You probably don’t need me to tell you that the publishing world is a tough business. While the internet — and social networks — have put the tools of publishing into the hands of anyone with a smartphone, they’ve also made questions of gaming algorithms, virality, and likes and shares integral to building an audience. This is, perhaps, especially true for design publishing. There are more people talking about design — and especially graphic design — than ever before but that doesn’t make starting and running a design publication any easier. Despite this, it can still feel like we have nowhere to turn to for thoughtful and engaging design writing that moves beyond portfolio show-and-tells, trend lists, and celebrity designer profiles.
This makes the legacy of Open Manifesto, the quiet but persistent Australian print journal that published eight issues between 2003 and 2018, all the more remarkable. The brainchild of designer Kevin Finn, Open Manifesto’s modest tagline “some thoughts on design culture” obscures the breadth of their output. Over the course of fifteen years, they published essays by and conversations with well-known designers like Michael Bierut, Milton Glaser, and Jessica Walsh, thinkers and creators outside of design like Adam Grant and Errol Morris, as well as a broad range of local Australian designers who might otherwise have not found a platform in a US or European publication. Unlike the expected conversations around a designer’s best work or career trajectories, Open Manifesto attempted to dive deeper to uncover the ideas, identities, and issues that animated these careers. The best of these essays and interviews has been collected in a new book, now available from Formist Editions, capturing a specific moment in design history that feels as relevant now as ever.
I recently spoke with Kevin about the origins of Open Manifesto, how design publishing has changed, and how the questions asked in Open Manifesto’s pages were ahead of their time. Our conversation has been lightly edited.
You started Open Manifesto in 2003. Can you talk a bit about how you started it and why you began? What were you interested in?
To be honest, I hadn’t really planned to start it. I was twenty-nine and had arrived at a point in my career that I never thought I’d attain: I was joint creative director of Saatchi Design Sydney. We had just won a D&AD Yellow Pencil pencil for some work. We had this big hall in the agency where we had some of our best work exhibited and I stood there looking at this work that we’d done and thought, “Oh my God, I’ve peaked. I’m not even 30 and it’s going to be a plateau at best or downhill from here.” That scared the crap out of me.
At the same time, I was growing frustrated that when you’re doing client work, any research you might do is hyper-focused on their very specific marketing needs with nothing either side of that. I increasingly found this really narrow. I was a follower of Emigre magazine — which was coming to an end — and when I picked up issue 64, ‘Rant,’ I read it cover to cover on a park bench and I thought to myself, “Rather than get out of graphic design, maybe I should go full on into graphic design and just question it. What if I allowed myself to question what the hell I was doing and what I wanted to do?”
There were so many publications and so many websites where you could see people’s work but I was interested in what was behind it: the opinions, the thinking. I stumbled across this interest — which at the time didn’t seem very sexy but now it’s kind of more interesting — where design intersects with social, cultural, political, and economic issues. Design was — and is — at that nexus and I wanted to explore that. As a print designer, I was terrified of doing anything that wasn’t print so I decided to do one issue to see what happens. The idea was something I’d been kicking around for years and I just thought I’m my biggest roadblock. I should just give it a go.
I had a very similar experience, basically ten years after you, where I grew frustrated with graphic design and I also remember stumbling upon that issue of Emigre asking myself the same question: “Do I leave this or do I dive in deeper?” So I relate to this very much. Besides Emigre, what was your knowledge of design writing and design publishing?
Probably like yourself, I was consuming anything from Eye magazine through to the ‘Looking Closer’ series to Design Observer. I was looking at all of the books, publications, and journals that were not just showcasing work, because that whole show-and-tell stuff didn’t really interest me.
My frustration was that I wasn’t hearing conversations from any other parts of the world, other than Europe and America and I thought that was a way that I could contribute. Could I assemble a bunch of contributors that could say something from an Australian point of view?
The first issue laid out a blueprint for what we weren’t hearing in all those other amazing publications. Specifically, we ran interviews with a young designer named Nicole Foreshew, an indigenous First Nations designer who at the time was struggling with how she fit in the world of communications, culturally, conceptually, etc., and her classmate Hina Qureshi, a Middle Eastern designer. I happened to be an external examiner that semester and wanted to help get their voices and stories out there. I think this is important because if we talk about this nexus of where design sits, there’s plenty of people out there who hover around that space and pass through that space, and who may not get the attention or the chance to have a platform as others might. As amazing as those other publications are, I didn’t think they would consider these two people.
Then, I wanted to make sure that that was sprinkled in with some of our stalwarts, some of the big names. That was strategic. I was curious to hear from them about stuff I hadn’t heard elsewhere, but I was also worried that if I had a whole bunch of contributors who no one’s heard of, no one was going to buy it.
2003 is an interesting era for design publishing — and publishing in general — with the rise of blogs and blogging. Design Observer also launched that year. Armin Vit and Byrony Gomez Palacio’s Speak Up launched the year before. Did you consider doing something digital or in the blog space? Or was making something printed inherent in what you were doing?
Even though I was a beneficiary and a consumer of this new future that was unfolding at the time, I wasn’t smart enough to realize that I could do that too. My comfort zone was print and there was this conversation at the time that print was dead, which I didn’t agree with. So I was going to zag when everyone else was doing zig. Plus, I was so small in my thinking that I imagined the audience not even being Australia but just Sydney.
“I never thought of it as a commercial magazine or journal but just approached it as a fan of these conversations and engaging with these people.”
I mean, it seemed to me like Open Manifesto always had a small but very dedicated audience and readership. I don’t know how wide the circulation was, but it always felt like the people who knew you knew you, and they loved what you were doing.
