A Conversation Between Jeremy Leslie and Robert Newman for Gym Class Magazine
Jeremy Leslie is the editor/publisher of magCulture, the magazine news, design, and opinion website. This interview/discussion originally ran in Gym Class Magazine #8, in 2011
Jeremy Leslie: It is a strange time for magazines publishing, with plenty of anxiety about the future. How do you see things progressing?
Robert Newman: Well, I’m much more optimistic than was two years ago, when magazines were folding left and right and those that were left were slashing staff and budgets. The good news is, we realize that magazines are not going away anytime soon. Some have actually been revitalized, like Bloomberg Businessweek and Newsweek.
Magazines are continuing to struggle with their identities, which means lots of redesigns and staff changes. There’s obviously a lot of work and excitement with iPad magazine apps as well. On many levels it’s a very creative time to be working in magazines. I think most of the exciting work is about structure, format, information architecture, and less about actual content, and on a certain level that’s not so good. Also, budgets are still tight, and people are being asked to work double-time, picking up all kinds of additional work and responsibilities. The big complaint I hear is that people are working so hard and so fast that they don ‘t get time to sit and reflect and be creative. Overall though, for art directors, I’d say it’s a golden era in terms of control and influence of the development side of the business, especially on the app end, but also in print. But there’s no doubt that the field seems like it’s compressed a bit, and that some of the fun and creativity (and to be honest, a lot of the loose money!) has gone away.
How do you feel about magazine publishing? While you still find lots of space on magCulture to promote cool print design, your passion seems to be tipping over to the digital side. Is this true?
Jeremy Leslie: I agree with you, it’s a very exciting time for publishing. From a personal point of view, I’ve been enjoying working with digital. But I have no truck with the idea that print is dying, that’s just a headline. A headline that’s more succinct and eye- catching than the reality, which goes more like ‘high- volume print is suffering at the expense of digital but there’s still great print stuff happening’. Hard to build a sexy headline out of that! I’ve believed for a long time that print and digital are closer than people assume but its been in both sides’ interests to pretend otherwise. Until now, that is. Now it’s too obvious. They have major differences of course, but many of the questions to be asked before you start a project are the same: who are your audience, what is the message, and what response do you want from the reader/ user?
A great piece of print still amazes and delights me, and I get sent plenty of examples that I can ‘t wait to post on magCulture. But I also think its important the site reflects my belief (and the way my day-to-day work is going) that digital in its various forms has to play a part in anything we now do as editorial designers. It’s part of today’s excitement. What might the iPad do that print can’t? How will print respond? What if someone actually devises a combined print/iPad publication that works?
I’m interested in your point about lack of time to think and reflect. Is that something that you’ve seen change over your career?
Robert Newman: I think what’s going on right now—at a lot of magazines, at least—is that art directors are being asked to work designing for multiple formats. So you’ve got people who are doing the regular print issue, as well as the iPad app, special issues, books, etc. All with less budgets and less staff. On the one hand, it’s exhilarating! You’ve got art directors who now truly are creative directors, directing entire publishing brands across platforms. There’s a sense of power and control that many of us have never had before, on such an extensive scale. The downside of this is two-fold. First, it’s all-consuming, and it may be that each individual project doesn’t quite get the attention and spark of brilliance that it would if it was the sole center of attention. And secondly, it scares me a little bit to see so many of my colleagues acting more like businesspeople than creative people. Art directors are the soul of a magazine (and often its conscience, too). They provide a spark and an edge, they’re the ones who push the envelope, who make the art, for lack of a better phrase. I can’t tell you how many art directors I talk to these days who are talking about ‘the business model’ when they discuss publishing projects, as opposed to just getting excited about an idea or a presentation.
One common complaint that I hear is that there’s not as much of a physical community in magazine art departments anymore. Photographers and illustrators tell me there’s no personal interaction anymore. The idea that folks would come visit the office and hang out, look at images, throw around ideas, that just doesn’t happen. Who has the time to spend meeting with illustrators and photographers and other designers? In a way, Twitter and Facebook have helped bridge this gap, and have replaced the physical community with a virtual community. There’s a much more extensive sharing of visual work online these clays, which is great. Thanks to Facebook and sites like magCulture, Coverjunkie, and Nas Capas, publication design work (and especially covers) can be seen instantly by a huge audience.
How do you think sites like Twitter, Facebook and blogs, etc. are affecting design?
