Magazines, Notebook, Photography, Typography

Digging through the women’s magazine graveyard

Notebook: 23 February 2018 | MAGAZINES | TYPOGRAPHY | PHOTOGRAPHY

I’ve been reading Paul Gorman’s ‘The Story of The Face: The Magazine That Changed Culture‘ which was published late last year by Thames and Hudson. The Face (1980-2004) was the brainchild of Nick Logan who later went on to launch the men’s magazine Arena (1986-2009) but I’d forgotten that it was Logan’s company Wagadon that had also published a bold and eye-catching but short-lived women’s magazine called Frank (1997-1999). I still have copies of Frank sitting on my magazine shelves side-by-side with two other women’s magazines from around that same period: Bare and Nova (The Second Coming). They were all edgy, unconventional and good-lookers but sadly none of them lasted for more than a couple of years or so in their crowded marketplace. Here’s what I liked about their designs and why I’ve hung on to copies of these magazines for over 15 years.

Frank (1997-1999). Published by Wagadon

Frank was launched in October 1997 as a ‘provocative, challenging, intelligent and witty’ women’s magazine and it carried a lively mix of features aimed at a ’25-35-year-old stylish urban woman’. I remember the cover of the first issue very well with its striking photo of a startled model with an apple on her head. Like all good covers, the ingredients were simple: captivating picture, engaging headlines, snappy and contemporary masthead, well crafted typography and a minimal colour palette of red dress and red headlines contrasting with green apple and masthead. And its size helped set it apart from other magazines: they’d trimmed 10mm or so off the top which gave it a slightly squarer format and it felt good to handle. The December 1997 cover was equally gutsy with a fluorescent orange headline declaring it ‘The Lingerie Issue’ alongside a picture of a model in wooly thermal underwear. This confident style and left-field attitude continued inside with for instance: articles on New Labour and ‘Lads’ and a fashion story featuring a heavily pregnant model.

The choice of fonts for the magazine was a curious mix of the stylish sans Avenir, Helvetica Rounded and a feminine and flamboyant serif which I think is called Kumlien – but they all seemed to work well together. The Art Director was Jason Shulman (who had previously worked at Harpers and Queen and The Sunday Telegraph magazine) but he only lasted three or four issues and his early departure heralded a less than successful redesign which may have been prompted by the magazine’s sales figures being much lower than what the management had hoped for. In an effort to turn sales around, Wagadon’s owner Nick Logan decided to make Frank more mainstream but as soon as it lost its edginess, it lost its sense of direction – it was design and editing by committee – never a good combination. The magazine hobbled on until its closure in autumn 1999. Those early issues had promised so much but a lack of investment from its owners and the loss of its sense of direction coincided with a downturn in Wagadon’s fortunes with both Arena and The Face, and the plug was pulled.

The deputy editor of Frank was Lisa Markwell who went on to edit The Independent on Sunday and she gives a very good account of the birth and short life of Frank in this fascinating article for The Independent in 1999.

Bare (2000-2001). Published by John Brown

In 1992 I took up the position of Art Director with Summerhouse Publishing, a fledgling contract magazine publisher (with Saab and Renault magazines under its belt) based in Norfolk. Helen Gilburt and myself moved from London to a house with a large overgrown Victorian walled garden which we set about redeveloping in our spare time. My visual gardening bible and inspiration was a stylish and glossy new magazine called Gardens Illustrated which was full of beautiful photography – a bit like World of Interiors mag but for those who enjoyed gardens. It was published by John Brown (the founder of John Brown Publishing, now John Brown Media) and the Art Director was Brown’s wife Claudia Zeff. Seven years later in autumn 2000 John Brown launched Bare, a similarly stylish title with Zeff as Creative Director and a young New Zealander, Kirsten Willey as Art Director (Interestingly, the John Brown Group Creative Director at the time was Jeremy Leslie – now owner of MagCulture). Bare was a health and well-being magazine for those women who had ‘traded in the chardonnay and Marlboro Lights for grapefruit and yoga‘. Whereas Gardens Illustrated was all luscious pictures and classic serif based typography, Bare was luscious pictures and pared back sans-serif typography – lots of Helvetica Light and cool oceans of white space. It was a bi-monthly and edited by Ilse Crawford who had been the launch editor of Elle Decoration. I have three of just six issues that were ever published. I don’t think I ever read any of the articles but instead I wallowed in the minimal design and enjoyed looking at the pictures.



In 2001 John Brown decided to sell off his consumer titles and focus instead on the more fruitful contract publishing side of his business. Gardens Illustrated was bought by BBC magazines (who made it more mainstream and consequently it lost some of its style. It is still going strong and now owned by Immediate Media who also publish Radio Times) but I believe that John Brown failed to find a buyer for Bare – which had proved to be just too cool and niche, and with sales at a low, the magazine was closed with the last issue appearing in August 2001. (John Brown’s eclectic cluster of other consumer titles – Viz, Fortean Times and Bizarre were sold to James Brown, the former editor of lad’s mag Loaded).

Nova (The Second Coming, 2000-2001). Published by IPC

In March 1965, as Britain emerged from the dark days of winter (marked by the death and funeral of Winston Churchill in the January), the first issue of an outspoken and visually brilliant women’s magazine Nova was published. It was to capture the optimism and energy of the swinging sixties and it became compulsive reading for many women (and men) who were ‘not only interested in fashion but also politically, socially and sexually aware‘  – and for the next ten years it shone out for the quality of its writing, design and imagery. Its art directors included Harry Peccinotti, Derek Birdsall and of course David Hillman who later went on to design Le Matin de Paris and The Guardian newspapers.



