Vici MacDonald - Art Director
by Plastic Letters
Stephen Hill is an academic and writer whose work focuses on pop culture.
Below is his article with Vici MacDonald that he did for his website
Vici MacDonald was art editor of Smash Hits before going on to be a writer, editor and art director in the wider world. She continued to work regularly with Steve Bush, Smash Hits’ first art editor and fifth editor, who became a successful publisher. She a is a founding editor of contemporary art magazine Art World, and author of Rosalie Gascoigne (Regaro, 1997), a monograph on the renowned Australian sculptor (1917–99), both published and co-edited by Bush. Her most recent book is Formerly (Hercules Editions, 2012), a collaboration with poet Tamar Yoseloff featuring sonnets and photos about disappearing London. In 2013, the book was exhibited at London's Southbank Centre, and shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award.
SH: When did you first become aware of Smash Hits?
VM: I first became aware of Smash Hits as an art student in 1979, when I stumbled across an unknown pundit on Radio 1 playing his music picks. These were, to my NME-educated ears, adventurous and impressive stuff, and I was surprised to learn at the end of the show that the pundit was Ian Cranna, the editor of a pop magazine with the trashy-sounding name of Smash Hits. I sought out the mag, and immediately recognised that it was well-designed and well-written, with eclectic content, a sophisticated sense of humour, and a true love of pop. I became addicted to it (by now under the editorship of Dave Hepworth), and introduced it to my friends at art school; we’d chortle over the photos of pop stars looking silly, the sarky captions (eg “don’t worry girls, he’s already married” under any facially-challenged specimen), and the Private Eye-style running jokes. It captured the grandeur and stupidity of pop, especially in those heady New Romantic days, and fitted well into the NME/Face area which we, as aspiring “trendy magazine” designers, followed avidly. At the time it passed me by that, like those two, it was a product of Nick Logan’s editorial vision.
SH: What was you background prior to working on Smash Hits? Did you have a formal training?
I did a typical professional training for going into graphic design: an art foundation course, then a 3-year graphic design BA course (at Kingston Poly, leaving in 1981); then, after two years freelancing in magazine design, I was accepted onto the graphic design MA course at the Royal College of Art. However in 1984, after one year there, I was offered work as a designer at Smash Hits – and disillusioned with the RCA, left to take it up. I worked as a designer there 1984-5, and art editor 1986-87. I then left to pursue freelance journalism and design.
SH: How influenced was the visual style of Smash Hits influenced by Pop Art?
VM: All Smash Hits’ designers were art-school trained, and like any visual people, inspired by many forms of visual expression, including a wide range of fine art – there would be no reason to be specifically limited to pop art. As with any publication, each art editor would incorporate their own personality and tastes into the look as the years progressed and trends and technology changed. However classic magazine design of the 60s and 70s – eg the Sunday Times magazine, or Pearce Marchbank’s Time Out – were the underpinnings of the early years, in the strongly ordered designs of the first art editor Steve Bush, who learned his craft under the brilliant editor Nick Logan. (Bush also, concurrently, designed the early issues of the Face before Neville Brody took over, literally working on Logan’s kitchen table in the evenings.) Russian Constructivism and kitsch 1950s design were other early influences on the look, as on all trendy late 70s/early 80s graphics. Steve Bush also introduced the device of handwriting headlines with a brush in a style knowingly influenced by his painting hero Joan Miro, a trope which lingered into the late 80s.
Speaking for my own years, 1984-87, we were as aware of all the current trends as anyone else and always keen to incorporate interesting themes into the designs. Being a magazine, the only area for such expression was backgrounds, decoration, and typography; and this was pre-computer, so it was all very hand-made. Personally I managed to incorporate references to Pollock, Mondrian, Miro, ancient Greek and Roman art amongst others, while Steve Bush, by then the editor, once graced a Dali’s Car article with a clever surrealist layout. But we would be as likely to look at shop signs, vintage magazines, fabric design, make collages, or even trace designs off a 50s formica café table (Steve Bush again) to create a design. We also had a “bad painting” phase where we would use acrylic paints to create the most horrible backgrounds we could, then have them scanned as textures to incorporate into layouts. Basically, Smash Hits was a playful magazine, and we had a lot of fun – often knowing, experimental fun – with the designs, deadlines allowing.
SH: The launch of Smash Hits at the end of 1978 coincided with the highest sales figures for singles in the UK in 1979, what was it that made the mainstream of pop so vital in that period?
VM: Well, books have been written about that. But I would say, simplistically, the explosion of creativity and freedom of expression liberated by punk and the still-strong influence of glam rock, plus the evolution of technology making the means of production ever-more accessible. Also, this was just before home VCRs and computer games became widely available, so music remained the dominant youth entertainment genre; and the UK music scene was still homogenous, with few media outlets and everyone hyper-aware of the same things.
SH: Looking at early Smash Hits, thirty years on, the choice of cover stars is very diverse in terms of genre – rock, pop, disco, reggae, funk, punk, singer-songwriter – do you think that had an effect on the art work?
