Last Fall, I was contacted by a publishing company in Dubai to commandeer the creative vision for—and single-handedly design the launch issue of—a Middle Eastern travel magazine debuting in the Spring. Called Escapades, the publication would circulate throughout the Persian Gulf and skew toward sophisticated and well-heeled readers—the kind of folks who’d likely stamped more than half their passport pages and spoke a few languages. Armed with a thirst for the inimitable, the Escapades reader would yearn to experience the uncharted and often unassuming adventures that lie ambitiously in wait.
I was somewhere on the fence. Challenges would be unforgiving and omnipresent: I was a one-man crew and we were a 10-hour time zone difference. The budget was trim; 80% of our photography needed to come from affordable stock houses or from Flickr photographers who were as generous as they were talented (a rare find). Illustrations would mostly be tackled by me. And to top top it all off, aside from an ancient student project and a handful of fashion features (a very different kind of editorial environment), I’d never seriously worked with magazines before. Ever.
But the kickoff call left me with a good feeling. Serendipitously, I had resigned a three-year studio job literally one month before and was looking to break the cold ice of an independent practice with a project I could love, obsess over, own and cherish. Escapades was the girl on the other side of the platform and the train was pulling into the station. It was now or never. So I hopped on board.
The next few months were a whirlwind of experimentation, trial, failure, passion, joy, and, dare I say, success. Continue on for the lengthily self-aggrandizing process recap; otherwise, I hope you enjoy taking a look half as much as I enjoyed working on it.
A magazine is arguably one of the more complex design environments one can tackle. It’s a Dungeon Level puzzle, a Rubik’s Cube of information hierarchy, navigation, and continuity—invisible qualities you rarely notice when you’re reading a magazine but become acutely aware of when you start building one from scratch. Seemingly inconsequential details reveal their true significance—how and where an icon is placed, for instance, to indicate where in the magazine the reader is. Does it register as a first-level read? Does it need a background to translate across pages or can it simply be line work? Do you even need to use an icon? The constrictions of space also assert a very real presence. In an 8x10 box, a misaligned column or repeated word might as well be circled with a neon sharpie.
But before the grid and the type and the photos, there was the content. Organization came first. We divided the magazine chiefly into three sections: Compass and Insiders, which comprise our main front of book Departments, and then the feature well. Some of the stories could perhaps have been grouped into a third Department, but it’s a relatively short magazine and I didn’t want to litter the front with a new look every 8 pages. It’s a bit jarring and I liked the idea of someone sitting down and comfortably moving through a good chunk of the magazine without visual interruption.
Compass ended up being the most substantial of the Departments, comprising about a third of the entire magazine. These are our quick-hit stories, one-page reads that cover a miscellany of topics—hotel openings, international cuisine, cultural meanderings, traveler profiles. Insiders, a much smaller Department, follows with casual interviews, giving readers a uniquely personal glimpse into the hotels, airlines and cities that often define the quality of their voyages. Then, features, followed by a close-of-magazine Department called Travelogue—a highly anecdotal retelling of a writer’s journey to a new land. And finally, to wrap it up, a high-profile Q&A (Sir Richard Branson batted lead-off for our launch issue).
With everything in its proper bucket, I started tinkering with the visuals. Aside from resonating with the right audience and giving the content an engaging presentation, the biggest necessity for the design itself was flexibility. After all, I’d be handling the thing by myself and needed to work fairly quickly—I didn’t have time to struggle over a story with too many photos or be burdened by a lengthy headline. I settled on a twelve-column grid, which is good friend to have and can support an infinite number of content scenarios. We debated on the trim size but ultimately kept it compact and intimate—perfect for a traveler.
That whole part about a magazine being a complex design environment goes double for typography. If content is the soul of a magazine, type is its DNA. Its bones, its musculature, the very fibers of its skin. Type perhaps more than anything defines tone—photography is integral, absolutely, but photography changes. From issue to issue and from page to page. Type is the constant. Every decision has to be intentional.