Jeremy Leslie: I think the internet has affected magazine design in a number of ways. At first it seemed quite simple: the presence of the web on everyone’s desktop meant an end to long columns of dense text as the cult of the multiple entry-point became prevalent. The assumption was that all readers suffered from short attention spans, and that has pretty much settled clown as the norm. With the exception of The New Yorker and The Economist, most magazines work far harder at attracting and retaining readers’ attention today. Some magazines, particularly small independents, are fighting back. But it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, one of those “all magazines do it because all magazines do it” trends that is difficult to turn back from now. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this happened at the same time as the Mac moved hands-on typographic control away from the typesetter to the designer. A lot was done because it could be done.
As the web has diversified into the various strands you list—blogs, social networks—a more important effect on design has come from the ease of research. I remember visiting other cities and being excited to raid the local news kiosks for magazines I’d never see at home. Even a large city like New York held hidden gems that only a transatlantic flight would unearth. Today everything is available and shared online. Which is very exciting, and both you and I with our respective web presences are a part of this development, but it does have a downside insofar as everyone sees everything. Influences and inspirations travel far and wide and at high speed. So change happens faster. One of the things I’ve always loved about editorial design is the organic development of designs from issue to issue as you try things out and find new directions that work. I see that move faster and faster now.
You make a good point about relationships with contributors. I love that I can work with anyone in the world via email, Dropbox, YouSendit, etc. But I miss the direct contact. Just recently I was working with an illustrator in France and we got some okay work clone via email but once we actually spoke for half an hour on the phone the project took flight. Nothing beats talking, even by phone. Email is quick, easy, but can be unsatisfactory.
As to the actual design of Twitter and Facebook themselves, they have little to offer as design models, they are among the worst examples of content design out there. Facebook in particular is a hideous piece of design that I believe has succeeded despite the way it works and looks. Other digital entities are more interesting. I don’t like the page-turning effects of Zinio and other online PDF sites, but Flipboard’s use of the page metaphor is very engaging, being a visual reference rather than an attempt to mimic print. Twitter’s iPad app is interesting for its layering effects.
I’ve always felt print should make the most of its distinctive attributes, and perhaps this has been the biggest effect of competition from digital. Experimentation with different papers, formats and finishing effects are the most powerful way to combat the novelty and excitement of Flash and HTMl5. Special inks, foil blocks, die cuts, etc. all celebrate the senses digital can’t engage: touch, smell, as well as sight. This is one of the challenges for the iPad—everything gets flattened inside that clinical glossy glass.
How do you enjoy working in both print and digital? You’ve been developing iPad apps for Reader’s Digest. What did you make of it?
Robert Newman: I’m still a print person at heart, although I’m very excited about iPad apps since I started working with them. Readers’s Digest has a small staff and resources, so we do all the app work in-house, which has been a very empowering experience. At this point we’re just recasting the actual magazine, and adding on some videos and slideshows and extra material; we’re not to-tally re-imagining the product. But I’m enjoying it immensely. In a way designing for the iPad is an art director’s dream. You’ve already got all the images and text, and you can rework them any way you want. Need more space? No problem! Want to run more/bigger photos? Sure! And the editors are much more open to content suggestions, because there’s unlimited space. Since Reader’s Digest is the original curated publication, adding on videos, slideshows, etc. from other places fits right into our mission.
We decided from the beginning to do the magazine only in portrait orientation. We did that mainly because our resources are being stretched so thin that we just couldn’t produce a multiple set of layouts. Interestingly, the pages of Reader’s Digest are bigger on the iPad than they are in the actual magazine.
One thing that we do a lot of with the app is to think about usability. It’s made me realize how little time we spend doing that on the print version of the magazine. I’m hoping that there’s going to be some cross-pollination, the some thought about format, architecture, etc. that goes into the app will move back over to print.
We’re just finishing our fourth issue of the app, and to my mind they keep getting better and better. Right now our only limitations are the lack of time and staffing. Of course I’d love to work on an app that is unfettered by a print edition, that is created from scratch each issue. That’s the next step. At this point it’s all about learning, since no one is really seeing what we’re producing, except for a very small group of readers. We’re doing what guitar players call woodshedding, which is basically just working hard in private and honing our chops.
To go back to print for a minute, I was very excited by the launch issue of Port. The trend in US magazines right now is for massive layering and detailing, with multiple points of entry and as many bells and whistles as possible. It was refreshing to see a magazine that was just simple, bold elegant type and images. I’d love to work on a magazine like that. It feels like one of those 60s magazines like Show or Ramparts or Holiday. I don’t really expect that look to take off anytime soon, though! At this point I feel like what I’m doing with the apps is all about usability and content creation, but print still offers the best possibilities for creative expression. And ironically, print still feels the most nimble and flexible medium to me.
How was your experience working on the Port app? I’m curious about your decision to not have “stacks” of pages, but to do the whole thing linearly, like Time magazine.
