From grid to print in two days flat

Magazines are used to slow-paced schedules, but what happens when editors and designers get together to make one in 48 hours…

With the exception of the early news magazines of the 1930s and 40s (Picture Post et al), the magazine has always been a relatively slow medium. Even before the internet increased the speed of media further, magazines were created, produced and distributed at a pretty sedentary pace compared to radio, daily newspapers and much TV.

This relative slowness is a vital part of magazine making. It allows content to be thoroughly investigated and tested before a story is commissioned, and means there’s time for reflection rather than just spontaneous reaction. This is why a blog like It’s Nice That can add a magazine to its publishing programme. Their website is regularly updated with posts about new creative projects, while the printed magazine features the work that after some time and consideration is judged worthy of further note. As Andrew Losowsky describes in his excellent Reading In Four Dimensions Kindle essay, the act of printing confers permanence and longevity on content. Existing in print is regarded as a stamp of quality.

Nowhere is this truer than in the US, where from a European standpoint the publishing industry appears pedantic about fact checking every detail of every article in a magazine. From a reader’s point of view this can be wonderful. It is why the in-depth celebrity interviews in Vanity Fair and the New Yorker’s investigative news stories are so assured and accurate. They have been written, checked, re-written, passed by lawyers, rewritten again, before reaching the design stage. By taking such care such magazines have earned a reputation as publications of record (although it’s worth pointing that a side-effect on lesser magazines can be a blandness as fact-checking removes personality from the copy). The same processes exist in the UK but are generally less rigorous because editorial staffing levels are lower.

The same is true in magazine design departments. A large UK design team is three or four people, while in the US teams can number six or seven. Sizes have declined as budgets have shrunk (and specialist roles dropped) but Americans still maintain larger teams than elsewhere.

Such detailed crafting by editorial and design specialists is a vital part of maintaining the quality of the finished publication, but it is also a hangover from old production systems. Like all graphic designers, editorial designers are now hands-on across multiple roles ranging from the macro (conceiving a cover concept) to the micro (perfecting the kerning of the cover lines). Recently many major publishers have added responsibility for iPad app production to the print design teams too, taking advantage of Adobe’s DPS tools running as an extension of InDesign.

This situation brings both advantages and disadvantages. The designer now has more control over every tiny element of a page but also has less time for big thinking – there is simply so much to do. The workflow process takes over and keeping on schedule becomes the key measure of achievement. I’ve seen this in many magazine offices – the time available for creative thinking and sharing with colleagues has been significantly squeezed by a need to keep to schedule.

As a response to this developing lack of spontaneity, and also as a reaction to the speed of blogs and social networks, several recent projects have set out to avoid detail and concentrate on collating and presenting content fast. Creating a magazine from scratch in 48 hours might seem even worse than what I’ve described above, but taking things to that extreme can be highly liberating. The 48-hour magazine allows magazine makers to take advantage of the speed of creation rather than be restricted by it, and in a sense travel in the opposite direction to that taken by It’s Nice That.

The first such project I was involved with took place in 2009 at Colophon, the independent magazine conference I co-curate in Luxembourg. We knew plenty of people would blog and tweet about the conference, but we wanted to record the weekend’s events in our own way, and a printed magazine seemed the appropriate form. We commissioned speakers and members of the audience (primarily magazine makers themselves) to draw, photograph and write about the weekend, posting appeals for specific material on the studio wall for people to respond to but also encouraging them to develop their own ideas. The result was a 108-page full colour publication that covered the main events but also allowed contributors to head off in obscure directions. At the closing party we projected the finished pages (printing took a little longer).

Other events have done similar things, including Nick Mrozowski’s Ink newspaper at last year’s Society of News Design conference in Detroit. And as I write I’m preparing for another week­end project, this time at the South Bank Centre in London.

But what if the magazine itself is the event? A group of San Francisco-based writers and designers took that step last year with the launch of Longshot magazine. The editors – all of whom have full-time commitments elsewhere – announce a theme online, accept submissions, then the team assembles and makes a magazine in 48 hours.

The latest issue, number two, has just been published with the topical theme Debt. It was designed by Everything Type Company, a new studio from Kyle Blue (who recently left interiors magazine Dwell) and Geoff Halber. “At Dwell we had issues in planning for six months,” explains Kyle, “and the page cycle can be as long as five weeks. It was really refreshing to be done with the project in two days.” The pair worked with two other designers (Everett Pelayo and Zak Klauck), several illustrators and photo editor Jon Synder. They went 36 hours without sleep, developing grids and templates on Friday evening, helping the editors select content through Saturday then designing on Saturday night and Sunday.

The result feels spontaneous, modern and very different to the more rarefied pages of Dwell, using red and black to play off the Debt theme and a group of fonts (Arial, Arial Monospace and Times New Roman) Kyle felt could be guaranteed to work well at speed alongside one character font, the dot matrix Fake Receipt. As free/system fonts they also related well to the theme – it felt wrong to be buying in expensive new typefaces for a magazine about debt. They developed the red watermark pattern based on currency designs, which was useful both for filling spaces and adding colour.

All the usual commissioning and decision-making had to take place at high speed. “You’d give an illustrator the brief and that was it … there was no time for a back and forth, you had to use what they produced,” says Kyle. Neither was there time for the usual detailing of typography and design elements, something I sensed was a cause of regret for Kyle. They did manage, though, to use page numbers that increase in point size page by page, reflecting the increasing US deficit. The finished result is available via print on demand service MagCloud.

Would he do it again? “I’ve done one of these now, I don’t need to do it again,” Kyle says. He did, though, return to the studio and encourage his colleagues to have a go next time.

Jeremy Leslie runs the magCulture.com blog

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