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by Josh Allen



Saying that Raygun is style over substance is like saying getting stabbed in the neck with nail scissors can cause physical discomfort. It's a truth that's self-evident. Still: The effects that the magazine had on mannered society can't be ignored.

Raygun, in its earlier days, was the playground for the horrifically influential designer David Carson. If you don't know his name, you surely know his work, since he pretty much single-handedly popularized the grunge look that has infected just about every facet of 90s design. I'm talking about distressed typefaces, blurred images, fragmented text, faded colors, cut-up collages, and most of all a vehement opposition to legibility (his book of collected works is called "The End of Print"). Carson has since left Raygun and gone on to develop (relatively) new styles and ideas, but it was this gritty, flawed look that hit home with your everyday joe and was, for a while, utterly inescapable.

If you wanted to speak a Gen-Xer's language (and who doesn't, really, since they're such fascinating consumers), you had to put it in a messy typewriter font or they'd scoff at your sleazy corporate sheen (or so went the marketing department's "thought" "process"). This went hand in hand with what was big musically at the time. Dirty guitars, rough edges, hollow cries against corporate infringement, etc. Q.E.D. we saw a popularization of zine esthetics. Just as indie bands were swallowed up by the majors, big-name designers were given obscene amounts of money to use expensive computer equipment to recreate the look of a stapled pamphlet about the Jesus Lizard made by two stoned teenagers at Kinko's at three in the morning. It's like the crew for South Park (and let me go off-topic for a second here and stifle a yawn) working diligently to simulate the look of lo-fi construction paper cutouts.

Now that we're easing into the scrotumtightening sea of the Age of Electronica and/or Retro, there's a new esthetic at work. Everything's been cleaned up to digital perfection, imbedded with bright colors and sharp logos, so now we're walking the line between rave flyers and t-shirt iron-ons, circa 1978. The sound on the radio is processed, manipulated, shiny, needlepoint-precise, and the current design reflects that (and oh what will be next? Gothic lettering and steel-studded, airbrushed photos when the inevitable return of glam metal socks us in the solar plexus with all the intensity and violence of a Montgomery Burns left hook? Please God, make it so).

Raygun, however, is still wallowing in grunge, still holding fast to their revolutionary look. I'm not complaining; I'm certainly not suggesting they change with the times or anything, I'm just saying they're being revolutionary in an oddly consistent manner, even after their style has been co-opted by everyone from Nike to the Design Posse.

The advertisements within the magazine (and there are plenty) provide a nice summary of the transition from grunge to electronica and how the powers-that-be are still trying to sort it all out. Pepsi ("GeneratioNext" - kudos to the razor-keen temp that came up with that one) is clinging to the old-school grunge look with crooked strips of photographic negatives and the omnipresent Handymark (you know that old plastic thingie with a little wheel that you turned to choose a letter and then you pulled the trigger to impress that letter onto a piece of adhesive tape so you could personalize your three-ring binder or Pee-Chee or whatever? you know?) providing the lettering. But then turn the page and you get Miller Lite's ad (the latest evolution of the "By Dick" campaign) which encapsulates the combination of 70s retro and digital graphics.

The best contrast, however, can be found a little deeper in the magazine where on the left-hand side there's a little article about the amazing Robert Pollard (another brief digression: at this point, feel free to stop reading this idle chatter and go buy some of his records) and on the right is an ad for the film Out of Sight. The Pollard article is pretty much default Raygun: black and white, the text scattered all over the place, the header at the bottom and written in a blurry, smeared sans serif, the body of the article in fragmented chunks and printed in just about the smallest size typeface you can have without causing the words to degenerate entirely into Morse code, the photograph flawed and scratched, a huge amount of white space. Stark, austere, scattered. Then the movie advertisement: Bright, primary colors, clean lines defining the Leno-jawed Clooney and the callipygous Lopez. The title is written in an almost 1920s Art Deco typeface and uses the old-fashioned convention of single quotes around the words. This, friends, like it or not, is what's "hot" (what's past is prologue, etc.), and Raygun doesn't seem to like it one bit.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I'm a sucker for the grunge design aesthetic. I can now stand up amongst my brothers and sisters at the VA hospital and admit that I did, indeed, at one point, use a distressed typewriter font on my website. I like the texture that Raygun has, the sense (however false) that this is actual printing, like real lead and wood on paper, like a page that was created with scissors and glue sticks. It has more character than the pristine, cold graphics that are often spit out of computers. I even like that sometimes you can't read parts of the articles because the design gets in the way, or that you lose track of where you are because the paragraphs are split up so haphazardly. Raygun is all about an aggressive design, a design that makes itself known at every single moment, that interferes with communication rather than enhancing it ... basically breaking all of the rules of what traditional design should do.

The problem, though, is twofold. First, Raygun simply doesn't have the content these days to make this type of design worthwhile. The style and subject matter of their articles is really no different from what you'd find in Rolling Stone or Spin, and since there is rarely a direct correlation between the design and the content, the experimental look is again and again revealed for what it is: a distraction. A bell and a whistle. Sure it's pretty, but what can it do for me? Why shouldn't I just save up my money and buy a big, fancy, coffee-table design book? Second, this type of design no longer has quite the same impact it did a year or two ago. It's become very familiar and while still appealing it doesn't have the same power to shock. I feel like Raygun is spinning its wheels, just doing variations on old themes that they mastered a long time ago. So if their articles aren't anything special and their look, while gorgeous and miles ahead of just about every other major magazine out there, is losing its freshness and punch, where does that leave us? It leaves me a tad empty, and feeling that we're at the end of a major cycle of design. Computers and the internet have allowed for some alarming and beautiful changes in the world of commercial design, but now even the innovators are running out of steam and we need to ask, as we're asking of every art form these days: Is there anything new under the sun?

Who will deliver the next mindblower and what will it look like?



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