Jeremy Leslie: Just because it’s there doesn’t mean you have to use it! It reminds me of when lnDesign first arrived and every redesign featured an overuse of the conveniently-easy drop shadow function. All programs provide tools, it’s our choice how we use them.
Last summer I helped evaluate Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite (DPS) and WoodWing for Bauer Media here in London. Along the way I learned a lot about iPad workflow and other practical is-sues. DPS came out on top but a lot of my ideas about what worked best on the iPad were quietly shelved as the in-house team went on to develop the Empire magazine app using Wired as a basis.
This reliance on the Wired approach has surprised me. The Wired-Adobe collaboration was a good start to answering the question how editorial design might transfer to the tablet but it seemed to solidify so quickly as best practice. The dual orientation and con-fusing left-right/up-down navigation make conceptual sense but are awful in practice. The size of the iPad screen means that for every one print page designers must create two iPad pages just to accommodate the existing content tent (iPad pages are smaller and text needs to be larger). So the volume of pages doubles already. Adding a second set of pages to provide alternative orientation seems a pointless addition on a project that, as you point out, is already being squeezed into the existing workflow and design team. There can be purpose in changing from reading to video through orientation but just repeating the same material is a waste of effort. And the ‘stack’ navigation is a complete distraction. It probably looked great as a series of printouts during development in San Francisco but on the iPad it’s a sea of pages in which I’ve watched many readers flounder.
Later I joined the Adobe pre-release program and created an app version (un- published) of the MagCultureipaper project I published last year. This helped me realize that the iPad loves simple things: great images, simple design. As you say, the navigation and usability issues are more important than complex graphic design. Yet so many apps feature the sort of layered, over-worked editorial design you describe above. Such design works in print because ink on paper can handle multiple hierarchies. Small details appear small, larger elements stand out. The problem for that type of design on the iPad is that every element is backlit and so any variety of scale and color has less impact. Everything jumps forward, nothing receeds, on the iPad ‘s hi-def screen.
When the Port team approached me I was immediately interested in working with them because what they were doing in print echoed my thoughts on the iPad. Developing any new project (print or digital) involves analyzing what you are attempting to achieve and developing and designing things accordingly. I felt my thoughts on apps aligned neatly with what Matt, Dan and Kuchar already were striving for in print.
I wanted to take the mood of what they were doing in print (the app was developed alongside the print edition) and adapt it to the iPad. Text and image were clearly delineated, and I wanted to avoid the clumsy ‘stack’ navigation Adobe encourage and run pages consecutively. Not to make it more like print, but to make it more user-friendly. Some pages in the Port app are deeper than others and use scrolling to move up and down. The result is some flexibility on how each story can run but none of the confusion caused by stacks. I wanted control to be simple but for there to be some things beyond control, gentle animations and reveals that happen with-out the reader activating them. We used this on the feature headlines. In print they have real presence due to their scale. I used animation to reflect this relative impor-tance on the app.
Sadly Adobe have opted for a pricing structure that means small launches like Port can’t afford to experiment further. But there is hope. One app that stood out for me was indie project Letter to Jane, a self-coded project from North America that is refreshingly focused on accessing content rather than surface effect.
I’m really excited about what the iPad offers but realistic about what all the magazine apps to date, including Port, have achieved. As you say, this is a period of ‘woodshedding’. No app has cracked the form, but few have nothing to offer the conversation about what does and doesn’t work. The challenge now is to get out of the woodshed and perform to larger audiences.
Do you think that can happen or will a lot of what we’re seeing today on the iPad go the way of CO-Roms?
Robert Newman: There’s a great phrase-‘iPadding’-that describes how people are using their tab-lets. They’re sitting on the couch at night after work and after dinner, and spending a couple hours playing around. It’s games, publication apps, reading, whatever strikes their fancy and it’s entertaining, relaxing, educational, etc. I see my 10-year-old daughter doing this all the time. She’ll flit between videos, games, magazine apps (Reader’s Digest, of course!), playing around with photographs. I think there’s going to be a huge potential audience for magazine apps, once the format and pricing is finally figured out. There’s always going to be a large segment of tablet users who use them as mobile offices and information tools. Those folks will want internet access and quick up-to-date news apps and other app tools. They’re not going to be the magazine app consumers. It’s not the folks on the bus or train who are going to read them, it’s those iPadders at home at night who want to curl up with their favorite magazine. We laugh now about CO-Roms, but what they did was identify an audience and a market, and help realize what it was exactly that people wanted. The content of the CO-Roms still exists, it just migrated to websites, which is a much more practical and immediate (and cheaper) way to access the material. I think with magazine apps, it’s going to be about engagement and the richness of the experience, but the final format may be very different from what we’re working in now. There are millions of people now reading e-books in very static and graphically simple formats like the Kindle. The Nook version of Reader’s Digest sells 20,000 copies a month. It boggles my mind, but I think what we’re seeing is the ultimate personalization of magazines, where we’re going to end up creating and designing many multiple versions, with wide varieties of content and design for each publication. We may end up with one version of Reader’s Digest that is simply all text, another that is all photos and videos and cartoons, etc. That’s where I think the future of publication design is going, both print and digital. It’s all about diversification and multiple audiences (and experiences).
