Magazine Icon Roger Black: The iPad is Not a Magic Pony

Roger Black and Filipe Fortes

The legendary magazine designer Roger Black sat in the lounge of his Fifth Avenue studio, rows of leather-bound volumes arrayed on the wall behind him. At first glance they seemed like compendiums of classic literature, and in a sense they were: bound volumes of publications like Esquire and Rolling Stone , where Mr. Black first built his legend.

As Betabeat tapped notes on an iPad, Mr. Black leaned back on a gray sofa and crossed his legs, a bemused expression on his face.

“I got one the first week, but I don’t use it much anymore,” he said of Apple’s tablet.

His voice bore traces of his West Texas upbringing. He wore stylish glasses and a light tan from his recent trip to Austin.“I am flabbergasted by how many people went out and bought an iPad,” he added, “and even more so how the publishing industry thought it was some kind of magic pony that would save them.”

Better known for classic, cultivated typographic style than cutting-edge technical virtuosity, Mr. Black has spent much of the past four decades reinventing magazines in the more customary manner. He’s redesigned more titles than most literate New Yorkers will subscribe to in a lifetime. He went toe-to-toe with the legendarily difficult JanWenner in 1977, as Rolling Stone transitioned from the cartoony covers of its anti-establishment roots to the clean look it still sports today. His highlight reel during the 1980s included New York, The New York Times Magazine and Newsweek. In the 1990s he rehabbed Esquire , working on retainer as the in-house style guru at Hearst while simultaneously launching a satellite studio in Milan and a font bureau for digital type.

Though competitors groused that he was overrated and overpriced, he was for decades the foremost designer in the business—the safe choice, the guy publishers would turn to when they needed to give a title a visual kick in thepants without alienating readers or advertisers.

These days Mr. Black can’t take the time to save magazines one by one. There’s just too much pain out there. Between the Web and the proliferation of mobile platforms, design has become devalued. Bland, plodding “Web-safe” fonts litter the landscape.

That said, Mr. Black has never been the sort to gaze longingly into the rear-view mirror. He was the first major magazine art director to embrace computers as a design tool, and he seems determined to adapt to the times. His newest venture, Treesaver, is a publishing platform built to address what Mr. Black sees as the central design issue of the moment: fragmentation. Readers now consume the printed word across an array of vastly different platforms—desktops and laptops, smart phones and tablets—literally dozens of oddly shaped devices, all running unique and often incompatible operating systems, which can wreak havoc on the the most carefully designed sites.

“If people created better experiences for the Web and it didn’t look like …” Mr. Black paused, rubbing a handover the shiny dome of his forehead and wincing at the thought. “I mean, most Web pages are like third-world soccer stadiums,” he continued, a hint of exasperation creeping into voice. “A lot of posters everywhere and you can’t figure out where the exit is. It’s just a mess.” Treesaver relies on HTML, the lingua franca of the Web, so articles adapt to different devices and operating systems, bypassing the expensive process of creating a unique app for each of the competing stores run byGoogle, Apple and Microsoft. Publishers using Treesaver can lay out an article once and be confident their readers will see the intended look no matter what hardware they’re using. Mr. Black built the program in partnership with Filipe Fortes, an interaction designer and Microsoft vet with a Master’s degree in human-computer interaction.

The transition from an auteur crafting the personality of a magazine to a businessman building tools for mass-market publishing has been under way for a while. Maryjane Fahey, who worked for Mr. Black for seven years before leaving to start her own design shop, remembers him as a powerful personality who helped generations of young designers to hone their craft. “When I first started working there in the mid-1990s, we were doing Esquire ,”Ms. Fahey said. “Roger was a genius, and Roger was a bull. Only the strong survived, but those that did learned a ton.”

What Ms. Fahey loved most about working at Mr. Black’s studio was the collegial interplay among the designers and the artistry that went into inventing a new look for a given publication. By the late ’90s, however, she began to notice a change around the office. “More and more, Roger was bringing in these digital folks, these drones, and it took all the fun out of it for me.”

Gradually, as Ms. Fahey saw it, Mr. Black began to alter his approach. “If you look at all the people who came through that studio, they emerged with a certain artistic sensibility,” she explained. “And the funny thing is, Roger has totally moved on, he doesn’t give a shit about the sensibility, because he’s focused on being a great businessman.”

The shift began drawing attention in the summer of 2010, when Mr. Black introduced a new company called Ready-Media, the idea of which was to create libraries of plug-and-play templates that would allow anyone to afford a taste of high-end graphic design. “Click. Download. Publish!” reads the header on the company’s Web site.

“Right now most of the big designers are working for the big magazines and newspapers,” Mr. Black said,explaining the concept. “But we can, with Ready-Media templates, bring really great design and great typography to any publication, regardless of its size, its circulation, its business plan or what language it’s in.”

The reaction from his peers in the design world—whose livelihoods may depend, to some degree, on the failure of endeavors like Ready-Media—was angry and resentful. To many, the whole idea seemed like a betrayal, acynical move to commodify their craft and scoop up market share.

When news of the company’s formation broke on the Society for Publication Designers Web site, the responses in the comments section ranged from troubled (Condé Nast It Boy Scott Dadich) to outraged (Wired creative director Brandon Kuvella).“It really struck a nerve,” said Dirk Barnett, creative director at Newsweek/Daily Beast. “Roger Black has created benchmarks in the world of magazine design, and this felt like a cookie-cutter, dumbing-down.”

Not that people were surprised, exactly. Andrea Dunham, the creative director at People , noted at the time that “Despite the fact that for years we could see a Roger Black design factory coming like balls on a tall dog, we all have our panties in a twist seeing his dark vision actualized.” She declared that the new company seemed like “a way to wring as much coin as possible from his greatest-hits collection,” adding, “I just can’t imagine asmart, progressive, emerging publication going anywhere near a canned solution if it ever hopes to be read pastthe first-class cabin.”

Treesaver goes one step further, in that the platform itself is open source: Anyone can download the code and create their own designs for free. Of course, publishers who want that special Roger Black touch can pay a little extra to use off-the-shelf Treesaver templates. Or they can pay much more to have custom design work done byMr. Black’s studio and certified by the man himself.

Because it’s entirely Web-based, Treesaver poses a threat to the app-store model pioneered by Steve Jobs,which has recently prompted much hand-wringing in the publishing world over the pound of flesh it demands from media companies: Apple takes 30 percent of revenue off the top and keeps valuable subscriber data for itself. Treesaver makes the app model less attractive by letting anyone, from a major corporate news entity to an independent blogger, bring a unified look to their publication across the scattered environment of the mobile Web.

As for critics of his paint-by-numbers approach, Mr. Black largely shrugs them off. “We can’t produce with the money available the kind of hand-crafted stuff I used to do,” he noted patiently. “As the world gets more complicated, as the business models morph, we have to come up with ways to leverage our resources, so we don’t spend all our time doing stuff that doesn’t matter that much.”

“What matters is the words and the pictures,” he continued. “It’s crazy for a designer to end up saying this, but Ithink if nothing else, RSS feeds on the Web taught us that people just want us to give them the content and get out of the way.”

He went on. “Thankfully, that gets boring after a while, and there is still real value in great typography and design.”

Magazine Icon Roger Black: The iPad is Not a Magic Pony