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Features / Publication

Designing A Day In The Desert: Richard Turley works on a special edition of ’SUP Magazine

First published in Printed Pages Spring 2014

Words by

Rob Alderson

This story begins in the desert. Boulder Gardens is a 640-acre corner of the Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. It’s a landscape that lends itself to hallucination – its trippy, bulbous rock formations are far more emotionally powerful than anything conjured up on the U2 album of the same name. It is run by Garth who was raised a Mormon, became a missionary and spent four years walking round the USA with little more than the robe on his back preaching the golden rule; the doctrine that you should treat others as you would want to be treated. Boulder Gardens – which Garth bought in 1981 – is a spiritual refuge as well as an ecological experiment devoted to perma-culture, whereby its ponds, gardens and greenhouses exist in a self-perpetuating natural cycle, or re-greening the desert, as it has been described.

On October 26 last year, 150 music lovers gathered at Boulder Gardens for a one-day festival curated and organised by ‘SUP magazine. Started by Marisa Brickman in 1998 while a student in North Carolina, the photocopied early issues of ‘SUP evolved into one of the most respected music magazines around, still defined by its fierce independence (it has never used press imagery, nor does it run music reviews).

Increasingly Marisa and her team were interested in creating unique musical experiences, which is how A Day in the Desert came about. It was funded via Kickstarter, and alongside bands like HEALTH, Mark McGwire, SSleepwalker and Troller, there was meditation, arts and crafts, organised hikes and a free bar.

“It’s what we’ve been wanting from the festival experience for a long time – great music curated to match the surroundings,” Marisa said. “Boulder Gardens is the most breathtaking and beautiful home I’ve ever seen. For miles, there’s nothing around – no houses, no roads, no power lines. It’s a magical place.”

‘SUP pulled it off in some style. According to Ron Poznansky of the band Cosmic Kids who played that night: “It felt like everyone was on the same page but free to be on their own trips.” The plan was to document it in March’s issue of ‘SUP, which is where Richard Turley comes in.

There are many reasons why people agree to speak at design conferences – money, ego, travel – but primarily it’s the opportunity for promotion. Some are embarrassed to admit it (even to themselves) but when Richard Turley bounded on stage at The Modern Magazine conference in London last October (10 days before the Boulder Gardens gathering) he embraced this truth from the off. Looking younger than his 37 years, the much respected and multi-award winning creative director of Bloomberg Businessweek addressed the elephant in the room with almost his very first slide, which flashed up to read “Buy our Fucking Magazine!” It reoccurred throughout his engaging and entertaining talk which centred on how he and his team have developed such a rich, varied and accessible visual vernacular for dealing with often rather dry material.

When we first approached him about this article we pitched an idea which focussed on his Businessweek covers (the genesis of which are explained each week in the magazine’s Cover Trail column). “To be honest with you,” he told us, “I have a slight anxiety that everyone must be bored shitless about me whining on about those covers.”

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Instead he suggested that we might be more interested in a project on which he was about to start work. Long-time creative director of ‘SUP magazine Brendan Dugan (who runs New York graphic design studio An Art Service) was no longer working on the title and Richard had taken over. “It’s going to be focussed on a festival they did in the desert earlier in the year, which is interesting in itself I think…”

Richard Turley was recommended for the ‘SUP gig by Richard Turley. “Marisa asked me if I knew anyone who could design ‘SUP,” he admitted. “I talked to Cameron Cook (managing editor of ‘SUP) for about five minutes before volunteering myself.”

He was following in some intimidating footsteps. “Brendan is a friend for life; we essentially became adults and professionals in our respective careers together,” Marisa said. “He really pioneered the whole minimal design aesthetic and we were using a Times New Roman masthead and Arial font back in 2005 before that was everywhere.”

She approached Richard because he had once nominated ‘SUP for a design award, and Marisa was surprised and delighted when he put himself forward. “It was an amazing stroke of fate. Richard works for one of the biggest corporations in the world and has achieved more than anyone design-wise with a business magazine. I can imagine having a creative outlet on the side to really showcase what he wants is super-fun for him.

“We are excited to have a fresh perspective. ‘SUP has always been a platform for the people involved – from the writers, to the photographers to the team designing it. Because it’s a labour of love we like to give people an opportunity to work without a lot of restrictions. Everyone has other jobs and ways to pay the bills, but ‘SUP is a venture to explore.”

Marisa was keen from the start not to overburden Richard with what went before. “We went into this issue with the mindset of purposefully moving away from the existing design. It’s funny though because when you talk to a designer they get really granular about the details and notice really small, specific tweaks – borders on photos, the way bylines are done, placement of page numbers, colophons.

“I am not a designer so I just have to trust that the people I hand over the design to know what they’re doing. I try to make sure the artists we feature are contemporary and forward-thinking, and I expect the same from everyone involved.”

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Time, it is said, equals money and in this case the equation was simple enough; Richard had little time and no money. He decided he would put the magazine together over just two weekends in his home city, New York, aided and abetted by BBW colleagues photo editor Emily Keegin and assistant creative director Tracy Ma.

“None of us had any time to have done it any other way so we stripped down the process to the bare bones,” he explained. “We all have jobs, this is a hobby. Plus, limiting the amount of time you have to do something keeps it interesting, especially I think for Emily, Tracy and me who are used to working with big budgets, lots of time, and lots of man-power.”

He also liked the lo-fi vibe of working in this way. “There was lots of paper and photos and print-outs and Post-it notes that gradually got somewhere. We really made the magazine on the floor of the studio, then scanned it in.

