After a few readers asked me whether the binding of the new issue looks ‘unfinished’ on purpose, here some more background on our new, premium binding technique.
All previous issues of Offscreen use a pretty standard binding method called ‘perfect binding’. Tightly wrapped by the cover material, a thin layer of glue holds the content pages in place. ‘Perfect binding’ is not the cheapest method but it’s proven reliable and fairly straight-forward during production which is why it has become a quasi-standard for most publications.
Because the glued spine is quite rigid and usually doesn’t bend open (although you can break it if you force it) some information is lost in the centre of the spread. Depending on other factors, like the paper type, the page count, and the publication’s dimensions, it can be difficult to keep the publication open. This video by Works That Work illustrates this really well.
As you would expect, Germans have a wonderfully descriptive word for this: Klammerwirkung (the peg effect). If you own older issues of Offscreen – in particular issues 5 and 6 – you would have experienced it yourself. At the time, I changed the paper to a heavier stock which increased the Klammerwirkung and gave your hands/fingers a real workout while reading.
There are a few ways around this problem. The early issue of Works That Work in the video above uses a simple saddle-stitch binding (staples) which works well up to a certain number of pages. Then there is a fairly new binding method called Otabind which Works That Work used in later issues as the page count increased. This technique tackles some of the issues above by detaching the cover from the spine. However, depending on the total number of pages and the cover material, it can make the spine of the cover a bit wiggly and flimsy.
I’ve looked at a whole range of publications and a binding technique that stood out was the so-called Schweizer Broschur (Swiss brochure). With this technique the content pages are only attached to one side of the cover. If combined with a more expensive stitch-binding technique – a series of threads literally stitching the pages together – the Schweizer Broschur can deliver one of the best reading experiences out there. It’s also great from an editorial design perspective: because it lies completely flat I can work with the full area of each spread without the centre being swallowed up.
I can certainly understand why the exposed spine looks ‘unfinished’ to some, but it’s one of those classic ‘form follows function’ cases. The experience it provides makes up for the slightly unrefined look. Once you open the magazine and explore its contents I think you’ll notice how nice it is to be able to do so without requiring any effort at all. Eating your lunch while reading Offscreen has never been easier. 😉
Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a selection of my Rebranding Diary emails. These emails went out to backers of my fundraiser every Sunday between August 2016 and March 2017. I’ve made some updates to these emails to adapt them to the blog’s open format. First up: my decision-making process for settling on Offscreen’s new typeface, Acumin. First published on Sep 10th 2016.
Going through the editorial design inspiration that I’ve been collecting for a couple of years now, you can see that I like mainly type-driven spreads, using only a few simple elements combined with one or two (often subdued) colours. This is where the redesign of Offscreen is headed. The goal is to further reduce and simplify, to create a placid reading experience accompanied by unpolished, real-life photography. I want it to feel as calm as reading a book and as personal and authentic as going through someone’s photo album.
How can a typeface assist in that goal?
Most typefaces contain a few distinct letters that give it away quite quickly. For example, the unique shape if the lowercase ‘a’ in Calibre, the curve in Circular’s lowercase ‘t’ or that prominent crossbar of Walsheim’s capital ‘G’.
Perhaps that’s why, when I came across Acumin, it didn’t trigger any particular reaction at first. In a way, Acumin is spectacularly unspectacular. It’s a pretty ‘straight-faced’ sans-serif type with few characteristics that stand out. It doesn’t really make much of an effort to grab your attention or sell itself. [Writing this I’m realising that I’m kind of describing myself/Offscreen.]
I love going through the websites of type foundries to explore the stupendous amount of work that goes into designing typefaces. When I buy new things I’m usually rooting for the underdog, so I was eager to support smaller foundries. Acumin was commissioned by Adobe, another reason why I didn’t really pay much attention to it. Not that I dislike Adobe in any way, but as a tiny brand I know that every paying customer can make a big difference. And so after a lot of research, these were the typefaces I set out to test:
On my initial shortlist was Suisse International, Aktiv Grotesk, Atlas, and Post Grotesk. Some testing showed that Suisse and Aktiv Grotesk just ran a little too wide in body sizes. This meant that I either had to cut down on content, reduce the font size or add more pages – neither of which was an easy thing to do. Both of those typefaces can feel a bit too modern and cold. In contrast, Atlas and Post Grotesk are beautifully human and amiable, yet I simply didn’t enjoy them as text fonts. What makes them so friendly and a bit quirky gets in the way when reading long passages of texts, in my opinion.
