In praise of slow – on the Kinfolk redesign

The redesign of this doyen of US indie publishing seeks to distance the title from its legion of imitators, while offering a deft balance between evolution and familiarity

Billed as a “bigger, bolder Kinfolk” the US magazine has not only increased in size but added a range of new sections, feature formats and paper stocks inside. Changes beyond the look and feel of the print title also include a new website by UK studio Six and an editorial board (consisting of designers, architects and theorists), alongside a new office and gallery space in the centre of Copenhagen by Norm Architects.

Kinfolk launched in Portland in July 2011 with the tagline of ‘A guide for small gatherings’. In its earlier incarnations it was things like “food, shared meals, the idea of gathering around a table and sharing ideas with like-minded individuals” that became the focus of Kinfolk’s editorial agenda, as co-founder Nathan Williams told Dezeen in March this year.

Through its pages, the magazine would advocate “slow living”, becoming a “peaceful place for readers”. Initially, the Kinfolk team partnered with publishers Weldon Owen, part of the large Bonnier AB group, going wholly independent from their seventh issue. Since then Kinfolk has established offices in Osaka and a new HQ in Copenhagen.

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Cover of Kinfolk issue 22

The first edition to sport the new look by Kinfolk Design Director Alex Hunting is issue 22, a special on “work and the entrepreneurial spirit”. Presumably with its substantial audience of creative professionals firmly in mind, there are features on perfumer Ben Gorham, fashion designer Nicole Farhi, a story on “uniforms that defy uniformity” and an essay on the history of the personality test.

So far, so Kinfolk, you might say. And at a little over its five-year anniversary, the pervasive influence of the Kinfolk ‘world’ is certainly something that’s been pored over many times before. It’s been copied and parodied, praised and pulled apart in equal measure. How many other magazines have spawned an unofficial blog that records each time an artfully shot image of the publication – complete with artisanal coffee/piece of found wood – is posted to Instagram?

In April 2014, The New York Times claimed Portland, Oregon “may have officially out-twee’d itself with Kinfolk”. The newspaper’s profile of the quarterly sniffed at its “elegant white pages showing little more than beautiful, dreamy young (mostly white) people, wearing loose braids, knit caps, calico skirts and plenty of comfy flannel” engaged in a range of “earthy things”.

Yet Kinfolk knows what it is and knows its readers, too. And with 80,000 subscribers it’s now in a good position to move on from the wider aesthetic generated in the wake of its own success.

Last year, in a piece on It’s Nice That which touched on the divisive nature of the magazine, Rob Alderson suggested Kinfolk had become a victim of its own success in part because of the consistency its identity. “This backlash only really works because it is immediately obvious what a Kinfolk kind of image, or article, actually is,” he wrote. “Did the magazine create the culture of visual conformity, or was it just perfectly placed to take advantage of it?”

In March 2015 Gym Class magazine tapped into what it saw as a movement that was painfully stuck, issuing a striking text-only cover for its 12th issue that intoned – ‘Nobody Cares About Your Oh-So-Cool Kickstarted Tactile Minimalist Unoriginal Magazine’.

Steven Gregor, the magazine’s founder, now working on a forthcoming TV and movies title, believes that Kinfolk’s skill has been in keeping one step ahead of its copyists while retaining a loyal readership. “I think Kinfolk deserves more respect,” he says. “The infamous ‘Nobody Cares’ Gym Class cover was never about Kinfolk – it was a commentary on the Kinfolk copycats. There have been many imitators, but most of them are no longer around or publishing with such infrequency they’re barely a blip on my radar.

“To my mind, it’s one of a handful of indie magazines that deserve continued recognition and praise. Kinfolk represents the very best – and most successful – of indie magazines. It’s a true indie publishing success story.”

Kinfolk’s new look sees a more dynamic approach to the layouts and type treatments; a move away from some of the elements that have come to be found in a large chunk of contemporary indie publishing. Indeed, a criticism that’s been levelled at the range of ultra-minimalist titles that inhabit this space is their unwillingness to evolve, that they seem straightjacketed to a particular design aesthetic.

The Kinfolk redesign is in good hands, too. Kinfolk’s London-based Design Director Alex Hunting is also the Art Director of Rapha’s Mondial magazine and Avaunt. For the redesign, Hunting says he looked to “evolve [Kinfolk’s] aesthetic while retaining the magazine’s sensitive approach to photographic art direction”. (The magazine designer has just posted a range of spreads of the new issue on alexhunting.co.uk.)

“The new larger size and 12-column grid allow for more flexibility within the layouts and help vary the pace throughout the magazine”, he continues. “We’ve also introduced a coated paper for the feature section to celebrate the exceptional longer form photographic pieces.” Serif typefaces provide a loose reference to the work of Alexey Brodovitch for Harper’s Bazaar, Hunting adds, as well as more populist mid-twentieth-century titles.

“Combined with more variation in the scale of typography, particularly on feature openers and in the shorter sidebars, and with the introduction of a themed middle section and specially-treated Directory – we’ve hopefully created a more immersive and dynamic experience for the reader.”

Inevitably there will be some who see Kinfolk’s evolution as nothing more than an exercise in regrouping. But Gregor sees a wider issue with the way that ‘successful’ magazines are viewed within the context of indie publishing. “A lot of people have been excited about indie magazines for a while now,” he says. “As a community, I feel we’ve become fixated on the new; we’ve convinced ourselves that more and more indie magazines launching is a sign of wider success.

“Feeding into this, I think we’ve too often turned a blind eye when a new indie magazine promises a lot but delivers little. More and more magazines launching does not equal success; rather, people buying magazines regularly and loyally does.”

It’s a harsh but fair assessment, Gregor admits. “Quality writing and art, multiple paper stocks, special printing techniques, and indie community fanfare will not save your magazine if not enough people buy it to allow you to continue publishing,” he says. “Too much indie magazine commentary – including that within Gym Class – seems to forget this.”

Implicit in Gregor’s ‘Nobody Cares’ Gym Class cover was a call-to-arms for originality and a sense of purpose in magazine publishing. Kinfolk has both those things – and a hell of a lot of readers. Whether its content interests you or not, where it goes next following this redesign will reveal much about the state of what it means to be ‘indie’ and what these kinds of titles can achieve.

See kinfolk.com and alexhunting.co.uk

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