Print rediscovers a delightful new dimension

A section of a flip-book published in Nova magazine. Image by Tony Quinn.

Later this year, DC Entertainment will stop regularly publishing Mad magazine, the humor publication founded in 1952. It means, among other things, the end of one of the more unique and beloved innovations in printed media. 

In nearly every issue since 1964, the inside back cover has featured the Mad Fold-In, a visual gag drawn by Al Jaffee. Its punchline was revealed by physically folding the page, accordion-style, to align two halves of an image and accompanying text. They were often lurid, with biting social commentary on topics including public health and the war in Vietnam. The Fold-In was, in part, a parody of Playboy centerfolds, but it broke new ground in the genre. And its loss is more notable for its current rarity. 

Physical interaction with print publications today rarely goes much beyond turning the page or filling in a crossword puzzle. Despite being products that are held in the hands of their audiences, most newspapers and magazines are designed more to be looked at than touched. But there is a long history of interactive print beyond the Fold-In—and signs that a delightful genre may not be disappearing just yet.

Interactive elements such as the Fold-In have existed throughout the history of magazines—sometimes as pure editorial content, other times as marketing gimmicks, says Tony Quinn, a magazine historian and editor whose website, Magforum, is a compendium of magazine covers, trends, and quirks. 

Some of the earliest forms of interactivity in print were competitions. Periodicals in the late 1800s often held monthly contests in which readers would draw or physically construct something from the pages of the publication and mail in their entries for a chance to win cash prizes. Puck, an American humor magazine dating to the 1870s, featured a mail-in competition that called on readers to cut out printed shapes to create and decorate a paper donkey to be judged by the magazine’s staff. John Bull, a weekly magazine published in London beginning in 1820, had a long-running and popular word game with a prize equivalent to a year’s salary, according to Quinn, that helped make it one of the best selling papers in the UK. 

As printing techniques improved, publications began making the printed page itself something worth tearing out and keeping, even hanging on the wall. “These were often commented on as being very good pieces of artwork as well,” Quinn says. Later, removable art in periodicals went a little lower brow. One particularly extravagant example comes from a 1957 issue of Reveille, a weekly news tabloid, which featured several spreads throughout the issue that could be laid out to create a life-sized pinup of the model Brigitte Bardot in high heels and a negligee.

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Occasionally, magazines took more imaginative advantage of the tactile quality of the page. Quinn points to a famous issue of Nova, a monthly pop culture magazine published in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the UK, which featured a film-style layout of images of a model performing a striptease. Printed on heavier paper, each still could be cut out and stapled together, creating a flip-book of the dance. “Nova’s a legend in the UK for its design in particular,” he says.

Mad’s Fold-In emerged around this time, and it typified the countercultural bent of the magazine, says Judith Yaross Lee, professor emeritus of communication at Ohio University and editor of a forthcoming book on the history and humor of Mad magazine. “Mad was editorially totally independent,” she says. In the late 1950s, the magazine eliminated advertisements, shifting to a primarily subscription-based business model that allowed for more experimentation. “They answered only to themselves and their audience, and that was incredibly liberating.”

 

In recent years, as newspaper and magazine circulation has fallen, there is much less appetite for experimentation. One notable outlier is The New York Times for Kids, a monthly print section launched in 2017 featuring playful and heavily illustrated news directed at younger readers. Beyond re-framing the news for kids, the section has often taken special advantage of the paper itself to engage readers; examples include a feature on dinosaurs that was meant to be colored in, and a center spread board for a custom-created tabletop game.

Debra Bishop, art director at The New York Times Research and Development Lab, which leads special projects for the newspaper and magazine, says that the section’s more adventurous design is intended to appeal to kids without talking down to them. The design encourages readers “to interact with the paper not only from a reading perspective, but also doing something. Giving them something to do and learn at the same time is what we’re aiming for,” she says. “What I want is for the product to be something that they’ll want to keep. They might want to work on it, they might want to hang it up in their room.”

Tactile media such as printed newspapers and magazines can spur interaction differently than a website, Bishop says. “One of the things you need to embrace is not so much that you’re competing with digital, but what you can bring, what’s really special about this newsprint,” she says. “What is special about it? Well, it’s really the scale. We can pack so much in, we can make something more physical like a big game board or a poster that can actually utilize the paper.”

Publication designs that require this type of interaction may even present a way for readers to better comprehend what they’re reading and seeing, says Kerry Soper, a professor at Brigham Young University, an expert on comic strips, comedy, and satire who has written about the Mad Fold-in. For the mostly younger readers of the magazine, he says, transforming the image on the page into the punchline of the joke was a form of active learning. “It was like the reader was somehow involved in making the satirical point by physically folding the page,” he says. “I wonder if, for a 13-year-old kid, it helps to stabilize the message when that physical participation is required.”

Bishop says she’s hopeful that other publications will begin thinking more broadly about what they’re doing in print. “I’m sure people will catch on to this because I think people love it,” she says. “If print wants to sort of hang in there a little bit more, yes, I think they’re going to have to be as innovative as possible.”

She plans to continue to experiment with the Times’ Kids section, bringing even more tactility to its pages, potentially with a how-to issue where the newspaper itself is used to make things. “There are a lot of things that I still want to do,” Bishop says. “We haven’t experimented enough, in my view.”

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Nate Berg is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. His website is Nate-Berg.com. Follow him on Twitter @nate_berg.