Publishing at its core is an act of sharing ideas in order to initiate a discussion with the public or a particular group of like-minded people. For centuries, since the advent of movable type by Gutenberg, printed pages have been the most dominant form of publishing. Publishing, as one of the major products of technological advancement, has marked a new turn in the history of the so-called Modern era. Ever since, its forms have been strongly tied to technology. In the mid-20th century, the first sparks of another turn in history were born with the invention of the computer and web. Digital publishing emerged from this new technology; yet in the 21st century, printed publications continue to reside next to these new forms. It is true that new possibilities taking form as web-based publishing have made publishing itself much more accessible and affordable, but the same situation also applies to printed publications. The rise of new techniques in printing has given way to new modes of publishing, including print-on-demand, limited edition, and self-publishing. With publishing (both digital and print) becoming increasingly accessible, the burden that always weighed down the publishing process is now lifted. This very fact caused a major shift towards a more unique content curation and stylistic approach in content presentation and format. At the same time, we are witnessing a strong turn towards cultural, social, and political content curated by individuals running small independent publications. These publishers, who happen to be designers in many cases, have mastered different aspects of publishing and seek to take on the challenge of curation as an act of self expression and are redefining the boundaries of publishing itself. While many of these new independent publishers are exploring different intersections of cultural and social practices, there are efforts focusing towards the field of design itself as a way of self reflection. This essay attempts to understand the values, challenges, and strategies of independent and semi-independent publishing by examining different editorial work produced by publishers across the globe. These publications are mainly brain-children of designers or design studios both as part-time and full-time endeavors.
It’s Nice That
Founded in 2007, It’s Nice That is a web-based platform that passionately features the most engaging and exciting creative work across all media with the goal of inspiring creative individuals. Printed Pages is the bi-annual magazine that is published regularly in parallel to the web platform. Aside from the two platforms, It’s Nice that organizes a summer symposium Here and the monthly Nicer Tuesday talk series. Owen Pritchard (editor of It’s Nice That) mentions: “Fundamentally, It’s Nice That is a magazine about good ideas, the people who have them, and how ideas come to be in the world. There is an editorial team of 6 and a creative team of 3 at It’s Nice That. Together we decide what we are going to publish and commission keeping our eyes peeled for great work and projects the we feel will inspire and engage our audience. The daily content consists of news, features and work posts that varying in length and serve different purposes. A reader can get a quick fire fix of information in a work or news post, or get long form journalism in a feature. The magazine is a physical edit of the website where the work is allowed to take on a different, physical form and will be perceived in a different way. Each is unique because of the ethos, attitude and editorial direction of It’s Nice That—It is a take on the world of design from our perspective.”
The increasing number of readers interested in design means that there are still great opportunities to explore more unique and niche areas in design that may have remained untapped. However, the distinguishing factor is still the same—well curated content. Owen states, “Well curated content needs to be accurate, thought provoking and entertaining. The audience is critical and you have to be aware of what they like in order to be successful. Each day you have to find ways to inspire, engage and entertain the audience–without a loyal audience you have nothing.”
The turn towards independent publishing is not a new phenomena. Alternative publishing has been around since before Gutenberg. “I see independent publishing becoming stronger and stronger over the coming years—the large publishing houses are struggling to make sense of the shift to digital still and the traditional structures they have in place are difficult to manage, particularly with regard to revenue streams and traditional advertising models. Smaller, more nimble companies and publications, are currently doing the most exciting work in publishing—the future is still unclear, but I feel there is cause to be optimistic,” Owen says.
Founded in 2011 by Dennis Moya, Ligature is a platform for sharing design and creative work based in Switzerland. Soon after its launch, Ligature has welcomed Tiffany Bähler as a co-editor. “Tiffany is a jewelry designer and I am a graphic designer. Like I said there are many ways to share things we are passionate with, so after we put the online platform Ligature.ch in the design’s world map, we decided to publish the first issue of Ligature Paper in December 2015. And then at the beginning of 2016 we founded the Ligature Connections, which are the evening talks we curate and organize in Switzerland. We invited Swiss and International designers to talk about their works.” Dennis notes: “We can’t say yet that we are running an independent magazine. Ligature Paper is too young, it is a yearly project beside the online platform. Because it’s a small print run and we have the entire control of the project the challenges aren’t the same as bigger structures but we are trying hard to curate the content the way we like and to find the right designers and photographers to show.”
