At AGI London: Jeremy Leslie

Jeremy Leslie, one of the judges of the first edition of Kyoorius Awards, is the founder of magCulture. He has been addicted to the magazine design space since he first produced a music fanzine in 1977. His most recent book The Modern Magazine was published by Laurence King Publishing in September 2013. , Business

07 Nov 2013 | By Payal Khandelwal

Jeremy Leslie, one of the judges of the first edition of Kyoorius Awards, is the founder of magCulture. He has been addicted to the magazine design space since he first produced a music fanzine in 1977. His most recent book The Modern Magazine was published by Laurence King Publishing in September 2013. 
We had the pleasure of meeting Leslie again during the AGI Open conference, held at Barbican Centre in London on 26th and 27th September 2013. This time, however, he took time out especially for us to have an in-depth chat. We spoke to him about how print is far from being dead, about iPad apps, Conde Nast, Monocle, in-flight magazines, Richard Turley and about he has managed to stick to the magazine space for so long. Edited excerpts: 

Even though it has become almost obsolete but people still say ‘print is dead’ or ‘end of print’. How do you react to this?

I have spent quite some time having this conversation. I have a new book coming out this week (Update: This interview was done in September and the book is out already) and I hope I don’t mention the words ‘end of print’ in that. Because when I was planning for this book, I looked back at my previous book which was ten years ago and I did mention the words ‘end of print’ there. It is ten years later and print is everywhere.

The magCulture blog that I started was partly to present an alternative point of view. The ‘end of print’ is a very compelling phrase. It’s very sexy. It’s much more exciting than saying the truth. The truth is that print is alive. It might be a bit sick but it’s far from dead. There are a lot of reasons why people argue that print is dead- paper is more expensive, internet, recession etc. But print has responded to all these problems quite well. Particularly with magazines, I think there were too many magazines earlier and they weren’t all good. For me, print is as much about quality as quantity. There is less now but the quality is much better. This is better for the people using it and better for the planet too.

In the interplay between print and digital, there is a lot of potential which is yet unexplored. How is that really playing out?

The first thing to say on this is that a lot of publishers wasted a lot of money on some very expensive websites 15 years ago and then they got very nervous. Then the iPad came and the new generation of publishers wasted a lot of money again. It’s very complex. But you are absolutely right, print and digital have to be together. But you can’t just do it; you have to figure out what you are trying to do. The sensible publishers are those who are doing different things according to what’s more appropriate for them. That is the key. Everybody who is publishing, in any sense and in any medium, has to think again about who their audience is and work out the best way to reach them.


How difficult is it to do an iPad app? Some publishers want replica of the magazines and some want more interactive versions.

It’s as challenging as you make it. Some of the best apps are small, simple and they do one thing well. This comes back to my point about understanding your audience. I think a good example of a magazine publisher’s app is Monocle magazine. They haven’t done an iPad app but what they did is start an online radio station. Their audience travel a lot and very cosmopolitan and media savvy so the online radio station works really well. It was an expensive initial outlay to set up the whole station etc, but now they can make really cheap content. They have an app on iPhone through which you can download all the content. So when you are travelling, you can listen to Monocle radio and that’s perfect for their audience.  It’s got nothing to do with the magazine, but it’s perfect for them and it expands the universe of Monocle. It’s a really clever addition.

If you take that example in the case of Vogue, it didn’t work. Vogue is about visuals. Then why do audio? They are still struggling with a replica kind of approach which is not necessarily correct.

I am currently working on an iPad app for Frieze Magazine. In this case, it is a replica of the magazine because they are trying to reach out to audiences far away because it is difficult for them to send the magazine by post as it’s expensive and takes a long time.  And thus a replica of the magazine through an iPad app is a good idea for them.

Since you mentioned Vogue, Conde Nast itself is an interesting example. In India, it was one of the first publishers which started the iPad app etc. How do you see them in this context?

Conde Nast is a big international player but they are still a family-owned independent company. Unlike other companies, which are on stock exchange etc., they can do what they want to. And they did. They have been working with Adobe to create what has now become Adobe DpS publishing system (Adobe Digital Publishing Suite). So they put in a lot of money and worked hard on it. I think it was really good they did it, somebody had to do it.

It’s interesting to see what’s happening there now though. They have beginning to withdraw from it.

What do you think about the independent publishing scene that is slowly becoming quite popular, especially in the UK?

For me, they are the vanguard of what I see as the new golden age of magazines. They are shaking things up. A lot of small magazines are labour of love or are really good ways of wasting your savings. It’s easy to look at from outside and mock them but I think there are some very interesting ideas being experimented and developed in that area. And some of those independent magazines are beginning to become successful. For example, Apartamento.

