A new way of working

by Steve Watson in February 2013
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works that work

Earlier this week I posted some pictures on the Stack Facebook page of Works That Work, a new magazine made by Peter Bil’ak and his Dutch Typotheque studio. He left some comments on the post about Social Distribution – a new distribution system they’re experimenting with – and I started to get more interested in the project.

The more I’ve looked into it since then, the more exciting it gets.

The magazine focuses on often overlooked areas of design and Peter and his team are practicing what they preach, stripping down every part of magazine publishing, analysing what they find and designing smart solutions to the difficulties they encountered.

The results are manifold:

// There’s a new piece of software designed to manage editorial workflow, which puts digital output on the same level as print output, ensuring that their ebooks and website always carry the most up to date version of stories.
//There’s the website itself, which responds to devices to ensure the reading experience is optimised for desktop, tablet or mobile.
// There’s the payment system, which allows readers to pay for the whole magazine or just one story at a time (ideal for all those mobile readers).
//And there’s that whole Social Distribution thing, which could be a project all of its own.

I’m hugely inspired by the way that Works That Work has launched fairly quietly but with such big ambitions. When I spoke to Peter he was keen to emphasise that this is all an experiment, and he doesn’t know where it’s going to lead. But that’s exactly what the publishing industry needs – somebody willing to try new things and challenge the systems that are currently in place.

The following is a fairly long transcript of our conversation, but I hope you’ll find it interesting. I for one certainly want to see what happens next for Works That Work.

What is Works That Work?
It’s something I would like to read myself – that’s the main reason for doing it. I lost interest in most design magazines because they’re kind of predictable in the way they deliver something you know already. They think, “Okay, this is a design magazine so we should deliver these examples of design,” and they end up delivering information you either know already or a slight variation on it.

When I read I don’t really know what I’m looking for, so my favourite reading is National Geographic and daily papers and inflight magazines – things where I’m being surprised by things I didn’t know. So I think Works That Work is essentially a design magazine that’s not for designers. It looks at the process of creation and that often happens outside of traditionally defined design as a discipline. It’s not in museums, not in design studios… anything manmade has an element of design in it.

And you call this “unexpected creativity”.
People who travel know the feeling of being surprised at how different simple things are from when you’re at home. Often there are invisible solutions and you don’t really pay too much attention to them – they’re all around us but we don’t really pay too much attention to them.

How long has Works That Work been in the works?
I started thinking about it last winter, but I’ve actually been working on it quite intensely since May, collecting things, commissioning articles slowly, preparing themes for the first three issues… I didn’t want to start and not know what to do next, so the first and second issues have been prepared at the same time and issue two is almost ready.

Most importantly we’ve spent a lot of time developing our publishing platform – we made some software that allows collaboration between art editors and writers and proof readers, meaning we keep one source of text. That comes from the experience of programming, which is all about the versioning of code; text in a way is code that can be versioned and with every change and edit you keep what has been changed and you can keep track of all the versions.

Is that purely behind the scenes or does the reader get any sense of it?
It’s purely behind the scenes. Working in Word becomes messy – I don’t like it myself. You can see the edits, but we wanted to have an online version that is final and which we can eventually export to ebooks and to online editions, so we always have the latest edit on the website. It also exports to InDesign for our print designers, so from one source we can output these three things.

That’s all behind the scenes, but we might eventually publish it as well. We only did it because we couldn’t find anything else that does the job, so it may be suitable to other people as well.

So you might sell it?
Our studio is a design studio and often when we make tools that are useful we offer them to other people. I’m not interested in protecting it so we offer the tools for other people to use as well, maybe for a small fee, which may help to pay back our investment, and may improve the tool by more people using it.

That seems to fit within what you’re doing with Works That Work. It feels like you’ve made it as an experiment in what magazines can be – you’ve got a website that optimises for mobile devices, you’ve got a payment system whereby people can buy individual articles or the whole magazine… That all feels quite central to what you’re doing with this.
Correct. I don’t know if you noticed we started this through crowd funding. So in October we launched a mini site where you could buy subscriptions before the magazine existed, and almost half of people were using it on mobile – that’s a trend you can’t ignore. We knew we had to make something fairly robust that works across different devices, so the design would adapt to different readers and it reads quite nicely on an iPhone or an iPad or a browser. The new reality is that you have to consider these devices in your work.

And then of course you’ve got the social distribution model – that could be a whole project all of its own.
This is a magazine that looks at these ignored areas of design, and the publishing system and the distribution system behind it, that’s all part of the magazine. Most magazines that fail do so because they focus too much on just one aspect – we’re interested in reaching readers so we look at all these aspects and try to see how it should potentially be done.

It’s a bold experiment – do you have any projections for how many copies you need to have distributed in the first year?
There are projections; they’re numbers we hope for but it’s very hard to say what we need. The first issue we printed 3,000 copies, which is not too much. We sold half of them in pre-sales in crowd funding, but we didn’t want to print only the number we pre-sold, so the other half I’m hoping to sell through bookstores and online. We’re doing well – this first week we had hundreds of orders, so it’s growing fairly fast.

I would like to print 5,000 of the next issue and of course sell them – we only print as many as we think we can sell. I don’t want to print lots and keep boxes in the studio. We need to get at least 3,000 subscribers to make it viable – the social distribution is an exciting experiment but of course there’s a big difference between getting the subscriber online who pays full price, and the person who buys a copy in the shops, which has been heavily discounted along the way. We still like that because it reaches different readers – it gives us a different distribution.

So selling in shops is kind of a marketing exercise?
It’s many things. Because of my background as a designer I can very easily reach design readers, but it’s much harder to reach people outside the traditional design discipline. That’s why it’s important to get to bookstores and reach people who wouldn’t already know about it. That’s the main reason why we do it.

What’s your ultimate aim with Works That Work? Where do you want to see it in two or three years?
I don’t know. I worked on a magazine before and I remember the feeling when you make the first issue and you have no idea where it’s going to go. A project like this gets its own life and I enjoy the fact that you react day by day rather than following this fixed plan.

I’m enjoying working on this – it’s really fun to work with different journalists and photographers, so it’s nice work. But it’s not a job really, so it can change very quickly. It’s not something that I need to protect – I make money by other design work. I hope of course to make it viable so we don’t lose money, and if it becomes profitable it’s even better. But there’s no master plan of what needs to be reached.

I’ve had my own studio for 15 years, and at some point your work can become repetitive – you become known for something and you’re asked to do more of the same. I enjoy doing different kinds of work, so rather than waiting for somebody to ask me to make a magazine, I decided to just do it and see what happens.


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