Many Eye on Design readers will have discovered ZEITmagazin for the same reason I did; beyond the stories it publishes, the German-language weekly’s design, visuals, and graphics make for a successfully contagious social media formula. The supplement is responsible for a global intake of breath amongst the design community whenever a new cover is posted on Instagram or Twitter; you can almost hear the world’s studios gleefully double-tapping when a new double cover illustrated by Christoph Niemann or Sarah Illenberger is released. ZEITmagazin is also adored for its fabulous flash photographs taken by names like Juergen Teller; it’s devoured for its tongue-in-cheek typographic treatments that bear the unmistakable signature of the supplement’s mischievous art director, Mirko Borsche. You might not be able to read the words in ZEITmagazin, but that doesn’t mean you can’t read it in other evocative ways.
Is there some magic formula team ZEIT has landed on, or does it simply come down to hours of hard work? Certainly its global notoriety can be attributed to how (and where, of course) its designers work: its team is scattered across Germany; it has a good-natured, yet competitive eye on Gail Bichler et al at the New York Times Magazine; and it keeps close tabs on the innovative output of young magazine makers and designers. But we wanted the details, so we visited the designers and editors themselves at their Berlin outpost.
It all starts every Monday morning at 10:15 a.m. sharp, when you’ll find editor-in-chief Christoph Amend sitting on the edge of design director Jasmine Müller-Stoy’s desk as staffers speedily congregate in the design team’s office for a meeting. Today, looking laid-back in his sneakers and jeans, Amend clutches his iPhone, excited (or bemused) by an email that’s just come through from Spotify.
“My most played genres in 2016 were hip hop, trip hop, ghetto house, and hip house,” he announces to no one in particular as a group of serious looking reporters filter in, steaming coffees in hand. A gang of young designers lean against the wall in another corner, arms crossed against chunky knitted sweaters. Behind Amend, great windows stretch from floor to ceiling, revealing the curving spires of central Berlin’s grand Museum Island.
This scene is indicative of the title itself: ZEITmagazin is committed to thoughtful storytelling, it’s in touch with the style of the times, and in many ways, it’s at the center of things. A lot of eyes, both those belonging to the design community and those reading the international politics pages, are watching Berlin right now.
Located in an otherwise anonymous part of the Mitte district (the gleaming dome of parliament visible to one side of the top floor office and the spiked tip of the iconic TV tower on the other), ZEITmagazin’s headquarters are far, far away from the “Mothership” newspaper Die Zeit. The daily is based further north in Hamburg, the city known for housing the country’s media industry; Berlin, on the other hand, is known to for its thriving art and design.
This Monday morning meeting is the most important of the week: everyone in the office must be there—editors, reporters, freelancers, graphic designers, interns, newbies, and admins. It’s not just to discuss the agenda or to dream up new stories, but more importantly it’s to see one another and to be seen.
“It’s a moment of discipline,” says Amend. “It’s important to have one point of the day where everyone knows that everyone’s there.”
The meeting itself is brief. A few ideas get flung around (mostly around what on earth to write about Ivanka Trump), and then there’s brief update from the editor in charge of that week’s issue. Then everyone is off, disassembling just as quickly as they came together, back into their respective department offices.
“Christoph gives these to me,” says Müller-Stoy as I thumb through a pile of independent magazines lying on her desk that includes The Berlin Quarterly, London-based Ladybeard, New York’s food journal Gather, and literary magazine The White Review.
“Sometimes I find people to commission in these magazines, but most of the time I find creatives on Instagram,” she continues, before Amend shuffles me towards his office for his next meeting with the reporters (the agenda: what to write about Angela Merkel as Germany heads towards its upcoming election).
“I’ve always been in touch with independent magazines, starting 12 years ago with Jörg Koch and 032c,” he says as we make our way down the airy and now completely still corridor. Amend is a great champion of the new wave of independents—I’ve seen him interview Ricarda Messner, editor of Berlin’s Flaneur, on stage at TYPO Berlin; I’ve seen him at the launch of MC1R, a magazine for red heads (Amend is strawberry blonde himself); and recently, he was the cover star for Latvia’s friendliest magazine, a title called Benji Newman (Amend blushes when I bring this up—“I had no idea I was going to be on the cover!”).
“Magazines like ours should be in touch with smaller independents, because it’s where things are going. It’s where new ideas are coming from,” he says. The connection leads to collaborations; recently, ZEITmagazin published a kid’s edition and Amend called on Flaneur’s design team, the fantastic Studio YUKIKO, to art direct the project.
