…but a Monocle’s supposed to treat myopia

So we’ve reached the end of 2007, and with it the end of my experiment with Tyler Brûlé’s Monocle.

Unlike every other design-minded blogger I know, I’ve avoided weighing in on Monocle until I felt like I at least had a reasonable sense of what the magazine was, and what it aspired to become. With all nine extant issues of the magazine now sitting stacked up in our living room, furnishing me with a fair basis for critical consideration, it’s time to report my findings.

I am sad to say that, in large part, my final verdict comes back in the negative, and not by a little. Since, as a charter subscriber and a longtime admirer of Tyler’s audacity both, I’ve been pulling for the magazine’s success from the beginning, it may be worth looking into just why this state of affairs should come to pass; I’m therefore going to go into some detail in examining my disappointment. (Full disclosure: in the months between its announcement and launch, I pitched Monocle on a story idea, and never heard back from anyone over there. I don’t believe that colors any of what follows.)

If you prefer the thumbnail version, at core all of my issues with Monocle boil down to this iron fact: at £75 annually, I simply don’t feel that my subscription delivers sufficient value for me to want to renew it. But there’s more to it than that, a great deal more.

Why have I come to feel this, about something seemingly so unerringly crafted to suit my own personal predilections, tastes and desires?

- First and foremost: the magazine just never felt essential to me. That is what Tyler promised and that, above all, is what I wanted it to be, or at least contain: a crisp, concise, deeply clued-in briefing on the state of global play, like something a younger, hipper Economist might put together for the front of the book.

I understand that the pace of change being what it is, timeliness is going to be an inherently difficult thing to pull off as a monthly. But currency can be measured in many ways, and one of them is indubitably providing the sort of canny strategic insight necessary to contextualize and properly understand the daily onrush of events in business, politics and culture. This is what I was looking for, not bemused dispatches on the lives of Danish fishermen (issue 07, October) and vintners in the remote Chinese west (04, June).

Not all weak signals are portents of things to come. In the context of Monocle‘s value proposition, the desire to report on the under- or entirely unheralded is only as laudable as the degree to which the subjects of these reports eventually signify. Otherwise it’s arbitrary, nothing but whimsy and window-dressing.

- Tyler’s persistent and intrusive Nippophilia has always been a bit much – especially, perhaps, for those of us with some actual long-term experience of living as foreigners in Japan. It was always part and parcel of wallpaper*, but in Monocle he really gave it its head; my own personal tipping point may have been that one paean too many to Tokyo governor, notorious immigrant-basher and avowed “fascist” Ishihara Shintaro, whose recent conversion to green enthusiasms reminds me that there’s nothing at all incompatible between environmentalism and authoritarianism.

There are plenty of things to admire about Japan, but calling things Japanese out for higher praise than you would grant the directly-equivalent Western item isn’t appreciation, it’s fetishism.

Case in point is the magazine’s elevation of Porter luggage to iconic status. Believe me, I know my bags, and I’m sorry, but Porters just aren’t all that. As an owner of two or three, acquired during my years in Tokyo (and at Tokyo prices), I can tell you that they’re unexceptional items made with the mayfly Japanese fashion cycle in mind, not the long haul; treating them like they’re simultaneously blessed with the looks of a Valextra and the durability of a Filson is just silly.

What goes for Porter bags is true of so many of the magazine’s other Japanese enthusiasms. Would Monocle heap nearly so much praise on a Ohioan Tadao Ando, or an Angeleno Tokyo Midtown? In your heart, you already know the answer to that question…and that’s just exactly the problem.

- As the unwonted praise heaped on world-class bad actors like Ishihara indicates, Monocle consistently lacks anything resembling a critical voice. At times it plays at being serious, raising ethical questions about, e.g., Chinese stem-cell research (issue 08, November), only to accept an interviewee’s dicier assertions without follow-up, comment or raised eyebrow. At others, it simply fails to engage the obvious ethical dimensions of what it chooses to report on (the newly-resurgent Japanese military, issue 01, March; Abu Dhabi’s biennial IDEX arms fair, issue 02, April; the Christian retail industry, issue 06, September; an Israeli antimissile system, issue the latest).

The magazine’s relentless focus on high-end consumption as a literal way of life is, of course, itself a major ethical stumbling point, and clearly one whose implications are not engaged in any way other than the superficial acknowledgment of “sustainability” as something to be aspired to in urban design. Your mileage may of course vary, but this strikes me as not particularly cutting it.

- Monocle blurs, like no Western magazine I’ve ever seen, the boundary between advertising and editorial. Advertiser products and services are frequently mentioned in features, reviews and articles, without any indication that there is a business relationship involved. In almost every issue, cross-branded advertorial is delivered in the house design vocabulary, typeface, and copy voice.

Color me naïve, but I find this among the magazine’s most distasteful qualities. (Perhaps it’s another Nippocentric innovation Tyler admires; it’s certainly nothing new to books like Casa Brutus, and marginal callouts like “PANASONIC X MONOCLE” even ape the Japanese convention.) Risibly, the product placement even extends to the (awful) manga, where it stands out like an orangutan with an erection might at, say, an office Christmas party.