I was a very small operator. I was just doing my best to do the publication in between running my own studio. Each issue took between a year and a half to two years. I would research the person to get to know enough about them to ask interesting questions. In some cases, it would take months just to secure an interview. I felt like I was just fumbling along. Because I never thought of it as a commercial magazine or journal but just approached it as a fan of these conversations and engaging with these people.
So this isn’t false humility, but I was shocked there were any readers at all. I was shocked anyone outside of my circle was reading it. I just never expected that at all. This goes to your point about the digital space. Online, you can regularly engage with people but in print that’s harder to do. I tried to encourage letters to the editor, which never really took off. I honestly think that the small following I had just wanted to consume the information.
You published for 15 years and released eight issues. I’m curious how your philosophy of publishing changed. Or more specifically, how Open Manifesto changed over time from this thing you had no plan for to something that lasted as long as it did?
It changed in two ways. First, the first two issues were positioned as “some thoughts on graphic design” because that was my world. But when I started talking to people like physicist and philosopher Edward de Bono, it allowed me to shift that agenda to these wider interests I had. I’m not sure what issue it was but at some point I shifted the tagline to “some thoughts on design culture.” That first big shift was a move from graphic design to design culture.
The second shift was very late in the process. On issue seven, the way that I wanted to engage in the digital space was to do print on demand. To me, that was a much simpler model than having to print a bunch of issues and having boxes sticking out of my cupboards and shipping them out myself. If I could do print on demand, all I had to do was get them online and they would just print them individually
So why did you stop?
It was funny because as you said earlier, I had this small but dedicated following who I knew were enjoying it and they would be waiting for the next one to come out. When I’d finish an issue, I knew what the next one would be. Every issue had a theme and I wanted these themes to be broad enough to allow for a wide selection of people. About midway through working on each issue, I could start to see how it might lead to the next theme.
Ironically, for issue eight — our last issue — the theme was “Change” and there was nothing in there saying this is where you need to get to. And I sort of realized that I think I’ve moved on from this. It wasn’t like Emigre or Dot Dot Dot where we announced it’d be the last one. So I just had to stop. I knew there wasn’t another one.
Why a book now, then? Do you see the book as a way to share this content in a new way?
I was talking to my good friend Mark Gowing, who has a studio and a publishing company called Formist Editions. I’ve known him for 20 years and we’ve been talking regularly. We’re in the middle of one of these phone conversations and he asked me if I ever thought of doing an Open Manifesto Best Of. I wasn’t sure if it was warranted but Mark said he thought if Open Manifesto was from the US or Europe, it would have been bigger than it was but because it did come from Australia, its contribution was culturally significant and we should celebrate that. I thought since we never did a farewell issue like Emigre or Dot Dot Dot, maybe this could be a capstone.
What really strikes me is how what Open Manifesto was doing and thinking about was just slightly ahead of its time. You were interested in how design intersects with all of these other things and that is very much the way people are wanting to talk about design today. And then with the explosion of the internet — and especially the explosion of social media — the central design discourse is lost. All these publications you’re talking about either closed up or had nowhere near the readership they once had. In there place, there were suddenly a bunch of smaller publications — like Dirty Furniture or Modes of Criticism or even Brand New — that were more local and targeted, that were for this smaller audience and talking to that audience about their thing.
I’m wondering if you step back and look at Open Manifesto and look at today’s design and publishing landscape, where would Open Manifesto fit? Is there a place for a publication like that? How does this book, even, bring these ideas into a contemporary conversation?
Whether there’s a space for it now, I’m not sure. But I have a sense that there’s a need for it. I say that because we launched the book at the Semi-Permanent Conference and all the questions at that launch were about, as we talked about earlier, the thinking behind the work. I heard people saying we don’t have enough spaces for conversations like this that move beyond the portfolio presentation. I was struck by this real-time response to what seems to be a growing interest in asking these big questions about design.
“If Open Manifesto is going to teach somebody anything, it is that you don’t need to have a big audience. It can be niche. You don’t need to take over the world.”
I totally get those questions too and yet, I still feel like so much design publishing is so superficial. It’s still just showing the work of the same 20 designers who are trendy right now. On one side, we can see social media and these blogs as a way to bring more people to the table, to show-off the work of those people who otherwise would be left out of the conversation—exactly as you were trying to do—but then on the other side, social media still prioritizes the visual. It becomes all about what gets the most likes, and what is considered cool at the moment. All these forces of publishing are pushing against slower, more thoughtful, more nuanced writing — the type of thinking about design that we’re seeing readers want. Could something like that even be relevant today?
I think we’ve probably reached peak shallowness. I think what I’m seeing is that, with all the backlash of social media, and even with Instagram at the moment with their TikTok-like stuff, we’ve reached the peak. I think people may have reached a point where they’re moving from shallow to substance. I would always say to anybody that if there’s something out there that you cannot see, if everything around you is shallow, and you’re looking for substance but you cannot find it, go create it. Go put it out there!
When Open Manifesto‘s first issue came out, I got an email from someone saying “Finally, thank goodness someone has gone and done this.” My first thought was “wow, pat on my back” but then I got angry thinking “why the fuck did you have to wait for me to do it?” We have all the tools and all the means and all the platforms and the reach that we could ever possibly want. Now’s the time to do it if it’s not there. If Open Manifesto is going to teach somebody anything, it is that you don’t need to have a big audience. It can be niche. You don’t need to take over the world. As long as you feel like you’re contributing something, even if it’s just for yourself, you can share that knowledge.