It’s also led to the International Edition, which ZEITmagazin launched three years ago. The biannual English edition has a modest 16,000 print run, with 20 cover stories that are brought together as a kind a “best of” is distributed worldwide. It’s subtitled “The Berlin State of Mind” because of the attention currently surrounding the capitol.
“The effect of this super small, boutique version has been enormous,” says Amend.
In many ways, he’s a rare kind of editor. Amend’s mind functions like the very best captain of a soccer team: he knows the strengths and importance of each of his players, whether it’s a writer, columnist, photographer, or designer, and he has a love for a wide array of disciplines and topics. On his desk, I can see he’s been pouring through the latest Nell Zink novel (he interviewed the writer last year), he’s been thumbing through a Pipilotti Rist catalogue, he has covers of The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker pinned all over a nearby cork board, and dense, analytical articles on the current German political landscape are open across multiple tabs on his computer.
“As well as news and writing, I was always interested in photography and design. I think the main problem with magazine journalism is that editors talk to editors and designers talk to designers,” Amend says. “I don’t believe a magazine should work like that. It should be super connected. Photo editors should talk with writers, and designers with editors.” It’s yet another reason for the essential Monday morning meeting.
“Philosophically speaking, we see photographers and illustrators as writers—as authors—just like the columnists and reporters.”
Amend’s belief in the power of visuals is especially evident when he talks about his relationship with ZEITmagazin’s Munich-based art director, Mirko Borsche. Nine hours away by train, it’s no simple “long-distance relationship,” as Amend likes to call it. Yet 12 years ago, when the magazine formed and Borsche came on to lead the design team, Amend instantly understood how integral the art director was for his vision.
“We had to make it work. It’s really all about trust,” says Amend. “You need a Slack group, of course, but basically if someone’s not in the office physically, you need to make sure that his or her voice is always heard and taken seriously. At the beginning, my job was to make sure that Mirko was not somewhere else, but very much at the heart of the magazine.”
And the distance also pays off in terms of the look and feel of the publication—everyday life in Munich is much different to Berlin, so Borsche brings in a new set of references. “He has a network of photographers and artists based there, who have become part of the DNA of the magazine,” says Amend. “To some people, ZEITmagazin feels Berlin-ish, but actually the visual sensibility is created in Munich.”
I’m sitting on Amend’s couch while editors spill in and out to ask questions. Occasional messages from Hamburg or Munich pop up on his phone, yet he remains polite, attentive, enthused, and very relaxed—this is not a man phased by Monday. Inevitably, as we scan the collage of favorite images pinned above his desk, the conversation turns to ZEITmagazin covers. It’s how I first see the magazine every week on Twitter, and now that I live in Berlin, I can easily go off to hunt for a physical copy if what I see online catches my attention. “Social media has freed us,” Amend says. “Before social media, those magazines were bound to the pages.”
What does a cover mean for a newspaper supplement in the 21st century? “Sometimes people argue that if a magazine is a supplement, you don’t need to sell. But it’s a tough struggle because you need to be surprising every week for those reader’s that buy Die Zeit just for the newspaper.”
Social media has become something of a newsstand for ZEITmagazin; young readers come to the magazine through those streams and not the paper. After a parody cover featuring the German comedian and TV presenter Jan Böhmermann, who posed in the same provocative position as Kim Kardashian’s Jean Paul Goude shoot, Amend spied a particular moment on social media that he treasures.
“I found this dialogue between two 16-year-old kids somewhere in suburban Germany: ‘Oh, have you seen this cover?’/ ‘What’s the magazine called?’/ ‘Oh, something like ZEITmagazin’/ ‘What’s that?’/ ‘I went to the newspaper stand in my village and they didn’t have it. I’m going to the bigger city now’/ ‘Can you buy a copy for me?’”
“I was touched because when I was a teenager that’s how I reached out to magazines. I remember one of my best friends in school had a copy of Germany’s Tempo with a cover of Brigitte Nielsen. I looked at it and thought, ‘Wow, what is it?’ and started subscribing. Actually, a couple weeks ago, I met the former editor-in-chief and we talked about that issue. He said it was the best-selling one they ever did.”
Now it’s 11:15 a.m. and Amend has another meeting with another department—another chance to make sure that all sections of the magazine are in tune.