I must have tested close to sixty display & headline fonts, but after flipping through some competitor publications, was thoroughly decided on a serif. Everyone else was using bold, neo-grotesque sans faces, which all looked fantastic, but all looked the same. A sexy, modern serif (Chronicle Display) was an opportunity to differentiate our look. It also echoed the casual affluence that many of our readers would likely embody.
There are actually a couple of sans-serifs used throughout, but Galaxie Polaris is our workhorse in the field, utilized for a variety of call-outs, sub-heads and sidebar columns. With an exceptionally tall x-height, it not only affords great legibility but also commands an extra ounce of toughness. A courageous, masculine counterpart to our more delicate display face.
Brandon Grotesque makes a few appearances as well, most notably as section headers—TOC, Compass TOC, Insiders and Q&A all employ it. It looks phenomenally confident aired out in all caps, which is exactly how we use it.
Surprisingly (or not, if you work extensively with books or magazines), settling on a body font was one of the most difficult parts of the entire process. To be completely honest, I never gave much thought to selecting a body face. It was either serif or sans, and from there a routine pick between a familiar cast of steady regulars. This was entirely different. To the point I made about type being the constant, in our case, body type was the absolute constant—the main paragraphs of every single page are set in the same body face. Logistical basics aside—general legibility, available weights, OpenType features—there weren’t a whole lot of textbook criteria to rely on. “Does this feel right” ended up being the ultimate benchmark, the elusive question to satisfy. I landed on FF Tisa, a low-contrast slab with remarkable legibility and just the right amount of character. It’s actually legible enough that the “Light” weight can be used for body copy, giving denser pages a bit of much-appreciated breathing room.
Tools in hand, I slowly pieced together the look of the Compass pages, testing each experimental iteration against an army of hypothetical type + photo situations. This section is the first real introduction into the magazine and continues for a good stretch, so the big challenge was maintaining continuity while subtly refreshing the look each time you flipped the page. A navigational icon and thick colored banner (which both appear on every Compass page and always share the same color) proved to be a good way for us to inject new life into each page. The color changes from page to page and can be used as a complementary counterpart to the palette of the photography—or, if the situation is right, rebel against it. A healthy dose of rules gives the pages structure and helps fill out what are otherwise very modest stories (many of the Compass stories are less than one hundred words). Our headlines vary in size while retaining an extremely concise tracking+leading lockup—a block that moves around but remains large enough to draw your gaze. And since all the Compass pages are right-facing only, it’s easy on the reader’s attention span—they simply have to turn the page and they’re already looking at what they want to see. Overall, it’s a stupidly simple system that can work with a variety of contexts—and, perhaps more importantly, can be easily explained to another designer if and when the time comes to hand these pages off to someone else.
The features, though, are where I really wanted the magazine to shine. Flipping through other travel magazines, I found that most recycle identical typography from the front of the book. In some cases, I could hardly tell where the Departments ended and the big stories began. One of my favorite qualities of Escapades is that the feature content is remarkably journalistic—two of the stories in our launch issue are literally about dodging sniper fire in war-torn combat zones in search of a good thrill. They’re genuine, they’re real, they deliver a punch. The visuals needed to elevate each piece in its own way, with its own tone, and locking myself into a limited type palette felt unfairly restrictive, like I couldn’t give the words on the page the face they deserved. A no-holds-barred approach to the features turned out to be the best decision I could’ve made, allowing uninhibited expression and giving each story an appropriately tailored look. The underlying grid, margins and body type remain the same, but each feature gets an entirely unique character, suited for the voyage at hand. All in all, I think it makes for a much more exciting, comprehensive reading experience.
And, when it’s all said and done, that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it?
To all the people who will pick this issue up, I sincerely hope we deliver just that. I hope we take you to the brim of excitement. The water’s edge. The summit.
Where you go from there is entirely up to you; your own escapades have just begun.
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