Do You Read Me?: Harvard Design Magazine Re-launches with an Issue on Reading

Harvard Graduate School of Design’s magazine has a new look and direction

By Steve Kroeter and Stephanie Salomon September 16, 2014
Jennifer Sigler, Editor in Chief, Harvard Design Magazine (Cambridge, MA). (Photo: Justin Knight)
View Jennifer Sigler’s Profile

The distinguished Harvard Design Magazine has undergone a makeover with its summer 2014 issue (no. 38), introduced this June at the 14th International Venice Architecture Biennale. Guided by new editor in chief Jennifer Sigler, the biannual publication features a redesign by With Projects, Inc., led by creative director, Jiminie Ha. Sigler talked with Designers & Books about the magazine’s new direction.

Designers & Books: Issue no. 38 debuts a redesign of Harvard Design Magazine. When was the magazine last redesigned? And how does your view of the mission of the magazine differ from that of William Saunders, who founded it in 1997 and edited it for 15 years?

Cover of Harvard Design Magazine, issue no. 38 (summer 2014), “Do You Read Me?”

Jennifer Sigler: The original Harvard Design Magazine (1997) was designed by Nigel Smith and Alison Hahn as an update of the school’s alumni magazine. By coincidence, I had worked with them both a few years earlier when they were part of Bruce Mau’s Toronto studio. Nigel had a background in newspaper design and you feel that in the direct, unpretentious tabloid approach of those early issues. Editorially, those issues had the qualities that make a magazine a magazine, rather than a journal or a book: they opened questions, rather than trying to present conclusions. They were scholarly but inviting, readable. In the years that followed the magazine underwent three redesigns, all under Bill’s editorship, but those early issues are still my favorites.

Cover of Harvard Design Magazine, issue no. 4 (spring 1998), “Popular Places”

Although the new Harvard Design Magazine is a departure editorially and graphically, it maintains many of those values. I worked closely with associate editor Leah Whitman-Salkin to develop the new editorial direction. We wanted the new magazine to be informal and critical and intellectual and seductive and projective and playful and probing and mysterious, all at once.

But where previous issues mostly tapped into a more familiar, trusted set of contributors and topics in the design disciplines, Leah and I are interested in shaking up the subject matter, the voices, and the kinds of lenses we use to look at design—finding ways to overcome the insularity of design discourse. We want to invite other voices in, and create new, unlikely juxtapositions.

D&B: What’s your definition of “design”—“design” is part of the magazine’s title—since that word means different things to different people?
JS: Design means everything and nothing today, and I questioned it from the start of this process. My first step was to reconsider the three words in the title: “Harvard,” “Design,” and “Magazine.” These words felt flat and dusty, yet each carried many layers of meaning. We thought about abandoning the name and played with dozens of more “catchy” alternatives, but it the end it was more invigorating to dust off those three words, and to think critically about what they meant to us, and could mean for the school. So we broke them open, recharged them, and used them to generate our new approach. We tried to give the name a deeper, quieter, more intentional resonance.

At the Harvard GSD, “design” translates formally to three specific departments, all concerned with the large-scale built environment: Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Urban Planning and Design. Yet we’re not called a “School of Architecture” like most schools in this category. We’re a school of Design. That name leaves a lot of room for interpretation. The magazine takes advantage of that ambiguity—it juxtaposes design, as we understand it in architecture, with other forms of design thinking.

Unlike “architecture,” the word “design” can be used as a verb—it suggests an action or process, not a product. It’s what we do. The magazine is concerned more with this process, how it is understood and applied across a range of disciplines, than with particular objects. The design of the built environment is still the central focus, but as a process of interdisciplinary collaboration and communication.

Opening spread of “Is Listening Reading?” by Vijay Iyer, Harvard Design Magazine, no. 38

Spread from “Signs in the Sand“ by Denise Scott Brown, Harvard Design Magazine, no 38

D&B: The re-launch issue, titled “Do You Read Me?” focuses on reading—a subject close to our hearts at Designers & Books. In the introduction to the magazine you identify the issue’s subject as “the relation between design and comprehension.” Can you explain what exactly you mean by that?
JS: Harvard Design Magazine 38 is about reading, but not in the way you might expect. We read constantly—text, images, cities, bodies—but we are also constantly being read by others—both humans and machines—whether we know it or not. We wanted to discuss what it means to read and to be read at a time when we actively construct and broadcast our identities as public content.

“Do You Read Me?” means “Is my message getting through?” or “Do you get what I’m trying to say?” Any act of communication involves a sender, a receiver, and a message that travels in the gap between them. This issue is about what happens to the message in that gap: does it disintegrate, morph, or does it reach the receiver intact, unchanged by the process? The “design” of the message, and of the channels that carry it, largely determines whether it is understood as the sender intends. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out in 1977, “The word read means to guess …, Reading is an activity of rapid guessing because any word has so many meanings….” “Do You Read Me?” explores ways that the design impacts that guesswork and influences the way that message is understood—or misunderstood.

D&B: You’ve edited both magazines and books—and notably you were the editor of Rem Koolhaas’s S,M,L,XL. What in your background contributed to the concept for the re-launch of the magazine generally and this issue in particular?
JS: S,M,L,XL was about combining the pragmatic with the poetic, the intuitive, the absurd; about contamination, accidents, collisions, intrusions; and about testing the experiential potential of the book as a space, a place, with a particular atmosphere, sound, and smell. It was about storytelling—or storyshowing—and exposing the messy realities within and around architecture. These aren’t qualities that I’ve consciously applied to the magazine, but they are part of my personality as an editor.

