Last Thursday (1 November), magazine fanatics headed to Holborn for the annual ModMag event. Organised by beloved magazine shop MagCulture, the day has become a must for anyone whose calendar is filled with magazine release schedules, giving readers the opportunity to hear personal stories behind the pagination.
An excellently curated programme, ModMag featured relative newcomers to the magazine industry such as Homesick and A Dance Mag, through to publication heroes like National Geographic’s creative director Emmet Smith, Elle magazine’s Tom Meredith, and now regular shelf stackers, Sabat, Mundial, Courier, and The Plant, to name a few. The day was brimming with newsprint, laminated, glossy and hardback publications, each with a distinct tone of voice.
While some emphatically shouted the mission of their magazines, others turned to visuals to show how commissioning has helped build alternate ventures and audiences. As the overall theme of the day was “reinvention”, each speaker made a particular note of this. Some explained how they personally invented now treasured titles, to others joining an already established title and adding a fresh eye.
Below, we share some of our favourite bits of advice and insight from the day. While not everyone we heard from is included, we highly recommend you check out each of the brilliant titles who presented here.
“Magazines are a big responsibility”: Carol Montpart, The Plant
Taking to the stage early on in the day was Carol Montpart, a co-founder of nature-focused magazine, The Plant. As ModMag’s host Liv Siddall so rightfully said while introducing Carol, The Plant is a publication that many count as their very favourite. With its 13th issue quite literally going to print as she spoke, the co-founder explained the beginnings of the magazine, which grew from Carol’s difficulties in finding a magazine which spoke about nature, through to its reinvention of a redesign by Seb McLaughlan earlier this year.
In its focus of nature, The Plant utilises photography, illustration, long-form journalism and short stories to discuss the wide-spanning subject. Its recent redesign created more space for photography to really shine in its spreads and included a delicate shift in the magazine’s masthead, pinpointing the team’s excellent eye for commissioning. In being so obviously thoughtful in its editorial stance, subject and creative angles, The Plant is testament to Carol’s belief that “magazines are a big responsibility”.
“The dreamy nightmare of starting a magazine”: Perrin Drumm, Eye on Design
Perrin Drumm, the founder of AIGA’s Eye on Design provided an interesting circumstance of founding a magazine, as well as reinventing what the publication provides online. Perrin explained how she founded Eye on Design firstly as a digital platform, speaking to emerging designers with a smart tone of voice, but one that’s chummy rather than academic. However, Perrin personally felt that being an online-only publication meant the magazine world tended to not take it seriously, encouraging Eye On Design to take a leap into print this year.
Now, the magazine’s triannual release sees the publication continue to put designers first, handing the whole publication to one designer to take control of, even if Perrin and her team admittedly sometimes disagree with said designer’s choices. In an honest talk which spoke of the difficulties of starting a magazine as a “dreamy nightmare”, Perrin’s talk proved how even if you have a team behind you details are always a pain, saying what everyone in the publishing world is really thinking, particularly in how “distribution is a bitch”.
“You have wins, you have losses”: Jeff Taylor, Courier
Following a series of talks of personal ventures of founding a magazine out of absolute love, founder of Courier magazine, Jeff Taylor, gave a talk explaining how to make a profitable business out of print.
First of all admitting that “people who tell you to start a business doing something you love are, for the most part, talking crap,” Jeff founded the relatively new but now omnipresent title with the mission of not producing a magazine he wanted, but one he felt an audience would appreciate. To first garner this audience Jeff also hilariously admitted making up a number of contributors, mostly taking the names of distant friends he had at school, to make its first issue appear to have a fully functioning team.
Today, Courier produces stories for “people who want to live and work on their terms”, also explaining how the title continues this by upgrading regularly through size and stories, like an app rather than a magazine.
“We didn’t know what it was, but we knew what it wasn’t”: Deidre Dyer, No Man’s Land
Taking to the stage all the way from New York, Deidre Dyer, the editor of all women co-working space The Wing’s publication No Man’s Land, explained her own reinvention through publications. Deidre first worked her way up at The Fader to then starting a magazine for weed startup Marley Natural, and has now established a publication representative of The Wing.
Starting her talk by giving the audience a background into The Wing, Deidre explained how the space not only offers a communal area for working women “to get shit done” but it’s also “a place to hit refresh”. As a result, the driven women who are members of The Wing are reflected in an issue through detailed profiles and the act of reading the magazine embodies the feeling of taking some time out.
Starting the magazine from scratch, Deidre took the audience through a personable journey of creating a title, particularly one part of a larger business, describing details such as working with Emily Oberman’s team at Pentagram and for honing in on an editorial angle influenced by the fact that “we didn’t know what it was, but we knew what it wasn’t.”
“We’ve all got a responsibility to call out the truth”: Rod Stanley, Good Trouble
In a political pause during the afternoon, Rod Stanley, the founding editor of New York-based publication Good Trouble, gave a brilliant talk about founding the publication which looks at protest and activism through the lens of culture.
The publication, designed by Richard Turley, places its values and missions first with Rod explaining how living in America has particularly allowed him to see that “we’ve all got a responsibility to call out the truth.” Inspired by the protests against Trump’s election in 2016, Rod made a spin on the event’s theme of reinvention by displaying how “it’s not always a good thing”.
However, the get up from your chair and clap this man off the stage moment came when Rod explained the reasoning behind Good Trouble’s name, pulled from a quote of civil right’s activist John Lewis who inspiringly said: “Find a way to get in trouble. Good trouble, necessary trouble.”
“You just don’t know what the next story is going to be”: Emmet Smith, National Geographic
Last to speak was Emmet Smith, the creative director of household title National Geographic, giving the audience a mammoth, eye opening talk on the 130-year-old publication.
For Emmet, the reinvention of National Geographic developed in its redesign in May this year. Working closely with the publication’s editorial director Susan Goldberg, “it’s my job to read her mind,” says Emmet, the pair and its wider team reworked elements of the magazine.
In working at a title already so embedded in people’s minds, the redesign developed when the publication’s CEO posed the creative director with the question of what he would want to do if making National Geographic today. From there, Emmet explained how “arresting, pioneering, illuminating and uncompromising” stories became the magazine’s priority. Rather than change angles and elements already loved by its established audience, Emmet reworked the features section to make way for storytelling, both editorially and through photography.
A fascinating presentation, which even included a whizz through all of National Geographic’s incredible covers to date, Emmet covered all the details, from typefaces to the treasure trove of in-house references to choose from. The talk showed how much impact one title can have on the world, “and all that’s in it”.
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