While Ligature manages multiple platforms, the founders don’t see them as separate efforts. “We see every medium as the same project in the same package. Of course there is more content in the website but we aren’t calculating the balance between the content on the printed publication, the talks events and the online publishing.” Dennis adds: “I think we are already in this ‘future’; I mean printed and online already coexists. It’s all just different ways of communication that has changed with the different type of media. For most of the time online media is about fast editing and reading. For printed publication what is important is collecting the printed object as much as having an interest for the content. I repeat ‘for most of the time’ because it's more complicated than that. It’s interesting to have cross-media content.”
Ligature sees a particular potential in each of the two media (web-based content and printed publication): “We think that you can curate the same kind of content—in our case we talk most of the time about designers' interviews—in a very different way if it's published online or printed. I consider our online platform as a media to show designers and creatives work through a ruled/grid lens. We have the same kind of questions shown in the same layout. And when it's offline/printed we have more freedom to play with the content. First you also have the object itself without talking about content. Thinking the book, magazine, or newspaper as an object. We love thinking about the size, the weight, the darkness of the black ink, the touch of the paper. Second you have the content which influence very much the object. Longer texts and a better selection of images could be what I don’t necessarily find online. You can have radical choices on the layout, typography, images aesthetic, global aspect, colors' choices, etc.” Dennis adds: “We consider a well curated content is something really personal. It is not based on trends but on personal interests. Not chosen for the widest audience. We also try to answer—in our way—to the actual publishing’s environment without compromising our choices.”
Based in Chicago, MAS Context is a quarterly design journal that addresses issues that affect the urban context. Each issue explores a single topic through contributions from people working in different fields and who provide different perspectives accordingly. Each issue is also an opportunity to collaborate with a new graphic designer who brings his or her point of view to the journal’s design guidelines created by Thirst. “Besides the print publication, we organize multiple public events such as lectures, panel discussions, book launches, and film screenings to expand topics beyond the publication and engage with new audiences. The content is always free to make the knowledge accessible to everyone, regardless of economic means.” According to Iker Gil (MAS Context editor-in-chief), “Like many other independent publications, MAS Context is a personal effort and a labor of love. […] Currently half of the printing costs are funded by grants, individual donations, and sales of print copies (thanks to all of them!). As we share the content of the issues free of charge, we need to put some extra effort into figuring out how to get funding to cover all the costs. I spend quite a lot of time meeting with people discussing possible collaborations and in-kind donations, as well as applying for grants. To make things work, we try to collaborate with others when possible to share resources but also build from each other’s audiences and ongoing initiatives.” Besides running MAS Context, Iker leads an architecture office (MAS Studio) and teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This requires him to put an extra effort into the magazine, but in the end Iker believes that it’s all rather a rewarding experience.
“[…] we typically set the topic of the issue with a few contributors that we would like to include in mind. We also determine who will be the designer of each issue, which is something that is usually a result of a series of conversations that start long before the specific issue. We want to make sure that we share the same ambitions and that they can fit the effort into their schedule. Apart from the invited contributors, we launch a call for submissions to shape the final content for the issue.” Iker adds “As far as my involvement in the design, I like to get quite involved and I do share my opinions about the layouts. I usually meet with the designers before the issue starts to discuss the design guidelines that Thirst created for us, which we use as a starting point for every issue, as well as the overall goals of MAS Context and the issue in particular. Once the issue starts, the designers can interpret the guidelines according to their interests, and I provide my feedback to all the layouts prepared during the process. I am typically more familiar with the content of the issue so, in some cases, that information helps to steer the design in one direction or another. However, it is also great to not share too much from the beginning and be surprised by how the designers interpret the content and take it in an interesting direction.”
With regard to the distribution of the magazine “[…] Personally, I prefer to read the print copy, disconnecting from the computer and being able to focus on it for a longer period of time (apart from news, I am unable to read books online). It is a treat to hold and feel the book, read the content in a specific sequence, and even be able to engage in the simple gesture of sharing the book with others. But having the content online potentially allows for many more people around the world to access it and also navigate through the articles in a less structured way, jumping from issue to issue and generating new relationships across the content. It is the same for events, with some local people attending them and many more watching the video of the event from the other side of the world. I think that providing multiple ways of experiencing the content is ultimately a positive thing.”
MAS Context approaches each issue of the magazine with a very particular point of view. “I think that the potential of well-curated content in a contemporary magazine/journal is to be able to provide a sharp and rigorous perspective about what is important, that people write with intention, and ultimately find ways to communicate why those aspects matter to a wide spectrum of people, not just designers. Authors can focus on what they believe is important, not be driven by what the latest news is. In that sense, I like to think that our issues don’t have an expiration date and can be revisited years later and remain as current as when they were initially published.” As far as the influence of the audience on the content of each issue of MAS Context, Iker believes that the creators of the magazine are very much part of the audience group themselves. “[…] The issues are shaped by our work, personal interests, and daily conversations that we have with peers and friends. These conversations feed, shape, and challenge our ideas and I think that they ultimately have an influence in the work that we publish. And we approach the publication of every issue as a starting point to discuss ideas related to the topic, not a closure to the topic. It is an ongoing conversation that we like to nurture.”
