In anticipation of the 2016 AIGA Design Conference less than one month away (October 17-19 in Las Vegas; register by October 6), we’re getting an early dose of the kind of the design inspiration attendees can expect by hosting six conversations with 12 AIGA Design Conference speakers we just couldn’t wait any longer to meet.

Editor-in-chief of The Great Discontent, Tina Essmaker, and editor-in-chief of Hello Mr., Ryan Fitzgibbon, both launched their print magazines on Kickstarter a few years ago when crowdsourcing was first being used as the major source of investment for those starting independent titles. The Great Discontent had already begun as a digital mag in 2011, quickly garnering attention for its candid, longform conversations with people working in creative industries, and it released its first print issue in 2014. Hello Mr. launched as a print publication in 2013; each of its now eight issues sets out to reflect the experiences of gay men today.

The Great Discontent
The Great Discontent

Although the content of the two titles vary, they have one crucial thing in common: both use print as a vehicle for building community. Here Essmaker and Fitzgibbon talk via G-chat about their passion for print, what it takes to get a title off the ground, how to build a committed audience, and covering costs in a notoriously pricey industry.

Hello Mr. issue 8
Hello Mr. issue 8

Tina Essmaker: After several years of the online magazine, we decided to add a print counterpart. In the meantime, we had moved from Michigan to NYC for work. Ryan [Essmaker, The Great Discontent’s art director and Tina’s husband] was working full-time as a creative director at a small studio and I was working part-time as a community manager and doing freelance copywriting. TGD was still a passion project at the time. We decided to do everything at once: quit our jobs, launch a Kickstarter, and make our first print magazine.

Ryan Fitzgibbon: For me, the idea for Hello Mr. came in 2011 when I was living in San Francisco, in the Castro and commuting to Palo Alto, where I worked as a communication designer and strategist for IDEO. I was 23, maybe 24, and even after three years in San Francisco I still felt a disconnect to my identity as a gay man. As a designer and a brand geek, I felt compelled and prepared to take on the personal assignment of creating a brand that reflected who I was as a gay man and what I cared about.

Essmaker: And were you still working full-time or had you already moved on from IDEO?

Fitzgibbon: The concept generation was all happening while I was at IDEO. Fast forward a bit and you’ll find me in Australia launching a Kickstarter to get the first issue off the ground. As soon as I told my friends and acquaintances about the idea for Hello Mr. there was a resounding feeling that it needed to happen. What the crowdfunding platform provided was not just financial support, but the interest and feedback from a global audience. It was my first proof of concept and over 30 days, I raised $26,000 from over 650 backers and garnered over 100,000 words in submissions from our first core group of contributors. In retrospect it sounds easy, but it was a process.

Essmaker: That’s amazing!

Fitzgibbon: There weren’t many magazines on Kickstarter getting funded back then, so $26,000 felt like quite a victory. Most projects that go viral now have a few more zeros behind that! How was your crowdfunding experience?

Essmaker: We did our Kickstarter in 2014, so it was a little later on. We had been publishing online for a couple years, so we already had an amazing community that had started to grow around TGD. Printing is expensive and we wanted to see if our community was actually interested in a print mag.

We had requests from them throughout the years, but Kickstarter was a safe place to say, “Okay, guys, we’re really going to do this. Are you in?” And they were. We raised $105k, which was all budgeted out for expenses, like paying our friend Frank Chimero to help us work on the design system since this was our first jump into print. And tons of other costs you don’t think about with print. That’s a whole other conversation, right Ryan?

Fitzgibbon: Oh yeah, that money was absorbed by product costs in the blink of an eye!

The community you had built around TGD was already so strong and so loyal. Was your intent always to launch a magazine when TGD first came to be?

Essmaker: We had talked about doing a print mag from the start, when we were still in Michigan. But we weren’t sure where to begin and we didn’t have the capital to invest, so we started with what we knew. Ryan was designing for the web and I could write, so we decided to launch first as on online mag. Did you consider other formats or did you know print was it?

