Inside magazine design

Despite the tremendous growth of the internet, magazines remain unassailably cool. Jason Walsh talks to a range of designers across the industry to find out what the ink-stained life is really like.

Once viewed as the nadir of journalism, magazines are now close to being seen as its apogee. Unlike other forms of publishing, magazines have always been aware of the importance of image. Think of seminal titles such as The Face, which only found its feet after hiring Neville Brody, and i-D, Nova and Cosmopolitan in their heydays. On the pages of these publications, design was at least as important as the words.

Today's media landscape is complex. Newspapers are becoming ever more magazine-like while so-called customer or contract magazines are competing with the efforts of traditional publishers. As a result, many larger magazine publishers are cutting budgets and consolidating and folding titles while audiences shrink. And then there's the spectre of the internet, which has completely changed our media consumption habits and put publishers on the back-foot. Yet, there is no reason to think magazines are heading for the scrapheap of dead media. Despite the huge growth in web-based publishing, not to mention blogging, the independent magazine sector is stronger than ever. Editorial design, meanwhile, remains an important discipline. "Magazine design requires a slightly different approach because the words are so important. Your job is to keep the interest of the reader," says design consultant Matthew Ball, who has worked on titles as diverse as Mixmag, Popular Science and Rolling Stone. Broadly speaking, magazines break down into four categories: newsstand, controlled-circulation, customer titles published under contract for a client and free-distribution titles such as event guides.

A career in design
The typical way to get a career in magazine design is to reply to job advertisements in The Guardian's media supplement. All of the majors, from IPC to Hachette to Future, advertise in it when seeking staff. But that's not the only way. Serendipity also plays a part, as does a great deal of determination. Alex Cameron of creative co-operative [de]sign, a loose network of designers, photographers and wordsmiths, is now working on Under Five - the magazine of the Pre-School Learning Alliance. In the past he has designed several current affairs magazines, including LM, New Times and New Humanist. Working on text-heavy current affairs titles is a very different experience to that of a style or fashion magazine. "I approach the situation as a problem that can be resolved by ideas," says Cameron. "It forces you to think, and thinking creatively is a big part of the designer's role. If a project does not have the budget for photography then more attention can be put into typography, colour, paper, or format. I learned to get my creative kicks from putting effort into things like the kerning of headlines and the finer points of typography."

Cameron is self-taught and came to design via an unusual route. He had been working in an art gallery, but boredom propelled him to quit. The gallery's owners asked Cameron to take over design at a small publishing house they owned. "If I were a religious man I would say it was the hand of God at work," he says. "Within a year I was running the studio. I am self-taught and adamant that I am better read than most designers who went through a graphic design degree - while I wouldn't necessarily recommend it!"

Budget problems are often an issue for small magazines, particularly when it comes to getting illustrations and photographs. "In short, you beg, borrow and sometimes - shock, horror - even steal!" admits Cameron. "I am a graphic designer, not an illustrator or a photographer. They are very particular skills that need to be kept out of the hands of graphic designers."

Independent, not indigent
Independent publishing is possibly the most exciting area of magazine publishing today, and what it lacks in stability, it makes up for in fresh ideas. The key is finding a niche. "We're a non-urban lifestyle magazine," says Helen Gilchrist, editor of Falmouth-based Stranger magazine. "Our target market is 18 to 35-year-olds. Most magazines targeted at that market are urban and consumption-centred."

Stranger is designed by Ross Imms of A-Side Studio, although the current issue is guest art-directed by Kyn and Cai Taylor of One AD. "It can be challenging," says Imms on the collaborative nature of working on a magazine. "It's not all down to the art direction though, it's part of the editorial process. We come up with ideas for stories and threads and the editors come up with visual ideas. The boundaries are quite blurred."

Distribution remains a problem for many independent publishers. Stranger currently has national distribution through selected bookshops and newsagents as well as intensive local distribution throughout Cornwall, but truly national distribution is frighteningly expensive and, for niche titles, often wasteful.

Controlled circulation - posting out copies of a magazine free to subscribers - is common in the trade sector. "It is much easier to control," explains Tom Dunwoody, who was behind the recent launch of Design View magazine. "Of course any free magazine has to be funded in some way - that's through adverts - but we won't be a 'yes magazine' to advertisers."

Another kind of magazine that doesn't have to worry about distribution are the growing number of customer magazines. When Clarks wanted to produce a stylish customer magazine to promote its Originals range of shoes it went to Birmingham's independent digital agency TAK. The end result was the sumptuous Walkie Talkie.

"Clarks wanted something different and they wanted it to be targeted towards their audience but not in an in-your-face way," says TAK's Dom Murphy. "The project was more about original thinkers, musicians and artists."

As a result, Walkie Talkie's design was deliberately low on branding and high on production values. "We designed it to look like a Clarks product and to look crafty. It's not really similar to other magazines, it's unique," says Murphy. The 200,000 copies, printed and distributed internationally, primarily through Clarks outlets, art galleries and other fashionable places, were all gone within ten days.

"After graduating in Critical Fine Art, I worked as a runner for a post-production house," says Kelly Al-Saleh, who designs contract magazines for Orpheus Publications. "I was watching a bunch of Otto Preminger films and was intrigued by the title sequence and accompanying artwork - I found out it was by graphic designer Saul Bass. After reading Bass's essays on design, where he describes it as being the essence of the idea, I decided to go into graphic design."

