Not Just Like a Rolling Stone, it is Rolling Stone!

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Register today for the free course “5 Skills Every Design Needs to Know.”

The Art of Rolling Stone,” an all-day event on May 25, 2018, at the Visual Arts Theatre, New York, brings together the people who created a design legacy, from Rolling Stone’s first art director to its current one—plus photo editors and photographers who’ve immortalized a whole culture.

The speakers—Rolling Stone veteran designers, art directors, photo editors and more—will take stock of the magazine’s visual record as it embarks on its next 50 years—and a new partnership with Penske Media Corporation. I spoke to its organizer, a former RS art director, Roger Black, to discuss the historical significance of this half-century old anti-institution institution.

Tickets are available here.

Could you have imagined that RS would last this long?The surprising thing to me is how many magazines have not lasted. I got to Rolling Stone in its eighth year and we already imagined it was a permanent institution.

What is this “reunion”/introduction to RS consist of? Who will be on hand?The “Art of Rolling Stone” started with SPD’s idea, “The Love of New York,” where almost all the art directors from its 50 years of the magazine got on a stage and talked about what they’d done. We contacted the art directors. We got five of them, including the first, John Williams, who was moonlighting from Ramparts, and the current, Joe Hutchinson. Then I started thinking, when people talk about the visual history of Rolling Stone, they mention Annie Leibovitz and Ralph Steadman. So let’s get the photo editors in, and the assistant art directors, who of course did most of the work.

There is only one female art director in 50 years, Mary Shanahan, and she couldn’t make it. But all the great photo editors are women, and they’re all coming: Karen Mullarkey (who was there in my era), Laurie Kratochvil, and Jodi Peckman (who is there now).

In all we’ll have 16 alumni on the stage, another half dozen phoning in, plus two moderators: Terry McDonell, former managing editor, and Debbie Millman, the only non-alumnus.

What do you think the most significant shifts have been in RS design and typography?One of the best things about working over a period of time, is that you can see the trends. The founding style was counter-intuitive. Instead of the collage layouts of the underground press, Rolling Stone started with what looked like it might be the entertainment section of The Times of London. The design since has played with that idea. In waves it’s been pushed away (by the two Brits, Derek Ungless and Andy Cowles), and then revived (by Fred Woodward and Joe Hutchinson). It doesn’t take much of a prophet to say that the next step will be to clear the decks. I mean, there’s a new owner. But the underlying visual brand will keep coming back—the combination of images of pop culture reports with typography of political journalism.

For a while—a long while—RS was on top of the mountain, first alternative R&R and then popular rock. When did its hegemony falter, with Spin? Ray Gun? What?There was never a significant rival to Rolling Stone. What’s happened is that the culture changed. The soul of the magazine is rock and roll; the brain is radical politics. These two cultural elements have morphed out of recognition. There’s a meme that rock-and-roll-is-dead, but it’s not. The culture has atomized, and there is no central musical movement. But go to Austin and tell me that rock is dead. Or to Nashville. (What’s pop country, if not rock?) Similarly, there is no movement anymore. There is the #resistance. (And how’s that going?) Politics is atomized, too.

Where do you feel RS fits into the history of design, and does it have any more to leave to history?The type is a key contribution. The traditional hot metal style in the beginning, the 70s eclecticism of Mike Salisbury and Tony Lane. The new typeface that I brought in with Jim Parkinson. Not a post-war first—that credit goes to Herb Lubalin and Avant Garde. Now it seems like every publication, and every brand is its own font. And I’d say Rolling Stone brought back the drop initial, big time, no bigger than in the hands of Fred Woodward.

The other is photojournalism. Before Annie, there was Baron Wolman, who is coming to the conference. The magazine doesn’t just shoot portraits, it assigns photo stories to great photographers.

Go back and look at magazines in 1967, and you can how much has changed. I give Rolling Stone some of the credit for the page design conventions in print and online that we take for granted.

As for the future. People still like the idea of a magazine, a storehouse of varied content, an anthology with pictures. For example: “Vice News” on HBO, which of course is a contemporary take on “60 Minutes.” These two shows are “on the air” because there is a business model to sustain them. Of course, TV is morphing as quickly as anything else.

So maybe it’s up to Jay Penske. There are plenty of people around who would like a great visual magazine with a mix of popular culture and politics. There are young writers, photographers, editors and designers who can put one together, beautifully.

The new owner just has to figure out who will pay for it.

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About Steven HellerSteven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →