Rick Poynor | Essays

Adbusters in Anarchy

In 2001, Adbusters ran an issue titled “Design Anarchy” and since that time its once orderly pages have been in a state of heaving agitation. Every time I pick up a new issue I find myself wondering why. For a while in the late 1990s and early 2000, under art director Chris Dixon, Adbusters’ editorial design was exemplary. Even when it departed from conventional magazine structures, its content and the relationship between the parts was clear. The elegant, carefully composed design helped to give even its wilder flights of rhetoric conviction and a much-needed measure of authority.

The magazine these days is a collection of fragments seemingly thrown together in no particular order. It’s not that the type isn’t perfectly legible – there are no tiresome typo hi-jinks to “decode” – but Adbusters is nowhere near as readable as it was. All of the standard editorial devices have been abandoned. I’m looking at a page in the January/February 2004 issue, carrying two columns of type. There’s no headline or intro and you have to find the small italics at the end to discover that it was written by someone called Kevin Arnold (a new name to me, I confess). It may be fascinating stuff, and scanning down I see that Garrett Hardin, author of the excellent Filters Against Folly, receives a mention, but the layout itself does nothing to suggest that we need to read this article. Elsewhere, I start reading some apparently untitled text about the failings of postmodern theory, thinking I’m in the middle, only to realise that I have started, quite by accident, in the correct place.

Perhaps, after years of going about it the conventional way, Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn decided that there was something unacceptably manipulative or just too boringly suburban about the usual devices for signposting a magazine’s content. Maybe he believes that readers will derive greater nutritional benefit from Adbusters if they have to work harder to digest it - the old pomo canard. It’s possible that Lasn grew bored with being an editor, and that his more recent role as art director and would-be graphic anarchist is a way of livening things up for himself above all. One thing we can safely conclude is that these days Adbusters is aimed primarily at younger readers for whom these devices might at least seem to signify REBELLION! Lasn has famously dedicated himself to the “uncooling” of America, yet for a guy of his years and experience he seems strangely seduced by the coolness of design as a gesture, without seeing this as part of the surface-fixated postmodern culture he otherwise deplores with such a passion.

I write as someone who has worked with Adbusters in the past and I continue to admire their commitment and support much of what they have to say. Adbusters still publishes some timely and penetrating pieces, but the design lets them down badly. Read the “Media Carta” pages in the latest issue. Lasn and his team are surely right to argue that a media democracy that gives ordinary people access to the media on their own terms is an essential precondition for social change, which is why the corporate-controlled media resists such a development at all costs. This vital message is a matter of concern for citizens of every age and walk of life, but the punkish scribbles and all-over-the-place attempts at paste-up make it look like a poorly considered and intemperate rant. You can’t avoid rhetoric. The vital thing is that it actually persuades.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Media, Politics

Comments [24]

Reading too fast, I misread "the old pomo canard" as "the old porno canard". Pomo, porno; it's apparently all the same to me.
Heinz Nebel

oi, found my way here via Abstract Dynamics.

Agreed on your comments. You might be interested in this:

tobias c. van Veen

I have to agree with your criticisms. Adbusters' lack of graphical devises often makes me wonder about the integrity of their content. Their un-designed approach feels like a purely formal devise and doesn't engage the substance of the text. However, most of their articles are random and address wildly different issues, so in a way this "paste up" approach could be advocated.
Andre K.

The stylistic approach adbusters uses seems to equate visual rebellion with a scratched, scribbled, cut out 'grassroots' vernacular. Something that feels like it could have been trendy 10 years ago, yet has the contrived feeling associated with bad 'left hand' drawings (& establishments which brand anti-establishment). I question if the integrity of 'non design' in a battle waged against corporate media, etc.
What is the real goal, to effect the reader or sell magazines? Perhaps Adbusters have thrown the baby out with the bath water by attempting to 'unbrand' their publication, subsequently disregarding the history of publication design. I don't find many intimate moments of detail or pacing and the typographic 'expressiveness' is like that of a crying baby. It would seem that the content could be much easier to perceive & influence (not to mention enjoyment) if they developed a stronger formal relationship with the reader.

