Disegno founder Johanna Agerman Ross on launching a magazine

Design writer and tutor Angharad Lewis’ new book So you want to publish a magazine? offers an in-depth guide to launching a new publication. In the first of a series of extracts from the book, Lewis talks to Johanna Agerman Ross, founder of design journal Disegno

So you want to publish a magazine? is packed with useful advice for aspiring publishers. The book is divided into ten chapters covering every aspect of launching a new title, from developing an initial concept to working with advertisers, printers and distributors. Each chapter contains brief case studies on successful magazines and interviews with industry experts, including Monocle founder Tyler Brûlé and The Gentlewoman’s editor-in-chief Penny Martin.

Throughout this month, we’ll be publishing extracts from some of the interviews featured in the book – here, Angharad Lewis talks to Johanna Agerman Ross, who founded design journal Disegno in 2011…

Something of a rarity in the world of independent publishing, Disegno achieved early commercial success to the extent of paying for its own office and full-time staff of eight within three years, writes Angharad Lewis. It operates as part of a small two-magazine publishing venture and creative studio, Tack Press. Here, Agerman Ross reveals how meticulous planning, foresight about publishing trends and sympathetic appreciation for commercial partners have built a rock-solid base for her magazine business.

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Issue 3 of Disegno. Cover image by Ola Bergengren

What’s the publishing model for Disegno? 

I can’t claim that it’s in any way revolutionary, because it’s supported by advertising, but I guess what I wanted to do differently was inspired by what I saw in the fashion biannual. There was a hunger from luxury brands to place their ads in nice-looking magazines twice a year. I didn’t feel the design magazine market had really clocked that.

I had been frustrated, in my previous role at Icon, that, editorially, fashion was a sideline. I always wanted it to be an equal part of looking at design. I saw Disegno as a chance for a more in-depth take on fashion writing.

In terms of business, I saw a niche. Just in 2014, three new design biannuals launched, so I guess Disegno has shown the way somehow. None are published by big publishing houses – all are independent – but it’s interesting that we have set a format that has been looked at by other people.

How did you fund the launch of Disegno? 

The funding was made up of my own savings and a personal loan from a friend from my schooldays, whom I paid back after a year. But I also worked really hard on paper and print sponsorship, and I asked contributors to write and photograph for free in exchange for getting them to places – I paid for the trips to cover the stories I wanted in the magazine

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Disegno No.5. Cover image by Giles Prince, from a cover story on the Kumbh Mela, a religious pilgrimage in India

What part does your online platform, Disegno Daily, play in your publishing?

I decided that if we did a biannual, there would be more opportunity to build a website and keep that as a talking point, a place for discussion and for keeping up to date with things. I always felt that the website and magazine had to be connected. Another thing I added to the model was the events series. We have been doing talks and film screenings and tours, all kinds of things – trying to be inventive. I felt if I started something new I wouldn’t want to do the magazine first and then build the other things around it. It was important to do everything at the same time, otherwise you get into a routine. A magazine is a time-consuming thing, so you could find yourself asking ‘How am I ever possibly going to add anything more to it?’ I thought, if you start as you intend to go on and perfect everything later, that’s a good way of doing it. I remember the first document I wrote in Autumn 2010 (we launched in Autumn 2011) set out three focuses: not just fashion, design and architecture, but the three elements – live format, printed format, online format. They have been there from the beginning.

Was the advertising side of the business difficult to get going, and has it changed? 

The relationship with advertisers has to be constantly massaged, entertained and looked after. There’s an age-old dilemma: a lot of magazines feel that if they carry advertising they have to pander to the advertisers to some degree. That’s something we’ve been very careful not to do as a magazine. We have our editorial stance and we see that as quite separate, and advertising is something that complements our content. I have always seen advertising as a valuable part of the magazine because I personally think it’s nice to look at advertising in a magazine, if it’s well done. Sadly, this is where the design industry is very far behind the fashion industry, where they invest significant budgets in making very interesting, beautiful campaigns every season. But in the design industry, you often see [a brand] having the same art for at least a year, sometimes more. That’s not as inspirational as going through the September issue of Vogue.

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Disegno No.4. Cover image: Ola Bergengren
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Disegno No.7 Cover image from a feature on artist Olafur Eliasson

What questions should an aspiring magazine publisher ask themselves?

The one thing that everyone seems not to understand is how much time it takes. You need to ask yourself if you’re up for the sacrifices it leads to. If you do want to start it as a business that’s going to support you and the people you work with, it will be very, very time-consuming and you have to go through several years to get where you want to be.

On the other hand, it can be good not to ask the questions, to go in a bit blind. If someone had told me exactly what the process would be from when I started to now, I would probably have said: ‘No, I’ll stick to the day job.’ But when you come out at the other end, it’s very rewarding to see that you’ve made something that works and that you can support yourself and a team, and pay office rent and things like that. I would say, though, that you need a specific psyche – being quite stubborn. Both Marcus [Agerman Ross, Johanna’s husband and partner in Tack Press] and I have benefited from not being able to take ‘no’ for an answer from anyone.

You need to be passionate about your subject matter. We’re not business people: I come from a design history and writing background, and Marcus comes from styling and photography. But that has really helped us: everything in Jocks and Nerds is what he’s passionate about through and through; everything in Disegno is something I can stand and shout about from the rooftops. If you don’t have a true, passionate interest, then it’s easy to give up when things don’t go your way. To the point of being stupid, you have to believe in what you’re doing.

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So you want to publish a magazine? published by Laurence King

So you want to publish a magazine? is published by Laurence King on August 5 and costs £19.95. Angharad Lewis is co-editor of Grafik magazine and a tutor at The Cass School of Design. 

To celebrate the book’s launch, we’ll be offering an exclusive discount code for readers of CR – check back on August 5 for details.

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