“Because I have so much control, I can see every fucking thing right from the beginning, so it’s hard to feel the impact in the same way that a reader does. There’s no surprises in it for me, where there would be if I was part of a larger team, and it’s much more difficult to get an objective view of it all. I often wonder what it would be like to work as part of a team where you don’t have as much control, but I don’t think I’d like it.”
Dan Stafford has just finished work on the third issue of Amuseum, the playful magazine that sees objects in a daringly different perspective. He produces it alone, mostly in his free time; writing, editing, art directing, designing, illustrating, and publishing it biannually from his studio in Brixton, south east London. He’s accustomed to working on many projects at once, across several disciplines—prior to launching the title in 2015, he was both a freelance graphic designer, illustrator, and occasional copywriter when time allowed. But he admits producing his own magazine has been the most taxing one to date.
“I don’t know how much you use InDesign,” he says, “but you have the previews of the spreads down the side, and for me there’s a kind of timer in my head where it’s like; ‘Okay, I know I’ve got this many weeks to go, and this many spreads to get done…’ and until there’s about four weeks left, none of the spreads are finished, and I just think, ‘Oh shit!’”
In spite of the chaotic approach and megalomaniacal disposition of its publisher, Amuseum doesn’t feel like the work of a lone, stressed individual. Granted, Stafford invites a long list of contributors to each issue, but the narrative focus and final design are always in his hands. It doesn’t show. After three issues he’s hitting his stride, and what was previously a dense combination of words and images, now feels like a highly polished periodical, with long reads interspersed with short, sharp features, visually rich spreads broken up with essential white space. The editorial focus is now truly focused, with a single theme replacing a trio of topics.
But why so much change? Because Stafford no longer cares if people think he’s clever.
“Issue one I was trying to make sure that I hit with weight in a literal sense—so it was heavy and bulky—but also so that I could carry off the silliness of it with clever stuff as well. As it’s gone on I’ve started to care less about people thinking I’m clever, and more about just enjoying it. The third issue is the most crystalized embodiment of the original brief, and it’s been this domino effect of changing a lot of things. It’s bigger, but it’s thinner, and that makes it more accessible in a physical sense.”
To aid accessibility Stafford has employed new printers to experiment with the physical construction of the magazine. The center spread features an illustrated ass with a piece of toilet paper tipped-in between the cheeks, there’s a fold-out poster of antiquity’s greatest thinkers, and the stock selection ranges from glossy to colored matte, ensuring that each spread packs a visual punch—not just for the reader, but for Stafford as well.
“Maybe I’m just a weirdo, but because I like making it, it’s what I do with most of my free time. It is work, obviously, and there’s this bit in the last four to six weeks where it’s insane and I can’t do anything else, but I finished issue three, six or eight weeks ago now, and now that I’m not doing it I miss it.”
Aside from pure fun of the visuals, accessibility matters because Amuseum seeks to educate readers, bringing obscure subject matter to an audience who wouldn’t otherwise engage. It’s a reaction to what Stafford believes is a general triteness in magazine publishing and an effort to sneak information to readers without them realizing they’re learning.
“A lot of magazines are about the visual and the zeitgeist, but I like to learn shit. I’ve always wanted Amuseum to be like a sweetie; you have your dinner and you get this little treat at the end. That’s how I want to give the information, so that you don’t even notice the medicine because you have the spoon of sugar after. When educational stuff is successful you don’t even know it’s educational, and that’s how it should be.”
With this in mind, Amuseum employs engaging illustration to enliven its subject matter, utilizing the transformative power of the medium to bring life to subjects as dead as obsolete technology and the etymology of idioms.
“There’s something amazing about the way illustration allows you to see into the mechanics of subject matter,” says Stafford, “whether that’s a piece of machinery or the way the pharaohs built the pyramids of Egypt, illustration has a superpower to do that in a way that no other static medium can.”
But getting those illustrations right is perhaps the hardest part of Stafford’s process.
“The main constraints,” he says, “are making sure you get what you want out of people. Some illustrators are really not very good at working to a brief, they’re just not used to doing that. You might really like their aesthetic and feel like it’s perfect for something you want to make, but you can’t get them to make it on demand. If you get something back that doesn’t work or you don’t like, then fundamentally that’s your fault, because you picked the wrong person or didn’t communicate what you wanted properly, or you overestimated them, or didn’t direct them enough.
“It’s really horse-whispery the way you have to talk to creatives, because you can say one thing and it can totally throw them off, and you only have a certain number of hits on the anvil before they lose interest and it’s fucked. You have to be careful.”
Add to that a complex print process, huge personal investment, and the fact that “you never get a chance to enjoy it, because you’re already on the deadline for the next one,” and self-publishing a biannual on your own doesn’t seem all that appealing. But perversely, Stafford is considering making the leap to going quarterly. “It’s all just part of the creative process,” he assures me. “Everything starts as a dream and then slowly materializes into something else, and it’s never what you thought it would be at the beginning. There’s almost a grieving process from the start to finish of any creative project, but you just have to get through it. It’s just having your dreams crushed.”