Nov 21, 2013

Robert Newman Chats With Brandon Kavulla

[This interview originally appeared in Gym Class Magazine #10]

In 1997 I was hired as design director at Vibe magazine. I knew legendary photo director George Pitts from our days working together at Entertainment Weekly. And he gave me a good rundown of what to expect. What I found in the middle of a bustling office of young hip-hoppers and urban style-istas was a power-packed surfer-type dude who looked like he had just wandered in from Cali. That was Brandon Kavulla, the art director, who I soon learned had a laser focus and a passion for magazine design that totally belied his laid-back dude look.

In those Vibe days, we all worked in tiny offices with big glass windows on the front side. Brandon would lock himself inside and go to work, blasting Van Halen, Nine Inch Nails, and all kinds of hip-hop. Soon pages would start to appear on the floor, and in a few hours there would be dozens of feature layouts in as many different styles. Brandon would come out of his laboratory, show me a couple of brilliant versions, and then go back to work on the next story. I’ve never seen someone who loved his work so much. It didn’t matter whether he was creating page designs for stories on U.S. Presidential candidate Bill Bradley, rockers Rage Against the Machine, or Wu Tang Clan member Old Dirty Bastard. Brandon attacked each graphic challenge with hearty enthusiasm and great love. It was remarkable to watch, and it was impossible not to get caught up in his energy.

 Fast forward a few years, and Brandon had torn through some of the hippest magazine art departments around: Vibe, Spin, Details, and worked with a series of top-line art directors. Then he flipped things and dove into Rodale, the home of men’s magazines Best Life and Men’s Health, and the purveyors of some of the purest service publishing design in the business. Brandon took his hip, stylish background, his powerful graphic sensibilities, and his imagery wizardry, and pushed those staid men’s magazines to high creative levels.

Then Brandon was tapped for what might be the ultimate magazine visual job: the creative director at Wired. Succeeding Scott Dadich (who had dominated the magazine design awards—three successive National Magazine Awards for design and three successive Magazine of the Year awards from the Society of Publication Designers}. Brandon took the Wired visual legacy and made it his own. Forging a great team of art directors and designers, and—no surprise—giving the magazine a more rock ‘n’ roll flavor. Changes at Wired late last year led to the return of Scott Dadich, but this time as editor-in-chief. He shuffled the staff in a major way, and Brandon was left looking for a new challenge to tackle.

I talked with him about his influences, the challenge of designing diverse magazines, working with editors, his lessons from Wired, and much more.

(Note: As we were finishing this interview Brandon was hired at yet another high profile magazine. He is now the creative director at Fortune.)

Robert Newman: What got you interested in graphic design? And specifically, what got you into magazines?

Brandon Kavulla: I studied graphic design at Kent State University in Ohio. I entered college desperately wanting to be a comic book illustrator or cartoonist of some kind. Most art programs (at the time) didn’t know what to do with students like me. So I ended up in the graphic design/illustration program, which out of dumb luck happened to be a very good and hard program.

Robert Newman: What have been the big influences on your work, both design and non-design?

Brandon Kavulla: I was—and am—influenced by designers like Fabien Baron, Neville Brody and David Carson… to name the three biggest. I was coming at graphic design as a wannabe illustrator, so people doing illustrative or artful things with typography were very interesting and exciting to me. Fabien is probably my biggest influence. I just love what he does with simple type and imagery. His work is bold, brash and loud but  incredibly elegant and artful at the same time.

Robert Newman: You’ve worked at a diverse group of magazines: Vibe, Best Life, Wired… among others. How do you navigate those very different editorial styles? Is there some commonality you draw on that is evident in your work?

Brandon Kavulla: There is certainly a commonality to my work, and hopefully a consistent voice. I love big concepts and a brash, illustrative—but simple—use of typography. However, there are things that are more or less appropriate for certain titles… so I will turn up the volume on some things and turn it down on others. Best Life had energy and drama, but was also understated and elegant (it was basically a fashion and lifestyle magazine for guys in their 30s, 40s and 50s). Men’s Health had big concepts and energy and drama as well; things were louder, more brash and brighter.

Robert Newman: How have you managed the oftentimes tricky working relationship between a magazine editor’s words and your creative vision?

Brandon Kavulla: Empathy is a big thing I’ve learned over the years. I try to understand where an editor is coming from and what the problem is that they are trying to solve. I feel it’s unhealthy and unrealistic to have the attitude that the editor is evil and a rival; they don’t want the magazine to be ugly. I have also found that the more seasoned and (dare I say) smart a magazine editor is, the more emphasis and importance he/she will put on the visuals. I tell editors not to come to me with a solution, but come to me with a problem.

Robert Newman: What are your design highlights from your time at Wired?

Brandon Kavulla: I had a fantastic team at Wired. I would say The Design Issue we did was one of my proudest moments. We started hitting our stride creatively as a team with that issue, and the magazine’s visual identity really started to gel. I really like the last three or four issues we worked on. We all felt it coming together. That’s when we also started hearing from a lot of people, seeing people tweeting the covers or features. You could feel people’s excitement. It was pretty wild and I’m very proud of our work.

Robert Newman: And what about any lowlights? Are there things that didn’t work, or that you wish you would have done differently?

Brandon Kavulla illo

Brandon Kavulla: There’s a great quote from Eugene Souleiman: “Unless you’re prepared to make a mistake, you’ll never do anything that hasn’t been done before.”