The covers were art directed by Steve Bush for many years (70s-early 80s), and rather than being influenced by any particular genre, they were more a product of his own personal, and developing, graphic design style. The main starting point for any mainstream magazine cover is always the photo, and then the typography is designed to enhance that. So of course the designs (ie font style, decorative devices and colour scheme) sometimes reflected the photo, or the style of music portrayed. However the overall look and feel of the covers was consistent and idiosyncratic. Bush became notable by the early 80s for a stylish, pared-down look, with excellent, imaginatively cropped photography, remarkably few cover lines, and the text restrained to small areas – hard things to get past most editors. He also made a point of changing the logo, quite arbitrarily, every year. This was designed in a purely instinctive manner; he’d just work his way through interesting font combinations till he came up with something he liked. Changing a magazine logo is generally considered a big deal, and market research is usually involved, so this was pretty radical stuff within a traditional publishing company like EMAP. Once Bush left, his final logo – an angular condensed woodcut introduced circa 1985 – was retained for around another decade before anyone else dared change it again.
SH: Prior to the launch of MTV in 81, how aware do you think audiences were of pop music video? Was music video an influence on the art work in Smash Hits?
VM: Audiences were very aware of pop video prior to MTV, as there were plenty of TV outlets for them in addition to TOTP – whether slots in established youth and light entertainment programmes, or new shows such as The Tube. And it’s not as if MTV was widely taken up by mainstream audiences anyway, in the early days. The growth of video meant pop acts placed more emphasis on their overall visual identity, and if press shots were supplied relating to the video, those could sometimes end up in the magazine. However Smash Hits originated much of its own photography, so video images were just a part of the mix ¬¬¬– excellent studio and location photography remained the staple of the visual identity. If a particularly excellent video came out, then that would of course feature in the magazine in some way. For instance in 1986 we were all wowed by the stop-motion plasticine animations (an early Aardman production) for Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer , so frames from the video were run as a border all around the article.
SH: Today, the stars of New Wave, The Jam, The Clash and Blondie and The Police, to a certain extent, have so much more credibility than New Pop (Spandau, Duran Duran, Wham etc). Do you think that’s fair, or are we at a point where New Pop might be rehabilitated?
VM: Speaking in favour of the latter, I think that day has already come. Time is the great leveller – and quality will out. The rest is snobbishness.
SH: There is a tendency to belittle the written style of Smash Hits, but looking back it would seem that it assumed high levels cultural awareness on the part of the readers. How did you imagine the readers in the early days?
VM: I think those who belittled it probably didn’t read it, or were irredeemably prejudiced. When I first turned up in the Smash Hits office in 1984, I was completely smitten by the brilliant erudition and humour of the editorial team, a group of highly educated rock-and-pop-loving men (though as the years passed more women came on board). Like all successful magazine teams, they thought long and hard about their readership, but wrote in their own highly evolved “tone”, and were at great pains never to talk down to the readers. At the time the editor was Mark Ellen, and I particularly remember an extremely heated discussion at his central table about whether 12-year-old readers would understand the word “unreconstructed”, as in the phrase “unreconstructed hippie”. I think they decided that they probably wouldn’t, but it got through anyway – “they can always look it up”. Of course, the staff knew precisely who the readers were, as sackloads of letters turned up every week – and, like any group of readers, some were brilliant and some weren’t. But Smash Hits operated on many levels, and was written to be as interesting to an adult as an 8-year-old. It was difficult to get a job on the magazine, so the standard was high, often Oxbridge; all the writers were competitive music obsessives who took pride in their work, and would not have wanted anything that embarrassed them to be printed. Looking back, their approach perhaps most resembles a clique of groovy, slightly rebellious English teachers attempting to educate their most promising pupils.
SH: The visual grammar of Smash Hits was incredibly sophisticated. How did you conceptualise the visual style of the magazine?
VM: I believe that the original team of editor Nick Logan and designer Steve Bush was a brilliant combination that underpinned the ongoing look and feel of the magazine. Beyond that it was simply a product of talented, well-trained and enthusiastic magazine designers doing what all good magazine designers do, given a supportive and enjoyable environment. That’s to say, take the basic structural grammar that all mainstream publications follow (entry points, visual flow, legibility, balance, detailing etc), then overlay it with a mix of your own personal taste and the prevailing styles of the day. That side of things is quite instinctive when you’re a young designer immersed in popular culture, and on a high-pressure production schedule.
SH: Continuing with the visual style of the magazine, there were some unlikely cover stars. Ian Dury is not the most probable pin-up, but it’s made to work - he becomes a cartoon figure. The use of Warhol style colours and silk-screening was very evident too. Was there such a thing as a Smash Hits aesthetic?
VM: You would have to ask Steve Bush that. He probably thought it was a terrible photo so wanted to tart it up a bit! And silk-screening effects are partly making the most of the limited technology of the day. But in general, the aesthetic was, let great photos speak for themselves, present the text in such a way that people want to read it, then add an interesting headline treatment and a bit of fun decoration or some amusing “in” joke.
SH: Did authenticity matter at Smash Hits? Was it deliberately subverting the pre-occupation with authenticity that characterised the music press that preceded it?
VM: I think we all thought the “rock press” took themselves too seriously, and we were having more fun. But then, the word “authenticity” would only ever have been used in quotes at Smash Hits…
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Copyright Stephen Hill