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A hand picks up a yellow magazine from a shelf full of magazines

Big Ideas

What Does the Word Magazine Mean Today?

This year's ModMag Conference took a philosophical approach to the world of magazine creation, ideation, and production.


In a whirr of hefty paper stock and die-cut edges, the New York magazine crew gathered at Parsons School of Design this week for the second annual ModMagNYC, hosted by magCulture founder and independent magazine maven Jeremy Leslie.

Past years have questioned topics like the future of publishing or the switch to digital. This year’s festival took a more philosophical approach, asking “What does the word “magazine” mean today? Creative directors and design thinkers from California Sunday, The New Yorker, Eye on Design and more took the stage to contemplate the treasured magazine in all its multi-format facets and shared advice for fellow magazine creators.

At the end of the day, “magazine” seems more like a way of thinking than a medium, a mindset perhaps best summed up by ModMag host Liv Siddall: “Good magazines will always come from good people with good ideas and something to say.”

Here’s the best of the good people and good ideas from ModMagNYC.

***

Starting out doesn’t mean starting small.

Launching an independent magazine can be a battle for incremental growth. But California Sunday founder Douglas McGray saw a fast-track opportunity in a larger trend going on in publishing. “We noticed at the time that a lot of the big west coast newspapers were getting out of the magazine business,” he said. “Just because they weren’t distributing their own magazine anymore didn’t mean they couldn’t distribute someone else’s.” He signed an insertion deal and distributed 350,000 print copies at launch. Going indie definitely doesn’t mean thinking small.

Two images: a man with white hair speaking into a microphone and an image of an open magazine

Jeremy Leslie is the founder of magCulture.

Relish your medium.

The Gentlewoman, the elegant mag for a modern age, still holds on to some relics of the past. Creative Director Veronica Ditting puts the magazine together by hand in collage format—layering cutouts of panels, illustrations, and text in her studio. “It’s literally cutting out things, putting them into place and seeing how they would work together and how they could work across the issue as well.” Ditting revels in a print process as well as a print product. “It’s really about getting a connection with the material,” she said.

Find inspiration in time crunches.

Gentlewoman’s Veronica Ditting sometimes finds herself working with a time crunch when it comes to her photo shoots. For a staggeringly short 30-minute shoot with rocker Kim Deal, Ditting found her solution on the streets of London. Knowing that her team wouldn’t have time to get upstairs to a studio, she walked the alleys and lanes of the Fitzrovia neighborhood where Deal’s previous meeting would be, saving pictures of doorways and tunnels to a map on her phone. Ditting explained that finding great shoots inside challenging constraints is very on-brand for the magazine. “It’s about the no-nonsense approach and the strictness we have,” Ditting explained “And on the other hand breaking it up.”

With great circulation comes great responsibility.

From climate change to immigration to politics, we the people are grappling with some enormous topics right now. Magazines must meet the fact that they have been cursed with interesting times, plus many channels that demand editorial about those times. “Magazines have never had more responsibility to respond to what’s going on than they have at the moment,” said author Ian Birch.

A woman in a blue dress seated next to a man with white hair.

Veronica Ditting is the creative director of Gentlewoman.

Feed an appetite for design, even if people don’t know they’re hungry.

Nathalie Kirsheh, creative director for the newly all-digital Glamour, has spent the last year building internal enthusiasm for digital at a legacy print publication. One of her biggest successes? When the editor flagged a desire to cover breaking news, Kirsheh and her team leapt in to resolve the visual limitation of only having existing images like runways and red-carpet shots to pair with news stories. “I wanted to help elevate these features by pushing the design approach,” says Kirsheh. Her team’s use of interactive, typography, and animation to make breaking news visuals as exciting as the story itself has taken Glamour’s news coverage to a whole new level.

Transformation can transcend tradition.

Starting as a magazine a print magazine with eight decades of legacy, Glamour has a lot at stake in its new all-digital life. From gif covers to live events to aggressive social strategy, creative director Nathalie Kirsheh aims to show that a magazine can live beyond print. “A magazine is a cultural epicenter,” she explains, “But it’s also a coherent and continually evolving portfolio of a brand.” In the end, she says, she’s the steward of an ethos that transcends a physical magazine.

Print is *not* a dinosaur.

