2 June 2015
Reading Time
12 minute read

Mag Men: Three top designers talk us through their print inspirations


2 June 2015
Reading Time
12 minute read


Let’s just take it as a given that print is not dead. Not even close. There have been rumours of print’s demise circulating for years, quiet whispers that reached a crescendo a few years back. Yet here you sit, publication in hand, about to read an article about three of the magazine industry’s finest art directors; men who’ve lived and breathed the medium for their entire professional careers. They’re all still in business, all working on multiple titles, and all seeking to push ink on paper to be the very best it can be.

It would be foolish to suggest these guys have it easy. With the global economy buckling with alarming frequency, it’s a tough time to persuade people to part with their cash, particularly in exchange for a product as recreational as a magazine – print has, after all become something of a luxury. But a commitment to their content, both written and visual, has ensured their respective titles jump out on the newsstands, gripping readers’ interests among a sea of printed matter.

This is not an achievement to be sniffed at. In spite of the predictions that the next few years will see us all burning our bookshelves and enjoying literature exclusively through E-readers, there are still a huge number of magazines in circulation. Big publishers are diversifying, developing and streamlining the way they produce content while simultaneously independent magazines pop up at an almost daily rate, plundering the depths of human interest for subjects worthy, or otherwise, of their own dedicated title.

Matt Willey, Mirko Borsche and Brian McMullen all work within wholly different niches of this complex print landscape. But each of them is responsible for titles that have been wildly successful in their own right – Matt for _Por_t, Mirko for Die Zeit Magazin and Brian for Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern – weathering the storm of digital publishing with their superior content, excellent design and seemingly unwavering passion for the medium.

So what is it that inspires that passion and why do they care so much about print? It’s not some innate desire to make magazines that keeps them going; each of them had formative experiences with printed matter that still seem to motivate them today. With that in mind we asked them to pick out a few of their favourite publications, some old, some new, that have shaped their own ideas about what makes magazines great.

Matt Willey

One of the founding members of the now defunct yet still much-revered Studio8, Matt Willey has a longstanding pedigree in magazine design. He mastered his craft under the tutelage of former Pentagram designer Vince Frost who was responsible for a number of progressive titles throughout the 1990s and later went on to build his own design empire in Australia. In Vince, Matt found an enthusiastic mentor who helped push him and his editorial design into experimental territory.

“Vince is probably the most driven person I know. He had an absolute, genuine love for designing magazines that I will never be able to match because I have great doubts about whether I actually care that much for graphic design. Vince was never in any doubt – this was what he wanted to do and he was going to do it the best he could.“

Since his Frost Design and Studio8 days designing titles like Zembla, Elephant, Plastique and The New York Times Magazine, Matt has set up his own title with a group of close collaborators. Port describes itself as “a global quarterly men’s magazine, based in London, merging style with thoughtful, intelligent content.“ When they started out Matt took full control of the look and feel of his new project but he’s since passed the reins over to another creative director, Kuchar Swara, and moved over to direct the content himself.

“I like to find interest in things I don’t know about and the reason that Port’s fascinating to me is not because we’re designing a new magazine, it’s because we’re allowed to control the content. I’m not the creative director anymore, I’m the senior editor, and genuinely the most enjoyable part of the past year-and-a-bit has been sitting in pubs and restaurants with Dan [Crowe] thinking about what would make interesting content.

“That’s the bit that I care about. Over the years I’ve taken a lot of sub-standard content and made it look pretty, which is good fun, but eventually if you care about content it becomes a bit demoralising. You can dress shit up to make it look pretty, but it’s still shit.“

Given his insatiable appetite for quality content, it stands to reason that one of Matt’s favourite titles isn’t renowned for its aesthetic charms. “_National Geographic_, to me, has the most enduring appeal of any magazine and my reaction to it is probably the same as when I was about eight and picked up my mum and dad’s copy. I don’t think it’s a great beauty in terms of design but the content and the visuals are just so interesting.

