Three cities, five subjects, one photographer and the Power of Youth

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In this era of social media, it seems only fitting that two designers would network via Instagram. In fact, Instagram was among the first things that Variety Creative Director Chris Mihal and I discussed when we met at SND Cleveland last fall and it was how I discovered the series of covers Mihal did for this week’s “Power of Youth” issue of Variety.

Did you set out with the idea to do a series of covers, or was that something that came about out of brainstorming sessions and photo-shoots?

Doing a series has always been in the back of my mind. I pitched it a couple months back for a story that had three subjects, but at the time two had dropped out and we were left with one personality to photograph. So this issue comes along and the logistics limited our options. We had five personalities all over the country and shooting them in one space would have been impossible. They all needed to be represented on the cover somehow because they were tied to the event. How do we do something that’s smart and differentiates ourselves from the competition? Plus money is always an issue. That said, our initial brainstorm was either photograph them in two locations (LA and NY at the time) and composite them into one shot (would feel a lot like our competition), or do two different covers, which people weren’t so hot on at the time. Or we go more of an conceptual/illustrative approach and do something along the lines of baseball cards that relies less on photography, which felt a little flat.

The idea, like most of them, came in the shower. I recalled a Philippines Esquire cover that did a split image (same subject, mirrored with different expressions), cover lines going down the middle. I found the example and emailed it to several people while waiting for a flight. The response was lukewarm. A week later I mocked it up using some portraits of young celebs. It was one of those ideas you had to show people. That’s when it started getting support.

From that point, it was a matter of dealing with the impossible logistics of hiring a photographer, having two shoots in LA and NY setup (eventually became three with the addition of San Diego), getting money for the different shoots, then on top of it all, getting the money approved to print and distribute five different covers. There was a lot of places where this idea could have fallen apart, but we kept pushing and got the last piece of the puzzle 24 hours before we had to send it to the printer.

What was the process like to get a series of five covers approved?

Getting the idea/approach approved was probably the easiest part of the process. I can’t stress how important it is to show and not tell. I don’t think the idea would have saw the light of day had I not taken the hour to actually mock it up, print it out and get buy-in. We had the mockups up on a wall where everybody walking by looked at it, stopped and commented and that’s how we generated excitement for the idea. The monetary commitment was the hardest part. July and August are our slowest months for revenue, but the owner of this company encourages us to take risks. When I pitched it to him, he asked, “Are you excited by this idea?” My response, “Hell yeah.” Then he said make it happen.

Who else was involved in the cover production?

I think the person who experienced the most pain along the process was Director of Photography Bailey Franklin. Just coordinating shoots in what was two cities originally, and chasing that fifth subject to San Diego required so much back and forth with publicists, marketing, the photographer, myself. I still owe him a large bottle of gin. Ramona Rosales did such an amazing job with the photography and just getting these different shoots to feel cohesive. Then turning around the fifth shoot and getting us images in less than 24 hours was asking a bit much, but she was a pro about it. Then Design Director Larry Williams did a great job pulling the package together for the 15 pages inside.

varietyOne of the things that stood out to me was that no one cover showed the entire face of one person. It’s a bit of an untraditional approach, especially as compared with similar features like Vanity Fair’s “Hollywood Issue” fold-out covers. What gave you the idea to approach the covers in this way?

Like I said, that Esquire cover really stood out to me as a different approach to the same old celebrity portrait. I also felt like two different halves made for a more active and interesting image. Then it expanded into this interesting concept of piecing the five different covers to create one image, or mixing and matching to create hybrids. I’m in love with the idea of a printed product becoming interactive for readers. The other big sell was the idea of blowing them up and displaying them for the event. We originally talked about doing a gatefold, but the idea of piecing these together trumped that approach.

What was your inspiration for this cover, and more generally where do you look to for inspiration?

I think the inspiration for this is just thinking unconventionally and taking a risk. I’m lucky to be part of a magazine that will spend a little bit to send a photographer to opposite corners of the country and distribute five different covers. Right now I’m finding most of my inspiration comes from working with the staff and brainstorming ideas and concepts and executing them. Also, just the idea of moving to the second biggest city in the country, there’s inspiration to be found everywhere in Los Angeles. There’s an increased appreciation for presentation in this city that I’ve only ever encountered in New York.

What advice do you have for designers looking to get unconventional ideas approved?

Show, don’t tell. People in my department weren’t excited by the idea until it was mocked up and put on a wall. I often have a hard time visualizing concepts so we do a lot of pencil sketches. I hadn’t sharpened a pencil in over 10 years until I came to Variety. Now I have a pencil sharper at my desk.

What does bold design mean to you?

I hate the word “bold.” When we’re talking about presentation and content, I prefer the word “smart.” I want to be smart about the choices we make throughout the magazine, whether it’s the use of color and type, the style of photographer we hire, what we’re saying in the display type, what kind of statement we’re making with a package, is it the right tone. All the decisions we’re making are content-based. I think “bold” is a dangerous term because you can make a very long list of publications that are bold, but not necessarily smart.

How does the experience and pace of creative directing a weekly magazine compare to working with multiple daily newspapers in the Asbury Park Design Studio? 

Coming from a studio that produced 15 daily newspapers with 70+ designers, going to a weekly magazine would be easy right? I don’t think I’ve worked harder in my life. It’s an intense schedule. There’s so much attention to every single page that we produce, whereas in newspapers you have to prioritize your time and focus on points of impact. Variety is also the size of a lot of monthly magazines, in addition to that, we’re doing 30-40 page standalones during awards seasons, special issues. It gets intense.

As someone who’s worked on a variety of formats, what do you consider to be the design strengths of each? What can we learn from each other?

I wouldn’t say any format is much different from the other. They all present different problems and it’s our job as a designer to come up with the solution despite the time, money or the shape of the box we’re working in. That’s what makes the job interesting.

(Courtney Kan is a sports and news designer at The Arizona Republic.)