- More subtly: over the course of its first year, at least, Monocle evinced a persistent tendency to turn to surprisingly hackneyed “usual suspects” when looking for insight from SMEs. I had hoped that a magazine predicated on its ability to deliver a certain novelty of insight would in turn acknowledge a generational turn in the wellsprings of expertise. Not to name any names, but this hasn’t been the case. Color this one more a missed opportunity than anything else.

- Most seriously, Monocle suffers from serious confusion in the way it positions itself. The book comes across as cloying, precious, and auto-parodizing, not at all, as one recent reviewer would have it, “ultra-stylish and ultra-global.” This is in part for its comically disproportionate attention to things Japanese, in part for its willful hipster-doofus obscurity, and in very large part, because I find thick lashings of name-brand luxury the sure mark of a pathetic arriviste, and not anything to be aspired to.

Let’s strip this down to the basics of social performativity so crucial to both perception and business reality, and you can think of me what you will: on finally receiving my very first, highly anticipated copy of Monocle, I held it proudly cover-outward and for all to see as I walked down the street. I, too, wanted to participate in its fantasy/value proposition of discernment, global reach and access. (OK, I’m sad that way.) But here’s the thing: I no longer wish to do so.

In a mere ten months and ten issues, Tyler Brûlé has, without question, succeeded in one of the most daunting tasks faced by contemporary enterprise, that of establishing a resonant brand ex nihilo. The trouble is that the brand he brought into being says all the wrong things about me and what I value.

I think that about sums it up, on the major counts. Throw in the fact that the ostensible added value provided to subscribers by the magazine’s Web site just doesn’t seem to exist – I’ve visited monocle.com exactly three times in the last twelve months, all apologies to m’learned and admired colleague Dan Hill, who, by all accounts, has tried to do something genuinely novel in his stewardship of Monocle‘s online presence – and there’s little to justify plunking down that £75 or equivalent.

Tyler’s to be applauded on quite a few, nontrivial counts: for trying something distinctive, personal and new in the first place; for paying painstakingly close attention to type, paper weight and texture; for pumping new life into one of my favorite words in the English language, “bespoke”; for commissioning pieces that, whatever their ultimate value, undeniably do not tread the usual path; and above all for believing, as I do, that in any consideration of the material, hard-to-quantify things like provenance finally do tell. (Of course, I would believe these things: wallpaper* was a big part of my education in the first place.)

These are all wonderful qualities, but they’re not quite enough to build a business on entire. I’d argue that if I’ve come to feel as I do – as one of a mere 5,000 charter subscribers, and doubly as someone who must to a fairly close approximation reside center-mass of the Monocle audience in terms of taste, vocation, air miles, etc. – then something’s wrong. In this, that piece in BusinessWeek strikes me as getting it just about right: the magazine “is either prescient, or steering sharply toward an audience that doesn’t exist.”

That’s almost on point, anyway. It is, of course, unquestionable that my one data point is insignificant in terms either of Monocle‘s business plan, or Tyler’s ambitions for the book. But whether its audience can be said to exist in the absolute or not, it is now smaller by one. Monocle is so far from what it could have been, and my world, anyway, is the lesser for that.

41 responses to “…but a Monocle’s supposed to treat myopia”

  1. Geoff Edwards says :

    This is very nearly my assessment of Monocle, although I’m not a subscriber. Earlier this year I asked my girlfriend for a subscription for Christmas, having purchased many of the past issues on the newsstand. About a month ago I told her not to bother; I’d decided that while the look, feel, and even smell of the magazine seemed to address me on a direct and very personal level, the content did not. I so wish it did.

  2. Christopher Fahey says :

    That’s a long-winded way of saying, I think, what I feel: Monocle is boring. Not one of the stories interested me in the slightest bit. Occasionally the subject of the story would be appealing, but even in those rare cases the writing itself was tiresome reportage or recitations of nformation from a World Almanac or the CIA World Factbook. ZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzz……

    I like the look of it, and I like the “feel”. If the whole magazine was written in Lorem ipsum dolor, it would be precisely as valuable to me as it is in English. If it contained any verbiage of any interest to me whatsoever, it would be outstanding.

  3. Abe Burmeister says :

    it’s a pretty spot on assessment, but it begs the question what replaces it? I find it more over-obsessed with Scandinavia than Japan, (and with perhaps slight anti-NY bias as well) but perhaps my Nippocentric radar is less tuned than yours… But in the end whatever the failings it still captures a space that no one else really treads. I learn something relevant every issue, and the bite size pieces work perfectly for short trips and to be honest bathroom reading.

    As for subscribing, I never quite understood why Brule’s titles always have subscription rates that are higher than their newstand prices. I guess it shouldn’t matter much, but it’s always grated upon me, than again I subscribe to 0 magazines at the moment.