“I think seeing pictures of what’s going on around the world is inherently interesting to humans. There was a picture not that long ago of a four-year-old, part of a family of snake charmers. They had put their baby in front of a rearing cobra and it produced the most phenomenal photograph. That’s the kind of thing National Geographic does well in every single issue.“

If Matt owes his love of National Geographic to his parents, it’s his aunt he has to thank for his appreciation of another classic mag. “When I was on foundation my aunt bought me a subscription to Eye magazine, which I knew nothing about at the time. It was amazing as it was an expensive magazine (it still is) and I remember it coming in a cardboard box, which made it feel precious; a great example of something you know you’re going to keep.

“It was Issue 11, a type special, and there was a big feature on Rolling Stone; their extraordinary layouts by Fred Woodward – who was kind of a king of editorial design in America – and type by Dennis Ortiz-Lopez. It’s only in hindsight you realise how reading that might’ve had an effect on you and how wonderful Eye really was. It’s still the only magazine I subscribe to other than the National Geographic.“

The sole magazine Matt appreciates for purely aesthetic reasons was, at one time, the brainchild of his future mentor. Big is a fashion, arts and media title that started life in Spain over ten years ago, and at the time Matt discovered it, was art directed by Vince Frost.

“Someone showed me Big when I was at Central Saint Martins and it was the first time I’d really looked at a spread and thought how interesting and dynamic it could be. I didn’t know or care at the time who the creative director was but it turned out to be Vince. He was using these big, physical bits of type and I remember being knocked out by it. It was hugely exciting.

“The one I loved the most was the New York issue, Issue Six. The front cover said NYC but it was made with the back of wood blocks and printed in black and silver. I remember thinking if I ever did anything quite as good as that I’d be happy."

Brian McMullen

If you’re familiar with the output of his employers then it should come as no surprise that Brian McMullen’s creative inspiration doesn’t come from the most orthodox of places. He’s the senior art director at McSweeney’s, the US publisher set up by Dave Eggers in 2008, initially to publish fiction that had been rejected by other literary journals. They swiftly abandoned this dubious business model and have since earned themselves a reputation for printing work by some of the most original and diverse literary minds of our time – through The Believer and Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern – from established names like Michael Chabon and Stephen King to previously unknown talents like Philipp Meyer and Rebecca Curtis.

Brian also heads up his own children’s imprint, McMullen’s, a position he’s well-suited to given his early experiences with a particularly supportive teacher. “My first-grade teacher Mrs. Jordan used to hand out blank books in the shapes of various objects – a red apple, a brown shoe, a candy cane – that she’d made from construction paper, yarn and staples. We’d get a new one each month and our job was to write and illustrate a story that was in some way inspired by the shape of the book.

“The title of the story I wrote for the candy cane-shaped book was The Candy Cane Who Lost His Stripes. The story opens with a candy cane running out of the house to join his friends on a nearby sledding hill. After a while he runs home crying to his mother, ’Mom, help, I’ve lost my stripes!’ But she just chuckles and brushes the snow off her son’s body. ’Don’t worry,’ she says, ’you haven’t lost your stripes, they were just buried under all that snow.’ Ever since Mrs. Jordan’s class I’ve enjoyed making books in which the text and the form work together.“

McSweeney’s have long mastered and repeatedly exploit this relationship between text and form, but Cabinet – where Brian cut his teeth as a designer between 2002 and 2006 – is another publication he believes gets the balance right. “Sina Najafi, the editor-in-chief of Cabinet, has been producing it quarterly on a shoestring budget since 2000. I admire Sina’s involvement and interest in every single aspect of production; from the commissioning of articles and artist projects down to the thankless logistics of bulk mailing.

“There is not one step in the production of a magazine that Sina and the Cabinet team have not isolated, continually reexamined and laboured to reimagine.“

It’s not just the scope of the magazine that’s a success either. “The design is just what it needs to be – a simple, flexible container that never gets in the way of the material it’s presenting.“

Elsewhere however, content is king when it comes to Brian’s published preferences, with Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert a constant source of inspiration. “Roger Ebert’s blog and film review archive are favourites because Ebert always wrote with passion. His writing never feels cold, or mailed in, or closed off from his core humanity, or created for a pay cheque. He wrote in the voice of someone who felt an urgent need to communicate at all costs. Reading Ebert, I always got (and still get) the sense that he’d feel deeply and personally hurt if I were to come away from a piece of his writing feeling uninformed or confused about his position.“

Likewise it’s the considered content and thoughtfully constructed prose he finds particularly engaging in the 33 1/3 book series, a set of publications based around seminal records from modern music history.

