Mal’s third edition titled Plantsex explores botany and eroticism

We’ve seen it before: tech company launches print publication to build “brand awareness” and position itself as a leader in whatever industry its product happens to be disrupting. Airbnb has its self-titled travel magazine, Uber has Vehicle, and in 2019 Bumble announced its own lifestyle magazine that features “stories and advice about dating, careers, friendship, and more to Bumble’s 50 million users.” It’s rare, however, to find a tech-funded magazine that isn’t just 60+ pages of sponsored content with the primary goal of getting users to download whatever app it’s built. Mal is one of those rare exceptions. Launched in 2018 as a web-based publication of sexuality and erotics, the journal expanded to print after two issues and has featured writers like Sheila Heti, Anne Boyer, Kris Kraus, and Eileen Myles, while also garnering recognition in the indie mag world. 

Though it’s financially supported by Feeld, the sex-positive, kink-friendly dating app for singles and couples, Mal—short for malcontent—maintains its editorial independence. Maria Dimitrova, Mal’s editor, says creating an app-funded journal with so much literary freedom was largely possible due to Feeld’s, “experimental ethos, non-hierarchical organizational structure, and the company’s willingness to ask questions about its own position within the larger cultural dialogue around sexuality.” 

Dimitrova, who also works as Feeld’s head of copy, explains that “Mal was, in some way, a leap of faith, especially within the framework of a technology organization. It’s also what made it an attractive idea: to launch a publication that runs against the marketing logic underpinning most dating app-supported verticals. Mal was conceived as a space for thinking about sexuality and eroticism seriously, lending it the legitimacy and space of recognition it deserves.”

Like Mal, Feeld was designed as a platform for exploring the spectrum of desire and human connection while also normalizing sexuality. It’s been praised for creating a more inclusive user experience compared to many of its competitors, offering 20+ sexual and gender identity options on user profiles, along with UI features for pairing profiles with one or multiple partners and providing a section for listing specific kinks or fetishes.

As the literary extension of Feeld, Mal examines sex, gender, race, and LGBTQ issues through featured essays, fiction, and poetry from both emerging and established writers, and is presented to the reader as a restrained yet alluring printed object. Refraining from the use of any imagery on the cover is a good example of that restraint. Creative director Steve O’ Connell explains, “From the outset, we wanted to emphasize the journal’s literary, esoteric nature and set it aside from many of its glossy, image-led counterparts. Instead, we rely on color and texture to appeal to the reader on a more sensory level.”

Maintaining visual consistency was also important across platforms, since the website of the journal already existed before Mal’s print editions were released. O’ Connell chose Lyon Text to unite both mediums and used a signature color for each installment that would translate well from the screen to the page. The covers of the print version feature heavily embossed paper stock that adds to the tactile experience of the publication while also subtly commenting on the theme of each issue.

For example, Mal’s third edition is titled “Plantsex,” which explores botany and eroticism between a hot pink cover. “The choice of bright pink as the issue’s color was deliberately counter-intuitive,” O’ Connell says. “We wanted to look past the green leaves of plants and into their fleshy interiors, their means of reproduction.” Mal‘s primary font, Volte, is complemented in this issue by the display typeface Plantin Infant, chosen for its organic form and single-story ‘a.’ “The synchronicity of Plantin’s name was only pointed out to me later,” O’ Connell adds.

Though the journal’s typeface for all body copy remains the same across every issue, each edition is assigned its own distinctive, expressive display typeface. As a designer, O’ Connell says he gravitates towards unconventional typefaces like Jonathan Barnbrook’s Priori Serif, featured in Mal’s second issue, themed around spirituality and transcendence. With experimental alternates partly inspired by the lettering found on London’s cathedrals, O’ Connell says, “the whole typeface has an atmosphere that’s at once holy and blasphemous. It seemed like the perfect choice.”

While producing a magazine alone is a challenge, creating a cohesive, multi-platform brand that extends across an app, a website, and a print publication is even more difficult. Case in point: Grindr recently shuttered its digital magazine in favor of producing video-only content. “One of our primary challenges has been sustaining our high editorial standard for the journal,” Dimitrova says “It’s meant maintaining the platform’s inbuilt refusal to conform to the contemporary models of producing and distributing content online—algorithm-free, clickbait-proof, prioritizing long-form pieces as well as poetry—while at the same time making it relevant to a digital and in-app community.”

While Mal can be currently accessed within the Feeld app, plans are still in the works for integrating it in a more meaningful way. She says the tactile quality of the print journal has actually been what’s resonated strongest among users. “Mal‘s content is much more about immersion than of immediate gratification; this, in many ways, reflects Feeld’s own approach towards sexual exploration and connection within its own space.”

By partnering with cultural institutions like the ICA and the Barbican, (Serpentine Galleries published Mal’s third edition) the journal has reached a broader audience beyond the Feeld community. This year, Mal was nominated for four Stack awards and received a commendation for Best Original Fiction. As for the future of the project, Dimitrova says because Mal is linked to an experimental organization, the journal is also experimental by nature. “While its voice and design identity were created with permanence and longevity in mind, it also unconventionally exists within the tech world, which is much more fluid and motion-driven,” she explains. “It is the productive friction between the two ‘speeds’ that makes Mal distinctive and part of the larger content model disruption and evolution it hopes to enact.” 

Mal’s fifth edition is currently in production, and Feeld is expanding even further beyond its app interface to provide IRL experiences for its users, including socials, lectures, and community events with likeminded organizations in the UK. Dimitrova says among all the new initiatives the company is developing, “Mal represents the cultural/aspirational apex of the Feeld universe. In that sense, via its design and thematic orientation, Mal connects with the Feeld members who are interested in exploring these territories beyond the confines of just dating.”