I think you’re on to something with your interest in indie app production. As the costs and skill set necessary to produce apps becomes more and more accessible, I think we’re going to see some ground-breaking developments from indie publications in the digital field. As you mentioned, the Letter to Jane app has some very interesting moments, and so does Port. The Nomad publications are showing the way online, how you can produce a rich, slick publication with a very small budget, and deliver it cheaply to a wide audience. I’m really looking to indie apps to break things wide open.
Returning to print, what do you see out there that you like, that’s inspiring?
Jeremy Leslie: New York seems to have come to life again following Luke Hayman’s redesign. Chris Dixon has carried on where Luke left off, and other magazines, particularly the weeklies, have reinvented themselves with smart revamps. Bloomberg Businessweek and the recent The New York Times Magazine come to mind; established magazines making themselves relevant again. I have to note here that all have been carried out by or with the help of British designers!
A couple of years ago it seemed Wired under Scott Dadich was never going to fade but the US edition has been eclipsed now by both the UK and Italian editions. Other good stuff in London includes Elle and its biannual spin-off Elle Collections, both beautifully designed and detailed, the latter showing a heavy US influence. Wallpaper* continues to do some special stuff, most recently with their customizable handmade covers.
I’ve also enjoyed seeing independent magazines reinvent traditional genres. Titles like The Ride (cycling), Fire & Knives (food) and Apartmento (interiors) are showing their mainstream competitors new ways to deal with old subjects. And magazines like Gym Class Magazine and It’s Nice That are growing out of established blog presences with unique editorial and design directions.
But three magazines head the list for me. I’ve loved Fantastic Man’s ironic take on men’s fashion since it launched. With each new issue I worry it’ll burn out, but it keeps going strong. Great magazines reflect their era; it perfectly records our love/ hate relationship with fashion.
Mike Meire’s unorthodox designs for Berlin culture magazine 032c make it a must-see (and it’s also worth checking the same designer’s covers for business mag Brand Eins). Also in Germany, Mirko Borsche’s art direction of Zeit Magazin shows what can happen when an innovative de-signer is let loose on a newspaper supplement.
What are you enjoying, Bob?
Robert Newman: Like you, I’m very excited by what’s going on in the newsweekly field in the US: Dirk Barnett at Newsweek, Richard Turley at Bloomberg Businessweek, DW Pine at Time, Arem Duplessis at The New York Times Magazine, Chris Dixon at New York. That’s a ‘Murderers’ Row’ of art directors! (Note to my UK friends: Murderers’ Row is a baseball reference. It refers to the batting lineup of the 1920s New York Yankees, meaning that this group is loaded with people who can power the ball over the fence.) Not only are they doing imaginative and powerful (and at times, provocative) design, but they’re also all involved to varying degrees with the redefining of the genre, which admittedly has not been the healthiest these past few years. They’re working in a very populist magazine format, but are bringing very modern, progressive, cutting-edge approaches to their work. All of them are really pushing the envelope in a very mainstream medium, and to me that’s an exciting moment to witness.
In terms of staff movement and change, this is one of the most fluid periods I can remember in consumer magazines. So many top magazines have hired new creative directors and done redesigns on one level or another over the past year: People, Sports Illustrated, Time, Fast Company, Wired, Newsweek, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, Men’s Journal, The New York Times Magazine, Ebony, W, O, Money. And that’s just what I can think of off the top of my head.
I’m looking forward to seeing what Brandon Kavulla does at Wired and what Florian Bachleda is going to do at Fast Company. I also like the new redesign that Darhil Crooks did for Ebony.
I also love the new redesign that Jill Armus just debuted at Every Day With Rachel Ray magazine. It’s very imaginative, with a nice, hand-crafted look. It’s just the latest in a line of pure service magazines that have seriously upgraded their design and reader.
Most inspiring for me over the past year or two has been the work going on at the alternative weekly newspapers, places like the Dallas Observer, The Stranger in Seattle, The Village Voice, Riverfront Times in St. Louis, the Miami New Times. Those art directors are creating bold, graphic covers, week after week, with incredibly limited budgets and production schedules. A lot of the work is self-produced, done with stock or found images and Photoshop. It’s great, inspiring, truly original work that makes me wish I could do it!