Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Interview with former Spy art director Alex Isley

The 1995 series of Virtu International Design Lectures kicked off October 10 with a near-capacity crowd at the dingy OISE auditorium attending a lecture-cum-slideshow by U.S. graphic designer Alexander Isley.

He’s not a big name, but his work is surprisingly pervasive in the latter-day zeitgeist. Isley is only 33 but already has a pedigree design students would die for: His first job after graduating from the North Carolina State University School of Design was with M&Co., the New York design juggernaut that glowed white-hot during the 1980s. Isley collaborated on a handful of M&Co.’s most famous designs, such as a wristwatch with only the numbers 10, 1, and 4 identified on the dial that now sits in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Isley left that job in 1987 and became the first full-time art director of Spy, the New York monthly that gloried in ridiculing the rich and fatuous and spawned a whole new discursive style, the long adjective chain (“short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump,” “heterosexual New York City Ballet master and dancer turned walker, the heterosexual Peter Martins”).

Isley’s tenure at the magazine didn’t last even a year and a half, but his luxuriantly detailed approach to Spy‘s look remains influential. First of all, Spy‘s articles were densely-written and mordantly funny, requiring a kind of attentive reading that’s rarely seen today in consumer magazines. Isley’s designs rewarded that close attention through a rich, cohesive deployment of typographic and design details – denatured photo snippets spread across the top inch of the page; a column called “The Fine Print” that snaked by on the outside margins of successive pages, unconnected to the rest of the layout; use of little icons (pile of money denoting greed, typewriter denoting journalism) as a kind of graphic shorthand; and a deliberate choice of a few well-established, subliminally familiar, even outdated fonts (Garamond 3, Metro, Commercial Script) rather than whatever was new at the time.

“We tried to keep the tone visually as constant as it was editorially all the way through,” Isley explained in an interview. “They were very tight with copy-editing, fact-checking – same fact-checkers the New Yorker used. Everything had to be vetted by three lawyers. They never got sued.... I think that’s a real tribute to how thorough they were.

“It’s very easy, particularly if you’re doing something humourous, to try to obscure the page and make it ‘krazy,’” with “the photo at a wacky angle or to have layering going on. And I think that you can have that same spirit come through without having to resort to those things, which I think makes the magazine harder to read.” (Designers of today’s denser magazines, like Raygun and Wired, could heed that lesson. While there’s a lot to like in those publications’ design, Isley’s finesse at balancing density and readability has not been matched.)

Isley’s tricks chez Spy were accomplished using conventional typesetting – since desktop publishing had not really taken off back in 1987, Spy‘s copy was sent out to typesetting houses – and a skimpy art budget. In fact, the little icons were a cost-saving measure (the magazine couldn’t afford nifty custom photos), and Isley notes that “it always amuses me when I see magazines I know have ten times the budget using techniques that were designed for the most part to try to stretch a story out and try to make it look interesting” without spending a wad of cash.

Isley set up his own Manhattan design firm in 1988, now with a complement of four other designers and two admin staff. His flair for density and for reusing old tropes in a way that doesn’t scream “I’m so retro I’m cool!” was fully apparent in his slideshow, which documented Isley’s designs for everything from packaging (Armani’s perforated A/X boxes are the most famous) to magazines (Isley is the art director of Forbes FYI, a quarterly guns-golf-geezer supplement to the business monthly) to catalogues (e.g., for Voyager CD-ROMs) to LP and CD covers (mostly for David Byrne’s world-music label Luaka Bop).

Nearly all Isley designs make use of “vernacular elements” like pastel colours, old fonts, and illustrations that wouldn’t be out of place in a kids’ magazine in the ‘50s, and indeed, Isley designed a very retro-looking brochure aimed at kids who watch the U.S. Nickelodeon TV network using such an approach.

“I don’t want my designs to be sort of a parody of 1950s design, but I don’t have a problem with using some of those same elements at all.... I think if I’m really designing for the general audience, I’d rather they pay attention to what my design is saying or what the content is rather than this funky distressed typeface. I think it’s really shortsighted. It takes the emphasis away.”

Originally published 1995 ¶ Updated here 1999.07.25

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