Simon Esterson on Eye

by Steve Watson in January 2010
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Stack sent out Eye in December but not until the end of the month, so it’s only now that I’ve caught up with the magazine’s art director, Simon Esterson.

And I’m glad I did – he tells a fascinating story of a magazine conceived by a small publisher, passed around the big publishers and returned to a small publisher once again, all the while keeping its identity as a ‘proper’ magazine. And with his commitment to online as well as print, I can’t wait to see where he goes with the magazine next.

Your company publishes Eye now but I know it used to be made elsewhere. Could you give a bit of background on the magazine and how you came to be involved with it?
A long time ago I was involved with starting an architecture and design magazine called Blueprint. We’d been going for a few years and we were lucky enough to have Rick Poynor as deputy editor of the magazine. We did have some writing about graphic design in Blueprint, but it came and went depending on the interests of the people who were editing at the time. For example we did things like a British graphics issue with Neville Brody on the cover, and we did pieces about companies doing motion graphics like the Channel 4 identity where the bars swing around.

But Rick thought there was space for a standalone graphic design magazine, partly because Graphis, which was the longstanding international graphic design magazine, had recently been sold to an American publisher. Peter Murray, who was our publisher, thought we could capture the European market by publishing in three languages, so we launched Eye and for a short while it was published with three languages – French, German and English. There was a lot of text in the magazine because everything was repeated three times and it was a bit of a production nightmare because if you wanted to cut something in one language you had to cut it in the other two languages as well, but anyway that was the genesis of Eye.

I’d actually left Blueprint by then and started a little editorial design studio with another art director called Mike Lackersteen, so I was no longer day to day involved with the magazine, but obviously knew the people who made it. So I went off with Mike and we did newspaper and magazine redesigns all over the world, and in the meantime, Wordsearch, the little publishing company that had published Eye and Blueprint, closed, and Eye was sold to one publisher and Blueprint was sold to another.

Eye then started on this long journey around three different publishing companies, and John Walters became editor. I saw John quite a lot and we chatted about Eye and of course I read every issue and was still on the editorial board that met occasionally, and then about four years ago I bumped into John and he told me that Nick Bell, who was then the art editor, was leaving and they were about to start an issue. So I said, “you need a guest art editor don’t you?” and didn’t think any more about it until the following day when John rang me and said, “I’ve been thinking about having a guest art editor, and maybe this would be a good idea…” So the studio picked up an issue and pretty much the next day John was around with galleys and so forth, and we designed it and we seemed to keep designing it.

At this point the magazine was owned by Haymarket, so there was no great redesign, partly because we thought we were just coming on for one issue. You know how every magazine’s publishing frequency determines the way you work on it; a weekly magazine is very different to a monthly and quarterly magazines are very different from those two, because you can’t work on it for a whole quarter. You tend to work on it (especially a magazine like Eye, which you won’t be surprised to hear doesn’t have a huge design fee attached to it) in these very concentrated bursts. So I think we kept on thinking that we should redesign it, but we didn’t do anything until an issue was right on top of us.

We kept going in that relationship, designing it from the studio here in Hoxton but in fact the magazine was published by Haymarket which was where John and his subs and the advertising team were based, and of course Haymarket was based over in Hammersmith. If you wanted to choose the two most distant places in London from which to work on a magazine, that was it – going to a meeting in Hammersmith was a day’s commitment really.

Then one day John was having a conversation with one of the publishers over at Haymarket and it became clear that they might be interested in selling the magazine, and that was really the next big stage, where John and I and Hannah Tyson, who is my business partner here at the design studio, got together and bought the magazine from Haymarket. That was about two years ago. There were quite a lot of negotiations, partly because I don’t think Haymarket had ever sold a magazine before! They were very good at buying magazines but not so used to selling them – they didn’t have the paperwork immediately to hand and things like that. But once all that was done we had to get on top of the magazine as a business.

