Weapons of Reason: the little mag tackling some big issues

Creative agency Human After All has launched a free magazine in partnership with D&AD which aims to encourage debate around global issues from climate change to conflict.

Cover illustration by Adrian Johnson

Creative agency Human After All has launched a free magazine in partnership with D&AD which aims to encourage debate around global issues from climate change to conflict. We spoke to publisher Danny Miller and creative director Paul Willoughby about the project.

Weapons of Reason is described as “a magazine to articulate the global challenges shaping our world.” Each issue considers a single topic the first, published this week, explores the Arctic and is divided into three sections: the past provides a history of the topic, the present includes essays and infographics on key issues affecting it and the future speculates on possible future scenarios.

The Arctic issue begins with an extract from John McCannon’s book, A History of the Arctic, while the present includes essays on the impact of our appetite for fossil fuels and Russia’s plans for Arctic exploration, as well as a photo essay on life on the Arctic Circle. The future considers two opposing visions of the Arctic in 2050; one where it has been destroyed, and another where it is thriving.

Illustration by Anna Dunn

Human After All plans to publish eight issues of the magazine over four years future topics include technology, governance and health as well as conflict. The magazine will be distributed for free in airports, universities, libraries, waiting rooms and cafes and copies can also be purchased for £6-8 from the Weapons of Reason website.

With thought-provoking articles and original illustrations throughout, it’s a compelling read. The simple layouts infographics help distil complex themes without oversimplifying, and each issue offers a series of further ‘points for action’, listing books, websites, newsletters and petitions related to the subjects discussed. Here, publisher Danny Miller and creative director Paul Willoughby explain the inspiration for the magazine and its design…

Illustration by Aaron Nelson

How did the idea for Weapons of Reason come about? At this year’s Modern Magazine Conference, you mentioned you were inspired by watching Al Gore talk at SXSW…

Danny Miller: One of the best things at SXSW is stumbling into unexpectedly wonderful talks, and in 2013 that happened for me with Al Gore. He talked about his book The Future and the six drivers of global change that he believes will define the next century … I learned so much in one hour and through subsequently reading the book that I began to realise how woefully disengaged I was with the world around me. I was interested in what Al was saying, but also in his style – breaking down really complex issues and relaying them in a way that I could immediately engage with emotionally.

Before I was even halfway through the book, I knew I would make a magazine tackling the same huge topics. Toward the end, Al dropped a quote from Marcus Aurelius:  “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it if you have to with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” I put the book down, bought weaponsofreason.com and started planning the first issue. That was 18 months ago, so it’s taken a while, but we’ve spent a lot of time interrogating the concept and looking at where and how we can add value for our audience.

What’s the aim of the magazine, and what do you hope readers will take away from each issue?

DM: Weapons of Reason presents relevant facts in a way that anyone can absorb them, providing an instant grounding in the core arguments that surround the issue. We’re very conscious of the fact that we’re not providing answers – instead we try to ask the right questions and leave the reader with enough freedom to connect the dots as they see fit.

We hope to ignite readers’ curiosity about current world issues that people might otherwise have found too complex or intimidating. As well as wanting to inspire people to think about big problems, we hope that people will take away the desire to take positive action – whether that’s to learn more by reading a book or watching a film, or to quit their job and dedicate their life to the cause.

Why did you decide to launch Weapons of Reason in print and not online?

DM: Because magazines are, in our opinion, outstanding communication tools. And also because you should do what you’re good at, and we hope we’re good at this [HAA was founded by the team that launched cult magazines Huck and Little White Lies]. We certainly ought to be, after so long.

Weapons of Reason is a storytelling project, and it makes sense that this should happen primarily in print, but with a close connection to digital channels, from where we can more link to actionable items. So while the print edition may be at the core of the project, our digital channels are also crucial in terms of our overall goals.

And how did the partnership with D&AD come about?

DM: We approached D&AD about six months ago because we’ve worked together on different projects over the years and really admire their White Pencil initiative. I once read an interview with (then) D&AD President Laura Jordan Bambach in which she said, “We’re in an amazing position as communicators, taking what is intangible to the world and making it understandable to everyone” – this could’ve been the brief for our project.

D&AD is helping us to extend the reach of the project through their many events, initiatives and connections in the creative industries, which is an amazing way to amplify what we’re doing.

Illustration by Eve Lloyd Knight

Could you explain the approach to design?

Paul Willoughby: Our approach to the design was to present a consistent, clear visual message. Whilst concepting, we were helped by imagining – what does the voice of reason sound like? We figured the voice would sit in a bold tonal range, be crystal clear, but never shout. This is why, for instance, we don’t use all caps to style text.

The visual information and message need to travel fast, [so] there’s no pointless decoration or embellishment, everything is lean and done for a reason. We pursued this by distilling each element to its core parts – making sure the activated data is the first page element the eye is drawn to. We also developed a colour system, using the palette throughout the whole magazine.

Illustration by Jean Jullien

There’s some great illustration in the mag – could you tell us a little more about how it’s used and how this will develop in future issues?

PW: A significant part of Human After All’s aesthetic stems from our use and appreciation of contemporary illustration. Using illustration allows us to control the tone of our storytelling, and we’ve employed it across approximately 90 percent of the magazine. We wanted to highlight not only the diverse ecosystem but the people, places, and some of the more complex scientific concepts, which sometimes took us a long time to understand.

The only exception is a feature from photographer Cristian Barnett, who travelled to the Arctic 13 times, meeting locals and taking amazing portraits which he collected in a book.

Illustration by Adrian Johnson

And what about the (A5) size and layouts? Was the aim with this also to make the mag as portable and easy to read as possible?

PW: When we were developing the project, we considered something physically quite large, almost the dimensions of a tabloid newspaper, so that we could fit in as much information and rich detail as possible. But as copy started to come in and and we began constructing early pages, it became clear that for our storytelling process, we’d need to give each piece its own room to breathe.

This called for a much smaller page size, in which we greatly reduced the amount of information that we were trying to get across in any one page or spread. We deconstructed the layers of data and simplified them down to only the key information that readers would need in order to further their understanding of the topic.

In doing this, we’ve come to have a magazine that, rather than being crammed with complex data visualisations, is instead filled with individual, clear points of fact. They’re only there if they help tell the story – everything has purpose.

Illustration by Anna Dunn

You previously mentioned that you were also keen to create ‘a sense of childlike simplicity’ in the magazine – could you tell us a little more?

PW: Our past section is inspired by A Little History of the World, which was written specifically for children by Ernst Gombrich in 1935. Gombrich was convinced that an intelligent child could understand even seemingly complicated ideas in history and wrote his book using only words and concepts that children could understand.

When I read it, I quickly realised that one of the most important things I lacked was context. My historical knowledge is very poor and so when I come to read about a financial crisis, a war in Gaza or Scottish independence, there’s big holes in my understanding that preclude me from gaining a proper understanding of the present. Making a magazine for adults with a sense of childlike simplicity seemed to be a good way to help us tell big, complexity stories with clarity.

Anna Dunn, via WOR on Instagram

Sketches via WOR on Instagram

Weapons of Reason is published by Human After All in partnership with D&AD. For details or to pre-order a copy of the first issue, see weaponsofreason.com

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