  4. Gen Kanai says :

    I bought the first magazine they published. The price might be targeted appropriately, but it’s too rich for me.

    I’ll ask any of the people on this post/thread: what _paper_ magazines do _you_ subscribe to? I don’t subscribe to any. My alma mater sends me one, but I don’t pay for it.

  5. Michal Migurski says :

    All this, and you didn’t even *mention* the copy of “Rolex Mentor & Protege” they packed in with our most recent issue, a source of great amusement at our holiday party last week.

  6. AG says :

    ROFLMAO.

    Gen: for 2008, it’s down to the Economist and the New Yorker.

  7. Michal Migurski says :

    Adam, isn’t it always down to those two?

  8. gilest says :

    You’re spot on with this post, Adam. I’d tried a few issues during the year, but found Monocle’s emphasis on consumption and needless travel overpowering.

    I’d re-sub to The Economist, if only I could find the time to read it each week. Shame they don’t produce a monthly best-of, something like the Guardian Weekly. That’d sell well.

  9. Ben says :

    Monocle only works when you realise the entire thing is satire.

    But still, to add to the Economist and the New Yorker, Try Harpers and the Virginia Quarterly Review. Yummy, both of them.

  10. molly says :

    Thumbs up on your thumbs down review. I wanted to like it. We picked up a couple of copies. But the whole thing was rather like the time we spent living in Denmark: things out of our reach as PhD students, items around us that we knew we liked and didn’t need them to tell us (e.g., Swedish bicycles). I preferred the attitude of Wallpaper in its early days in comparison to this. It quickly became not-at-all-relevant to me.

    In terms of paper, these days, we subscribe (off and on) to Log and Grey Room. We want to be subscribed to Cabinet. We’re thinking about the New German Critique since their media theory coverage is top-notch and it’s good for visual studies. (And I read food porn, of course, but that’s a different caliber altogether.)

    I read food magazines.

  11. nick sweeney says :

    I’ve already written up my main problem with Monocle, which is… well, its monocularity, its absence of depth perception. Mr Hammersley‘s right: the only way to read it is as a satire of decadence.

    That said, I keep buying the damn things — usually when B&N gives me 25% discount on top of my member’s 10%. perhaps because I think they’ll be, like Kozmo bags, a memento of a particular species of bollocks.

  12. Steph says :

    I agree with…everyone, pretty much. Also, am I the only person who found article layout and order irritating? I spent ninety minutes reading the Dec ’07/Jan ’08 Monocle this afternoon (before coming home and seeing this post) and, overwhelmingly, was struck by how much it bored me. I could list any number of reasons for this, but I don’t think I need to bother. It gads about (both conceptually and textually, physically) but instead of appealing to me (which such an approach should, and ordinarily would) I just find it a little staid (Munich? Really, Tyler? I know Zürich is too obvious these days, but it seems obvious to me that Munich is simply a convenient stand-in, and wouldn’t appeal to anyone in their right mind)
    I won’t be bothering with it for the moment (or the Economist, for that matter) even at zero cost.

  13. AG says :

    And barely a one of us could resist some cheap pun on the magazine’s title, either.

    Why did I not realize prior to this that the erudite Monocle-bash constitutes a minor subgenre in and of itself? (Was it all the flying I’ve been doing this year?)

    And why do I suspect that even if the ten most incisive instances of this subgenre were set in crisp letterpress Bembo on gorgeously creamy archival stock, handsewn into the octavo size so perfect for the front flap of a Bottega Veneta carryon, then presented to Tyler himself by a liveried Addison Lee courier, not one word of it would deflect his or Monocle‘s direction by so much as a single millimeter? So much dudgeon, so little point…

  14. Jamie says :

    Paper subscriptions here: _BookForum_ and _Rain Taxi_.

    Consider seconded the praise for New German Critique and Virginia Quarterly Review, which increasingly has become impossible not to pick up, under current editor Ted Genoways.

    Some city residents might contend that, ideally, one would subscribe to home delivery of almost no paper publications but nevertheless browse through or read many, hunted for & gathered in the streets, through recourse to actual, physical newsagents, kiosks, newsstands or bookstores — if such establishments exist in one’s ecosystem (the single copy sales industry for decades now seems to have been in a constant state of panic, crisis, consolidation and supposedly imminent death).

    Thus, currently I do not formally subscribe to, but may as well (because I buy almost every issue, as single copies): Harpers, N+1, Social Research, The Forward, Wax Poetics, Fifth Estate, The NY Review of Books, Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, Believer, Mute, Monthly Review, & a number of others.

    I list these merely to suggest: 1) that I’m a printhead and magazine junkie, and 2) given that, how truly astonishing it may be that I have never bought at a newsstand or read a copy of _Monocle_. Why have I not? I think it’s because my eye slides right past it on the newsstand wall, almost every time. I’ve previously assumed the publication to be some kind of intended combination of one of the Economist’s special/double “The World in [Year ___]” issues, Wired (post-Conde Nast purchase) and Cigar Aficionado. So, I’ve dismissed it as much too far down my list of items I have time to (pretend to) read. All your commentary here implies that I may not have been that far off. I’ve learned more about _Monocle_ in this thread than I ever before knew.