There are these small independent projects which are taking on international dimension and becoming very successful, both creatively and financially. A lot of the small magazines I think, in a way, are returning to what creative magazine or visual journalism magazines should be. They are sticking to a strong idea they believe in and hope other people believe in it too, rather than coming up with ideas based on focus groups etc. It is about going with something special and genuinely new and that is what a lot of these magazines are doing.

What has kept you in the magazines space for so long?

I think about that a lot and I have tried to leave magazines in the past. I do other bits of work too. So the roots of it all are when I was in art college, I made a music fanzine and I just really enjoyed working with content. I just love working with content and working with someone to develop that. Tomorrow for my talk (at the AGI conference), I love the fact that I will talk about four independent food magazines and how different they are from each other, both in terms of verbal and visual voices. They appeal to different people in different ways and that’s what I love about magazines. The best ones have their unique character.

What are your most favorite projects that you have worked on?

The most challenging and interesting one for me is for Aeon Magazine which is a website that has really strong content. It is all long form and thus is very much about reading, mainly on the iPad. I did the identity and the website design. It’s not perfect and we are doing a redesign now. We are also launching a film channel for that and I really enjoyed working on that because it stretched me out of my comfort zone. That’s again one case where I think my heart’s in content. The content there is of good quality and the aim is to make it legible.

How do you juggle between commercial work, blogging for magCulture and writing books?

I just consider myself very lucky that I am doing something that I enjoy so much so I put a lot of time in it and I work hard.  I have a family with teenage children who go to school and therefore the whole household is up at 6.30 am. So I have a long day. I start the day with blogging and then I do design work or go for meetings etc. I am basically on my own. I have assistants, but it’s all quite a small setup. I just have to keep switching between things.

How much should a magazine designer get involved in the editorial?

Well, I believe that an editor has to be a designer and a designer has to be an editor. You have to work together. I see the line between the two disciplines becoming more and more blurred, especially at the top. This is not to say that there has to be just one person, you need two or maybe three but everyone does a little bit of everything.

In terms of how much influence a designer should have on editorial, it obviously depends a lot on what the nature of the subject is. For me, I want to be as involved as possible. I might not agree with the editorial and I want to have arguments and discussions. In the end, he/she might have the winning vote but you have to have discussions. What you can’t be is someone who just takes content and puts it in design. You have to get involved. All stories have an angle and you, as a designer, have to understand that. You might try to influence it and you might not be able to do it, but at least you have to understand it.

How much influence do you think Richard Turley (creative director) has on Bloomberg?

Huge.  Actually he is the one I am thinking of.

I think New York publishing is a very good example because traditionally in New York’s office landscape, there are far more people in the magazine office as compared to Europe and probably other markets. In America, traditionally you have a lot of editorial people and a lot of designers and then in one corner you have the editor and on the other, the art director. And they have a meeting once a week.

Now take Richard Turley and Josh Tyrangiel (editor) for example. They sit in an open plan office, opposite each other and thus they are able to pick on each other at the table. Obviously, Josh is the editor and he is in-charge but they have a very collaborative approach, especially on the front covers. Richard has a huge involvement in those front covers for sure.

When it comes to magazines, the million dollar question is how much content do you give online for free?

I know that in my business, as design studio working for clients, I can give everything away for free on magCulture. From a reputation perspective, I get work because of the blog. I gather info for it and thus, it’s a fantastic resource for me to take to the client and discuss. It works in my case, but every publisher is different.

And it is one huge challenge for all the publishers right now. There was a time when it was all simple as there was just one channel- print. Everyone understood that. You went after an advertiser and they would buy a page or two. Now with multiple channels, it’s a lot more complicated.

In-flight magazines follow a model wherein a publisher has to pay. What do you think about this model?

It’s a backward model in a lot of sense but it has become an established model. I have done in-flight magazine Carlos for Virgin Atlantic but this was on a contract basis in which we were paid but increasingly that’s changing. In 2001, after the World Trade Centre disaster, the airline industry was destroyed for two years, then the SARS epidemic happened which destroyed the airline industry again. Virgin stopped all magazines others airlines reduced the number of magazines considerably. Then they started trying to make money through this. They had publishers coming to them and saying that we will give you money to put something on the plane as then they could get all advertising money.  This has been the case with hotels too.

It’s a wrong model and it’s not healthy. It’s ad-centric which unbalances things. But unfortunately it has become a norm.

This article was first published by Kyoorius