“Each title in the series uses a different pop album as a springboard for a writing project. Sometimes, as with Bowie’s Low, they’re pure history. Other titles take the form of fiction based on the album in question. I like that flexibility. The pocket-sized design is nice and handy.“

Doesn’t that mean he’d be equally happy reading the same content on screen? “I haven’t yet purchased a digital version of one of these books, though they are available,“ he says. “Part of the fun of them has been passing them along to fellow music fans when I’m done.“

Mirko Borsche

In 2007 Mirko Borsche set up his own design studio without any grand plan in mind. He was looking for a place to settle with his family and ended up in Munich with a single intern and almost no work. As his client list increased he kept on hiring his interns to take on permanent roles and the studio has grown organically from there.

Now Mirko manages the art direction of titles as diverse as German national newspaper supplement Die Zeit Magazin, biannual queer mag Horst (strapline “Havin’ a dick is pretty fuckin’ awesome“), economics title Earnest and Algernon and Hamburg night-life zine Super Paper. They also produce work for clients like the Bayerische Staatsoper and Audi.

“We really try to keep having fun with our work,“ he says, “and I think that’s the most important aspect of what we’re doing. Most of the designers we know in Germany don’t have any fun at all; they’re very classic and never want to break any rules – everything has to be very straight. There’s really only a few designers here – like Eike König from Hort – who have fun with design and that’s the role we want to play; being serious about the design but having fun at the same time.“

Mirko’s magazine selections embody that sense of fun and experimentation, predominantly fuelled by the culture of the 1960s and 1970s – the era in which his own design philosophy is rooted. Youth magazine Twen in particular was the catalyst for a radical shift in editorial design in post-war Germany. “_Twen_ and Willy Fleckhaus were really the reason why I started wanting to do magazines. My background is in advertising – I’d been doing it for eight years – and I was really pissed off and bored of my job.

“I came back to Hamburg for this Willy Fleckhaus exhibition and there were all these copies of Twen lying around and I was like yeah, I really want to do this. It was amazing for me to see how beautiful pictures and typography could be and to understand the challenges of working with different themes that have different impacts. The challenge when you’re working on something like Die Zeit Magazin is that it’s not a specialist magazine, so the subject is always moving around; you’ll be dealing with an article about cancer and then another about art and design. I find it inspiring for my work because I need a lot of variety of content and all the ideas can then come from that content.“

As a teenager growing up in Germany, Mirko’s design sensibilities (as well as many of his cultural reference points) were shaped by a supplement in the national newspaper.

“When I was young Jetzt was a supplement of the Suddeutsche Zeitung for young people. In Germany there was no real youth publications. We had a few teeny magazines, like Bravo, this very dull, boring magazine about stars, music, American rock and sex – but kind of advising kids how to have sex, not actual sex. The Suddeutsche Zeitung wanted to produce something like Bravo to get new readers and focus on a different age group.

“But the original Jetzt team started putting together a really fun paper with intelligent texts and never bothered to find out about pop stars, so you just had these really cool, independent punk bands instead. The design was really awkward – not really good design – but they had their own unique style and some of the best photographers like Juergen Teller and Wolfgang Tillmans had their first photos printed in it. It was like this amazing fanzine printed two million times. The best thing about it was that you didn’t have to go anywhere to get it – your parents would get the paper on Monday and just hand you Jetzt.“

Though Mirko’s interest in Jetzt began as a youngster, it played a key part in his professional career too. “It was the first magazine I ever worked on. My first girlfriend was an editor there and they were looking for an art director so she suggested me. The editor-at-large really liked me but what they didn’t know was that I’d never done magazines before. I just told them I knew everything about it and so for three months I produced some of the most ugly magazines you can imagine.“

Aside from German titles Mirko has a single, British favourite. “ Nova was a very, very sexy magazine. If you look inside it’s just beautiful, naked women. That and they had a great logo, but that’s a graphic geek thing!“

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About the Author

James Cartwright

James started out as an intern in 2011 and came back in summer of 2012 to work online and latterly as Print Editor, before leaving in May 2015.

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