  15. Gabe says :

    I’m glad you decided to voice your thoughts on what is wrong with this publication. Personally, I also found Monocle’s Achille’s heel to be a glaring contradiction in its content: trying to blur the line between advertising and editorial content all the while claiming to be aimed at an audience that would easily see through this method. The results were just too obnoxious to ignore.

  16. Abe Burmeister says :

    wow, so much hate…

  17. Dan Hill says :

    Luckily, my recent experience of being a parent has given me an entirely new capacity for humility, patience, perspective and almost maturity … or I’d be embarking on a point-by-point evisceration of your opinions, which would be all too easy. But I can’t be bothered with tiresome ‘flame wars’, as I believe we used to call them, in some corner of some foreign comments field. Better to contribute something positive elsewhere.

    But leaving aside whether I take this personally and leaving aside the question of whether I heavily affect the editorial direction of Monocle or not, I can’t leave even this handful of comments sitting here festering, can I? Actually, I could easily let it go, as I know there’s nothing more annoying to a certain kind of person than being ignored, and secondly, I’m experienced enough to know that this will probably only fan the flames.

    But I’m tempted to try to rise above being annoying-through-ignoring, and to at least engage here, nonetheless. So the main point I’d want to add to the discussion is really simple:

    ‘Your mileage may vary’, and looks like it has. Fair enough. But that quite different from whether Monocle is successful or not. From what you’ve said, I’d suggest that perhaps you’re not the ‘target Monocle consumer’ that you’d like to think you are – could be that simple. We see it here in several comments too: “Surely this magazine is made for me, me, me”? Surely not.

    It might also seem churlish to pick apart a product that’s not even one year old – indeed it could exemplify an all all too prevalent short-termism. But more importantly, Monocle is a new entrant that has stood for some of the following values, amongst others, most of which are missing elsewhere:

    * a global view in the face of an increasingly parochial media market;
    * a commitment to craft, attention-to-detail and quality (incl. in journalism);
    * a sense of directly placing a value on expertise and experience;
    * a concomitant investment in journalists and bureaux when even the BBC World Service is closing them worldwide, never mind others;
    * a celebration of urbanism (accepting that there are different shades of that, and Monocle’s isn’t fully mine, but still …);
    * an aversion to the celebrity obsession endemic elsewhere;
    * a sense of progressive optimism;
    * the importance of provenance and the small entrepreneur (though not at the expense of interesting larger businesses);
    * its total independence – as opposed to ownership by some mammoth media organisation;
    * it’s not a niche product yet it doesn’t dumb down or irresponsibly provide a platform for others to dumb down from;
    etc. etc. and so on.

    So it’s slightly more complex than “consumption and travel”, particularly if you compare that to the values of some other new and existing players (and Senor Speedbird might also have a fair amount to say about “consumption and travel” too, no?)

    Moreover, it’s a start-up business that is making money, from a real, live product on the market that people seem to want – subs and newsstand sales are going just fine – in stark contrast to the majority of guff emanating from hype-fuelled ‘media 2.0′ world, or from an academic sector largely untroubled by the reality of praxis. It’s a real thing; a product got to market, quickly but not at the expense of being well made, and in fairly challenging waters in which to launch something. It would be nice to think that the smart crowd that occasionally gathers here might look at the values listed above and find that a worthwhile, fresh entrant to a tired market, even if it’s not for them. The ability to step outside of whether it’s personally interesting, and see it in a wider context – that’s what I’d ask from people apparently immersed in discussions as to the fabric of media, as well as the content. And I’m not denying the value of personal feelings – just that you’re surely aware of their limits, and that they may not tell you everything about the wider success of a business.

    But just to touch on the area of my direct interest – the website – its innovation, not that I’d really call it that, is in creating broadcast-style journalism of high-quality, in new media. Simple as that. We haven’t tried – nor had the budget, as a start-up – to create a ‘new model for journalism’, create an entirely new modes for web design, or fanny around with unnecessary 2.0 fripperies. Besides, been there, done that elsewhere, a hundred times! But in the contemporary broadcast media market – the UK and US above all – where celebrity-obsession and parochialism are rife and where filing a low-quality report by cameraphone rather than sending a crew is somehow considered innovative (it’s not – it’s a cost-cutting measure), Monocle’s films – as that’s what the online presence is, at heart – look like a fresh voice. They’re well shot, well produced, well encoded, well articulated. This week we hit #1 in the iTunes ‘News & Politics’ podcast chart (UK). The competitors in the other 24 positions in that chart come from only 6 other providers – BBC, Economist, Guardian, Sky, ITN and Reuters. The average age of those organs is around, oh, 100 years old. We’ve been going 10 months. So to have produced a body of work covering everything from Tokyo Designer’s Week to the Tällberg Forum, via (I think fascinating) reportage from Murmansk, Abkhazia, Tajikistan and Slovenia, with an attention-to-detail perceptible from the idents up, a decent if classical bit of website design (compared to the usual horrors of magazine website design) and for it to have been appreciated by punters (as well as peers in Eye, Print etc.) well, that’s what the year’s work has been about.

