Justin Zhuang | Essays

Monocle Magazine: A Singular View of the City

A monocle is a single eyeglass kept in position by the muscles around the eye. The same can be said of monoclemonocle Magazine, a publication fixated on how cities should all be built in style and for conspicuous consumption.

Since launching in 2007, this publication by journalist-turned-media entrepreneur Tyler Brûlé has become a celebrated design bible for urban planners and the elite. Before Monocle, creating an attractive city worth living in never seemed so simple and stylish.

From its format down to design and content, Monocle smooths over the complex subject of urbanism in a smart and attractive-looking publication. It’s Brûlé’s vision of a cross between the The Economist and GQ, a perfect status accessory for the modern executive — best displayed when one is dressed in tailored suits and leather shoes.

Monocle calls itself “a briefing on global affairs, business, culture & design”, but each issue reads more like Brûlé’s personal travel blog (he is known to travel more than 250 days in a year). It is printed on uncoated stock — all 300 pages of it, including booklet inserts and advertisements. A glossy spirit of optimism pervades a magazine stuffed with informative blurbs, clever lists, one-page profiles, as well as question-and-answer interviews. Whether it is a survey on the world’s most livable cities, an interview with a politician or a shopkeeper, or an advertorial on Samsung’s latest phone, there is little difference. Everyone and everything on Monocle is geared toward creating a better city. Nothing seems problematic, not even the fact that almost everything Monocle features as good examples of city living are unaffordable to the rest of the 99%.

Despite its marketing stance, Monocle tries to look like it is delivering on its promise of “quality journalism” through design and art direction. Its commissioned photography borrows the visual language of objectivity, while its illustrations project a sense of simplicity. Documentary style photos of places run alongside straight-up style portraits of business owners, shops and products, creating the veneer of honesty over promotion. Many of the magazine’s illustrations of urban life display a charming LEGO-like simplicity, rendered in a uncomplicated style with elemental forms reminiscent of Isotypes. Like this international picture language, Monocle’s illustrations flatten the differences (and minimize diversity) within and across cities, falling back on outmoded national costumes and stereotypes to fit a trans-national universe which the magazine hopes to build. From page to page, the images and short texts are packed into a three-column grid creating a sense of sameness regardless of who, what or where, a design conceit that encourages reader to skim rather than read seriously.

More revealing still is the choice of a typeface: Plantin. Monocle creative director Richard Spencer Powell hoped to nod to, in his words, "old journalistic values”: this early 20th-century typeface also conveys instant tradition, reinforcing perhaps why Brûlé had picked the archaic object of the monocle as its name in the first place. Despite establishing such origins, Monocle is uninterested in practicing journalism the old school way. The profession’s cardinal rule of separating editorial from advertising is discarded because, in Brûlé's view, “all good journalists are good salespeople, too”. Monocle’s editors often accompany ad directors to sales calls. It shows. This magazine’s advertorials are difficult to distinguish from editorial content. The only indication is a “(Brand name) X MONOCLE” tag at the bottom of the page, an ambiguous line that could also read as a kind of tacit Monocle endorsement.

But this magazine has no qualms about mixing the two. It is good business for Brûlé, who is also chairman of the branding and design agency, Winkreative. Monocle is a great advertising platform for the agency, as editorial subjects such as the government of Thailand have become clients too. In Monocle, Brûlé has created a marketing darling that has been recognized by Advertising Age, awarding him “Editor of the Year” in 2011. (Adweek named Monocle best brand for "living the good life” in 2012.)

This commercial success is undoubtedly Monocle’s great achievement in a print media industry puzzling over how to survive in the digital age. Indeed, in many ways it is a model for peer publications. But it comes at a cost: sacrificing quality journalism that helps us understand cities as citizens and not just as consumers. Unfortunately, these are ideals which most of us can ill afford to adopt.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, Media

Comments [3]

These criticisms of Monocle and Tyler Brûlé seem petty and reaching. (Really? Indicting a 3-column grid and Plantin?) Admittedly I'm an unabashed admirer of the Monocle/Winkreative enterprise, and I don't see the fault in the cheerful way that they point to cities that work well. And while I agree with the reviewer that in general the topic of citizenship deserves greater emphasis than does consumerism, I think that Monocle marries the two adeptly, with its wide-ranging focus on diplomats and government figures and its studious avoidance of celebrity. In the end, if the putative "quality journalism" about cities has actually been sacrificed in the media, I don't think that Monocle is to blame.

I must agree with the previous comments. In spite of the obvious revenue generating aspects of the magazine, I still see value in the world views expressed that include people making their way creatively and that include new ideas about how to make countries, cities, products and services work better. There is a bit of "tribal" vibe that I find kind of appealing about the publication... and I can't afford to buy the watches or the clothing and to travel to all the places I can visit through the pages of Monocle.

Hey Justin/

I think your critique of Monocle can be much more focused. I was an early adopter of the magazine, have been featured and have spent time with some of the editorial staff.

The comments you make are indeed what a lot of people say about the mag: new rich product guide, fluffy, so on and so forth.

However I think your article could have been much better if you just focused on Monocle's insular view of city/urban planning.

Your visual critique is rather weak.

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