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ModMag Reveals the Blood, Sweat, Tears, and Joy That Go into Making a Magazine

Learn on the job, and question everything.

There’s a certain, and increasingly large, group of people who salivate over the smell of fresh ink, hoard well-bound pages like they would classic novels, and rightly consider the idea that “print is dead” to be very much six feet under. It’s those sort of people you find at ModMag, Magculture’s annual event dedicated to all things magazine-related. This year’s lineup was an eclectic one that ranged from design publishing darlings Unit Editions to multi-platform creativity behemoths It’s Nice That, Italian newspaper La Republicca, graphic design and typography bible Eye, Shortlist and Stylist magazines, and James Hyman, the man behind the vast Hyman Archive.

One of the undisputed highlights was hearing from creative director at The New Yorker, Nicholas Blechman, who took us on a deliciously intricate illustrated tour inside the mag’s offices, offering details about who sits with who, the mailroom man who’s been in the job 35 years (and as such, offers up pointers on design decisions), who has the messiest desks, and of course the nuances of the publication’s distinctive and beautiful three-font typographic choices. What was reassuring about hearing from Blechman—a man in surely one of the most envied publication and design roles in the world—was that in the beginning, like the rest of us, he didn’t really know what he was doing. When he first made Nozone, a magazine that ended up running from 1990 until 2008, he had created a 36-page magazine, without realizing they had to be printed in page multiples of eight. So he simply printed four extra pages in the middle, then ripped them out by hand.

These sort of stories about muddling through and learning on the job—sometimes getting it wrong, sometimes getting it right—were a charming thread running through ModMag, and it’s surely that sort of behind-the-scenes insight that makes the conference ever-charming and inspiring. Here’s five other things we learned.

1
Sometimes a Magazine is the Best Conduit for an Idea

What’s refreshing about Migrant Journal, whose editor Justinien Tribillon and designer Isabel Seiffert (of Offshore Studio) opened the day, is that the magazine was born not of a simple “let’s create a magazine to create a magazine” conception, but from a drive to discuss migration and everything that complex and politically hot potato-like word connotes. The magazine, which is just about to launch the third of its limited six-issue run, felt like the best way to convey ideas about movement, displacement, and place: “We didn’t have much money, and maybe not enough time to actually go to the Mediterranean and work there,” says Tribillon. But why not a website? “We felt print still ages better than digital,” says Seiffert, who looks to create true legacy with the beautiful print mag (that bespoke typeface, designed by Offshore, is really something else). The idea is that in years to come it might be in libraries, used as time capsule of an era when migration needs to be discussed more than ever; and when considered ideas and analysis are vital tools in creating more nuanced and emphatic discussions around it.

“It’s a cultural and political endeavor,” say the pair. “We want to create legacy and explore the topic of migration with no prejudice.”

2
Build It and They Will Come

Tony Brook, Spin and Unit Editions’ “design legend” (in the apt words of host Liv Siddall), boldly quoted one of the great thinkers of our time, Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams: “Build it and they will come.” He was referring to design-led publisher darling Unit Editions’ birth as a self-initiated project, and how it grew into a space for uniting beautiful imagery, unseen and untold design histories, and excellent critical writing. “After making a short film about table footballers, we decided we should do something a little bit more meaningful,” he says, in a somewhat self-effacing manner. He continues, “I was thinking about how design talks to itself: the ways designers talk to ourselves has been innovative right from the start.”

Brook did build it, and they did come, in an approach echoed by Accent magazine co-founder Lydia Garnett. A photographer by trade, Garnett started Accent with Lucy Nurnberg as a photography-led celebration of “lives lived outside the ordinary from around the world.” It began life online as a “website that we wanted people to treat like a printed magazine, that people would sit down and enjoy,” says Garnett. This then evolved into a series of IRL events—exhibitions, talks, and some pretty wild looking parties. “The events were a bit of a way of putting our presence into the world,” says Garnett. This was before they even had anything tangible: they built a presence, people came, and the magazine soon found life in what feels like its rightful format—glorious, colorful print, art directed and designed by Luke Tudor Griffiths. The biannual is now on its third issue, and remains doggedly “dedicated to the everyday heroes who make the world a brighter place simply by being themselves.”

