“Would you ever have a science article next to a fashion spread next to a conversation with Roxane Gay? No, you wouldn’t,” says Eddie Opara, a partner at Pentagram, when discussing his and Emily Oberman‘s design teams’ latest collaboration: the first issue of Citizen, an independent magazine covering the richness of Black culture and experience.
The recently launched biannual magazine is the brainchild of co–editors-in-chief Danielle Powell-Cobb and Henrietta Gallina, whose combined résumés cover creative direction, brand consulting, journalism, and law. The duo wanted to challenge the limiting narratives constructed around Black culture by building a publication that didn’t operate like other magazines with stringent frameworks. They spent four years conceptualizing a new kind of record. The result is a collective portfolio that, in its content and design, seeks to creatively embody what these two creatives call a “vastness of Black culture.”
The first issue’s theme, “matter,” offers a literal take with Berkeley professor Charles Brown’s discussion of atoms, while simultaneously referencing the impact the word has across Black history. With bylines from people like Honey Dijon and Jelani Cobb, Citizen has made its mark as a diversely intellectual and visually compelling publication. The co-editors were intentional in eliminating any gatekeepers of the magazine, which is to say, there isn’t one person exclusively in charge of shaping Citizen‘s “brand.” Traditionally, magazines adhere to a rigid design system, making the insertion of content more of a predictably visual plug-and-play. Instead, Citizen treats each piece as its own entity. The typography, photography, and overall layout vary from page to page. And part of that is because Gallina and Powell-Cobb encouraged Pentagram to get into the minutia of the content before jumping into the magazine’s design.
Citizen’s three sections—Past, Present, and Future—contain 30 “segments” (pieces of visual or written content) with upwards of 20 fonts and no consistent color palette. The red, black, and beige spread that opens a piece on civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer borrows design elements from the 1964 Freedom Vote ballot, when Hamer ran for Congress; Dijon’s six-page feature embodies the energetic, neon, all-caps layouts from her promotional DJ flyers; and Nick Cave’s artistry meets a crumpled paper backdrop that nods to his layered sculpture.
The issue has two covers to demonstrate the magazine’s many dimensions: one with journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones surrounded by what Gallina calls a “Pandora’s box of images,” a collage that pulls from various articles within; the other a single stark portrait by artist Rahim Fortune. The juxtaposition of visuals and content—all under an umbrella of the multifariousness of Blackness—is something that Opara says the community has been asking for and actively missing for quite some time.
In order to both preserve the magazine’s multiplicity and create something cohesive and digestible, Citizen includes what Opara deems “iconographic moments” that signal to the reader they’re still interacting with one body. Inspired by the team’s conversation with physicist Charles Brown, Pentagram chose elongated bubbles that either highlight key words in a piece or distinguish speaker names in dialogue. Each story also has a date scribbled next to the headline that communicates when the story was conceived, as a visual extension of the Past, Present, and Future sections of the magazine.
“Time is one of the key markers of the magazine,” Gallina says of the decision to date each piece, “[and] you can’t seek to examine and document Blackness without acknowledging what has [come] before [us], where we are today, and [our] view to the future.”
The first issue of Citizen does indeed have a structure, it just has open borders. “You understand there is a dynamic system at play,” Opara says of these precise design demarcations. He notes that the I’s in the cover’s masthead are without their tittles on purpose—as a way to “remove foreign bodies” and establish an identity unique to Citizen.
But nothing is permanent in the minds of Citizen’s creators. Issue one’s identity markers could change in the next installment, and Pentagram isn’t necessarily queued up to design issue two. Under the principle that no two issues are the same, Gallina says the team will revisit partnerships like that of Pentagram while also tapping new designers. “What makes Citizen truly unique,” Gallina says, “is that it is a collective vision. I could tell you what I think it is, and Danielle will have a slightly different viewpoint—all contributors own an interpretation.” This extends from the magazine’s theme of documenting the larger scope of Black life, a scope that has, for far too long, been relegated to a myopic definition restricting the emotions, talents, and experiences of Black people. “We are as eclectic, intellectual, and dynamic as anybody,” Opara says. “We just haven’t been given the opportunity. If you give us those opportunities, watch us sing.”