Of course there were covers that I would like to bury. One thing that never really worked for us was attempting to use pieces of letterforms as graphic devices in the front of book. I desperately wanted to try some new ways of organizing information and I had never really seen anyone try to do something like that. But hey, it’s Wired. We’re supposed to be pushing the needle. That said, there are some absolutely gorgeous and cool FOB pages. Ace art director Bradley R. Hughes and his team did extraordinary things at the magazine.

Robert Newman: How did your “push hard creatively and not accept the rules” philosophy come into play at Wired?

Brandon Kavulla: It’s affected every title: Spin, Best Life, Men’s Health and Wired. It really broke me out of very linear, explainable, logical thinking. It’s good to think that way of course, but it can also hinder innovation. “Hey, everything is lined up perfectly and everything is perfectly consistent and everything makes perfect sense: but it’s a completely forgettable layout.” If I ever feel a little embarrassed or have it cross my mind that “I can’t do this” or, even better, “I shouldn’t do this”… it’s probably an awesome design. At Details, suddenly Rockwell Harwood would be throwing in a full page of magenta in a story where it didn’t appear anywhere else, or he would crop in on one part of an image instead of using the whole thing as planned, or completely ignore the grid and text formatting, etc. I’d say “You can’t do that, dude, come on…it makes no sense.” His quote was “What, dude, are the design police going to come and arrest you? Just make it look good.” After that, I came on at Spin with a new vengeance; turn the type upside down; stretch it across two or three pages; break the headline apart. Let’s have a drink, swing big and see what the hell we can get away with. Break some china.

Robert Newman: How was it working at service magazines like Best Life and Men’s Health? Those magazines are hardcore service, where everything is done to deliver material to the reader in as accessible a form as possible. What did you learn there, and what does an art director have to do to stay creative in an environment like that?

Brandon Kavulla: Typically I would say the popular definition of something being a service article or magazine is if you are showing or teaching someone how to do something. Here is how to do this workout or make this meal, step one, two, three. I would say the biggest challenge with Best Life was doing things that were not what the company would traditionally define as service. A 10-page fashion story where it’s just New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady looking cool in clothes: is that service? Well you are showing a reader how he could dress and giving him information, but it doesn’t look like an instruction manual in the traditional sense. It was a big battle, because Best Life introduced a new way of looking at and defining service to a company that had kind of always done it a particular way. Our fashion director at Best Life, John Mather, gave a great presentation at a sales meeting once and (hilariously and brazenly) said, “Why does service have to be ugly? With lists and arrows and bar charts and long explanations?” It doesn’t! That’s one thing that would always drive me crazy; saying that something has to look a certain way because of the subject matter. When I came on at Men’s Health, that was really something I wanted to prove. This was a mass market, service, working out, nutrition magazine, and I thought it could look just as elegant and sophisticated as GQ or Details.

Robert Newman: What was it like to follow highly-regarded creative director Scott Dadich at Wired?

Brandon Kavulla: Well it really is the toughest gig you can ask for: following an already-loved design that certainly doesn’t have anything wrong with it and being asked to change it substantially. In comparison, it’s vastly easier to take a magazine that people don’t like—or don’t even notice the creative—and make it better. With a gig like Wired, we had people ready to not like what we were doing before they had even see it, just because it’s not what it was before. Of course getting a great deal of Scott’s support and endorsement (at the time) helped a lot. I had to remember that I wasn’t hired to repeat what Wired had already done and I wasn’t hired because my work looked like what Wired had already done. I was hired because of the work I had done leading up to Wired. I was hired to do what I do and it would have been dishonest and irresponsible to do anything else. It would have been incredibly easy to just duplicate what had already been done: use the same contributors, type, graphics, etc. However that was not the job I was given and honestly that’s not something I would have felt good about doing anyway. At the end of the day, I just focused on doing the work I promised through my portfolio.

Robert Newman: Where do you think print magazines will be in five years?

Brandon Kavulla: I think it’s pretty easy to predict what’s going to happen or, rather, what is happening. You just have to look at similar industries—like the music business—and then also note the trajectory of most technology. Also, distribution has always dictated the physical medium. We printed stories on paper, stapled them and mailed them out because that was the quickest way to get the information to the largest number of people. Additionally, magazines are monthly, bi-monthly or weekly, primarily because of print production reasons. Another comparison to the record industry, I think the monthly, bi-monthly or weekly format will eventually be as irrelevant as the vinyl record terminology of A-side and B-side.

If you look at technology… say, letterpress, silkscreen, cassette tapes, vinyl, various kinds of cameras or photographic processes, etc… they all follow a similar pattern: The New Innovative Technology > The Industry Standard > Outdated/Obsolete > Fine Art/Bespoke. Like getting your business cards letter pressed or a band having a special vinyl edition of their album, I think magazines will eventually be considered luxury extensions of brands: “Oh, you have a print edition! Fancy.” And this is already happening. One area that is doing very well in print is the luxury market. An interesting quote from a piece in The New York Times: “In luxury, paper is still king,” said Samir Husni, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi who tracks new magazines. “These advertisers (Chanel, Cartier, Porsche) view digital editions as a very disposable thing. You wave your hand and it’s gone.” We’re at a moment of massive redefinition of what the metrics of a successful title, issue or story are. Technology will only get cheaper, faster, thinner, more mobile. And it’s good to remember that one day our iPads will seem like Atari systems to our kids.

[Originally published in Gym Class Magazine, “the magazine about magazines.” Copies available from Magculture.]