    Again, you might not care about how carefully-shot the reports are – compared to the efforts of other mags – or find what you’re looking for there. But try to view Monocle from the perspective of the wider market and culture, rather that whether it appeals directly to the few people gathered here, and I’d hope you at least might not be so quick to judge. Or at least quit griping, get off your arses and make a genuine alternative instead.

    Right, I’m off to play with my 5-month old son, who will put everything into perspective. From a humid-to-the-point-of-sultry Queensland Christmas, have a good one, all.

    PS. The bags are superb.
    PPS. Just who is the Ohioan Tadao Ando? That would make a good t-shirt.

  18. AG says :

    All fair enough, Dan, particularly your point that I might not actually be the magazine’s target audience. I’m certainly beginning to feel the truth of that.

    We’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one, no? I can’t help how close to home this one hits for you, but it’s certainly not – never was – my intention to start any kind of a flame war.

    As to getting off whatever portion of my anatomy happens to be bearing my weight at this moment and “mak[ing] a genuine alternative,” all I can say is that, if I had access to Tyler’s resources, I well might. But you and I both know that I don’t, and won’t for the foreseeable future.

    My shot at a genuine alternative will have to remain in the permanent virtuality of the never-to-be-realized, so it’s admittedly pretty fatuous to talk of what such a thing might or might not look like. I can tell you this, though: if I got thoughtful feedback anything along the lines of what you’re getting here, I’d incorporate it into my plans at some level.

    I’m glad to hear that Monocle is doing well, but it’s never too late to aspire to serving a larger audience. Unless, of course, everyone who’s expressed their reservations here is simply immaterial to the magazine’s ambitions. I suppose that could well be the case.

    I hope you enjoy your Queensland Christmas, and the New Year to follow.

  19. peterme says :

    I’m surprised you lasted 9 issues. I couldn’t get past 2. My thoughts essentially echo the other commenters.

    I can’t say I’m surprised by Dan’s comment, but it kind of misses the point. Sure, the magazine might stand for those principles that many of us find laudable, but that doesn’t mean the magazine is any good.

    I simply couldn’t get over the self-indulgence of the whole affair. It also never felt necesary — apart from some of the novelty of the first couple of issues, I never seen links to Monocle content, the way I do to stuff written by the New Yorker, Economist, New York Times, etc

    But, yeh, it’s probably not for us. But if the magazine is not for design-savvy, world-traveling, 30-40 year olds making decent money, who is it for?

  20. Vidiot says :

    Monocle-fetishism has turned me off to the point that I never really want to pick up a copy…somewhat akin to all the tiresome Moleskine/fixie/etc. fetishists out there.

    (oh, and since you asked, just the New Yorker at the moment. Couldn’t get the Atlantic or Harper’s read on any kind of reasonable schedule, Wired is a joke, and I echo gilest’s call for an Economist Monthly. I’d subscribe in a heartbeat.)

    But the magazine I really really want to see produced is Ren Weschler’s Omnivore, which only exists in tantalizing prototype form at the moment.

  21. Jamie says :

    Perhaps perversely, I do believe that the cumulative effect of the comments here are making me more likely to pick up and read a copy of _Monocle_ someday. This may be even truer if, as I too suspect, I am at least a little outside boundaries of the publication’s intended audience. Cf. the reverse of Groucho Marx’s comment about how he’d “refuse to join any club that . . . ” Analogously, I now remember why I, for one, started religiously to read the _Economist_ and _Financial Times_ during the Thatcher and George Bush the First eras: precisely because I believed myself very much NOT to be a member of their intended audiences. I came for the sociopolitical voyeurism and stayed (for several years) for the global news coverage, economics lessons and cultural criticism.

  22. joe says :

    Dan Hill–defensive much? All the critiques here strike me as very thoughtfully considered–not flame bait at all. And spot on. Monocle is a boring, self-loving, deeply pretentious product.

  23. joe says :

    (although i do have to add that comments like “munich is a convenient stand-in for zurich,” and the list of publications that commenters subscribe too–usually accompanied with a wistful sigh: “but then, what else is there?”–constitute their own kind of self-parody. seriously, who the fuck are you people? i thought i was a snob. its ok to go lowbrow, you know!)

  24. AG says :

    “joe,” I have to tell you that, although there’s no explicit policy on comment etiquette here, you’re treading pretty close to the line (especially coupled to a fake handle and email address).

    You are, of course, entitled to your opinion, and what’s more I welcome you to express it here – so long as it’s framed civilly. Thanks for understanding.

  25. Alex Miller says :

    I agree with Joe. I dislike Monocole for all the same reasons I dislike your review of it, and the comments left by readers.

  26. Luke Dorny says :

    BATEMAN
    That’s bone. And the lettering is something called Silian Rail.

