PRINT’s Next Chapter

Posted inDesign News

My editor gave me explicit permission—and, for that matter, encouragement!—to write the following three words in this article: PRINT is dead.

And we publish these words not to pointlessly provoke (or invoke, be it David Carson or anyone else), but rather to explain and expound.

So allow us to do just that.

When PRINT launched in June 1940 (!), its first issue was a technical powerhouse from the foremost minds of the graphic arts. It featured a deeply researched (though admittedly not deeply readable) treatise by William Addison Dwiggins, a feature on “Illustrated Books of the Sixties”—(being the 1860s), and even a history of wallpaper, complete with, quite literally, samples of wallpaper. The cover of the magazine, meanwhile, has long been a bit of an enigma. Designed by Howard Trafton, teacher of such students as Saul Bass, it depicts a small inset figure with a flower for a head and a massive, all-encompassing set of fingerprints belonging to master typographer Bruce Rogers. There’s not a single word anywhere (not even “PRINT”). In other words, the type of cover that wouldn’t escape a modern publisher today without a barroom (newsroom?) brawl or serious acts of design subterfuge.

The First Issue of Print Magazine

I’m lucky enough to own the first four issues of the magazine (a box set available for $5 in the early ’40s), and as I hold them in my hands, I’m overcome with how they’re remarkable objects of production and history. And when it comes to history, PRINT obviously has a long one. For years, Steven Heller wrote a column in PRINT titled “Evolution,” where he traced the history of myriad aspects of design. So let’s turn the lens ever more inward. 

As time went on, PRINT remained a stalwart, if staid, industry publication. But in 1962, a playwright named Martin Fox arrived at the magazine’s doors—and PRINT, as we know it today, began to take form. As Fox told Debbie Millman in 2015 on the occasion of the brand’s 75th anniversary,

I didn’t know the first thing about graphic art when I came to PRINT.

After four solid decades at the helm (and National Magazine Awards feathering his cap), Fox retired and handed the reins to editors who took the best of his direction as they moved the publication in their own.

And then, in 2019, something remarkable happened: PRINT died. 

The company that owned it (and dozens upon dozens of other magazines and brands) declared bankruptcy, and PRINT suddenly disappeared into the publishing ether from which it came.

And then, later that year, something even more remarkable happened: Debbie Millman of Design Matters (who had served as PRINT’s editorial director), Steven Heller (who had been writing for PRINT for decades), Andrew Gibbs and Jessica Deseo (of the premier packaging brand, Dieline) and Laura Des Enfants and Deb Aldrich (who had served as PRINT’s advertising directors) banded together and formed an independent enterprise to save PRINT from its demise and former besuited overlords. 

When they joined forces, rather than simply refill the gas tank and resume the status quo, the team asked: What is PRINT? 

And perhaps the better question: Why? 

As I hold these four vintage issues in my hands, I marvel at them. 

They are indeed critical documents in the history of graphic design.

But as much as I’m loath to admit, they’re just that: history. 

The world has changed since 1940 (and thank god for it). And so too has PRINT. And so too must PRINT as it moves forward. 

So: What is PRINT?

PRINT has never simply been about print design, just as Wallpaper has never simply been about wallpaper. (And I’d argue that we were the original Wallpaper, given our scoop in 1940. But I digress.) PRINT, once focused solely on domestic U.S. design, now scans all corridors of the globe. Even on a cosmetic scale, PRINT, long shackled to comically bad corporate web design, has stepped into the present. And the site’s editorial gaze is fixed firmly on the future. As PRINT managing editor Bill McCool told me, the goal is all about wrapping our minds around what design means in the 21st century and beyond, tipping a hat to the legacy of the past while firmly embracing the necessity of the new.

Moreover, it’s the people comprising PRINT that make each iteration of the brand its own.

It’s Steven Heller’s incisive eye and boundless output. It’s Debbie Millman’s inquisitive warmth and perpetual curiosity, diving deeply into all things design and beyond. It’s Andrew Gibbs and Jessica Deseo’s passion for the industry, design chops, and web-savvy. It’s McCool’s humor and curatorial voice and Chloe Gordon’s eye-boggling collections of eye candy.

When PRINT’s former owners declared bankruptcy, I tried to rationalize that everything was fine. As I had over the years when piled-up production deadlines would bring on their accompanying panic attacks or a server would go down or a writer would be weeks late on a rewrite of a story due months ago, I tried to tell myself the following cliche that anyone who is not curing cancer tries to tell themselves: Hey, we’re not curing cancer over here! Ultimately, this doesn’t matter.

But I was kidding myself.

It did matter. It does matter. Art matters. Writing matters. Creativity matters. As Millman has noted well throughout hundreds of episodes of her podcast, Design Matters.

Yes, PRINT is dead. But it’s also more alive than ever.