I have been enjoying the cut-and-paste identity of Ad Busters. But I have been wondering whether it is fake--i.e., a Quark Xpress simulation of cut-and-paste, hi-lighter pen, etc. If it's fake, it makes Ad Busters just like the rest of us.
Ellen Lupton

Adbusters is supposed to represent the voice of a new constituency — one with a new world view, one that challenges our branded world. In its graphic coolness, however, it is not representing anyone.

In recent issues, Adbusters seldom offers content that truly challenges our assumptions or expectations. It just looks blurry and burnt and layered — approaches that are not especially challenging in today's cultural landscape.

In Adbusters, random letters are treated equally with thoughtful critiques; visual essays flow together into indistinguishable mush; and images of opposition (generally on fire, or at a MacDonalds, or basking in the ironic light of a television) are treated reverently — and uncritically.

Adbusters, which has always wanted to engage in serious rhetoric, has buried any possible dialogue in graphical density and ossification. It has become visually righteous.

The way out is not through graphic design or more stereotypical imagery. Adbusters should take all its visual energy and replace it with writing that matters. In a single image-free issue we would see whether they have anything to say. Until Adbusters figures out what it wants to say, design and visualization should follow.

[In America, if you want a magazine with serious anti-branding, anti-consumerism, anti-war content, read Harper's. That it is strident is a fair critique. But at least it's engaging and thoughtful. Today, Adbusters is not thoughful, it's just visual.]
William Drenttel

I am a relatively new contributor to Adbusters and would like to echo much of Rick's original post. I have found recent issues of Adbusters to almost defy interest. In Issue #50 (The Winners and Losers Issue) the forward/backward conceit was so carelessly executed that it took me three tries to find my own submission. The young designers that I had covered - who were genuinely looking forward to seeing their work reviewed in Adbusters - left the newsstand confused and suspicious.

Needless to say I am disappointed to hear Adbusters referred to as "not thoughtful" after contributing a 2000 word essay to Adbusters #49 which I put a lot of thought into (you can read it in austerely designed form here: http://www.typotheque.com/articles/rant_reviewed.html). I believe that the magazine is still capable of producing monuments like the Design Anarchy Issue. An image-free issue could be such a monument and Adbusters is probably the only design-related magazine with the spirit and the independence to actually do it.

Dmitri Siegel

I stopped buying Adbusters three or four issues ago (after following it religiously for about four years), and I don't miss it. The problem, though, is not design. It's editorial meltdown. The magazine looks and reads apoplectic. On a personal level, I've seen it happen with several of my leftist friends; the Bush administration has angered them so much they can't put together a rational political thought. This is not to say (Dmitri) that Adbusters does not publish thoughful articles anymore, it's just that it's impossible to find them within the angry editorial noise.

Kalle has been doing Adbusters (successfully, I should add) for many years. I think it's time for him to step back, take a deep breath, and decide upon a coherent editorial direction. Maybe an image-free issue would give him the opportunity to do just that.
Jose Nieto

It's interesting that Bill mentioned Harper's as a model anti-war, anti-branding publication. It was designed by the late, great Sam Antupit, whose modest, self-effacing work was the polar opposite of Adbuster's slash-and-burn aesthetic. (Bio at http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm?ContentID=475).

Critic Joseph Giovaninni, in his (now oddly forgotten) essay "A Zero Degree of Graphics" (in the catalog to the Walker's Graphic Design in America show), made a new, passionate case for Beatrice Warde's "Crystal Goblet" school of typography and specifically used Antupit and Harper's as an example of what he was advocating. Interesting that two publications with such similar ends deploy such radically different means.
Michael Bierut

Yes, Giovannini's essay bears revisiting. Strange that it's never been anthologised. Probably it was the right message at the wrong time (1989).

Adbusters seems to have fallen into the early to mid-1990s trap of thinking that anything that isn't jumping around and rebelling on the page against all those life-denying, designer-thwarting editorial conventions must automatically be dull and off-putting to "readers".

Harper's authority and persuasiveness comes from the quality of its editing and writing. Its justified confidence that this is sufficient is reflected in its restained design. A certain kind of reader positively welcomes the way such magazines resist the general tendency towards overdesign in publishing. This isn't to say that there's no place for the visual in a literate publication. The Guardian, in special sections such as its Saturday Review, does an exceptional job of reconciling the articles and reviews with the visual expectations of the general reader.

Adbusters seems to want to have it both ways and the results are contradictory. The text typography is restrained, even readerly. It's like approaching aggressive-looking punks on the street corner only to find they have charming manners.

But still the problem remains. If the prevailing view among young people really is that text is intrinsically boring, how do you get them to read? In the 1990s, Dan Rolleri and Martin Venezky tried to achieve a new kind of writing/design balance with Speak, but the magazine failed. It didn't appeal sufficiently either to non-reading design enthusiasts, who bought it for the layouts, or to motivated readers.
Rick Poynor

I'm curious. I know everyone seems to act as if it's so, but is there any actual evidence that young people really believe, as Rick says, that "text is intrinsically boring?" The case is as old as McLuhan, but if so the situation's been deteriorating for so long that by now everyone, young and old, should find text boring.

My assumption is that the design of Adbusters is motivated more by an attempt to associate radical politics with radical layout strategies as opposed to any ideas about how text should be treated to make it more appealing to young readers. Either way, I agree it doesn't seem to work.
Michael Bierut

Michael, re: the boredom of reading.

In the early 1990s, this notion became a loud chorus. I suppose it had its origins in personal observation (and when reading-averse designers said it, a certain amount of wishful thinking). There was so much more, by way of diversion, that today's kids could be doing. TV had always been a distraction, but now computer games were taking up the lion's share of their leisure time. On the one hand, went the new received wisdom, attention spans were getting shorter. On the other, the human brain, showing remarkable mutational powers, had developed the ability to process more inputs simultaneously than yesterday's mono-tasking dimwits. You could see this designer-centric notion parrotted everywhere, including the dear old New York Times. I never heard about any empirical research that demonstrated it might be true, so I'll repeat a call I made once before (in Print magazine). If anyone out there knows of any academic research relating to these issues of reading and brain capacity, please let us know.

Time was when it was certainly hip, cool -- call it what you like -- to read, to know the key books, to value this inspiring legacy of analysis and introspection, the sense literature above all could convey that we are beings with richly complex interior lives, and to understand how these ideas had shaped our culture. In truth, though, this kind of dedicated, serious reading was always a minority pursuit. I sense that the minority is now substantially smaller. We have the paradox in Britain of constantly rising examination performance -- is it the same in the US? -- while the old indicators of (bookish) braininess seem to be in decline among the young. A book-world insider told me recently that it's women over 50 buying all those new novels with the beautifully designed covers, not, alas, da kids.

One of my favourite questions for designers: do you read fiction? The answers are sometimes surprising.
Rick Poynor

Some evidence against the "kids don't read anymore" position: the self-conscious literary ambitions (and popular success) of Dave Eggers and the McSweeney's crowd here the states, not to mention Schott's Miscellany and Lynne Truss ("Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation") in the UK.
Michael Bierut

I somehow doubt it's Amy Studt fans buying Lynne Truss's surprise Christmas bestseller. It's people of a certain age, who care where the apostrophe goes, deplore falling standards and couldn't send a text message if their lives depended on it.

However, in Britain we do have Zembla magazine, now two issues old, designed by Vince Frost - "The New International Literary Magazine", as it bills itself. W. G. Sebald meets High Design.

Two literary swallows don't make a summer, though.
Rick Poynor

One takes comfort where one can find it, I suppose. (Sigh).
Michael Bierut

In the movie "Ghostworld" there is an exchange.
"This is so bad it's good."
"No, This is so bad it goes past good and back to bad."
Steve Reeder

No question this magazine has issues. (pardon the pun "issues" as in hidden agenda)

There is no doubt in my mind that some of the subject matter needs to be written and discussed but the presentation is far too "cool" to be taken seriously and is a distraction to the reader.

As an old surfer I stopped subscribing to my favorite Surfer Mags when the art on the pages became more important than the content of the subject. If Adbusters wants to be taken as a serous contributor to the life on this planet it needs to present the content from both sides in a balanced way and leave the "kiddie" graphics for comic books.
Barry X-Reader

I just stumbled upon your page from a search engine, and have absolutely no involvement with either design nor "observing" design. Frankly, I think many of these entry-writers have lost the forest for the trees. While Adbusters issues are a bit ambiguous in the processes of their overarching goals to educate, critique, 'un-cool' etc...I can personally testify that the images and design invoke a challenge, a motivation for getting through each issue. The images, whether "flowing" or not, make one stop and contemplate. I dare say you all sound a bit elitist in your musings re: the design of Adbusters. Perhaps I'm merely too young, too concentrated on the image, as some have suggested, but being brought up in a multi-mediascape, the images and design do for me what I suppose Mr. Lasn et al intended - think. wonder. dream. learn. consider. fear. I find each written piece, along with every visual image, to be an individual outlook on the world at large, and in the utopia of free information, everybody's perspective counts. I say bollocks! to proper design and the last twenty years of publication strategy...and here here! to Kalle and crew.
Joshua Goldstein

Here here!