    Sadly, i found myself handling the books more than reading them. Love his grid, but his beef was stringy.

  27. Patrick Wang says :

    I’ve always held the notion that for a magazine to be successful, you had to be able to flip through it quickly or sit down and read every article. I was really expecting Monocle to be the latter – a real quality read on every page. But the high volume of little knick-knacks, sidebars, insets, mini-ads, and throwaway stories really pulled it away from becoming a serious reader. It started to feel like a bad mix of Wallpaper and an in-flight airline magazine. Focus and bring depth to the articles so that I’m finishing up the last one just before the new issue comes out.

    If the Monocle guys are paying attention, please take out all the random sections inter-dispersed in the magazine! At times, I almost felt like I was reading the printed and bound screenshots of a website with all the text and banner ads left on the pages. Keep it simple – follow the simplicity and minimalism of some of the products you advertise. I understand the magazine’s desire to integrate aspects of the print and online mediums but that doesn’t mean print needs to be laid out like a website.

    Oh, and please lord, get rid of those bar charts wrapped around a circle. I can’t say enough bad things about them.

  28. Dan Hill says :

    Ta for taking my criticism of the criticism in (mostly) good grace. That’s appreciated. As are all your comments in general. And don’t get me wrong – Monocle would always look to widen its audience, for obvious business reasons as well as the spreading of the values I listed (which were mine, by the way, not Tyler’s.) And to be honest Adam, of course you’d be part of the ‘target market’ (not that it’s ever been focus-grouped or anything) and I genuinely hope you can find something of interest in Monocle magazine or website sooner or later. Give it a chance, and see how it develops. I think I railed against the solipsistic assumption – for want of a better description – that ‘Monocle must be for me’ I saw developing throughout the comments. It doesn’t mean these folks are ‘immaterial to the magazine’s ambitions’ – I’d certainly never be that arrogant, having done this for a while at all scales – just that I think you have do develop and nurture a relationship with media, just as you do with anything else.

    As for the budget, which is always assumed to be vast and actually isn’t, the resources were built up on the back of 2-3 years worth of work getting funding. Even then, we’re hardly rolling in it, as you can probably tell by the output, particularly online. It’s one of the more ‘start-up’ start-ups I’ve worked at.

    Peter (hello!), I hear you but again, you’re comparing Monocle to media titles which are each over a century old, with vastly more resources, so let’s see how we go. The links are there, and incoming, though Monocle’s business model is also subscription driven more than theirs, which is essentially ad-driven (therefore all articles ‘open’ etc.) Swimming against the tide again, something we’re trying to do is place a value on content over and above advertising revenue – that it is worth something in its own right, and we believe people will value that. We’ll see. As to whether its “necessary”, well, we have all worked on projects which aren’t strictly necessary, haven’t we? I’d love to see the collective brains here apply their grey matter to something genuinely worth solving, say new ways of financing property development that genuinely help urbanism (architecture isn’t the problem) or computers to emerging markets (OLPC certainly isn’t the answer) or better battery life, or fewer power supplies, or whatever. I’m not including genuine problems like famine, cancer, war as you’re not qualified. As a media brand though, I think Monocle’s proved there is a niche there.

    it’s clear that several people haven’t seen it recently too. The circular bar charts are rarely there these days, Patrick (though I always rather like them and considered them briefly as a Flash feature! The Tufte on my shoulder talked me out it, as well as the fact I wanted to concentrate on making movies for the site.) The mag has developed across 9 issues (10 in a week or so) in terms of pacing, layout etc. And I can assure you that the magazine’s designers have rarely if ever considered web-style layout as a touchstone. Adam was closer the mark with Casa Brutus etc., but of course it also leans back further into the early 20th C, with the engraving etc.

    And Joe, of course I’m defensive, in the real sense of the word. As in, defending the position that Monocle has taken when criticised. That’s natural, I think. It’s an attempt to engage though, rather than not listen. I’m taking all of this in, personally (well almost all of it.) The criticism is useful, if well considered and backed-up, and I hope my ‘defence’ is too.

    I do like Jamie’s comment that it’s made him more likely to read it/view it though. Love this: “I came for the sociopolitical voyeurism and stayed (for several years) for the global news coverage, economics lessons and cultural criticism.” Genius.

    PS. The point of The Economist is that it is weekly. A monthly would be an entirely different publication, and switching gears like that is not easy cf. ‘Intelligent Life’.

  29. Jamie says :

    Tracking this discussion has been incredibly thought-provoking. Dan Hill’s thoughtful replies have been just about the best part of it.

    Thinking aloud here: The _Monocle_ discussion and Hill’s remarks got me thinking along lines that, maybe, connect up with a recent, interesting panel discussion at NYC’s Flux Factory with Julia Solis and others, regarding urban exploration. Perhaps, secret exploration, broadly understood, of the urban environment makes us pluralists. To put it roughly.

