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Work / Publication

Wired UK’s Andrew Diprose on the changing role of the art director, and why robots never sell a magazine

Andrew Diprose started his career at Smash Hits magazine, when, as he puts it, “pop magazines were the biggest thing in the world and Take That had just started touring”. From there he has worked as a designer and art director on titles including Sky magazine, Elle, Esquire, Arena and GQ. Ten years ago he was brought in as the founding art director of the UK version of the US monthly Wired. Here, he talks us through how the role of the creative director has changed over the past decade and explains how he visualises topics that are, by their very nature, almost impossible to visualise.

I studied graphic design at what was then the Southampton Institute. By the end of my degree, I was really into magazines – the likes of The Face, Octavo, Beach Culture and Ray Gun. Scott King was then art director of i-D and, after lecturing at the college, kindly agreed to have me intern there with him. I thought he was (and still is) just so clever – and it was a bit of a golden era for i-D. I suddenly realised I could take this enthusiasm for editorial, bringing stories to life with photography and graphic design, and turn this into an actual career.

Wired has been my baby in so many ways, and that’s been both a real joy and a challenging responsibility. When you’re part of a team that represents a well-loved brand and have the freedom to fail massively (or succeed), it’s all down to you. Today my eyes are still on every detail, and yes, I still want to kern a caption.

Ten years doesn’t sound that long and, in the history of publishing, it’s a tiny amount of time. But the role of the art director or creative director for an editorial brand is completely different now. When we started with Wired, we solely focussed on the printed product, that was it. Advertising in print was still really healthy – there was the odd murmur about decline, but nobody was really feeling it. There was no digital edition, the iPad hadn’t come along; people weren’t really consuming content on their phones. The website was there but it just ticked along, it obviously wasn’t such a big priority in those days.

As much as publishing has changed, the expectations on the art director have changed too, as the digital tools have evolved to enable everyone to tackle pretty much every discipline. What I do day in day out now is really diverse. One day I could be art directing or overseeing the edit of a video, I could be working with an animator for Instagram, commissioning photography with the photo director, or conceptualising for a still-life set build. In design careers in the past, over time you learnt your trade and became a specialist. I don’t think those roles in editorial really exist anymore. Which means I occasionally have this inner turmoil: “Have I become a jack of all trades now (because you need to), or is it brilliant that I’ve radically expanded my skill set?” It’s just two sides of the same coin.

All that said, the print product is still really important for us in the UK, which is a bit unfashionable to say right now. It’s like a flagship store for the brand. The weird irony is that we have the biggest names in digital – CEOs of the tech world – and they all ask, “Is this going to be in the print magazine?” There is still something very valuable about a finite amount of space, which is what you have in print. You’ve got infinite space online – they want to know their face is being printed in four colours on a piece of paper.

Looking back on the past ten years sometimes makes me feel uncomfortable, though, because it’s like a design education laid bare for everybody to see. There are some howlers in those early issues. Even pretty recently we did a cover about the end of the world, and the CEO thought it looked like a flaming Christmas pudding instead of our planet in flames. Anything we do with robots on the cover doesn’t seem to sell well either – it’s taken us a good few attempts to figure that out. There are plenty of stories that are painful to look back on now.

But there are some I’m really proud of, too. One of the highlights would be our “Fail” cover with Alan Sugar, because that was classic Wired. The whole idea was about failure, so of course we made it look like a failed cover – we had a duplicated logo, printers’ crop marks and it looked like it had failed on the binding line. Graphic designers geeked out over that cover.

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Wired UK: Cover featuring Alan Sugar

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Wired UK: Cover featuring protest group Pussy Riot

We’ve also had the privilege of shooting Steven Hawking twice for the cover, once with Marco Grob and once with Platon, two world-class photographers. On the second shoot, with Platon, Professor Hawking only had very limited movement; yet he would still give you his absolute full attention, even though he was tired. Platon brought so much enthusiasm to the shoot that the professor couldn’t help but be charmed and excited – the energy that was in the room, when we were shooting somebody who couldn’t move, was truly inspiring.

I was initially keen on selecting a shot where you see him in the chair, pulled back. My thinking was that the chair and everything that went with it was part of him, as a person. In the end, we swapped the cover shot to be this enigmatic, non-eyes-to-camera shot, much closer in. We switched round to thinking that it was actually about his mind. Those life-support systems and his chair never really got in the way of his genius.

Quite often, though, you don’t have a recognisable face to put on the cover. This has been the blessing and the curse of Wired. Many other titles enjoy the prop of celebrity, the attractive faces of actors or models. That’s how it generally works in publishing – you’ll have the entertainment industry, which is in a constant cycle of self-promotion. We don’t often have that immediate recognisability on newsstand, it’s just not in our DNA. We may be dealing with a subject like dark matter that may or may not exist! Or AI or cyber security, challenging subject matter to visualise in a credible way.

The flip-side is that it pushes us to do something inventive and creative. The reason I have stayed with Wired and why I’m so enthusiastic about the brand is that the stories are genuinely compelling. I’m proud of representing these really important stories visually, and blessed to be sharing them with a larger audience – ideas that are going to change the world. So how do we tell those stories? What’s the headline? And how do we package it up and make it compelling, when it’s not Brad Pitt?

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Wired UK: Cover of 100th issue

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Wired UK: Opening spread of Stephen Hawking feature

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Wired UK: Cover of 10th anniversary issue

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Wired UK: Spread from Charlie Brooker feature

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Wired UK: Spread from Buzzfeed feature

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Wired UK: Spread from Noma feature

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Wired UK: Spread from feature on Sudanese refugees