The Age of 'Reason'

Wired founder Louis Rossetto has been fascinated with Reason for over 30 years. Recently, he played a role in the magazine's redesign. The following interview was conducted via e-mail, with Rossetto responding from his home in Amsterdam.

Voice: What do you remember about the original Reason, when it was founded in 1968?

Louis Rossetto: I caught up with Reason a year or two after its launch. I only saw the first issue at the time of the re-design, in [Reason editor in chief Nick Gillespie]'s collection. Unlike that first issue of Reason, which was exceedingly plain, essentially a typewritten mimeograph broadsheet, the first issues I saw, probably in 1969 or 1970 while I was an undergraduate at Columbia and helping to publish a magazine called The Abolitionist, were amazingly well-designed and edited.

Who edited it, what kinds of content and writing style were found in it, and how did it look?

Reason was edited and designed by Lanny Friedlander, a young college dropout from Boston, who was entirely self-taught in magazine production. It carried great rants against the drug laws and the war, way out think pieces about how you could privatize the highways, and some thoroughly enjoyable attacks on liberals and conservatives.

Was there anything in particular that attracted you to it?

It looked like nothing else out there, certainly not the New Republics, or Ramparts, or Nations, or National Reviews, etc. Lanny was a fan of Massimo Vignelli, so Reason had a perfect Swiss grid, very clean and pure, lots of white space, ragged right, Helvetica type, conceptual illustrations. I liked that, and the fact that it was anti-establishment without being part of the new establishment—the New Left—and without being either crank left or kook right. And it had this bright, shiny optimism and unshakable faith in the triumph of good ideas. Now that I look back, in many ways it inspired me to get involved in making magazines.

Are you a libertarian?

I think I may have been a libertarian in college. I was also a Republican in college. And I was an anarchist too. Today I like to think I've recovered from all that. Wilhelm Reich said, essentially, that politics is an emotional plague passed on from generation to generation by people who, instead of working to heal themselves, act out their pathologies by trying to "reform" others. I've come to believe that if you want to make a better world, do it yourself, directly.

What do you think of the redesign of Reason, and of Nick Gillespie's impact on the magazine overall?

The redesign makes all the other think rags out there look like beginners. Nick inherited a well-established book with a 25-year history, and he took it to its next level—by creating a politics and economics magazine that has culture cred. The re-design caps off Nick's effort to broaden Reason's influence.

Gillespie talks about how Reason has assimilated the Wired culture; could you elaborate on that?

There's a revolution going on—The Big Boom—initially driven by digital but now a broad range of technologies. This revolution is reshaping our world. It even has its own counter-revolution: the bin Ladins are our Ned Ludds, at war with the future.

Someone needs to talk about this revolution, and how we, as individuals, can use the new tools and ideas to help build a new polity and new civilization for this new era. Wired used to do it; but after Jane and my departure, it completely stopped. The Nation, New Republic, National Review, Harper's, Atlantic, Weekly Standard, et al basically don't get it, hate the modern, prefer to re-fight the class war or the Cold War—in short, are pathetically out of touch with the reality of life in the global-information society.

Reason, on the other hand, has completely embraced this revolution. It knows that technology has catapulted us into an era where the economic argument has been settled—free markets won—and the political argument has been eclipsed by the ongoing collapse of conventional wisdom, and the need to build a new civilization.

Democracy isn't about billion dollar political campaigns, it's about how we relate to each other as human beings in our families, schools, workplaces, communities. This is where change happens. And that means a think magazine can no longer be about only politics and ideology, but about society, markets, and culture—in other words, where real change is occurring. That's exactly the sweet spot Reason has evolved into.

What role did you play in the redesign?

As a reader, I felt that the single biggest thing holding Reason back was its design. It just didn't look as exciting, modern, or smart as the ideas it was discussing. When Nick (who I knew as a contributor to Wired's Suck website) became editor, I piped up and offered to help him round up the talent if he was interested.

Nick agreed, so I put him in touch with Erik Spiekermann and his partner Susanna Dulkynis. Erik is a buddy from pre-Wired days when I was editing a small magazine called Electric Word in Amsterdam, and he was busy in Berlin creating one of Europe's largest and best design companies, as well as inventing the typeface Meta, which has become our era's Helvetica, that is to say, the most popular sans serif face in the world. I knew Susanna from back when we had hired her to be the design director at HardWired, Wired's book division, and then went on to become a senior designer at the magazine.

Nick caught Erik as he was just coming off The Economist redesign, where he had spent over a year thinking about magazines and how best to present challenging ideas and strong opinions. Susanna was also free, just having finished a stint as head of New Media at Goodby Silverstein. We all met in Jane and my offices in Berkeley, and Erik, Susanna, and Nick really hit it off.

My "role" in the re-design? Nominal. I threw in my two cents every so often when I was asked, put Nick's publisher in touch with the print broker who really helped us at the start of Wired, and I ran off some of the early color page proofs on our color printer. Otherwise, it's been Nick, Erik, and Susanna's great collaboration.

Anything else that comes to mind?

Irony 1: Back at the beginning, Lanny Friedlander used Helvetica throughout the book for the hed and body text. He used Helvetica because it's the ultimate rational typeface, perfect for a magazine called Reason. By Reason's 25th anniversary, there was not a single word set in Helvetica in the issue. The re-designed Reason uses Erik's ultra-rational Meta, in both its hed and body faces. Reason returns to its roots.

Irony 2: Lanny Friedlander's Reason used bleeding-edge technology, and so does Nick's. The bleeding-edge technology in magazine production in the late 1960s was IBM's Compositor. It was a glorified Selectric typewriter that could generate columns of text, including Helvetica. It enabled one-man bands like Lanny to make credible magazines for no money. Nick's bleeding edge is that Reason is an entirely virtual magazine, created entirely in cyberspace over the Net. It has no editorial office; instead, its editor-in-chief is in Ohio, its layout artist is in Phoenix, its photo editor is in L.A.—and it was re-designed in Berlin and San Francisco.


Return to Cynthia Cotts's Press Clips column.

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