    I feel as if the studies, observations and explorations of the city that you, Adam, and many of your like-minded colleagues have done over the years have involved not only urban buildings, streets, railyway trestles, subway tunnels and shorelines, but ideas and thought processes.

    For example, one could argue that a newsstand is a critical urban resource because it enables one to anonymously to review and buy, in cash (no records kept), publications that cater to subcultures to which one is an outsider, about which knows nothing, be they cultural, political, economic, sexual, religious, intellectual, etc.

    Hence the feeling that, perhaps, you’ve probably had more than once, of walking away from a newsstand with a copy of, say, _The National Review_, because you’ve just GOT to read their cover story “expose” of Missing Foundation, or whatever (e.g., its 1987 “Scenes from the Squatting Life” issue), and feeling like you’d just purchased a porno mag. You hoped that none of your friends would catch you in the act.

    This is a kind of constant conceptual eavesdropping or ideological snooping (and education) that city density and diversity enables, even encourages. It’s hard to think about “urban exploration” or psychogeography without that side of it.

    I would bet that the secret explorers of NYC’s physical infrastructure or margins could have some very interesting things to say, e.g., about their increased knowledge of and empathy for the often faceless (to commuters) subterranean navvies, lightbulb changers, rat baiters & trash haulers at the bottom of the MTA pecking order, or about how smart you must have to be to be a skilled tugboat crewperson in the currents of NY harbor, etc. etc. It’s one thing, worthy in its own way, to be an artist who blows the minds of the workanight prole masses who ride on the D train, by staging a surrealist banquet on an abandoned platform just outside the subway car window. It’s another thing to blow one’s own mind, accidentally, with surprise or serendipity or the unscheduled, unforeseen disruption of one’s worldview, through real, direct, close exposure to the new, weird, freaky, disgusting or different.

    But it goes beyond art and aesthetics. One wonders about how the project of American democracy (pluralism, tolerance, citizenship), to the extent to which it’s ever been stumblingly, incompletely realized at all, has unwittingly assumed the existence of that kind of semi-accidential, anonymous pollination, dialectic and education across boundaries or faultlines — or has come to depend on an a version of it, with all its secretive curiosity, info-gathering/exchange and voyeurism, in the modernist, mass culture form or democracy that we’ve known for generations.

    I believe that you’ve thought about this already: What does it mean for democracy if information, computing, marketing, surveillance and control (over the many, by the few) have become so ubiquitous that most people can no longer secretly, nonapprovedly, “safely” and anonymously sneak a peek at, visit, sample and survey a variety of neighborhoods, streets, rooftops, sewers, newsstand publications, bookstore shelves, TV channels, radio programs, political rallies, church services, society ballrooms, illegal dance parties, boutiques, dark alleys, movie theaters, rock clubs, bathhouses, piers, philosophical lectures, websites, etc.?

    So, the _Monocle_ and Hill discussion reminded me of how accidentally formative in my own evolution has been the habit of delving into and trying half-consciously to make whatever sense I could of cultural, political, etc. stuff that befuddled, repelled, intimidated, scared, transfixed, disgusted or (at first glace, as with _Monocle_) just eluded me. More often than I’d like to admit, I probably came in for a closer look in order to mock or condemn silently. But I often then decided to hang around in order to learn, even if not necessarily to agree (though at times I found that I surprised myself by doing that too). Wide, open, anonymous access to mass media is a big part of what enabled me to do that. The city enabled me do that.

  30. saklasthelilboy says :

    Hi Adam,
    I’m interested to take a look at all the back issues from 1~8.
    Would you like to sell yours to me if they are still in good condition?
    tagarts at gmail dot com

  31. Globalist says :

    I have a love-hate relationship with Monocle.

    Having dropped ninety dollars for nine issues at my local newsstand over the past year, I’m both fascinated yet disillusioned by this globe-trotter journal aimed at people I’d like to be.

    I’m a jetsetter-wanna-be and I’m not alone. Surveying my fellow passengers at the Lufthansa Senators Lounge/Frankfurt, I’m curious how many of the harried, mobile-infused, Blackberry-zapping business types are even familiar with a magazine named Monocle. They would seem to be a target audience: global, professional, high-income and luxury-conscious. Yet, I’m not sure; I don’t see a Porter bag in sight! [My smart Filson attache is getting bag-envy looks though.]

    I decide to skip the survey in order to people-watch and sip on another glass of Voss while waiting for my flight to be called while digressing on what makes Monocle such an odd yet intriguing newsstand entity.

    The Love: When a new issue pops on the newsstand I’m – at least a few minutes – giddy. What fun! Something new to peruse and explore – lots of cool back-of-the-book features on travel, hotels, restaurants, etc. It’s a magazine that invites an outsider [me] to be an insider. Oh yes, I’ve been here, eaten there and I have a pair of those too. I’m included, I’m special – this is fun. Though I don’t quality for an HSBC Premier account, I’m sure that my continued patronage of Monocle will help me get there. Monocle’s passions are mine: Zurich? Check. Scandinavia? Check. Munich? Check. Tokyo? Uh, no.

