Harvard Design Magazine has relaunched with a design overhaul by With Projects, and editorial changes led by Jennifer Sigler. The magazine started life in 1997, and packed with scholarly articles on urban design, landscape architecture and sustainability, it acted as a kind of update for design school alumni. The new look intends to “overcome the insularity of design discourse,” framing each issue with themes like “Wet Matter” and “Do You Read Me?” Jennifer Sigler and associate editor Leah Whitman-Salkin have established a visually exciting and poetic space for “dialogue, speculation and surprise.” They’ve been kind enough to indulge our questions and tell all about their plans, processes and probing approach.
What was it that spurred the relaunch? Can you tell us a bit more about the new editorial decisions?
Harvard Design Magazine has in many ways evolved alongside the changing landscape of the design discipline itself. It was founded in 1997 by editor William Saunders and was originally designed by Nigel Smith and Alison Hahn as an update of the school’s alumni magazine. Over the years there were a number of graphic reinventions, but Bill was always at the helm editorially. When Bill retired, I joined the Graduate School of Design; my first task was to reimagine the magazine and to develop a new editorial direction, in close collaboration with Leah Whitman-Salkin. We wanted the new magazine to be informal and critical and intellectual and seductive and projective and playful and probing and mysterious, all at once. We invited Jiminie Ha of With Projects to interpret these ideas graphically. From there, its physical and editorial identities evolved together.
"We wanted the magazine to be informal and critical, intellectual and seductive..."Jennifer Sigler
You describe the new direction for the magazine as an invitation for ‘“reading” across disciplinary boundaries… stak[ing] out an expanded arena for architecture and design dialogue.” Could you expand on this?
The previous incarnation of the magazine mostly tapped into a more familiar, trusted set of contributors and topics in the design disciplines, which produced many seminal texts. In a complementary shift, Leah and I are interested in shaking up the subject matter, the voices, and the kinds of lenses we use to look at design—finding ways to overcome the insularity of design discourse. We want to invite other voices in, and create new, unlikely juxtapositions.
How did you go about appointing a new designer, and what were your considerations in terms of the vision for the new editorial and design direction?
We selected Jiminie Ha (With Projects) as designer because of the way her work combines the pragmatic with the sensual. She understands how magazines work as systems. We felt she would bring the right mix of discipline, quirkiness, simplicity, informality, elegance, legibility, and visual energy.
It feels like magazines are beginning to hark back to the period of general interest publications – I guess a current example would be The New Yorker. Do you think people are increasingly looking to magazines that maintain quality, rather than focus on a specific subject?
Design means everything and nothing today, and I questioned it from the start of this process. At the Harvard GSD “design” translates formally to three specific departments, all concerned with the large-scale built environment, yet we’re not called a “School of Architecture,” we’re a school of Design. That name leaves a lot of room for interpretation. The magazine takes advantage of that ambiguity—it juxtaposes design, as we understand it in architecture, with other forms of design thinking. Unlike “architecture,” the word “design” can be used as a verb—it suggests an action or process, not a product. It’s what we do. The magazine is concerned more with this process, how it is understood and applied across a range of disciplines, than with particular objects. The design of the built environment is still the central focus, but as a process of interdisciplinary collaboration and communication.
How do you go about commissioning articles for the magazine? Do you have an idea of the specifics you want to cover or do you open with a wide brief? Is it written by designers – or contributed to more broadly from across the school and the state?
Each issue is themed, and as we develop our own research on the theme we create a very probing brief. Sometimes we send the brief to contributors asking quite openly for them to respond at will; other times we have specific topics in mind that we want covered so we ask more pointed questions when reaching out to contributors. But the contributions always evolve as part of a dialogue, and often end up in places we hadn’t imagined.
Why is it important to you for Harvard Design Magazine to remain in print, rather than existing online?
At the beginning of the redesign we asked ourselves the same question very seriously—“Why print?” Early on, I spent a lot of time looking at pamphlets, zines, and other kinds of quick, energetic, handmade publications. We decided that if we were going to print, we wanted the magazine to do things that can only be done in print. Texture is important. The magazine is meant to be touched and held. And the same line of thinking held as we developed our website. It is an online representation of the magazine—not an online magazine or blog—but we still expected that it activate its digital space with medium specificity, doing things only made possible through digital media.
How do you see the magazine developing? Do you have plans for the themes for upcoming issues?
The basic design concept was set up in number 38, but the design will continue to evolve and the editorial outlook will also shift and sharpen with every issue and theme. We made the latest issue, Wet Matter, in collaboration with Pierre Bélanger, a landscape architect and professor here at the GSD. It reconsiders our relationship to the ocean, asking how we shape it and it shapes us. Issue number 40, which we’re working on now, is called Well, Well, Well. It looks at health, wellness, and illness, and ways in which designing the built environment can both heal and harm. We’re bringing together a very exciting group of thinkers for the issue, so stay tuned!
About the Author
Billie studied illustration at Camberwell College of Art before completing an MA in Visual Communication at the Royal College of Art. She joined It’s Nice That as a Freelance Editorial Assistant back in January 2015 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis.