Back in March I was on a panel discussing magazine publishing with Matt Willey. We spoke in some detail about the challenges of making magazines work; something Matt is perfectly positioned to pontificate on seeing as he’s worked at a whole host of titles and even started his own in Port (although he’s no longer involved). Now based in the States as part of Gail Bichler’s design team at The New York Times Magazine, he seemed to have found the ideal fit for his prodigious editorial talents, but a few weeks ago news reached us confirming that Matt was starting a new magazine with longtime collaborator (and Port co-founder) Dan Crowe, and the explorer Ben Saunders. Why throw himself into these choppy, challenging waters again?
“Because magazines are exciting things. Because I’m not sure if I know how to do anything else. Because things being ‘challenging’ is often a part of things being worthwhile,” he says.
“Port was a huge learning curve for everyone involved. We may well make a bunch of new mistakes but I think Dan and I felt like we had learnt enough from that experience to do something better, or perhaps just differently. The conversations we had around the idea of Avaunt – back in 2012 with Ben in The Eagle pub – were very exciting. I think we felt compelled to make it happen, we knew it had the potential to be good. It’s easier to launch a new magazine now than it was in 2011 (when we launched Port) partly because the tedious ‘print is dead’ noise that surrounded the iPad launch has subsided and partly because we’ve done it before.
“Avaunt is also a very different proposition; it’s biannual, it has an annual ‘event’, its intentions online are very different and so on. The printed magazine is just one part of what Avaunt hopes to be. With Port it was everything.”
"The printed magazine is just one part of what Avaunt hopes to be. With Port it was everything."Matt Willey
The new magazine focuses on “adventure in the broadest possible sense” and promises “discerning portrayals of extraordinary women and men, people who are pushing the boundaries of what is humanly possible – and great style will run through all of it.” The first issue ranges from freediving to bionics, 70s skateboarding to a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea.
But Matt admits that finding a name for such an eclectic proposition wasn’t straightforward. Avaunt is a middle English word meaning “to the front,” an olde worlde exclamation favoured by Shakespeare. As with the idea of the magazine itself, the title came courtesy of a pub session, this time with writer and editor Jolyon Webber.
“We were discussing the agonising impossibility of coming up with a name for a new magazine. Four pints (and a lot of hilariously bad suggestions) later Jolyon came up with Avaunt. I remember liking it because of the AVA part being like mountains (the crossbar on the As would be the snow line) and spent weeks drawing terrible logos. Names are hard, you have to live with them for a while. I remember thinking Zembla was an awful name but grew to love it.”
Matt’s official role is creative director and it feels recognisably Willey-esque from the muted colour palettes to the type choices. A bright red belly band on the inaugural issue adds a flare of colour and takes care of the cover lines, letting nine Giles Revell photographs of acrobat Charlie Wheeler in mid-air dominate the actual front.
Matt is both honest and self-effacing about the process of developing the look and feel with design director Alex Hunting.
“We pushed things around, played about with ideas. That process, of trying things and seeing what works and what doesn’t, is really the only way I know how to do it. Things slowly, somehow, fall into some sort of shape. I enjoy that process but I don’t know how to explain it without being unbearably tedious.”
Similarly deciding on the typography was a matter of trial and error – Matt admits he and Alex and he spent “an inordinate amount of time playing with combinations.”
Matt has often worked with Henrik Kubel who drew an elegant new face called Avaunt Stencil, while they used his Antwerp face for body copy and standfirsts and his Typewriter font for captions and sidebars – “there’s something severe and manual-like about that typeface, being used in the way that we have, that appeals to me."
Matt redrew a softened version of his MFred typeface for feature headlines and pull quotes and the whole thing is set in a strict grid which they break out of to good effect for eye-catching openers and the like.
So the first issue looks great, but as with any new title the tough part is often maintaining that initial buzz and those high standards. But in Matt and Dan, Avaunt can draw on two huge talents who seem adept at combining their complimentary strengths.
“There’s a huge amount of trust that comes with being great friends,” Matt says. “There’s something reassuring about that, it allows you to circumnavigate all that crap that makes you worry about saying something stupid (which I do a lot) or suggesting an idea that might not be that good (which I do a lot) and my theory is that that allows you to be more confident.
“But Avaunt, as was the case with Port, as is the case with any good magazine, is the result of a great team of people all trying to make something good. That’s the huge appeal of magazines for me; that collectively you can achieve something far better than you could ever manage on your own.”