It only takes a glance to realize Even is not your typical art magazine. Despite being dedicated to the visual world, the journal’s cover is almost completely filled text. It’s an unorthodox choice—after all, you’d expect the designers might want to use an eye-grabbing image to convey what that magazine is about.
Then again, Common Name is not in the business of orthodoxy. The New York City studio, responsible for Artsy’s excellent visual identity and a handful of other art-related design work, partnered with Even co-founders Rebecca Siegel and Jason Farago to design the thrice-yearly journal. The first issue just hit newsstands and is full of clever, irreverent design choices. We sat down with Common Name graphic designer and partner, Yoonjai Choi, and had her walk us through what it means to design an avant garde art magazine.
Let’s start with the basics. How did you guys get involved in this project?
It was actually kind of serendipitous. When we received an email from Jason and Rebecca, Ken and I, who are partners at Common Name, were talking about how we really wanted to do a periodical. We were craving doing something that wasn’t as discrete as a one-time book. When we met with them in person we really hit it off—we really believed in their mission.
This is a project with an extended shelf life. What do you have to keep in mind when you’re working on something that isn’t a one-off thing?
While we’re pretty medium agnostic, we enjoy making books. The thing about books is that it’s a self-contained project, and what’s attractive to us about doing a periodical is that you make a book, and then you refine and change it and evolve it over time. We like the possibility of this thing growing into something else and evolving. That’s a very attractive idea.
Were there some standards and constraints you set for yourself ?
The whole emphasis of the magazine was to design a journal that was really focused. A lot of art magazines these days are becoming more and more like lifestyle magazines, taking on this glossy magazine quality, and I think the editors were pretty content with pulling away from that and making it really about serious, longform reading. We knew from the get-go this was going to be more typographic, it was going to be a little bit denser in some way.
One of the lines in the original brief that we really responded to was they didn’t want an image on the cover—they wanted a text cover, which you never ever hear from clients because when you put a bunch of text on the cover it can feel intimidating. But we really loved that they weren’t afraid of it. We’re really interested in typography and designing around content, so the format of the book came out of that. We didn’t want it to be a big heavy, blocky magazine. We wanted it to be carry-able, so it would fit in your hands. We wanted to make sure we designed a very comfortable reading experience.
Let’s delve into that idea. What does it mean to design a comfortable reading experience? How does that idea manifest itself in Even?
We wanted to use a typeface that had a nod to the past, to this sort of classicism we’re interested in when we deal with typography, but setting it in a way that feels more contemporary. We used a typeface called Elzevir, which is beautiful and can be used at reading scale and as a display font. But at the same time we didn’t want the book to feel stuffy in any way. That had a lot to do with how we set the type, but also with the way we paired it with a sans-serif typeface called Folio.
We wanted each section to have its own slightly different style, but in a way that still felt cohesive inside one bound body. With the reading text, we started from the standard legible way of setting it and then pushed that in a more contemporary way. It’s how the folio is placed or how the pull quote is placed and the text wraps around it, or how the margins are slightly asymmetrical.
I think these detail-oriented, nerdy decisions all add up to this reading experience that we were thinking about.
Can you tell me why you decided to use different stocks of paper throughout the book?
We were interested in not only pulling those sections apart using typography, different type settings, or different margins, but we were also really concerned with the tactility of the book. This was a pretty important part of the conversation from the get-go. Not only should it feel comfortable in your hands—how heavy is the book, how thick is it, how should the paper feel? In general, our approach was to create a kind of softness. If you flip through, the book is quite soft in terms of how the pages feel in your hands… The three stocks we used all have slightly different textures and colors and tones. While the book feels like one cohesive object, there are distinct sections inside that you may or may not notice on the first read, but over time you start to appreciate the thoughtful subtle differences between the sections.
Is that part of how you control the pacing of the magazine?
Exactly, so you don’t feel like the magazine is a monolithic thing, like you have to go from page one to the last page. We like the idea of having different entry points, which is why some of the sections have a different background color. For example, the last section is a portfolio. It’s very very image based, and we wanted that section to be only about the images, which is why we’re using this sort of stark background.
I love how in the interview section you used two different colors, this really nice sea foam green for the questions against black. Also, those little typographic glyphs are very cool.
We like the idea of only using the glyph palette that comes with with typeface. So this X is a multiplication sign, but we’re changing its use by making it this almost abstract symbol which is used on the cover and throughout the book in different ways.
Why did you take to that particular glyphs?
We tried a bunch of different typographic glyphs that wouldn’t be misconstrued as a letter. One of the things that was attractive about the multiplication sign is that it could be read in different ways. It has this inherent meaning, especially in the art world with “height x width” to indicate the dimension of an artwork. But now we’re using the glyph in a completely different way.; we’re de-contextualizing it and changing its use. It’s also very graphic. It’s sort of mono-line, meaning all of the lines are the same thickness, and we like that very mathematical quality as well.
I’m curious about the comma on the cover.
I’m glad you noticed it because a lot of people don’t notice it immediately. The title of the magazine is something we talked about at length with the editors. They had come up with a million titles and then shared a short list with us. Ultimately, we went with Even. It actually refers to the Marcel Duchamp piece, “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.” So that’s the comma and “Even” at the end. It’s a little bit of a weird title, but if you’re a Duchamp fan, you might get that little reference.
We’re against being super dogmatic about how your name is. A lot of architects have these very special way of spelling out their names. The first two letters have to be lowercase and then use a capital letter then a lowercase and an em dash, and sometimes it gets bit too serious. When we use “Even” in the context of a sentence or paragraph, we wouldn’t put the comma and a space. When we talk about the magazine we wouldn’t call it “comma Even,” we’d call it “Even.” I would say the comma is more of a graphic affectation.
This is obviously a very text-focused cover. What’s the purpose of having that inset imagery?
We had this idea of using this kind of frame or broader device where there was a page within the page as the main graphic gesture… As designers, we like this idea of making design decisions that make people wonder, why is that here? It doesn’t need to fully make sense. In some ways I’m really glad you asked this question because it was sort of our intent. That inset image of the artwork is by the artist that’s featured in the “Portfolio” section. We always wanted to use black-and-white drawings or photographs that felt obscure and kind of weird, that would make you think: what is that? In the background we’re using a much different classical image from the the 1600s. We like that contrast between something that was old and very new.
Is this a way to prime people’s curiosity before they start reading?
Yes, but it’s a little bit of visual interest as well.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.