MARS CALLING EARTH

08 November 2006
Max Bruinsma
Max Bruinsma

"Let's start a magazine" was a battle call of the 1970's. In the wake of May '68, when imagination came to power riding high on Gestettner, Xerox and silk-screen machines, if you had something to say, something that the old bourgeois flag-bearers of Capitalism and Good Taste would no doubt decline to print on their ad-ridden pages, you brought together a band of like minds and you started a magazine.

Quite a few design magazines started that way. In the Netherlands, for instance, Furore, Hard Werken or, somewhat later, Mediamatic were perhaps not primarily motivated by political activism, but they did start off as a way out of the anonymity forced on their makers by a culture that seemed not ready for them. Piet Schreuders waged his war against graphic etiquette and the design canon through the pages of his personal 'zine Furore, and Gerard Hadders, Rick Vermeulen and their Rotterdam friends did much the same in their Hard Werken magazine, which was a testing ground for developing ideas as well as a periodical portfolio presented to a niche market with a high tolerance for experiments and virtually no money.

Not many of those magazines survived the booming 1980s and 1990s. One of the reasons for that was that the niche market grew up to become the mainstream of fads and fashions, and so the question was no longer simply how much money you could afford to spend on a magazine, but evolved into asking how much you could make out of the magazine.

Professionalisation took command. What used to be personal endeavors, surviving on the at times obsessive urge of their editor/designer/publishers to make themselves publicly heard, became professional enterprises - if they reached that stage at all, and did not succumb to the pressures of success that forced their makers to concentrate on the most profitable aspect of editing/designing/publishing. Most resorted to their core activities and decided to finally make some money by designing for others.

The magazines that did survive became different media altogether. The battle cry became a market proposition and the contents no longer a matter of personal fascination, but a tug of war between editors and the publishers' marketers.

A case in point is Items, a general design magazine from the Netherlands, which I served for a brief stint as Editor in Chief, and much longer as senior editor for graphic design. Begun as an outlet for the views and fascinations of a bunch of industrial design and architecture students at Delft Technical University in the early 1980s, it was lifted up into the caring arms of a government subsidized publisher in the mid-1980s, to ensure continuation and professionalization. It almost folded when this publisher went broke as a result of mismanagement in 1989. The title was sold to another publisher, this time a hard-core commercial one that targeted Mercedes ads and yuppies desperate for lifestyle advice. The magazine managed to break away from this suffocating embrace, lingered on for several years until it was taken up by the present publisher, BIS, with whom it entertains a loyal, though conflict ridden, relationship ever since. The current Editor is the sixth in the 12 years since professionalization took over.

What went wrong? Apart from the fact that quite a few of the original makers of cultural magazines in the 1970s and 1980s concluded that the energy needed to continue the production of a quarterly or even monthly magazine was not compatible with the demands of their own developing professional practices, the publishers that took over these logistic and productional responsibilities had rather different views on why to make a magazine in the first place. Here lies the fundamental difficulty in making and publishing a cultural magazine today: the combination of responsibilities and demands from two parties that are forced to work together, but communicate as if they were from different planets. Mars calling Earth and vice versa.

The problem is not only, or simply, a stand-off between money and vision. Although this is the heart of the matter. There are two reasons why one would want to make a design magazine today. The first is because one has a view on what design is, or should be, how it functions, or should function in the broader context of culture, society and economy, and who the designers are that produce exemplary work. This kind of view can branch out to other disciplines, or to the theoretical discourse below the surface of practice, or to design history, or to a critique on current practices and businesses, or anywhere the editors find appropriate and consistent with their points of departure. This kind of view results in what I call a cultural magazine - a magazine that reflects on an aspect of culture from a point of view that is argued and flexible, rigid only insofar that it remains true to its own fascinations and motives and not primarily to those of a market - it shapes its own market.

The other way to make a design magazine is to follow the market - either critically or slavishly. The editorial agenda is set by the interests of a monitored readership and the demands of advertisers. The audience is catered to with a carefully balanced diet of need to know and nice to know information and peace is kept with those who pay the bills. This approach results in a trade magazine, the kind that uncorks the champagne bottles when they've out-scooped the competition by being the first to report on the merger between Razorfish and Pentagram.

Both cultural and trade magazines serve the same audiences, but with quite different propositions. The first demands an open mind, offering points of view to assess and to engage with critically, presenting information of kinds that the readership often didn't know they were interested in, but which they are curious enough to consider. The second feeds on the readership's need to know what's going on in the business, and is therefore much more journalistic, although this doesn't necessarily mean superficial or merely following the news.

There are ways to integrate these two approaches to making a design magazine, but they are preciously few and not very reliable. The problem preventing successful integration is the general mismatch between editors of cultural magazines and publishers of trade magazines. Being from different planets, they have to learn each other's languages, but the translation often falters on the utter divergence of thinking between the two. It is the classic contrast between content and product oriented life forms - as different as primates and felines.