Roma began as a collaborative project between the designer Roger Willems and artists Mark Maunders and Marc Nagtzaam in Arnhem in the late 90’s. Currently based in Amsterdam, Roma is an independent publishing house focusing on art publications. Each publication is a byproduct of close collaboration between the publisher, artist, editor, and designer. “I receive many proposals but mostly give priority to projects that are self initiated or somehow on my way already, often coming from previous collaborations with people or institutions with whom I create a kind of series of publications within Roma. It's a matter of loyalty and friendship which is the spine of Roma Publications.” Roger says “We don't produce intentionally expensive or cheap objects, but indeed we see them as precious objects with an autonomous quality which we try to keep affordable. I (also) can imagine that there is a shift towards celebrating materiality but I think I mainly work with artists that have affinity with printed matter regardless any shifts going on; the same for me as a designer. Since the democratization of the production, books are a fantastic space to exhibit ideas, complementary to other spaces (physical or digital), not competing or replacing them. Books cannot not be replaced by anything else as long as people keep making and distributing them. And we keep making them because a book is really a great tool to mediate between the mind of an artist and the mind of a reader. Books are super interactive. For example, Parallel Encyclopedia. The book brings together images from other books that need to be experienced in a sequence, on paper, with a certain slowness, weight, concentration, to name a few keywords. Batia Suter also makes installations and projections, but this work of her can only be a book.”
While every title that Roma publishes is thoughtfully curated and designed by the publisher, the author him/herself has their autonomy to a great extent. “Our books come from a desire to make something carefully and understand every detail of it with the artist as the central point. In that sense we never decide in favor of an audience outside. But on the other hand every artist and every designer has a audience in the head. That's always a very important element, regardless of the size or economic value of this audience. Otherwise you wouldn't express yourself in the first place.” Roger adds, “So, by being careful and following all senses you don't need to talk about the audience because it's a natural part of the process.”
Elana Schlenker—founder of Gratuitous Type—describes the magazine as a collection of interviews and projects from contemporary designers and artists: “We like to call it ‘a pamphlet of typographic smut.’” Published irregularly, usually every year or two, each issue is uniquely designed and employs varied production techniques. According to Elana “the magazine’s biggest challenge is time. Since the publication is a part of a larger plan and that is running an studio. The decision to publish Gratuitous Type without consistency in frequency was largely made to preserve the fun of making the magazine. Having to stick to a stringent deadline saps a lot of the joy out of the process and rushing to publish just for the sake of it not something that interests us.” Elana mentions: “At the same time, publishing so slowly does present its own challenges. Ideas and topics that seem important and exciting can lose their immediacy when too much time is spent with them—or will be covered by other outlets before we get around to it.”
The process of putting each issue of Gratuitous Type begins with deciding who will be featured in that particular issue. After putting together a series of rough sketches of how the featured work might be organized across the magazine, the studio starts to design a cover early on in the process. “We usually […] try to hone in on the specific production details (early on) that we will be using in the issue so that there is time to connect with our printer to run tests and finalize our budget. We then reach out and confirm participation, conduct interviews and schedule photoshoots as needed. As this is happening we continue to sketch and refine the issue design—because we are in charge of the content as well as the look and feel, there is typically quite a lot of back and forth here. Once all of our content is complete, we finalize the design, proofread many times, and off it goes!” Elana says. With regard to the online distribution of Gratuitous Type Elana mentions “[…] (it) means there’s another machine we have to feed with content, and we just aren’t that interested in distracting ourselves with that right now. We are interested in one-off digital projects for the magazine, but the total package is very important to us, so it would have to be something that really enhanced the content and made sense to do—in the way we hope the printed magazine and its production and design does now.”
Elana believes that the future of independent publishing in any form will be further specialized. She mentions “Because of the wide availability of content on the web, print publications in particular ought to offer something that isn’t replicable digitally—whether that is its production, format, or simply a more pleasurable reading experience.” Elana adds “We think the most important thing is to have a unique perspective and a unique approach to bringing that perspective to the design of the magazine. We also value aesthetic, geographic, gender and cultural diversity in who and what we feature, as well as well-written and well-edited content. We feature work we love and hope it will resonate with those who follow and find us.”