greatest illustrators in the world have created covers for the magazine: as well as the aforementioned Steinberg, Gorey and Sempè and the legendary Jean-Michel Folon and Robert Blechmann, the Italian Lorenzo Mattotti is one of the New Yorker’s most popular artists, having created over 30 covers. Other big names from recent years include German illustrator Christoph Niemann and the Canadian Anita Kunz.

Many of the covers evoke the magazine’s snobbish style, employing sarcasm that often verges on poor taste and frequently causes scandals, discussion and debate in America and further afield; the more political covers, often produced by satirical cartoonists, often come in for a lot of criticism. One cover that garnered a lot of attention, perhaps becoming the most iconic cover in the New Yorker’s history, was Art Spigelman’s creation after September 11, with its two black monoliths towering over the masthead fonts like funeral monuments.

In conclusion, despite the current crisis in print publishing, the New Yorker not only still embodies the spirit of a city, but also shows how a well-written, well-designed and well-illustrated magazine can overcome fashions, crises and wars and become one of the world’s best-loved and biggest-selling periodicals.

In two years it will be celebrating its 100th birthday: hopefully the start of another memorable century to come.

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