It is my strong belief that if you want to make serious money, you shouldn't publish a cultural magazine. Commercially, cultural magazines are among the least cost-effective, highest maintenance, lowest turnover kind of products imaginable. That is where usually the battle between editors and publishers begins. The publisher will calculate that cutting the production budget in half will still result in a presentable product and will finally make the magazine profitable. The editors know that their audience expects the magazine to live up to its subject, and so, especially with culturally oriented design magazines, scrutinizes not just the content, but every production detail from paper quality to the kind of glue used in the spine. I have witnessed graphic designers who, minutes after the new issue of Eye landed on their doormat, were studying a small color reproduction through a magnifier, in order to find out how it had been lithographed and printed. Of course, they concluded it was flawless. Production value of this kind is Value with the capital V of investment. Whenever anyone asked me why Eye is so outrageously expensive, I answered "Production Values - you want the best paper- print- photography- repro-quality available, then this is what it costs. The only thing we bring in at a bargain is the best writing available, 'cause these people care enough to work for fees that are actually an insult to their professionalism."

And they buy it. Eye does not have to pretend it's the best magazine around - it is generally acknowledged to be in that category. But this is not a position to sit back and relax with - it needs continuous care and constant investment to keep the product at a state-of-the-art level, both in terms of content and in terms of production value.

From the average publisher's point of view this is all very discomforting indeed. Per page production costs of a publication such as Eye exceed those of general market magazines by five times or more. This is bad for profit, especially if you combine it with a relatively small, but very dispersed, very international market with matching high marketing and distribution costs. High quality cultural magazines are not fun to publish, that is, if you are looking for a 10 to 15 percent turnover with no serious investments to write off. Publishing 'Desk Top International' would be a better option from that vantage point.

So why bother at all? The first answer to that question is of course: because you care. Because it's a generous gesture to culture at large to make available high quality critical reflection on a subject that is important enough to scrutinize in depth. Because of the sheer joy of making a very good, very well produced communication product. But it's not just do-goodism that would motivate editors and publishers to publish such a high-maintenance magazine; there are sound market arguments too, although they are somewhat more complicated than most publishers like to consider.

First of all, publishers need to realize that their profit will most probably be rather indirect. If you manage to build up a high quality magazine, that has a well established reputation as being both a reliable source and an authoritative reference for the targeted audience, then you will have created a 'brand' that can be much more profitable in other ways than direct revenue: it will strengthen the position of the publisher, it will facilitate high-level access to an AA-quality market segment and it will bring opportunities for interesting spin-offs like annuals, compilations, special editions, congresses, awards etcetera.

Its reader-base will look to it as their point of reference for reputations and information, for reflection and in-depth knowledge. Research into this kind of magazines reveals that their readership is relatively small, but very loyal and very attentive. If targeted early, as students or young professionals, subscribers are likely to stay on. Actual reading percentages are up to four times higher than with general magazines. The magazines are collected and kept for future reference, and they are used in education as source-books, for reference and inspiration, so the actual readership is often considerably more than 5 persons per copy sold. All of this should be enough for a publisher who is interested in high-level access to a high-profile readership, by offering that readership the best quality without either losing or making a lot of money - a cultural magazine should be the spire on the roof, not the foundation of the house.

In the end though, I think what remains the main reason for making a design magazine that is worth the name is: fascination for the culture of design. It is the same fascination that is at the root of every designer's activity - to be a partner in shaping visual culture around you. The magazine thus functions two ways: as a serious outlet for the visions and fascinations of its editors and contributors, who share their insights and critical point of view with an equally critical readership, which sharpens its self awareness and checks its aspirations through the magazine.

On a sideline: I truly believe that the intelligence and interest of potential audiences for design magazines is in general hugely underestimated. The commonplace remark that 'designers don't read' is in my experience an insult to their genuine interest in the more intellectual aspects of their trade. Especially in times like ours, when the core of what designing is all about is reinvented from the root, it is more useful and rewarding to reflect on the cultural responsibilities and implications of design, than to breathlessly follow the newest fads in software design.

Ultimately, the audience will decide what it's going to buy or not. But it can't hurt to challenge them.




About this article

This article by Max Bruinsma originally appeared in the pilot issue of '...' magazine (a new graphic design/visual culture magazine - Issue 1, Spring 2000, ISSN 1615-1968). It is reprinted with permission. 2000 Broodje & Kaas publishing house and Max Bruinsma. For more information about this new design magazine, visit www.dot-dot-dot.nl. For the author, visit www.xs4all.nl/~maxb

About '...' magazine
'...' graphic design/visual culture magazine is an independent international publication published twice a year. '...' is intended to fill a gap in current design/arts publishing. It is not interested in re-promoting established material or creating another "portfolio" magazine. Instead, it hopes to offer inventive critical journalism on a variety of topics related both directly and indirectly to graphic design culture. '...' magazine can be purchased and subscribed to (for 9 EUR, 9 $US or $5 per issue) at www.dot-dot-dot.nl Inquiries may be addressed to

About Max Bruinsma
Max Bruinsma is an independent design-writer, editor, critic and editorial designer, and former editor of Eye, the international review of graphic design. Since 1985, his critical writings have featured regularly in major Dutch art and design journals and in a range of international design publications. Before he took over from founding editor Rick Poynor at Eye, Bruinsma was editor of the Dutch design magazine Items and published several books on graphic and new media design in the Netherlands. He currently teaches at the Sandberg Institute, the postgraduate design school in Amsterdam.