Powerful words, design and photography in the original Nova magazine from the 60s and 70s

Sadly the 1970s recession and poor sales forced IPC, Nova’s owners, to cease publication in 1975. However, 25 years later in June 2000 a new Nova – a mk II or Second Coming – was born and it was positioned to be as bold and as edgy as the original. The design reflected some of the ingredients of the mk I version with the chunky, tightly set, all caps, 60s typeface Compacta Black being used for headlines on the more outspoken features. And the handrawn masthead¹ hinted at the original ‘blobby’ masthead typeface which had been set in Windsor Extra Bold Condensed. Din Light was mixed in to add style and remind readers that Nova mk II might have picked up on the best of the original but it had its feet firmly set in the new millennium. Pictures were captivating with a good dose of black and white gutsy reportage mixed in with fashion shots with attitude and lots of cutting-edge illustration. The design was by Gerard Saint and Big-Active who had already made their mark with fashion magazine Scene, the design² of which was almost a precursor of what was to come at Nova.

Nova Mk II: born 2000, died 2001



With just three or four issues published and sales lower than expected, Gerard Saint and editor Deborah Bee (who like Saint, had come from Scene) came to blows with the IPC bosses and they were both replaced, with the IPC management declaring that the magazine had been ‘too edgy’… Nova struggled on but failed to carve its niche in the marketplace – whereas its predecessor had found rich, fertile ground in the 1960s, by the year 2000, the women’s magazine sector was saturated with titles, and Nova Mk II folded in mid 2001. Some commentators felt that IPC didn’t give it long enough to make its mark and that it should have been even edgier and more groundbreaking like the original (the covers never had the attention grabbing, questioning ideas-based headline and imagery of their predecessors), while others said that Nova should never have relaunched and that society had moved on. Maybe IPC should have learnt from Frank’s failure just six months earlier…

If you want to read more about Nova Mk II’s short life, take a look at Gerard Saint’s own account (reproduced below) or click on ‘Brand Failures‘ or Lisa Markwell’s (see Frank above) old article from the Independent. And for more on Gerard Saint and Big-Active, here is a 2010 article from Eye magazine.

Now all we have left are the bones of Nova, Frank and Bare to pick over (scattered amongst the dusty and faded remains of many, many other magazines that have come and gone across the years). But these three edgy women’s mags still look good today and they will remain on my shelves for inspiration and as a reminder of times gone by and of the creative energies of their makers.

¹ The new Nova logo was hand drawn by Gerard Saint and has more recently been ‘adapted’ by fashion brand Very and by Huck magazine.

²Big-Active’s Scene magazine made use of the font Clearface set with super tight letter spacing that echoed the typography of the late 60s and early 1970s.

Big-Active’s Gerard Saint talks about the Nova (Mk II)/IPC mismatch

“I think the major factor that contributed to things not working out for the new Nova was that IPC were simply not the right publisher. They had acquired the rights to the title and were looking for reason to relaunch – they were obviously aware of what we (Big-Active) were trying to do with Scene hence them approaching Deborah and myself. And for our part, at the time we’d felt we’d taken Scene as far as we could – we’d achieved a level of respect and credibility – but we wanted the opportunity to play to a bigger audience.

In hindsight, I think sadly Nova was a contender for being the right magazine brand for the time – but a victim of being wedded to the wrong publisher. IPC did of course have clout and were very successful with a very wide range of titles, but in truth they had no experience of working with a fashion title with higher aspirations. And in this respect we (and they) were worlds apart. For us it was going to be all about being creative and directional – courting the international fashion brands as this is where we’d hoped the solid advertising revenue would have been expected to come from. However the most successful female title they had at the time was Marie Claire (which of course they were doing really well with) – but it was only part of the audience we had hoped to reach. They knew how to sell Marie Claire, but they just didn’t fully understand the culture we hoped to set up around Nova.

After a very supportive start in the development stages it became clear to us after launching that IPC assumed the two titles could sit side by side for them – using the same advertising sales and promo teams. Unfortunately these people didn’t really get what we were trying to aspire to. As a consequence there were a great many things that we did that really put their noses out of joint – as they felt the fashion presentation was uncomfortable for many of their clients i.e shooting a fashion story in a nudist camp with real nudists as models for instance… that, and the lack of girlie features. It all was just a step too far for IPC. They simply hoped to sell space to the same clients and advertisers as Marie Claire. This goes a long way to explaining why they eventually tried to dumb down the creativity under Jeremy Langmead (no disrespect to him) (ed’s note: Langmead was the replacement editor for Deborah Bee). Maybe it would have been different with a more supportive publisher – who was a better fit in terms of vision and fashion credentials – but in any case the plug was pulled before the title had time to develop to it’s full potential.

Despite all of this, in many ways we were confident that we were on to the right thing. It’s not any secret that our competition was initially rattled. Condé Nast actively tried to ‘dissuade’ creative agencies from allowing their photographers and fashion people to work for us and threats along the lines of – if you work for Nova we might have to re-think booking you for Vogue assignments were not unusual at the time. This encouraged Debs and I as we’d put in a great deal of effort into courting a very loyal team right from the start – Venetia Scott and Jurgen Teller to name but a couple – and it was these creative people that Deborah and I didn’t want to compromise. When the knives came out we all knew it was time to walk. There was no other choice.

I’m glad to have played part in the escapade but the world keeps turning and I’d say that despite everything the title still has it’s credibility intact. The original of course was a true trail blazer – we just hoped at the time that we could do it justice in a different era. Sadly the second coming of Nova was never given the opportunity to fully flower and deliver its full potential.”

Gerard Saint, March 2018