    The Hate: I’d be embarrassed to share a copy with a friend or colleague. Why? They’d think I’m supercilious and frankly a bit ridiculous. It’s fun to read, but you’ve got to take it with a very big grain of salt. Frankly, I think the joke is on us. What is so unintentionally funny about Monocle is it takes itself way too seriously. No doubt there are some no-smile Jil Sander-suited pr types who believe this is the niche environment for discussion of their hotel, restaurant, event or product; and do take it at face value, but that’s got to be a fairly small crowd. Monocle’s problem is the concept overwhelms the editorial.

    Calling itself a ‘fresh focus on global affairs, business, culture, design and all you need in life” is a big a mission statement and one to I’m not sure can be done well by Monocle [or anyone else for that matter]. Monocle wants to be a re-imagined monthly Economist with high-end back-of-the book features targeting the highest levels of fashion, media and business. The Economist has nothing to worry about. And the magazine’s dubious promotion of ‘news bureaux’ in Tokyo, Sydney and New York gives me pause. Are we talking about churning out a daily diet of hard news, or an address for Tyler to call home for an away-weekend?

    Monocle and the editor behind it imagine a world that does not exist. The people as stylish, fit, well-informed, groomed, mannered, wealthy, mobile or effete as Mr. Tyler Brûlé would like as readers exist only as fictional representations in his magazine. His treatise on style and all things important to him, has a limited range of interest to most readers – even amongst the wealthiest, most mobile and consumer-hungry and jet-lagged among us.

  32. greg.org says :

    Just discovered this thread after commenting on Dan’s excellent writeup of his Monocle.com experience. A fair number of my own objections to Monocle as an editorial/brand entity line up with yours, Adam.

    And it’s interesting to hear discussion of the magazine among what sounds like a bunch of other Americans. One of the most notable/admirable/interesting things of Monocle is its sustained ex-US perspective, as if it’s intended as counterprogramming to the US-dominated global cultural/economic/political hegemony. If Americans don’t care for the magazine, maybe that’s partly by design. [I say that as a New Yorker who has lived many years in both Japan and Europe, not as some Ohioan Ando fan club president.]

    I had a hint of it with the JDF article at the first, and it kept cropping up, but maybe Monocle’s apparent lack of editorial voice IS the editorial voice: the axes of consumption, global infrastructure, and an admiration of power for its own sake. I don’t doubt that there could be a very lucrative target demo attracted to such a publication, and I feel less bad that it’s not me.

  33. Rob Findlay says :

    Hmm all interesting stuff, I feel Monocle either resonates with a certain group, or it doesn’t. Its not a magazine you’ll see in a doctors waiting room, as someone will either steal it (cos they love it, or cant afford it, or both), or it will simply sit under the OK and Hello magazines through some sheer lack of familiarity by the audience.

    I too have a love hate relationship:

    LOVE
    – the small bite sized pieces. In the modern age where my attention span lasts only a few … Its appropriate for me to dip in out of
    – the sense of global perspective, or access to global things in a very digestible way
    – the new new media format of independence, journalistic integrity, avoiding the banner ad model, returning to quality production, creating a printed piece that feels like a reporters notebook rather than a glossy tabloid rag.
    – the expansion of the brand into online, video, podcasts, audio sessions, even the products whilst wildly inaccessible (200 quid for a stool! 175 for a notebook! – yeah yeah I know the target market here is sub luxury, but come on!) are still designed and built with quality and a real design appreciation

    HATE
    – the overt pretentiousness, designed purely for a select few who seek this superficial life – do we all go round quoting obscure references to retail experiences in developing or hidden locations?
    – the cost at newstand here in Aus is criminal (AUD$13), but given the subscription tops almost $160 in Aussie pesos, its still better to buy off the shelf … thats wrong. Get Dans explanation that access to the website gives MORE value, but the point for most people must be cheaper access to mag first.

    Overall the magazine for me has not only challenged the traditional media outlets, and set its own brand very firmly in the landscape, its built its own niche and market, which it serves very well. For any media brand as small as Monocle to be profitable at this time, particularly with its luxury flavour, is impressive. Looking forward to seeing the expansion of the brand as much as the evolution of the content. (This is really a brand exercise right?)

  34. Peter P says :

    Is Monocle satire? I thought satire was supposed to be amusing? Monocle is boring and self-absorbed. I’ve been fool enough to buy it for many years. This year, the world didn’t end, so I will stop.

  35. Simon says :

    I’ve been a subscriber for about 3 years, and all along been irritated by the same things people above mention. The lack of substance in what look like promising articles and a general glibness. The Monocle seems a bit rose tinted. There again it is refreshingly free of mainstream political and celebrity bilge that fills other magazines and newspapers.

    As for the Nippophilia, I live in Tokyo and find it a an occasionally useful resource, which was the initial reason for subscribing, as well as the fact that the strong yen has made it relatively cheap. But if the yen weakens and the price goes up, it won’t be worth it.

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