Jeffrey Goldberg: Against Labels – The Atlantic

Dear reader,

Sometimes I write to you about the sorry state of our democracy, other times about the setbacks of the pandemic. This month, I am writing to you on a matter that is of absolutely no importance to the future of the republic. My subject is tear-off mailing labels for magazines.

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Please stay with me here. First, look at the cover of your magazine. In the lower right corner you will find a shipping label. (Obviously, this message is for our subscribers to the print version. If you are not already subscribed, I know a solution to this problem.) Until recently, your mailing address was printed directly on the cover of the magazine, inside a large white box. Many of us found this aesthetically irritating, as the large white box sat on part of our cover, obscuring both its beauty and its message. We put a lot of time and energy into making our blankets, and I think they are exquisite. They certainly should not be degraded by the needs of the United States Postal Service.

So I hung up. The grip isn’t decent, but it’s one of the most effective tools available to editors. Late last year, my grumbling paid off and we moved to an easy-to-peel glue-on mailing label. It was an important victory for the cause of beauty, but a victory only partially realized, because not all of you have yet discovered that these tags are indeed removable. I know this because even some of my own friends wouldn’t remove these labels. (Several times I have done this for them, but our readers are too geographically dispersed for me to take on this task alone.)

Why do I care so much? Because Atlantic has reached new heights of artistic sophistication in recent years, and I want to share that sophistication with the world. Yes, I know, the baker shouldn’t praise his own bread, but it’s not my bread at all. Our appearance – in print, on your laptop, on your phone – is the work of an extraordinary team of designers, artists and photography editors, a group I credit with making this magazine old 165 years as fresh, to borrow from Emerson, as a rainbow in July.

Over the generations, AtlanticEnthusiasm for the aesthetic has had its ups and downs. It was, and still is, a magazine of words, and some past editors felt that words were enough. This approach was sometimes motivated by a specific sort of Yankee self-sacrifice, sometimes by a sense of superiority over the now defunct New York picture magazines. To be fair, many periods in AtlanticThe history of has been marked by careful and elegant design, and many years ago when I asked the design team of Peter Mendelsund and Oliver Munday to reinvent Atlantic‘s aesthetic, they looked straight to the past. Peter puts it this way: “We went back to first principles, which means we turned to the magazine’s design source code, issue 1, November 1857. What we found was a visual system that reflected our editorial philosophy, a philosophy built in part on rigor, clarity, frankness and the principles of the Enlightenment. What this meant for our brand was a return to more classic typography and grids, and a ruthless cleanup of unnecessary visual elements that had accumulated over the past 162 years.

Our printed covers, which even in the age of the Internet remain the face of Atlantic-were special attention for Peter, Oliver and the crew. I asked them to make our covers clean and elegant, and to design them in a way that made the words inside impossible to ignore.

This month’s cover, with stunning photography by Luise Stauss and Christine Walsh, is one of my favorites, in part only because of our insightful and savvy owl. It’s also a favorite because it features stories from two of our most gifted writers, Ed Yong and Jennifer Senior. It’s a coincidence of timing that Ed, who won a Pulitzer Prize last yearr for her work explaining the coronavirus pandemic, and Jen, who won a Pulitzer Prize in May for its cover story about a family traumatized by the September 11 attacks, appear together on the cover. This coincidence allows me to brag about their accomplishments and note that it was the work of creative writers and thinkers like Ed and Jen, Peter and Oliver, Luise and Christine, that helped Atlantic win the 2022 National Magazine Award for Overall Excellence, the American Society of Magazine Editors’ highest honor.

Self-denial, as I have suggested before, is rooted in Atlantic‘s, and so I apologize for the singing, but these awards, combined with the complicated and sophisticated stories that our team produces daily, as well as our exceptionally successful design aesthetic, make this an exciting time to be at. Atlantic.

Nothing is as exciting, of course, as peeling off a mailing label. So what are you waiting for?


This article appears in the July/August 2022 print edition.

About Julius Southworth

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