And presumably that was also a time for your big redesign as well?
Well not really because we were terribly busy trying to figure out suppliers and mailing houses and all that business stuff that, although Hannah and John and myself have all been around magazines and publishing, none of us had any direct experience in. We knew what things like advertising sales and subscription management were, but in the past you’d tended to sit in meetings and there was somebody who looked after those things, and all of a sudden there wasn’t – except for Vicky McDougall who was in charge of advertising sales for Eye both at Haymarket and then with us.

It also became very clear that although Eye had had a website for a long time, it was essentially an archive of past articles without pictures, and was old web technology, so it became clear that we needed a blog and we needed it quickly, and so in that first year of taking over, the emphasis was on moving the magazine here to the studio in Hoxton, sorting out the business side of it and trying to get a more responsive web presence. And it’s only in the last couple of issues that we’ve finally sorted out some of the design things. It’s not as though the magazine, I hope, has ever been badly designed, but it’s only in the last couple of issues that we’ve changed things, and got rid of certain things we inherited rather than created.

I think I probably came to the magazine three or four issues ago, so about a year ago, and one of the things that has always struck me is that the magazine seems very assured in its design. The way it’s laid out feels very controlled and like you know exactly what you want to do with it, but it sounds from what you’ve said like that might not be the reality when you’re putting it together.
Fundamentally for me it’s the work that people are interested in, so the actual magazine should be a fairly neutral container for the work. I don’t think the design should be a big shouty design, saying, “look at me I’m a design magazine”. I think that what people want is to look at and enjoy the things we’re talking about. That’s not to say that it needs to be the same every issue – we now have a principle that we have a different typeface or a different typeface system for each issue, and we’ve done that for three or four issues now, but underneath it is a pretty structured grid.

The majority of the energy spent on the magazine is on getting the work in and getting it at the best quality we can, whether that’s getting high res files from people or photographing finished objects really well. Jay, who designs the magazine with me, spends a lot of time speaking with people who work on moving image pieces, getting them to re-render the image so that we can publish the pictures bigger than the standard 72dpi file that you get when you ask somebody for stills from their movie graphics. So there’s a lot of energy spent getting good material, making sure it’s properly reproduced and then selecting the right stuff to use, because it’s always a balance – you can choose hundreds of pieces of work and they’ll all be quite small, or you can show a few pieces of work and they’ll be quite big, and different authors and different articles require a different treatment.

So actually when it comes to the pages it is for me a pretty clear process of just trying to make that content work. A lot of newsstand magazines have a completely different art direction problem, and for them what you have to try and do is make visual content for a magazine, whereas here what you’re doing is taking the visual content and finding a way for it to work on the page.

That’s true, but then a magazine like IdN also has lots of visual content but it takes the opposite approach and loads up every page with lots of images and employs all sorts of graphic devices and print processes.
I agree, and I guess it’s just a question of the approach you choose. It’s like a lot of design one sees – there are lots of things I love, but I just wouldn’t do them myself. And I think you take a route. We even try to be quite purist about the way we show the work, so it tends to be shown straight on – we don’t like showing books photographed from funny angles and things like that. It’s a bit like if you’re reproducing a painting, you don’t want it photographed by somebody laying on the floor looking up at it, you want to see the painting as you might see it in a gallery. I’m not saying the work we show is art, but I do think there’s a discipline to how you show things if you want to talk about them properly.

I want to get to the question of the cover price, because I was interested when you said that none of you had ever run a magazine before Eye, and it strikes me that having such a high cover price comes from a position of people who want to make a magazine saying, ‘well if people want this quality magazine they’ll pay for it’, whereas a commercial publisher might have insisted on lowering the price to get more readers?
Well you know what the economics of magazines is like. Most magazines you see on the newsstand pay the cost of production primarily through advertising, and then you have quite a high print run. Eye is in a different place – there is some advertising but not very much, and it’s a small print run. And we try and produce the magazine and produce it properly, so inevitably the simple unit cost of printing is quite high. We see it more like being between a magazine and a book, and you don’t, or at least I don’t, think twice about buying graphic design books that have £30-40 cover prices. If we were to double the amount of advertising or double the circulation there’d certainly be an opportunity to look at a different cover price, but at the moment we’re just keeping our heads above water at that cover price.

