Design and Spare Rib

Design and Spare Rib

The design of Spare Rib makes it instantly recognisable. With its distinctive style and format it looked like a women’s magazine while also being challenging and radical. Co-founder, Marsha Rowe, explains how the original design of the magazine was created.

The design of Spare Rib had to support the aims of the magazine on several levels. It had to look like a woman’s magazine, yet with contents that did not reflect the conformist stereotyping of women. It had to suggest the familiarity of women’s magazines - like a good friend, intimate, loyal, supportive - while also being challenging, questioning, exciting and radical.

Spare Rib magazine issue 009

Spare Rib magazine issue 9 p. 3

Contents page for issue 9 of Spare Rib.

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The designers had to transform the name Spare Rib into a magazine title. They had to create the front cover look, and an overall style for the pages inside the magazine. The design had to be both stable and flexible, to allow for future change while retaining the feel and basic identity we wanted to establish. Integral to every decision was cost. Money and professionalism went hand in hand.

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Front cover of issue 9 is an example of Spare Rib’s individual style and use of irony to make a serious point.

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The name Spare Rib started as a joke, with its play on words about the Biblical Eve fashioned out of Adam’s rib, implying that a woman had no independence from the beginning of time. This held the witty, subversive connotations we had been looking for. Once Rosie had agreed with me on the name, she and I worked with two designers, Kate Hepburn and Sally Doust, who created the overall design of the magazine.

In those pre-computer days design was hands-on and labour intensive. Kate had studied at the Central School of Art and Design in London (now the University of the Arts, London) and graduated to further study at the Royal College of Art, while Sally had studied at Brighton College and graduated to Goldmiths, London. Her first job was as Art Director at Vogue Australia, after which she returned to England, and had two pre-school-age children. This meant that from the start we had to plan for the needs of a working parent, and we continued to accommodate that perspective into the design schedules and editorial meetings.

One afternoon in late January 1972, Rosie Boycott and I went around to Sally’s flat, where she and Kate had been working. All afternoon Kate had been experimenting with torn up tissue paper to fashion the letters of Spare Rib into a logo. They ‘knocked the ideas backwards and forwards as we were looking at it’, Kate said, ‘continuous talking. It was not about planning, it was about feeling your way through it’.

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Spare Rib magazine issue 7 p. 1

Example of the Spare Rib logo from an early edition of the magazine.

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Any doubts between Rosie and me about the name vanished on seeing the design, the word ‘spare’ an adjunct winging off the resounding ‘rib’. As Kate put it, ‘Visually describing the sound of the word, a bone. The metaphor is direct, very visceral’.

This collaborative aspect remained an essential ingredient between editorial and design activity.

For reasons of cost, we planned to use only two colours plus black, not the four colours that are usually used to compose the plush, full-colour offering of a woman’s magazine. Sally described how applying that decision based on the constraints of a limited budget, and making it work so as to bring out subtle and arresting results, was a significant challenge. ‘It was so exciting after working on Vogue, which was so formulaic. Experimenting with tints, using a spot-colour, produced designs that were innovative and energetic’.

While new young illustrators and photographers were keen to work for the new magazine, finding a visual language to express the new ideas of the magazine was also a challenge. Angela Phillips took a ground-breaking photo for the first issue. In contrast to the heavily made-up faces of glamorous cover models, it showed two young women looking as they did in everyday life. It was attractive and to some, an affront. How dare we!

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Front cover of the first issue of Spare Rib.

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Spare Rib covers were often controversial. Choosing a photo of a Vietnamese woman with a big smile on her face, rather than choosing a gloomy shot, infuriated the photo agency head who supplied us with the pictures, because he viewed the end of the war as a defeat.

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Spare Rib magazine issue 37 p. 1

Front cover of issue 37, July 1975, showing Madame Minh of Vietnam’s Provisional Revolutionary Government.

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Our early distributor persuaded us to use four-colour printing in an effort to sell more copies. We did this for three issues, found it made no difference to sales, and reverted to the original three-colours, wondering how to make up for the expensive experiment. Another distributor complained that graphic covers were off-putting. Both missed the fact that content was driving sales.

While most of the pages were printed on a shiny, higher quality paper, we chose to include matt, slightly thick paper on which to print the inside news and listings. This had two purposes: to differentiate their content from the rest of the magazine, and to provide a stronger central core, which could make up for not having a huge number of pages carrying advertising. Finding non-sexist advertising in accordance with the values of the magazine was another challenge.

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Spare Rib magazine issue 29 p. 17

News pages were on matt paper and always in black and white.

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Spare Rib magazine issue 29 p. 16

Designers of Spare Rib often used black, white and one other colour to give a distinctive appearance to the magazine.

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As the editorial structure developed into a collective and more women were directly involved in lay-out and design, they sometimes used their own talents as illustrators or cartoonists. Alison Fell recalls: 

I have lovely memories of working with Laura Margolis, the designer. She and I did a spoof fashion shoot at an expensive boutique. She was the photographer and I was acting the model. I tried on a silver lurex boiler suit, which was rather fabulous. Laura took some rather good, hard-edged photos in black and white, using spotlights. It was amazing. And I don’t think that the shop realized that we were pulling a fast one. I wrote the article under the nom-de-plume Hippolyta McKay. And then there were all those nights staying up late over weekends putting the magazine to bed. I would be cutting lumps out of a text to make it fit, and I’d be doing all these mad drawings, like the one of a nude girl cradling a toy aeroplane, to slot in as illustrations.

  • Marsha Rowe
  • Marsha Rowe was assistant co-founder of Ink newspaper, the co-founder of Spare Rib magazine and co-founding director of Virago. She was fiction editor at Serpent’s Tail and ran a life-writing course (Your Life’s Word). As free-lance commissioning editor/author, her publications include Spare Rib Reader Penguin 1982, Sacred Space Serpent’s Tail 1992, Infidelity Chatto & Windus 1993 and, as co-author, Characters of Fitzrovia, Dennis/Chatto/Pimlico 2001/2. She is currently writing a memoir spanning 1964-1974, from Oz magazine, Sydney, Australia to Spare Rib, London, UK.

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