... Sorry got carried away with the bollocks! to proper design.

Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's Adbusters

Adbusters current visual appearance moves it from Barnes & Noble's Greenwich Village newsstands into a Seattle cafe with zines like Tatooed Dog Digest or Vegan Angst laying around. In fact, that's how I was first introduced to the magazine, not on the newsstands next to Harper's or The Atlantic, but in a slummy cafe. It's peculiar to see Adbusters' evolution since 1999, and their current position on the Barnes & Noble shelves. Is the Time for Being Against over or is it merely docked in the mainstream?

While today's look is convoluted and messy, there's a method to Adbusters' editorial and graphic design madness. It's all very calculated, in an attempt to appear uncalculated. SubPop records did this in the late 80s and throughout the 90s. Their packaging had a faux finish, implying a raw appearance and attitude with any word but boring used to describe the CD packages. It's not that text is boring and Adbusters needs to mix things up. This messy look seems to be what they think will get the audiences' attention. What's Adbusters readership anyhow? It never struck me as right brained or intellectual.

If anything, Adbusters would not use Ward as a guiding principle for their graphic design. Serious text looks boring; angry text looks agitated. What every happened to form follows function? And what about form follows emotion?

P.S. Steve Reeder, that's a wonderful quote for this thread and one of the best in that film.

I agree that the problem is as much editorial as anything else. I think Adbusters has shifted too much towards turning into an anti-bush, anti-war political polemic than actually dealing with issues that deal with corporations, advertising, media culture etc., in a more clear neutral tone. Nothing wrong with doing 1 issue on Fox news and media propaganda but I wouldn't become repetitive. More in depth articles and research that cannot be found in an other mag would be better suited.

The design seems to be reflecting this by appearing less and less like a calm rational magazine, and more like the whole mag - with it's rough photocopies, scrawl, scribble, and graffiti aesthetic - is the collected ramblings of some deranged college undergraduate.

To criticise the media and the 'system' the magazine nreds to do this as an "insider", to wrap itself in the trappings of that exact same visual culture and hence filter into it. Perhaps they designers aren't reading the articles themselves, but they have fallen into the trap of appearing as an obvious "alt" culture magazine, which degrades the seriousness of the issues raised. Michael Moore succeeds exactly because he used the same book cover and promo methods used by bestsellers, atkins diet books and "get rich quick" books - and he dresses and talks like an average joe not just because he is but because he knows this is how to get the messsage to more people.

Adbusters should seriously concider the rationale behind its art direction and be far more intelligent in what it is communicating.


To add insult to visual injury, now they're anti-semitic too:
Too sad - I fear Lasn's visually heavy, simple ways have extended to editorial, except that now he's moving beyond creating ugly things to creating dangerous, ugly things. I'm cancelling today.

Michael Schnell

Almost a year ago, I suggested that Adbusters should do a text-only issue: "Adbusters should take all its visual energy and replace it with writing that matters. In a single image-free issue we would see whether they have anything to say."

Issue No. 57 arrived today, and while it's not image-free, it is a fairly straightforward presentation of texts on "The Big Ideas 2005." You can read Fritjof Capra, Norman Mailer, Bill McKibben, Ted Turner and Design Observer's own Rick Poynor, among others. If you want a sense of what they are thinking over at Adbusters, this is the issue to get.
William Drenttel

I enjoy adbusters chaos. Its a break from the standard GRID, HEADLINE, BODY COPY, IMAGE. I think that adbusters works because it is so chaotic. I come from a generation that has only seen adbusters in its current form, and i think that has a lot to do with my opinion. But as a design student, who constantly works towards what you were describing, its fun to read something to chaotic and unorganized yet still looks "cool."

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