Fitzgibbon: Print was always—and in many ways still is—the goal for me. I wanted to make a product that could be seen and that could start to change the visual landscape of the newsstand. As a younger, closeted teen, I would search for gay magazines at the Barnes & Noble in my hometown in Midland, Michigan, but nothing was accessible to me. I couldn’t relate to the content, and the covers were often too salacious for me to dare pick up.

Essmaker: I love that the impetus for your mag was really to create something that was missing for you… And in doing so, it resonated with so many others who were searching for this same thing.

Fitzgibbon: My mission for Hello Mr. was always to make something that could break that model and start reshaping opinions of what a “gay lifestyle” meant. There’s so much you can still do in print that you can’t do on the web, like build a community. How have you seen The Great Discontent community change, if at all, since you introduced print?

Essmaker: I think we’ve reached more people who randomly discover us in stores. The mag is also like this calling card, right? People will say, “I went to my friend’s house and saw The Great Discontent on their coffee table and thought that was cool.” Or, “I stayed at an Airbnb and the host had a copy of The Great Discontent.” And the print mag has led to other things, like events. And this year we launched a podcast, too.

Fitzgibbon: It really does have that affect. I call it a “badge.” Our readers flaunt our magazine proudly, on the train, at a cafe, on their nightstands. It really does say something about who you are and what you value. How is the podcast going?

Essmaker: We had been thinking about it for a while. The podcast and live events go hand in hand. This year we launched TGD Live, which is a monthly event series featuring interviews and performances. We record the audio, edit it, and publish it to our podcast. We wanted everyone to be able to enjoy the shows, not just those who are in NYC who can attend.

Fitzgibbon: It’s such a rich experience to read about these people we admire and then supplement that by hearing more of their backstory live. And for the readers who can attend, to meet each other and build connections from that environment that you’ve curated. Events are a big part of our business, too.

Essmaker: I saw that you just did a live event in New Orleans. And you’ve been hosting parties, which I hear are awesome. Do you see Hello Mr. doing more of these types of things to bring your readers together in a physical space?

Fitzgibbon: Since we only publish twice a year, it’s important to have checkpoints between issues to keep our audience engaged. Many of our big events throughout the year are designed to give our readers a chance to let loose, dance, and meet other like-minded misters. At the end of the day we aren’t creating magazines, we’re building communities, and these in-person experiences are what it’s all about.

Essmaker: I agree 100%! The spirit of Hello Mr. or TGD could be encapsulated by any medium. It’s about staying true to that and creating a space for your community.

Fitzgibbon: I need an Oprah hug.

Essmaker: *Virtual hug*

Fitzgibbon: Because I wanted to build this space for a sense of community, at first I was allergic to advertisers. But eventually I came around to working with brands who really understood what we were about and the kind of change I was aiming to achieve.

Essmaker: I think it’s expected. You have to cover costs somehow and we’re so used to seeing ads everywhere. I’ve looked through your issues and the ads aren’t disruptive at all. The way we fund our print is by investing profits from current issues into future issues. We were ad-free for the first three issues, and with Issue 4 we’ve introduced a few well-designed ads, which helps underwrite the cost of printing.

Fitzgibbon: Luckily, readers understand that, too, and value the content we produce enough to pay a premium for it. I remember having a conversation about how much I was planning on setting the cover price at before I launched: $20—gasp!

Essmaker: 💰

Fitzgibbon: Remember, this was 2013, when consumers were used to magazine subscriptions that cost $0.99 for an “ENTIRE YEAR OF GQ!”

Essmaker: The glossies at the checkout.

Fitzgibbon: That model still exists because #ads #sponsored #eyeballs

Essmaker: Yes, and I think that what we’re both doing is not playing that game, right? We’re creating content that’s evergreen, that people are proud to have out on their coffee tables.

Fitzgibbon: But what we’ve all seen over the last three years is that quality lasts. Frequency is less important than content that matters. And people who value that will support the people who value them.

Essmaker: Yes, I couldn’t have said it better.

Register to join Ryan Fitzgibbon and Tina Essmaker at the Emerging Designers Symposium.
Illustration by Oscar Bolton Green