Once I ruled out the ‘too cool’ and ‘too playful’ types, I was left with something in the middle, something quite neutral. I was looking for a less ‘trendy’ and overused version of Helvetica. This eventually led me to Neutral (duh!) and back to Acumin. Neutral is amazing, but Acumin’s much larger family was very appealing.
After devouring Acumin's wonderful microsite, I did a bit more digging and came across a post by a familiar face. Jeffrey Zeldman has high praise for Acumin. He calls it “a Helvetica for readers”. And I couldn’t agree more with his observations:
Reading about the design challenges Slimbach set himself (and met) helps you appreciate this new type system, whose virtues are initially all too easy to overlook, because Acumin so successfully avoids bringing a personality to the table. Enjoying Acumin is like developing a taste for exceptionally good water.
Book designers have long had access to great serif fonts dripping with character that were ideal for setting long passages of text. Now they have a well-made sans serif that’s as sturdy yet self-effacing as a waiter at a great restaurant."
After I ran several rounds of test prints, it impressed more and more. Offscreen is a very small, book-ish magazine, so the typeface has to perform in relatively small, compact spaces. Acumin scales beautifully, no matter the font size. Since I’m an Adobe Typekit user it was easy to test Acumin’s webfonts extensively too, and again, it performed amazingly well on screen.
The microsite claims that Acumin was “developed with the highest standards for aesthetic value, technical quality, and typographic functionality”. That may sound like some cliché marketing speak but I have to admit that there is a certain level of quality in fonts made by big foundries like Adobe or Monotype. Several other fonts I tested had kerning issues at certain sizes or the performance on screen felt more like an afterthought (which is often the case when custom fonts become retail fonts).
What’s also nice about Acumin is that it hasn’t become a the go-to typeface for every new magazine or startup yet. I tend to come across the same ten typefaces in so many magazines and websites these days, but Acumin hardly ever makes an appearance.
So, there you have it. As I’m writing this I’m pretty set on Acumin. As with everything though, I might still change my mind (the advantage of not having to report back to anyone other than you lovely people), but given how much time I’ve spent testing this typeface in various scenarios I can’t see myself doing that all over again with another typeface in the foreseeable future. Having said that, I fall in and out of love with typefaces fairly quickly. 🙃
Since there are a few type designers amongst the readers of this newsletter I should say that I certainly don’t consider myself a type expert. I love discovering the technical details of how a typeface came to be, but in the end I arrive at my decisions to use a particular typeface mostly by ‘what feels good’, and my gut agrees with Acumin.
People often ask me what resources I can recommend for fledgling magazine makers. So here’s a list of sites and services that helped me when I got started and some others I discovered in the years that followed.
Probably the most popular and most established blog about everything magazine related. I admire Jeremy Leslie’s persistence and devotion to the subject matter. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram too.
Stack is a service that sends you a random indie magazine every month. The guy behind it, Steve Watson, is also extremely knowledgable about magazines and runs a very lively blog and Twitter account with lots of mag reviews and insightful interviews.
An online community all about magazines. Create a digital database of your own physical mag collection, follow other mag lovers, buy or sell issues and generally discover great publications (maybe by their covers?. I love what Dan is doing with Magpile! Make sure to also check out his podcast MagHeroes for interviews with publishers and his new tool for managing subscriptions, Subsail.
The Publishing Playbook
Hüman After All is a London-based creative agency with a lot of publishing experience (having created titles like Little White Lies and more recently Weapons of Reason. They’ve launched numerous publications in the past and have compiled their experience in this open and free Google document that is collaboratively edited by lots of other folks in the publishing community. Definitely check this out if you’re thinking of starting a magazine!
Monocle’s The Stack
The Stack is a weekly podcast dedicated to the world of magazines, often hosted by Tyler Brûlé himself.
Lynda Video Tutorials
If you’re a total noob like I was and don’t even know how to use Indesign or how colour management works (who the hell knows!?), you can use an online video tutorial service like Lynda to learn the necessary basics.
