Interlude: From The Coalface (1970s-2010s)

From Varoom! Magazine, Winter 2011-12

Late August last year saw a firestorm of debate on the merits of the Radio Times of today vs the Radio Times of the Golden Age of British Magazine Design (ironic italics mine). Mike Dempsey, graphic design grandee, had posted a critique of the current RT on his always thought-provoking blog Graphic Journey, and the magazine community fervently responded.

MIke’s point could be summed up as “Modern Magazines are rubbish—where are David Driver and Michael Rand when you need them?.” The response from those still at the coalface seemed to be: “Try doing a great magazine cover now with a bunch of marketing men breathing down your neck, a load of Celeb PRs playing up and a design team of one mac and a dog.”

As someone who straddles both periods I always have a problem with the “It was great back then” approach. It often cherry-picks to deliver its argument—there was some fantastically bad magazine design in the sixties and seventies. It usually doesn’t take into account the massive changes in the industry—way more pages now, allied to way less staff, and with a newsstand that no-one in the sixties could have imagined. And finally it always seems to subtly belittle the great work being done now.

I bow to no-one in my admiration for both David Driver and Michael Rand (especially as they taught me most of what I know). They presided over a period of fantastic illustration, beautifully rich and inventive photography and clever graphic concepts. The bold updating of illustrative styles from Eric Ravilious to Paul Slater and Ralph Steadman found a way to take a readership used to illustration to new places. But the world was different then. It was a world with four TV channels. There was no such thing as rolling news.

Look at rock music, for example, and tell me it’s as easy to be inventive now as it was in 1966. There’s always a ‘perfect storm’ time when the talent meets the market and the market says: Yes! Give me more. Give me more of that different, difficult and interesting stuff! It’s a heady time when mass taste coincides with aesthetic intent. That doesn’t mean that everything that follows is always inferior, but the shock of the new is always a powerful thing.

Photojournalism looked powerful and moving on a magazine front cover in 1968, when TV news was more circumspect (although my guess is that the designers of Life and Picture Post probably thought they’d been there and done that!). So it looks from here like bravery. But you can’t keep doing that forever. And you look to different places for that level of inventiveness. And it’s currently to be found at the fringes of this fractured industry, and mostly not in the mass market.

And the award-winning spreads and covers are never the whole story. Even the great magazines had mundane features behind the cracking Peter Brookes or Don McCullin cover. The sixties magazines technically weren’t a patch on, say, the Fortune magazine of the forties or fifties. Hot metal was dying, the craft was being lost, and no-one was sure what was coming. (What came, before the mac, was the much unloved phototypesetting.) So there were no computers, and all your precious typography was in the hands of a man in the bowels of Fleet Street or on an industrial estate at Park Royal who really didn’t care about your lovely attempts at better line breaks and interesting drop caps. I once asked for a cut-out of a man smoking a pipe in the days of hot metal, and when I dared to venture a suggestion that the blockmaker’s attempt fell a little short, and that it would be good if the pipe was attached to the man’s mouth rather than floating in thin air, being curtly asked, “Who d’you think I am? Fucking Rembrandt?”

It is true that the large mainstream magazines of today are commercially tuned and focus group driven, but if you look around even a mid-sized branch of WH Smith’s you’ll come across the inheritors of what’s possible in magazine design. It’s an understandable impulse to make the comparison of a single title then and now, but I’m not sure that it’s the right prism to view this subject through. Let’s just celebrate that great past, be glad that those people got to do that work. But accept that the challenges and the context are different today and celebrate what’s great now…  tell me that Andrew Diplock at Wired or Finnie Finn at I:Global Intellegence or Marissa Bourke at Elle aren’t doing terrific work, too.


Interlude: UNSEEN

From Varoom, February 2012

What other profession has within its job description such a huge element of rejection? Even actors, famous in the rejection stakes, don’t have to actually write the plays they audition to perform in. Most people go to work to do a job. But what if the job is literally defined by what is in your own head? Illustrators are generally commissioned—they may produce pieces on spec, or personal work as a shopfront, but it’s a whole different ball game for the cartoonist. They must ‘churn’ ideas, work them up and send them out to a world where they will be placed in piles, summarily judged, occasionally accepted, mostly rejected and returned to sender.

So do some of the best jokes get away? Here’s one of my favourite cartoons from the last year, by Will Dawbarn, a fresh and talented cartoonist. He can really draw, and is funny. The second should be a given with a cartoonist, the first isn’t. If you’re funny and can’t draw, you’re a cartoonist. If you can draw but you’re not funny, you’re not.

It was taken from a batch sent in over a year ago but never run. Why? Because editors have the final say, and because a sense of humour is a hard thing to predict or pin down. I bought this before our current editor was here (she wouldn’t have picked it), it’s black and white (all our single gag cartoons run in colour and colouring this would only detract from its precise beauty) and, necessarily, it needs to run quite large for the quality of the drawing to work (we’re really pushed for space!).

Three strikes.


Most cartoonists I know have a day job. There’s just no way (especially since Punch hit the buffers) that most working cartoonists can make a living by drawing alone. Will is an exception. He draws a couple of great strips in The Dandy, and contributes regularly to Private Eye amongst others.

Q&A with Will

BRIEF  There’s no brief, just the knowledge that a handful of magazines publish humourous cartoons sent in by freelancers. They can be on any subject, and can be drawn in any style. Mostly you get them sent back, with rejection slips of varying degrees of politeness. It’s an oversupplied marketplace.

IDEA  Death is a much loved figure of cartoonists. I’ve used him on many previous occasions—he’s often good for a laugh. The idea occurred to me when I was looking at a Tree of Life poster on my child’s wall.