3
Mass Media Is More of a Tool for Change than You Might Think

One of the biggest treats of the day was hearing from Japanese style bible Popeye’s editor-in-chief Takahiro Kinoshita, and seeing the utterly glorious images of the magazine from its formation in the 1970s to today. Another joy was learning about the very, very niche magazines Japan has to offer: there’s a monthly title that focuses solely on a single dam (you know, the things that hold back water) in every issue; another devoted to pigeons, one exploring mushrooms (you know, those real fun guys); and a charming title called The Blues, which is devoted to blue collar workers, with covers including how to style out construction garms.

But we digress: one of the key points of Kinoshita’s talk was that Popeye—unlike many indie titles happy to speak to a small audience that’s largely in agreement with one another—is aimed at a mass audience, yet that doesn’t negate its power to effect change. His editorial direction deliberately rails against the sameness of many Japanese fashion and lifestyle magazines, while remaining accessible and playful: “My policy on editing Popeye is to make the magazine more open,” he says, “I’m not interested in a style where only professionals can get it.

“A sharp point of view [can be hidden very effectively] in mass media. I believe that has the power to move the world.”

Riposte founder and editor-in-chief Danielle Pender echoes his thoughts: “We set out just wanting to do something for ourselves, but I’d love to see it [in larger stores] or at airports, as I’d like to see as many men and women as possible reading it,” she says. “It takes such a long time to make that if only a few people read it, it feels like an indulgence.”

4
Question Everything You Think You Know About Magazines

Over at Bureau Mirko Borsche, the studio’s eponymous founder is behind what is undoubtedly some of the most beautiful, innovative editorial design of recent times, including work for Tunica, Spike, Super Paper and most famously, Zeit Magazin. For the latter, Borsche acts as art director in a long-distance capacity from Munich (the publication is based in Berlin.) And while designing smaller magazines gives the designer the freedom to go wild with fonts and layouts—frequently deliberately seeing how far he can push legibility—with such a big publication, he is constantly seeking out new ways to be visually innovative within existing frameworks. His starting point is always “question everything”, though that doesn’t have to mean constantly reinventing the wheel. “I don’t believe in redesigning magazines every now and then, that’s why I redesign them once a year,” he says. 

Rough Trade Magazine

Liv Siddall, the former editor of record label Rough Trade’s magazine, took a similar approach when she first started the publication. Instead of making another music magazine in similar vein to what came before, she questioned what a magazine actually is, and began making editorial decisions based on if the magazine itself was a person. This was mostly inspired by the store in east London (also the mag’s HQ), replete with stinky toilets, scruffiness, every surface bearing a doodle or ten, and above all, total joy and geekiness about music. She very much ripped up and started again what magazines before had done—instead of pouting band photos, “we wanted someone smiling on every page”; and instead of detached journalism, they strived to “put the magazine back into the hands of the musicians.”

5
Making a Magazine is Bloody Hard Work

A shiny cover and positive editor’s letter can work wonders in masking the less glitzy truth about mag-making: it’s bloody hard work. While there’s undoubtedly been a delightful renaissance in indie mag publishing recently, the hard fact is the that publishing industry is struggling (just this week it was announced that Teen Vogue was closing); and Pender expresses concerns that we’ve “reached peak indie magazine.” As MagCulture founder Jeremy Leslie points out during a panel discussion,  there’s a “seemingly insatiable appetite to make magazines,” the problem is “how to make them into feasible businesses.”

For Anja Aronowsky Cronberg, founder and editor-in-chief of “critical thinking on fashion” publication Vestoj, that’s meant eschewing traditional advertising in favor of printing annually, and working within universities in a Vestoj research capacity alongside events and the magazine’s online platform.

Pender and the speakers from Musphit combine running the mag with commercial partnerships; and pretty much every speaker talks of very hard work, and very long hours. What’s the payoff? Magazines, and we love them, and I guess that’s why everyone was at ModMag in the first place. 

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Magazines