Opening spread of Sanford Kwinter’s essay “Plumbing the Urban Azimuth (at the End of the Age of the Book)” by Sanford Kwinter, Harvard Design Magazine, no. 38

If there’s anything I’ve consciously tried to leave behind, it’s the “big book” model. It’s now been almost 20 years since S,M,L,XL was published, and I’ve been thinking recently about the five-year process of making it, the changes in technology, and the generations of “big books” it left in its wake. It’s time to zoom out, to trace where the big book came from, and what it generated. Sanford Kwinter’s essay “Plumbing the Urban Azimuth (at the End of the Age of the Book)” grew out of a series of conversations we’ve had about that history. And these conversations aren’t over yet. Maybe it’s time to kill the big book.

D&B: Were there elements of the redesign that had specific sources of inspiration? The interesting use of inserts, for example, is perhaps reminiscent of Flair?
JS: We looked at many many publications from all over the world, both professional and mainstream, academic and popular, printed and digital, old, new, large, small, cheap, expensive, fat, thin…. Everything from Harvard Business Review to Log, from Club Donny to LIFE, from San Rocco to Fantastic Man, to… yes, Flair! And we explored many historic publications in the GSD’s special collections—De Stijl, Task, L’Esprit Nouveau, Wendingen. There were hundreds.

We selected Jiminie Ha/With Projects as designer because of the way her work combines the pragmatic with the sensual. She understands how magazines work as systems. We felt she would bring the right mix of discipline, quirkiness, simplicity, informality, elegance, legibility, and visual energy.

We also seriously asked “Why print?” If we were going to print, we wanted the magazine to do things that can only be done in print. Texture is important. The magazine is meant to be touched and held.

Harvard Design Magazine, no. 38, showing opening spread of insert “Architecture is Tomorrow Morning” by Tan Lin. with insert designed by Danielle Aubert
Back page of insert “Architecture is Tomorrow Morning”

Early on, I spent a lot of time looking at pamphlets, zines, and other kinds of quick, energetic, handmade publications. The inserts grew out of our desire to host an unlikely intervention in each issue—a special guest—and give that guest the space to make an autonomous statement. The content of the insert behaves according to a different logic from the rest of the magazine. We give the guest maximum freedom to occupy the space. Jiminie doesn’t touch it.

D&B: In the introduction to the issue you mention Story Number 2—part of a series for children by the absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco—as being influential for you. What two or three other books have shaped you as a design editor?

“When Walls Are Doors,” introduction by Jennifer Sigler to Harvard Design Magazine, no. 38

Spread from Story Number 2: For Children Under Three Years of Age by Eugène Ionesco, illustrated by Etienne Delessert, 1970 (Harlan Quist)

JS: Another, very well-known children’s book, Goodnight Moon, is a masterpiece of spatial communication, and should be required reading for architects. Its brilliance is not just the text—a simple, unsentimental inventory of a room—but the cinematic arrangement of images by Clement Hurd. It’s one of most successful examples of the book, as a medium, that I can think of. The act of turning pages, physically, plays such an essential role in the experience of a three-dimensional space. There’s a sense of rhythm, suspense, an unfolding. We watch the gradual, subtle transformation of a single room at nightfall. It’s a film in slow motion, but one that the reader modulates. I thought about Goodnight Moon a lot during the S,M,L,XL design process, wanting to give spatial entities that same life on the page.

Hannah Höch’s Album it also very important to me. It’s a kind of scrapbook in which the juxtaposition of images is so personal, intentional, intuitive, and at the same time unaffected—cut and paste collage in its most sensitive, unassuming form. Much of its beauty and impact comes from the visual texture of newsprint. It makes all other “design” seem redundant and overthought.

Spread from Album by Hannah Höchfacsimile edition, 2004 (Hatje Cantz) originally compiled in 1933.

A few others that have been influential are Zone 1/2, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans, and the Sears Catalog circa 1975.

D&B: Will every issue have its own theme and look? The design of the re-launch issue works well with the theme of “destabilizing language”—as you note in your introduction to the issue. How much of the look of this current issue will carry forward?
JS: Each issue will have its own theme, but the basic design concept is set up in number 38.

Inside, we’ve established particular formats and typographic treatments for different types of articles that are strung together in a chain, rather than in sections. These treatments will mostly be maintained, but sometimes tweaked to accommodate new kinds of content.

The cover will always use a “box” that can be interpreted as both a material surface and a window that provides an entry point into the content to come. The character of that box will somehow weave through the pages of each issue. The cover of 38 combines the “can’t miss it” visibility of fluorescent orange with the barely discernible texture and shine of the embossed Morse code pattern and the title. It’s meant to be both loud and subtle, legible and illegible.

D&B: Is the crossword puzzle on the last page of issue no. 38 an actual puzzle? If it is, where are the answers?

“Puzzled: Architecture Magazine Firsts” by Inés Zalduendo with Brendan Quigley, Harvard Design Magazine, no. 38

JS: Yes, of course it’s real. Our back page will always feature something unusual or playful. In this case, it deals directly with wordplay, interpretation, and the history of architecture magazines. We developed the puzzle with Inés Zalduendo, who runs the Loeb Library’s Special Collections department at the GSD. We had a great time exploring old architecture magazines with her in the archives. Although I helped make the puzzle, I can't complete it. But we'll offer a lifetime subscription to anyone who can!

Win a copy of the re-launch issue through September 23, 2014. Details.

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