Making Colors magazine

by Steve Watson in April 2014
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Current affairs

It’s a Colors extravaganza on the Stack blog this week.

On Tuesday I posted my video review of the Protest issue, just in the nick of time while there are still a few copies left on shelves. And today I’m turning my attention to the Moving House issue, which is dedicated to migration.

I’m always fascinated by the scale of Colors – they tackle such immensely important, incredibly complicated subjects that I’m not sure how they even begin to bring an issue together. So that’s where I started my conversation with editor-in-chief Patrick Waterhouse, asking him about the actual process of making his magazine.

Colors magazine

You’ve picked migration as the theme for the next issue – how do you arrive at that as a subject you want to tackle?
It’s about finding a large theme that functions as an undercurrent to things that are happening in the world at the moment; something that’s relevant, but not necessarily responding to day-to-day matters. And I suppose migration is always going to be relevant.

And then I think equally as important is finding a way into a subject, so in the migration issue there’s a series of maps that fold out to create an atlas-like element. I see that as an idea that’s sitting just below the surface, and some people will get it immediately and other people won’t, but it’s there.

In the protest issue it was the idea of looking at the conditions of a protest, so removing oneself from the situation that the media and the world is looking at, which would be the obvious place to go because it’s where all the drama is, and looking at the conditions of what actually made that protest a reality. Some people get that immediately in the first reading and other people don’t, and that’s fine, as long as it’s there.

Colors magazine

Because I imagine as much as anything it’s there for you as something to rub up against while you’re actually making the magazine.
Yeah. And you have some perspective on what you’re doing, because the truth is that you could approach any subject in a thousand different ways, and what makes something speak and feel coherent is having an idea or a way of looking, and I think that’s when it actually becomes powerful. It’s not necessarily about having answers to questions – it’s more about having a way of looking and examining and asking questions.

I spent a chunk of last year editing a magazine for the World Economic Forum, and many of the issues you cover were also big concerns for them. They obviously have a very clear stated social purpose – what do you see as your function for making Colors?
Well I suppose Colors has got an interesting history of being an experiment in magazine making, which goes far back, and in some ways it’s the beginning of modern thematic magazines of a certain kind.

It’s funded by Benetton, which is a company that wants to reflect a certain set of values, but the amazing thing about it is that it’s based on trust. There’s complete editorial freedom in Colors – there’s no intervention; it’s as free as magazine publishing can be, so for me it’s genuinely about making a meaningful contribution to a conversation and trying to give a different perspective on things.

It’s about making a body of work around a particular subject, but it’s also a kind of documentation of the process in which a team of people come to an understanding of something, in a way that works in terms of storytelling, and it’s very disciplined. I feel strongly that Colors should function as a single body of work, because it’s about the collective sense of how it all comes together – it has to work as this cohesive thing, and then I think it becomes something that’s quite special.

Colors magazine

I’m glad you mentioned the storytelling, because that’s something I wanted to ask you about. One of the things I said in my post for the video review is that you don’t spell things out for a reader. You pick salient points and present them, and then you move on to the next thing.
There’s been a period of issues that have been very much based on this… I think you actually called it ‘joining the dots’, which I like, because that’s essentially what it is. It began with the markets issue and this definition of a market being a network of trades, and trying to make something that showed the consequential nature of things and how one thing can affect another thing, and seeing whether that can translate into a magazine.

That kind of linear form of storytelling goes against the way in which most people look at a magazine, but it can give you something very powerful because it shows how one thing leads to the next, and it goes back to that thing I was saying about it being a coherent body of work. So you can begin like with the markets issue with a satellite image that was taken by technology used for spying on the Soviets and is now used by stock market traders, which is this very potent symbol of the end of the Cold War and free markets dominating. And then you can end at Walmart selling the life insurance of their employees, which is the most extreme type of trading, and you can draw a line between those two things.

So how is that line drawn? I’ve got a vision of you in your office with hundreds of PostIts moving things around on the wall – is that how it works?
There’s a lot of weaving… You can find a key into something and then come up with a clear line of thought, and then build around that, so it comes from both directions. There are some things that come from other people’s research, so for example the droughts in Russia being one of the things that led to grain prices going up, which in turn created the conditions for the Arab Spring.

I look at what we do as making grown-up children’s books – we turn important large ideas into pictures, and that often isn’t done very well. Images are actually really important for communicating ideas, and that sounds obvious, but I think it often gets overlooked when it comes to these big, important issues.


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