In My Opinion: Neil Braidwood: The Scots Magazine

SOMETHING big happened recently in Scottish publishing.

One of the oldest publications in the world, The Scots Magazine, got a makeover.

One of the magazine’s distinctive features was its yellow spine and compact size – more of a booklet than a magazine, really. All that has been swept away. The mag is physically bigger (B5 size), slimmer and has had a typographic overhaul. Bookshelves from Lerwick to Stranraer will be all out of kilter, as the May issue is added to readers’ collections.

So why change? The magazine sells over 26,000 copies (ABC Jan-Dec 2012), which is pretty healthy.

The publication, launched in 1739, has reported on the Battle of Culloden, the Napoleonic Wars, and, more recently, the creation of the Scottish Parliament. It is said to be the oldest-surviving magazine in the world. It’s a Scottish institution.

Although the size of the magazine was an unique feature, it will have been increasingly difficult to design contemporary layouts in such a small space.

50 years ago, the pages were very book-like, made up of solid text with the odd line drawing added in to break up the dense copy. That worked well, as readers treated the publication like a book – it was good read, after all. Gradually, as photography and colour printing crept in, those pages started looking very cramped and busy. Latterly, the sans serif body text seemed huge for the size of the page.

The new design has elements of the past – the regular pages have elegant line drawings to help navigate the reader. However, the design is cleaner, simpler and allows the photography more space than it has ever had.

The choice of font is unusual, though, in my opinion – almost the entire magazine is given over to Optima, a typeface designed in the 1950s. Optima works well on signage, or on display items, but I find it difficult to read as body copy.

The magazine’s logo has been altered too. Gone is the fat yellow sans, to be replaced by a finer, less dramatic Garamond ‘Scots’.

It is clear that a lot of work has gone into reinventing this venerable publication, and although it will surely upset many stalwart readers, it will also attract new ones. Magazines can’t stand still forever – they need to evolve and change with the times.

Neil Braidwood is head of CMYK magazine design and publishing company. He is also vice-chair of PPA Scotland.