The secret of happiness at Oh Comely

by Steve Watson in November 2010
Share on Facebook, Twitter or Copy Link

It’s been an incredibly busy few weeks so I’m only just getting around to posting this. Earlier this month I spoke to Des Tan, publisher at Oh Comely, to find out what goes on behind the closed doors of their offices in Bermondsey’s Biscuit Factory. Read on for his thoughts on publishing, ranting and happiness…

So how did Oh Comely come to pass? How did you first get together?
The magazine is co-published and co-edited by Liz [Bennett] and me – between us we make all the big decisions and a lot of traditional publishing roles we do jointly. Because of our backgrounds Liz takes care of most things to do with the words and I – well technically my background is in physics and biology – but I’ve worked in photography and design, so there’s a natural division of tasks when it actually comes to doing things. We worked together on a number of publications while I was in Oxford doing my masters – we worked on one of the student newspapers there, then after that we made the university’s official guidebook together, and after doing two publications it felt quite natural to keep on working together.

I’d done a bit of publishing before I started my masters, and I just wasn’t really happy with the state of magazines in Britain. I did a guidebook for international students in Brisbane, and before that I’d done a couple of free sheets here and there, but nothing really noteworthy. It’s good that I’m working with Liz because we kind of balance each other’s approach. I look at magazines and start getting angry at the state of women’s magazines in particular – there’s so much gossip floating around – but Liz takes more of the approach that, ‘well there is lots of that around, but how about we just do our own thing and do something that makes us happy,’ whereas I get a bit ranty sometimes.

Oh Comely is a totally unique magazine – what led you down that path?
In a sense Oh Comely is just the stuff that me and Liz, and Dani, Rosanna, Beth and Agatha find really interesting. Our first issue was more or less the things that we do, so this is going to sound ridiculous, but it’s really kind of like an extension of our lives. It came quite naturally actually.

So for example there’s a story in the first issue about climbing buildings like the Houses of Parliament, which I think was you wasn’t it?
Did I say that? Or was it really that obvious?

I remember reading it and thinking, ‘okay, this is probably Des writing this one’
Oh dear. Okay, yeah that was me. Issue one isn’t really representative of what the rest of the magazine is like. It’s changed quite a lot since then. I was reading an interview with Matt Bochenski, the editor of Little White Lies, and he was saying that each time you put out an issue you learn a lot and you look back and can’t believe some of the things you’ve done. And of course we’ve gone through the same thing.

Can you give me some examples? How have things changed since the beginning?
We’ve found our voice more. I don’t think it’s a very tangible change – as a designer I look at pages and feel that there are changes to make, but there haven’t been huge shifts. When I say we’ve found out voice I think we now know the purpose of the magazine and we know the purpose of each individual feature – what are our interviews supposed to do, what is it that makes a feature something that should appear in Oh Comely. It’s a magazine about people, so an interview with us is a bit different to the way that person would be interviewed in a music magazine, or say in the Guardian. We want to inform our readers and inspire them a little bit.

When I first came across the magazine it was introduced to me as a women’s magazine, but this clearly isn’t a magazine that’s being made just for women. How do you see it these days? Do you think of yourself as making a women’s magazine?
It’s a tough question. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a women’s magazine because you can’t strictly define activities and interests as being male or female. As I’ve said, I get quite angry about the state of women’s magazines and frankly I think most women’s magazines are more damaging to feminist principles than the majority of men’s magazines. But we’re not setting out to make a feminist magazine or something. Aside from anything else, most of our contributors are female and our subjects are mostly female, so that clearly has an impact.

I’ve written before about the elegance and quietness of the design, which somehow feels quite feminine. But it’s difficult to put your finger on what that is.
It is quite difficult to try to communicate that in words. Personally when I design pages I design them with white space in mind. I’m always conscious of the negative space, and I make sure that it can be captured by placing essentially two blocks on the page. But this is really boring design chat! I don’t think the design is actually particularly feminine, because I think it has a sort of art book-like quality, that feeling of allowing the content to express itself without trying to underscore the content too much. So I’d actually disagree – I think the design is quite quiet, but I don’t think it’s feminine.

I’m trying to think about how the magazine does actually become quite feminine, and I think that must have something to do with how our ideas are generated – who finds the ideas and who finds them interesting. I’m basically the only man on the team, because our assistant publisher Theo is in America now, so they [the women on the team] seem to find this stuff interesting and it sounds quite clichéd, but we just let that spill over naturally into informing the content of the magazine, and if that comes over as feeling quite feminine then I suppose that’s just the way it evolved.

And I suppose that if the design is quite neutral and quiet, then as you say if the content has this female bias then the design is going to feel quite feminine too.
I can see that – it’s funny for me to think that my design looks feminine because I’m constantly being told to keep my design less cold and less like the National Portrait Gallery.

You’re one of the independent magazines that works out of an office rather than somebody’s kitchen, you’ve got good nationwide distribution – what’s coming up next for you?
I guess in terms of distribution, the reach of the magazine could be expanded. I genuinely feel that there isn’t a magazine quite like us out there and that it could make people happy, so of course I’d like more people to discover it. We’re working on that now, trying to get more newsstand distribution here and there. There’s been a very good response actually from New York and Paris – in fact the international response to issue three has been better than the domestic response. It’s quite strange actually – a few of our UK-based stockists have decreased their orders by 5-10%, but internationally they’ve gone up by 25%, so that’s strange. I can get a bit geeky about trying to get things like distribution sorted out, so I’ll probably work on that quite a bit more.

It’ll also be nice to establish more of a connection between readers and the magazine – there’s got to be a way to collaborate with readers, getting them more involved in the magazine, getting them to submit things and give them a forum. Just responding to all the emails can be tough – we really appreciate all of them but we get a bit swamped by them even though we love responding to them. So I guess we’ve got to settle down as a business and make ourselves more efficient. But that’s such a horrible answer! You’ve just asked where the magazine’s going and I’ve told you that we’ve got to make our business more efficient!

But that’s all on the business side. Personally, I don’t feel that I should be working for Oh Comely in a few years’ time. Because I won’t be in a position to tell what people want and what makes people happy, and I don’t want to be clouding that.

So you would step aside and somebody else would design the magazine, while you took a different role?
I guess so – I just feel that it’s not really up to me to determine the magazine’s future, and I hope that the readers and contributors can come together to make something that makes them happy.

Close Icon

Join our magazine club! Subscribe to Stack and every month we'll pick a different independent title and deliver it to your door. You never know what you'll get next...

Subscribe now