While playing with multiple covers seems to be a trend taking over the magazine industry, for its annual typography issue in 2017, Eye took the game to a whole new level. Graphic design studio MuirMcNeil was tasked with creating 8,000 unique covers. Using algorithms and software, the duo made designs for each cover, making it an unusual sight for any print veteran seeing them as they spun off the presses. The takeaway? “Printing on paper is not an old-fashioned, dinosaur kind of activity,” said Eye editor John L. Walters for the film ’94 [8,000 One-Offs]. “It’s a state-of-the-art industry. It’s not as big as it used to be, but it’s very high tech.”

A man with glasses speaks into a microphone

Nicholas Blechman is the creative director of the New Yorker.

Keep your inner amateur.

Ralph McGinnis started his career as editor of the indie magazine Put a Egg on It with no training and a love for campy rock and punk zines. Now, years into covering the communities of food stories like Black Panther breakfasts and “first date cakes,” he stays true to his roots. “I have become a trained graphic designer but I still try to keep a sense of amateurishness with everything I do,” McGinnis said. That means decisions like limiting himself to two typefaces and drawing everything else by hand. The added bonus? “No one can steal from me because it’s hand-drawn,” he said.

Connect your readers in real life.

If you run a magazine, you’re playing host to many like-minded, curious minds. Help those people find each other. “Our readers don’t just want to learn about the world in print. They want to learn about it in real life,” said Lindsay founder Beth Wilkinson. Wilkinson now hosts reader events to bring her audience together all over the world.

Make good trouble in the places you have power.

Roderick Stanley launched the magazine Good Trouble after being inspired by the energy and creativity of activist movements. Now, he looks at activism through the lens of art, using his platform to elevate the projects of others. The title of his publication is inspired by the Civil Rights leader and congressman John Lewis who said it’s sometimes necessary to get into “good trouble” to reach higher heights. Stanley believes we can all apply that mantra in places where we have power. “Whoever we are, whatever we do, and whatever we work on, let’s try to think of a way that we can get into some good trouble, necessary trouble,” he said.

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is a journalist and deputy editor at gal-dem.

Don’t shy away from the obvious.

As photography director at New York Magazine, Jody Quon knew immediately how she wanted to photograph the blackouts caused by Hurricane Sandy. As the rest of the New York Magazine team huddled in makeshift offices uptown, she sent photographer Iwan Baan to capture the blacked-out tip of Manhattan for that week’s cover. With a wad of cash in hand, Baan convinced a helicopter to fly him high into the airspace left empty by grounded planes. That week, Quon watched anxiously as her competitors at The New Yorker and The New York Times covered the blackout, but on the day her weekly issue launched, no one else had captured that bird’s-eye image. “If it might feel like an obvious idea, don’t not do it,” Quon said. “Just do it anyways, because you never know.”

Take up space and demand your place.

For gal-dem head of editorial Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, producing a print magazine was both an editorial dream and a strategic move. As a company run by women and non-binary people of color, gal-dem is tackling a UK industry of traditional journalism that is 94% white and 55% male. Producing something that physically took up space was a way to demand a place in publishing. “It gave us an anchor into a very privileged world,” said Brinkhurst-Cuff. “It still gives you some prestige to have a print publication, apart from all the other romantic reasons we wanted to do it.”

A woman in glasses speaks into a microphone with the phrase "Showing familiar in unfamiliar ways' on a slide behind her

Jody Quon is the director of photography at New York Magazine.

Find emotion in graphics and type.

Whether you’re all digital or hands-on print, the magazine cover is the point of impact where first emotions kick in that give the reader a foothold to take in a message. That need for emotion and connection leads many to put people and faces on their covers, but Eye on Design editor Perrin Drumm advocates for resisting that trend. “We’re supposed to believe that, to make an emotional connection with the reader, the traditional cover should have a person and lots of eye contact. As someone who runs a graphic design magazine it’s always graphics and type, and not people and not faces, that I’m excited about,” she said.

Turn habits on their head.

As creative director at The New Yorker, Nicholas Blechman often struggles with how to translate the illustrations and photos he creates for print into something usable and interesting for the web. As he figures the riddle out, he runs experiments to find new successful processes. One of them? Turn the pipeline in the other direction. “What if we did it the other way around?” Blechman asked his team, who started producing images for web and then figuring out how to use them in the print mag. “What if we took the primacy of the web and let it trickle down to the print edition?” While not always successful, he believes experiments like those will help make better friends of print and digital.

Emily Ludolph

Emily Ludolph writes about business, history, and culture. She has published in Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer. She is the host of a live show and podcast called Dedicate It


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