“I wanted it to feel scrappy. I was very taken with a book of Riot Grrrl fanzines I got last year – it made a big impact. There was one by Kathleen Hanna; an entire publication dedicated to Evan Dando, her problems with him, her love of him. It was a deeply confused, surprisingly cogent and highly personal meditation on boys, music, life, love and the future. Mostly what I loved was the feeling. It felt quick, like she had to get this thing out of her system and I really like that approach. So we tried to replicate that a bit.

“I’m inspired by Buffalo Zine as well. These fanzines approach publishing from a more immediate position, they have none of the polish and shine yet have an exuberance and urgency that trumps bigger titles.”

Richard knows a thing or two about bigger titles. As a student at art school in Liverpool he was obsessed with magazines like Trace, Dazed and Confused and The Face, as well as Melody Maker, Muzik and MixMag. The publications whose design he cites as early inspirations are Tomato and Fuel but he also used to steal his housemate Kenny’s copy of The Guardian. While a student, he entered and won a magazine design competition run by the same newspaper and after his placement they kept him on, eventually working alongside creative director Mark Porter. For two years he worked on Mark’s now legendary redesign of the paper into its Berliner format and was rewarded with the art directorship of the G2 section.

Four years later he got a call out of the blue from New York. Businessweek magazine – which dates back to 1929 – had been bought by Bloomberg and new editor Josh Tyrangiel was on the hunt for a creative director to help revive the title’s flagging fortunes. Richard was invited to pitch for the job, decided there and then on the phone he wanted to do it in Helvetica and duly won the role. In an industry sometimes characterised by overthinking, Richard’s design approach is refreshingly simple. In the past he has described himself as “a lazy designer” and admitted: “I find it difficult to talk about magazines without sounding like a fool.”

Peers and design critics are less restrained. In 2011, Eye magazine hailed him in the most effusive terms imaginable. Simon Esterson wrote: “ Bloomberg Businessweek’s pages explode with the energy of breaking news, editorial intelligence and design experiment, while achieving perfectly detailed typography. Along with its weekly counterparts New York and The New York Times Magazine, Turley’s art direction is a sign that mainstream magazine design is still alive.”

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The reference to typography is significant. Richard’s approach might best be described as studied insouciance; he takes care in selecting a font that appears carelessly selected. For ‘SUP he began from a position of perversity, approaching Paul Barnes and Christian Schwartz of Commercial Type (whose redrawn Helvetica was an early inspiration in that snap early Businessweek decision).

“I asked Christian and Paul for the most inappropriate typeface for a contemporary music magazine. They gave me a really low contrast version of a new face of theirs called Chiswick. Tracy especially loved this when they sent it to us and if Tracy loves something then that’s all I need to know.”

The other “design decisions” the team made on that studio floor back in January were actually essentially editorial decisions, unsurprisingly perhaps for a creative director who has long maintained that “good stories sell magazines better than good design.”

“The main design decision was really how we structured the magazine, replicating the order of the festival. We were not trying to put together anything more than capturing a party in a desert last year. ‘SUP puts on these intimate, very special experiences, and Marisa wanted to draw attention to those. I think initially she thought it could be more conventional, but I suggested we document the event more specifically. ‘SUP’s mission is to intimately document music, so we refocussed the magazine a bit to intimately document a musical event.

“We start the magazine on the road driving to the event, then it arrives, is introduced to the environment and we meet the owners of this incredible place just outside Joshua Tree. Then the music starts (with interviews with the bands), the [ahem] drugs kick in, and we learn about psychedelic hallucinogens and their history as the sun sets and we fall into night. We stumble around the desert meeting a few more bands and people and artists before the sun comes up and the magazine completes itself with some anecdotes from people who were there.”

It sounds like a you-had-to-be-there kind of event, a challenge Marisa acknowledges. “It’s pretty hard to capture a feeling and a spirit in two dimensions, but we hope to be able to achieve that with a slightly more engaging and playful publication. We want the actual print edition to feel like an experience rather than a passive read.”

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Finding narratives was never going to be a problem; even devoid of festival-goers Boulder Gardens lends itself to the craft. As Garth says at the very start of the Kickstarter video which launched A Day In The Desert: “This is the land of 10,000 stories. Everything you see, touch, has a story.” Rather the challenge came in marshalling the material.

“We had a tonne of images, from photographers who went, but also from people who were just there. In fact that stuff just kept on coming in; more and more attendees’ pictures turned up. Emily wove those together and we ended up just scanning those pages in directly. A lot of what is in the magazine are scans of print-outs with tape holding them together.”

In some instances, such cheerfully lo-fi haphazardness might come across as a deliberate PR self-preservation technique; the professional equivalent of the kid at school who tells you how little revision they’ve done on their way into ace yet another exam. With Richard though, he’s just being honest.

“Right now we still don’t have a cover,” he says. “I think it might just be white with some type. I don’t really feel much pressure, but now I keep thinking about these questions I’m starting to feel pressure. Should I feel pressure?”

Not at all. Having read ‘SUP’s A Day In The Desert issue it’s a remarkable achievement; a successful documentation of what appears to be an un-documentable event. Weeks before its launch, I wonder what success would look and feel like for Richard and his team. “It was fun, so it’s already a success. That said, if by some chance we made 100 million dollars from this then that would probably be more of a success. Just saying.”

Postscript: Just before we went to print, Richard told us this issue of ‘SUP would be published in black and white. We have kept the initial colour spreads as a record of the original process, and those two weekends in New York.