Making Magazines


Princeton Architectural Press has always been one of my favourite publishers and my personal library contains many marvelous selections from the past twelve years. They are also a publisher that I consistently stock at UPPERCASE. I was happy to receive some review copies from them last week (and even more thrilled to see an UPPERCASE link on their blog).

Making Magazines is the latest in the Fresh Dialogue Series / New Voices in Graphic Design. I have been involved in the design of Beyond magazine since 1996, so this is a topic of particular interest. Beyond is a not-for-profit magazine, and thus faces a very sporadic publishing schedule and uncertain existence. The magazines featured in Making Magazines are all non-mainstream publications also operating on non-traditional avenues of funding. The book features a transcript of a presentation by Tod Lippy, creator of the biannual visual extravaganza, Esopus; Lisa Farjam publishes a Middle-East culture mag called Bidoun; and David Haskell is the editor of Topic.

David Haskell said a few things that ring particularly true. "We operate on a timetable that is completely contingent on how fast we can get that next chunk of cash together. And that isn't fun. I actually think that if we came out more frequently, it would be much easier to sustain a conversation." This is a classic conundrum that Beyond faces, and our readers are often left for months (years!) waiting for the next issue to arrive. Although some conversation and interest can be maintained with a website or blog, it is the tangible appeal of ink on paper that magazine readers want.

Lippy, Farjam and Haskell all touch on the necessary physicality of the magazine. "An online publication just doesn't have that kind of tangible proof," says Farjam. "I think another reason is also that when you put so much energy into starting something, you want it to feel real," agrees Haskell. A good magazine has a physical relationship with its reader – it is held, carried and cared-for. Eventually, the magazine is left on a bedside table, forgotten for a time (its new life as a drink coaster) and later rediscovered for a pleasurable second read. One hopes that the magazine becomes a part of the reader's archive. Haskell continues on to say, "If you can make something that people want to keep on their shelves, then that distinguishes you from all the on- and off-line clutter."

Each of the Fresh Dialogue books are quick reads, since they are basically illustrated transcripts of  a podium discussion hosted by the American Institute of Graphic Arts. (These events are well-attended, with this seventh in the series realizing over 500 audience members.) One thing that this particular book is lacking is a feeling of personal connection to the speakers. Perhaps if the book included a portrait of each of the participants, or if the book design and typography offered a little more personality to its layout and presentation of magazine excerpts, I would feel more engaged in the discussion. Given that the book is released nearly a year after the event, it would benefit from additional content... perhaps more biographical detail about each of the participants, shots of their work spaces or inspiration, images of the design process or failed ideas... To simply present a transcript and reproduce magazine spreads seems like an under use of the book medium.

However, the speakers do offer interesting insight into a difficult field and I will certainly be passing this book on to Beyond's editor/publisher. I am sure she will find some kinship in their stories.

At the conclusion of their presentation, Haskell states, "The cool thing about magazines is that they are difficult to make, so not everybody can make them. You basically need enough money to buy a Volvo every few months. So there is that barrier to entry. But at the same time, it's not impossible to raise that kind of money and figure it out. In general, I don't think it's a bad thing that the world is full of magazines, because they express contemporary culture at a very particular level of sophistication. They're made by people who are not  masters of the universe yet, but who have enough drive to document the world around them and enough tenacity to see a project through."