Then again, and maybe to cheat a bit, I'm not convinced people have the same expectations of the small press with regards to design, so that a little effort can go a long way - and a really devoted effort can seriously impress. Also, this is something that even pro markets occasionally make a complete mess of. So maybe that title isn't such a bluff after all?
Before we go on any further, I should probably explain what exactly I mean by design. I'm talking here about logos, titles, fonts, cover and interior layout in the case of print magazines, or page layout for webzines. Basically, all the aesthetic stuff that won't change - like covers and story-specific artwork do - from issue to issue.
Which, obviously, is why it's so important. Logos, title design, fonts, all that stuff, is what gives a magazine identity, and that's one of the main things that will keep people coming back. A magazine without an identity, even if it's publishing the best fiction on the planet, is one that's going to struggle to find and keep a readership. And while there are plenty of other things that can provide character, design is always going to be the one that hits people first. Visual distinctiveness makes something recognisable, and recognisability makes that thing memorable.
The other big point with design is, it's usually obvious exactly how much work's been put into it. If you host a webzine on your blog site using the default font and standard banner art, people are going to pick up on that. Likewise if you put out a print magazine that looks like a student essay. And, if those people are writers who might submit to you, they're probably going to wonder how committed you are to this whole publishing gig. If you spent ten minutes throwing together one of the most fundamental aspects of your 'zine, are you really going to be around in six month's time to publish their story?
So ... like I said at the start, design is a tough one. It's hard to get right and incredibly easy to get wrong. Here, for whatever it's worth, is my advice for ways in which to make it look good on a budget. With added bullet points!
- The first, maybe the biggest point is that it's never too late. In theory, design is something that has to be there from the beginning. In practise, it's something that can be developed issue by issue. Who cares if you only come up with your final logo with issue eight? Better to get it right eventually than not at all. In fact, this often seems to be a mark of a good editor - fixing thing as and when they can, seeing identity as something that can be built up as and when time permits. So if you can't do it right now then put it off ... just not forever.
- Every bit of thought that goes into design will pay off. And every single element of a magazine or book is ripe for design. Don't just assume or settle for defaults with things like line spacing, margins, columns, text size and font. An hour spent coming up with something that you find eminently readable is an hour that's going to make people love you a little bit more.
- It's worth saying again: design is the quickest way to build identity. You want to tell people you're a quirky publisher of comic Lovecraftian horror? That image of Cthulhu in a hula skirt is going to key people in much more quickly than ploughing through half a dozen stories. Want to convey in hardly any words that you're only interested in high-minded postmodernist sci-fi? There's a font out there that says exactly that.*
- All of the points I made for artwork are true here too. Think you can't afford a designer? Then find one who'll work for free in return for exposure and plug the hell out of them. At this exact moment, there are approximately 532'702 incredibly talented artists out there who'll give you their work in return for making their portfolio that bit more shiny.**
- I can't see any good reason not to imitate a little. No one's going to get offended with an editor who looks at what they think is working and takes a hint from it. I mean, unless you steal someone's name or start wearing their clothes. Why not take a little time to figure out why your favourite magazines look great and then work out how much of that you can poach for your own 'zine?
* I admit I haven't actually tested this one.
** This, on the other hand, is based on vast amounts of research.