“I have what’s probably not a great inclination to pursue what I love first and figure out the money later,” says Elana Schlenker matter-of-factly as she recounts putting together the very first issue of Gratuitous Type, her celebrated “journal of typographic smut.”
These words are ones that probably ring true to anyone who’s ever started their own independent magazine, a notoriously ambitious, time-consuming venture. The story of Schlenker’s first issue of Gratuitous Type is a lot like the story of many first issues, which are often a tense combination of a passionate desire to make and say something new, a lot of head bashing with printers and distributors, and a clueless, frantic stab in the dark.
Magazines have become key portfolio pieces for young designers, the perfect medium for showcasing a range of skills. For Schlenker, the self-initiated Gratutious Type was integral to launching her career. After impressing future clients with issue after issue, Schlenker has gone on to work for an art director at Condé Nast and as senior designer at Princeton Architectural Press.
Today, Schlenker shares her first-issue trials and tribulations with us, a story that includes indispensable advice for anyone thinking about starting their own magazine.
I’ve always had a bug to make magazines and printed things, and that desire informed the beginnings of Gratuitous Type. The independent publishing landscape has changed a bit, but at the time, I also felt that the U.S. lacked a graphic design-focused magazine with a more international perspective and aesthetic. I thought I could offer something different, which would also provide me with an outlet to explore my own ideas in editorial design. As a young designer, it also proved to be a nice excuse to connect with other artists I admired, to steal their secrets under the guise of gathering information for my publication.
The name came out of something I observed, particularly in mainstream editorial work—a tendency to throw a large, decorative letter on the page and call it a day. There’s something about big type like this that seems to make designers (myself included) drool a little. The first issue featured a large A on the cover, modestly covered by a paper belly band.
I started from the point of what I liked and was interested in, and did a lot of sketching. My idea for the cover happened pretty quickly, but the interior developed only after a lot of trial and error around specific ideas that I wanted to execute. I knew I wanted there to be lots of white space, lots of movement (even amongst the magazine’s folios), and a sense of playfulness—more than editorial authority.
I quickly realized that I wanted to allow the magazine’s design to evolve with each issue, to change up typefaces, the grid, and other graphic elements. This was partially selfish, as this is a personal project that needs to be fun for me to do, but also came out of a desire to provide a design magazine with design that’s (hopefully!) as inspiring as its content.
The magazine was a big investment, and I paid for it all myself. I didn’t know if I was onto something or just crazy. I didn’t expect the hand work to take so long (attaching the belly bands, numbering each issue, etc.), or how quickly I’d be excited to make another! In the end, it took me a few issues to work out exactly what I wanted to do.
There were a lot of things I didn’t factor into the price, like wholesale rates, which I had to adjust later. But I was also pleasantly surprised by how much room there was to make these changes.
After I’d produced the first issue, I found that the magazine had a tremendous impact on my career. It helped me get a full-time position in publishing, and has also led to some great client projects now that I work independently in my own studio. It’s really nice to make something for yourself that others respond to, and it’s always an exciting moment when someone says, “We want you to do this or that for us.” I continue to be so surprised by all the opportunities it’s afforded me.
Issue no. 1 taught me how important it is to trust in yourself and your abilities. You know what’s in your mind, and it might take a while to realize it in precisely the way you’ve imagined it, but trust in your instincts and give yourself the time you need to get it right.