But I presume you’ve got it set up at a price whereby the magazine pays for itself, whereas I know there are lots of magazines on Stack that are published by companies that use the magazine as a calling card or a shop window, so then their other work subsidises the magazine.
That’s the classic independent magazine, where people do it for no fee or little fee and it’s a calling card for the studio, whereas Eye has always grown up in a different tradition. Until the point where Hannah, John and I bought it, it was made by commercial publishers, so their attitude was always that this magazine had to try to make a profit. So for us this is a proper business and it should at the very least always break even. And that’s partly because John has always had a very strong view about contributors being paid, so if you write a long piece for Eye you get paid for it. There’s a lot of text in the magazine and it’s properly edited and properly subbed, and those things are expensive to do.

And you can tell the quality – you pick the magazine up and you can see that it’s been properly subbed and printed on good paper and the rest of it.
If we were starting Eye magazine again now, one might do it in a different way, but the magazine we bought had already got that structure, and one is always very nervous to take something that is working and radically change it. I think to suddenly turn around and cut the cover price of the magazine would change a lot of the ways people think about it.

But it’s very difficult, and I think we all know it’s a tough time at the moment for any magazine whether you’re a big commercial publisher or an independent small publisher like us or just somebody who wants to make a magazine because they’re passionate about it and if that means they have to do it for no money and trade favours for printing and photography then so be it. That’s the level that I came into it with Blueprint – nobody was paid to do that and we ran it for a few years just to see what would happen really.

This brings us on to a good question to end things, because I always ask people what they’d change about the magazine if they could, if they had more time or more money or whatever it is. What would you do differently if you could?
I think at the moment, actually, quarterly is a difficult publishing frequency. It’s mostly frustrating because you know that in a year you’ve only got four magazines and there’s a limited amount of things you can cover in that time. At the moment the thing that I would most like to do is get to grips with how you represent graphic design and how you represent the magazine online. We have a blog and we have a website and they’re good, but they’re nothing like the sort of stuff we could do with a bit of money and the right bits of technology. There are some incredible things you can do and that’s what I’d like to be doing now.

That’s kind of the big question for everybody at the moment isn’t it? There are lots of people coming up with their solutions for printing a magazine online but I don’t think anyone’s hit it yet.
Yes, I think for me the ideal is an amazingly printed magazine – litho magazine on interesting paper, interesting techniques, and getting the most out of the physical experience of holding a magazine, and that’s what we’re trying to do with the printed magazine now, as much as we can afford to.

For example in the issue you sent out last month there’s a gatefold, and we’d wanted to have a gatefold for ages but we waited until we had the right content, and in this case we had a timeline that seemed to be an ideal thing to try as a gatefold. I remember the first publishing company I worked at was called The Architectural Press and we had a monthly architecture magazine called The Architectural Review, and it had gatefolds every issue with fold outs of drawings and maps and photographs, and then you could see at the moment that print production became commoditised and print production was moved to a bigger factory and became much more systematised, that all those things like gatefolds and special papers were taken out of the process. And I think that if print magazines are going to survive all those things need to come back into the print process.

Look at what a magazine like Wallpaper is doing – it’s a commercial magazine with a newsstand run, and yet it’s doing special colours and die cuts and fold outs, and Monocle too, with its mixed papers and supplements held in by elastic bands. I think given that the straight delivery of images and text is something that online can deliver very efficiently, the printed object has to be special, so that’s the desire with the printed magazine.

But then at the same time graphic design is not just printed images – it is websites and moving images, and those sorts of things you can show in a printed magazine but you can’t actually experience the two-minute title sequence. But if you have an effective online presence that matches the printed presence then you can, and that’s the ideal.

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