Heftwerk is a network of Berlin-based services for magazine makers (printer and shipper, mostly) that I helped create. I use these services to print and ship my own magazine and because they’ve now done this with several indie titles the process is getting a lot smoother. Get in touch with them to get a quote, and if you don’t mind, please tell them that you heard of them through me.
Indie Publishing Club
This is a simple Facebook group I created to help indie publishers connect and share ideas/challenges. It’s a member-only thing, and for the sake of keeping the discussion on topic, I only give access to existing publishers of print titles. So once you’ve got a first issue, make sure to join us!
Last, but not least, a reminder to keep browsing. I've written down most of my successes and failures on this blog. They might save you some mistakes. Also highly recommended, my Medium post Indie Magonomics.
In this post I want to give you guys a bit of insight into how I plan the content for each issue, and how my approach is somewhat different and simpler to that of other magazines. But let’s start with a few thoughts on creating an enjoyable reading experience.
One of the beautiful things about printed publications is what Craig Mod calls ‘the edges of print’. We all know how great it feels to open a new book — the excitement of a fresh start. But also to be able to finish it, to close it and to move on to the next one. What happens in between those events is quite a linear experience. While magazines are also great for 'quick dips’ and reading in small chunks, most of us start from the front cover and work our way through to the final page. Compare this to consuming content online: how often do we start reading an article only to find ourselves watching a farting cat video because we clicked on a link half-way down the page? There aren’t any edges in digital.
This is one of the reasons why printed publications are still such an attractive tool for storytelling. Because content consumption usually flows in a linear direction, editors can create a unique journey that has a clear start and a clear finish.
When I first thought about Offscreen and how I wanted to present the content inside, the idea of arranging stories in an engaging way was exciting, but also quite daunting. The first step towards clarity and action was to define some basic boundaries, like the page count and the dimensions of the publication. Once I had some physical limits, I experimented with typography and grids within Indesign, trying to come up with a versatile set of ‘templates’ and a consistent visual direction. I won’t go into detail about this phase here, but let’s just say I bought a lot of font licenses (which I didn’t end up using) and printed out a ton of sample pages in the process.
All of the above sets the constraints for how much content I could fit into one issue. The next step was to come up with a way to organise my ideas to see how they flow in the context of a magazine. This is where the content plan (or flatplan) comes in. The content plan gives you a bird’s eye view of an issue. It allows you to pace the reading experience by placing and moving around story ideas with the goal of creating an enjoyable and captivating content flow.
There are various degrees of detail when it comes to content plans. It often starts out with something like this:
Seeing all the spreads next to each other enables editors to identify critical areas where, for example, stories or visuals are colliding. These printouts also give creatives an idea of how the layout of a particular spread work in the context of the bordering pages.
Being a kid of the digital age, I don’t really have an office with a big wall or a lot of floor space. I move from place to place quite a lot and take my office with me when I do. So I decided to take a more digital approach to the content plan: a simple spreadsheet. Although I do print out the magazine in its entirety on my trusty ol’ laserjet, mainly for proofreading.
This document stays open as a pinned tab in my browser throughout the three or more months it takes me to create a new issue. It’s a constant work in progress. As contributors confirm (or drop out), I add/edit names and deadlines accordingly. During the 3-4 week period when the majority of content is due I run through this document from top to bottom at least 2-3 times per week to check on the status of each contributor. This is by far the most stressful period in the making of an issue as I have to replace the inevitable drop-outs last minute and remind already very busy people that they are running late. If a piece is complete (written and visual parts have been submitted in their final version) I colour the cells in the 'Deadline’ column green. I repeat this step until the last piece of content has been submitted and I can move on to the next stages (proofreading, final editing, and eventually laying out the issue in Indesign).
The content plan is one of the most important tools in the making of a magazine. There are many magazine titles out there that do an amazing job at creating a unique reading experience and taking the reader on an adventure with every new issue. I won’t lie, Offscreen is not one of them. The core structure has intentionally not changed much since the inaugural issue launched. My lengthy interviews set the pace and make up the bulk of each issue. Changing smaller features in between break up the reading experience into digestible chunks. It’s a fairly strict pattern that I’ve come to rely on, not least because I’m a one-man show which necessitates a fair amount of routine to be able to make three issues per year possible.
Update: There is now a handy little online tool called pageplanr for easier flatplanning. I haven’t tried it yet, but it looks great.