Al-Saleh points out that while contract publishing is a land of opportunity, the opportunities may not be quite what a young design graduate full of new ideas expects. "If you mean jobs, then yes there are plenty of them. If you mean creative opportunities, then I would say don't go into this sector expecting to be the next Neville Brody," she advises. "Any creative opportunities that do exist will have to be of your own making. In order to do that you need to understand the drive behind contract publishing." Or, to put it another way, people create opportunities themselves, but they don't create the context in which they happen.

Nevertheless, it's not necessarily different in other sectors. "Ultimately designers have to fight hard to get design taken seriously in most places, no more so than in contract publishing," says Al-Saleh. It doesn't really matter what kind of magazine you're working on, she says, but "understanding and knowing your craft is key to producing really good work."

The backbone of any magazine design is its layout, and the traditional layout software has long been QuarkXPress. But in the last five years that has started to change. "Software-wise, we use InDesign," says Imms. "We don't use Quark - it would be much more challenging. We supply InDesign files and send them to the printer, then go down and check the hard proofs."

In an era of PDFs, soft-proofing and the strange decline of the once-popular Cromalin, Imms's technique seems curiously old-fashioned, and yet there's a good reason for it: control. There's nothing quite like holding a proof in your hand. "We'd never done editorial design before and approached it like a traditional print job. We've learned a lot since then - rhythm and flow is important in a magazine."

Changing formats
When it comes to the often-insurmountable issue of print costs, some magazines get around the problem by not bothering at all, and an increasing number of titles have gone online in search of an international audience. Arguably web design is a lot less flexible than print, but that doesn't mean it's restrictive. Japan's Pingmag doesn't let its web-only nature get in the way of good presentation. For print designers, though, the humble PDF brings increased creative freedom and instantaneous publishing.

CANDY is an international graphic design magazine published quarterly by Richard Seabrooke. "CANDY will never appear in print," he says. "From the perspective of getting paid and distribution, it would be too hard."

The ColdType Reader is published every month by News Design Associates in Canada, edited and designed by Tony Sutton. Sutton started out as a journalist on a regional newspaper and eventually ended up designing Drum, an anti-apartheid news magazine, in South Africa during the 1980s before decamping to Canada to found his company News Design Associates. Today he is a world-renowned editorial designer and former president of the Society for News Design, and travels the world re-designing newspapers and magazines.

For Sutton, whose work is seen by thousands of readers every day, The ColdType Reader is an opportunity to pursue a personal interest: "The main difference between The Reader and regular magazines is that we give it away free, accept no advertising and we don't ask readers for donations," says Sutton. "This spring we're launching another magazine and have plans for a third later in the year. Fortunately there are thousands of subscribers around the world who share my tastes."

Best of both worlds
PDFs aren't the only option open to non-print magazines that don't want to exist merely as a website. Even humble email is worth considering. Every week Le Cool arrives in inboxes around Europe, proving that email can be a beautiful medium for graphic communication. "It's the best of both worlds," says Keith Simpson, designer of B4, a publication available both in print and as a Flash-based interactive magazine. "Our printed publication is mailed direct to businesses and our online version is accessible by anybody."

"We use all the usual culprits: QuarkXPress, Acrobat, Illustrator, FreeHand 10 and Photoshop," Simpson continues. "Our studio is totally Mac-based and we currently run G5 and G4 computers."

A possible third way between print and the web is print-on-demand (POD). Art magazine Mute has moved from being a traditional magazine to a web/POD hybrid. Before this, the magazine had been around the block more than once: it started out as a newspaper, went colour and glossy and then transformed into a bookazine.

"Our magazine is like a good quality photocopy," says Mute's co-director and publisher Simon Worthington, who, together with his colleagues, has managed to turn what many would see as a technical limitation into an actual feature. "Prior to DTP the primary method for small publishing was Xerox, and so there is a language from that," he says.

That Mute is published both online and in print is essential to its ongoing success - unlike some small publications, the magazine does pay its staff and contributors. Despite the format changes, Worthington remains adamant that it remains a magazine. "I still see it as a magazine, [particularly] if you see it in combination with what happens online," he says.

With a burgeoning magazine sector and the unexpected dovetailing of publishing in print and on the web, the future looks bright for editorial design. As Sutton says: "There will always be a way to make money out of publishing. One day the internet will become the main source of publishing revenue. Can you imagine mainstream newspaper corporations spending millions on production if they can persuade readers to pay the same price to read the same stuff on the web?"

"I can't see why independents won't take advantage of the same economies," Sutton continues. "Could I make money out of my operation? Undoubtedly. But that's not why I do this job. I publish The ColdType Reader because it's fun, and that's priceless."

Are you looking to avoid the restrictions print brings with it? The versatile PDF could be just what you're looking for

Designing a magazine doesn't necessarily mean printing it. Though print costs have dropped significantly, it's still an expensive process, and this is a major factor in more magazines launching on the internet.

There is a halfway house, however, and that's PDF publishing. "Cost was the original reason for publishing as a PDF," says CANDY's Richard Seabrooke. "But I was always interested in PDFs - they're an underused format." Indeed, in design the PDF is everywhere and nowhere - virtually all print jobs are now supplied as PDFs and relatively few are distributed.

The design process is exactly the same as with traditional print - fire up QuarkXPress or InDesign and get started. The only difference is that instead of delivering it to a printer, the magazine is uploaded to a web server.

In fact, there are fewer restrictions when using PDFs - fancy using metallic tints that you could never afford in print? Go right ahead. The post-material nature of PDF publishing also encourages other breaks from the limitations of print. Increasingly there is a move towards including interactive elements in PDFs, such as hyperlinks.

Seabrooke points to another key advantage: "The minute we publish it, it gets downloaded all over the world. I don't think any print magazine can say that."