A monocle is a single eyeglass kept in position by the muscles around the eye. The same can be said of
Since launching in 2007, this publication by journalist-turned-media entrepreneur Tyler Brûlé has become a celebrated design bible for urban planners and the elite. Before Monocle, creating an attractive city worth living in never seemed so simple and stylish.
From its format down to design and content, Monocle smooths over the complex subject of urbanism in a smart and attractive-looking publication. It’s Brûlé’s vision of a cross between the The Economist and GQ, a perfect status accessory for the modern executive — best displayed when one is dressed in tailored suits and leather shoes.
Monocle calls itself “a brieﬁng on global affairs, business, culture & design”, but each issue reads more like Brûlé’s personal travel blog (he is known to travel more than 250 days in a year). It is printed on uncoated stock — all 300 pages of it, including booklet inserts and advertisements. A glossy spirit of optimism pervades a magazine stuffed with informative blurbs, clever lists, one-page proﬁles, as well as question-and-answer interviews. Whether it is a survey on the world’s most livable cities, an interview with a politician or a shopkeeper, or an advertorial on Samsung’s latest phone, there is little difference. Everyone and everything on Monocle is geared toward creating a better city. Nothing seems problematic, not even the fact that almost everything Monocle features as good examples of city living are unaffordable to the rest of the 99%.
Despite its marketing stance, Monocle tries to look like it is delivering on its promise of “quality journalism” through design and art direction. Its commissioned photography borrows the visual language of objectivity, while its illustrations project a sense of simplicity. Documentary style photos of places run alongside straight-up style portraits of business owners, shops and products, creating the veneer of honesty over promotion. Many of the magazine’s illustrations of urban life display a charming LEGO-like simplicity, rendered in a uncomplicated style with elemental forms reminiscent of Isotypes. Like this international picture language, Monocle’s illustrations flatten the differences (and minimize diversity) within and across cities, falling back on outmoded national costumes and stereotypes to ﬁt a trans-national universe which the magazine hopes to build. From page to page, the images and short texts are packed into a three-column grid creating a sense of sameness regardless of who, what or where, a design conceit that encourages reader to skim rather than read seriously.
More revealing still is the choice of a typeface: Plantin. Monocle creative director Richard Spencer Powell hoped to nod to, in his words, "old journalistic values”: this early 20th-century typeface also conveys instant tradition, reinforcing perhaps why Brûlé had picked the archaic object of the monocle as its name in the first place. Despite establishing such origins, Monocle is uninterested in practicing journalism the old school way. The profession’s cardinal rule of separating editorial from advertising is discarded because, in Brûlé's view, “all good journalists are good salespeople, too”. Monocle’s editors often accompany ad directors to sales calls. It shows. This magazine’s advertorials are difﬁcult to distinguish from editorial content. The only indication is a “(Brand name) X MONOCLE” tag at the bottom of the page, an ambiguous line that could also read as a kind of tacit Monocle endorsement.
But this magazine has no qualms about mixing the two. It is good business for Brûlé, who is also chairman of the branding and design agency, Winkreative. Monocle is a great advertising platform for the agency, as editorial subjects such as the government of Thailand have become clients too. In Monocle, Brûlé has created a marketing darling that has been recognized by Advertising Age, awarding him “Editor of the Year” in 2011. (Adweek named Monocle best brand for "living the good life” in 2012.)