MATERIALS  Brush and Indian Ink on A3 paper.

RESEARCH  Visually, all I needed was the poster. I drastically simplified it in the process. I must have been listening to or reading something about the mass extinction we’re currently presiding over, but with this type of work the ‘research’ is a retrospective tag. That hour you spent looking at the paper whilst snoozing in front of the fire might later turn out to have been a vital research period.

PROCESS  Sometimes a drawing might take a good few goes to get right, even a very simple one. With this image, it all worked out first time, despite its relative complexity. I normally use the computer to add a little shade, but this was a rare cartoon that didn’t need anything adding or tweaking on the computer.

RESISTANCES  When I first had the idea, I thought yeah, but hang on, I’m not drawing a complete Tree of Life. All very well for a definite commission you know you’re being paid for, but way too big a job for the speculative magazine cartoon market! Sometimes I do put in a lot of work on the drawing of these things, but it’s always a gamble because most cartoons drawn for this market will, inevitably, be rejected. The answer is probably to submit roughs instead of finishes, but I’m not sure how that would go down with some editors.

INSIGHT  I had the idea of using a brush (my usual drawing implement is a dip pen) to do a simple representation of each species, and realised it could actually be done quite quickly. I skipped the pencilling stage and just drew with the brush. Ultimately, I’d like to do every cartoon this way, so it has the spontaneity of the first line.

DISTRACTIONS The thing about this type of cartooning is that distractions are all grist to the ideas mill. Bring ’em on!

NUMBERS  I started counting the number of species I drew in this cartoon several times to answer this question, but each time I quickly got lost because they’re not organised in rows or columns. Sorry.

Q&A by John O’Reilly


Three: Geof Kern

Two meetings
Meeting One: I met America’s leading rock n roll memorabilia dealer, Jeff Gold, at a hotel on Jermyn Street in 2009, with a copy of a book autographed by Big Bill Broonzy. I was clearing out my dad’s stuff and I knew Jeff was coming to London on a buying expedition. I was looking at his website and noticed that he had art directed Days Of Open Hand by Suzanne Vega. I’m pretty sure that this was one of Geof’s pieces that I’d seen that inspired me to ask him to do the covers for a Mozart partwork that I had been hired to design for the Sunday Times Magazine. Jeff was charming, confirmed that he had indeed art directed Geof, had even won won a Grammy for it, and bought the Broonzy book for exactly the amount I needed to buy a Theramin.

I’d first seen Geof’s work on the covers of Beach Culture and, I think, Wet, out of Los Angeles, a time when really interesting magazine were emerging from of the surfing scene in California. These were among the first magazines designed by the always-interesting David Carson.

I tracked down Geof’s phone number in Dallas, Texas—don’t remember how—and hired him transatlantically (not so easy in those days of fax machines and unreliable airmail). To convince Michael Rand I roughed out a cover (quite badly) using bits and pieces from all over the place, some from Geof’s work itself. Thrillingly, Geof agreed to do the job (I’m pretty sure that I never sent him my rough, though) and here’s some of the correspondence and notes.

The interesting thing looking back is that each fax has a slightly desperate note of “I’ll be at Frozen Tundra 739 456 from 2 until 4” pace the Tony Roberts character in Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam. How simple it seems now…

“This fax is for:  M A R T I N C O L Y E R
from Geof Kern, Dallas


Well I am writing to you on Tuesday afternoon and I guess
it is now Wednesday morning as you read this (ever get tired
of this kind of fascination?)

I hope you like these ideas because it took me until the last
minute to work on them, and because of that, we are starting
the production now.

Assuming then, that their basic content is acceptable, I have
a few more questions:

On the illustration for music are there specific operas or
other works you would like me to write on the “name wheel?”

Same question for any specific works written in the illustration
for “Festival.”

And on the illustration for “The Man,” do I have to necessarily
depict Salzburg — or is Vienna OK?

Under the current conditions and the nature of these ideas, I
feel it would be best if I did this series in black and white.

Please call if you have a chance today


Of course, black and white covers were not what anyone was expecting, but Geof had started. I had no issue—always loved a cool monochrome—but having seen the stupid rough everyone senior to me expected it would cleave to that template. Michael even said he preferred the rough. No! Lesson learned—never show anyone a comp that boxes you into a corner. I hit upon the idea of selling it as a sophisticated duotone, and dug out some printer specs for green, purple and blue duotones. I was helped in forcing it through by our approaching print deadlines, and in the end everyone was pretty happy with the whole thing. I really enjoyed my short time at The Sunday Times Magazine—such a lot of talented people there. Hannah Charlton was the Editor on this part work.

Meeting Two: At the British Society of Magazine Editors Awards recently I ran into Tony Chambers, a designer I’d always admired, who was at the Sunday Times Magazine in the late 80s at the time I was doing some projects for them. Out of the blue, Tony started talking about the Mozart partwork, saying “I loved those Geof Kern covers. I kept those!” I professed disbelief. Tony insisted. We went for a drink with the lovely Wallpaper* crew. Tony reiterated that he had the copies, and that they were displayed at home on a bookshelf. I ordered a White Russian (a mistake, which everyone unaccountably compounded by saying That’s a good idea! It wasn’t) whilst still expressing doubts that Tony a) had them, and b) knew where to find them.

Hungover, the next morning this arrived in my inbox:

“I didn’t lie.
First picture is exactly as found this morning. Second is styled up – showing all four covers. I have three copies of each! They look even better than I remembered. Good back page too.”

Epigones—with Tony Chambers of Wallpaper*

Geof is amazing: his work continued to get weirder and even more wonderful. More at his website: