Cover story: MIT Technology Review

For this week’s cover story, MIT Technology Review Creative Director Eric Mongeon shares how the September/October issue of MIT Technology Review was developed.

This is definitely one of the more interesting covers I’ve seen recently. Tell me about the cover story, and how you came up with the idea to take a sledgehammer to a cash register.

MIT Technology Review, September/October

MIT Technology Review, September/October

I’m happy to hear that. This one was actually a lot of fun to make.

Each year, MIT Technology Review publishes a special issue profiling the top 35 innovators under the age of 35. One of this year’s innovators is Ben Milne, the founder of a company called Dwolla that is developing a new kind of digital payment network.

I commissioned Ryan Donnell to photograph Ben in his office in Des Moines, Iowa. I sent Ryan a draft of the story, like I do with all of the photographers and illustrators we work with, to help him begin thinking about how to approach the portrait.

The idea of photographing Ben smashing a cash register was Ryan’s. Ryan appreciated the audacity of Ben’s project — tearing down a pervasive though antiquated system and replacing it with something faster, easier, and safer — and decided to run with it. And fortunately, Ben was totally into it.

Were there any other cover ideas you considered running instead?

In fact, I didn’t commission this portrait thinking it would appear on the cover!

My staff and I had considered around 30 other concepts ranging from type to illustration to still-life photography. There were actually a number of really strong contenders. But when Ryan submitted his photos, I knew this was our cover. This image is just so dramatic and irreverent — and it does a great job of embodying the spirit of the entire 35 Innovators list.

The 35 Innovators Under 35 is an annual feature for the MIT Technology Review. How do you keep the ideas fresh from year to year?

I joined the company as Creative Director just over a year ago, so this is only my second time working on the feature. Before I got here, the covers for the 35 Innovators issue tended to emphasize youth and the number 35 — which in my view are the two least interesting aspects of the list.

Instead, we focus on expressing the worldview of the people we profile. They’re a very diverse group from all over the world but they have this thing in common: they see a human problem and feel compelled to address it through technological innovation. That’s what makes these people remarkable. They’re revolutionaries — challenging the status quo, fostering change, and generally causing a ruckus. It’s almost a punk ethos, only without the nihilism. And that can be expressed visually in all sorts of fun and interesting ways.

Tell us a bit about the design process for the cover. Did you direct the cover photoshoot? Who else was involved in the cover production?

Normally, my staff and I explore a number of options, sketch, assemble Pinterest-style inspiration boards, iterate, and then gradually close in on the cover solution. Jason Pontin, the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher if MIT Technology Review, serves as a critic/advisor throughout the process.

While we followed that approach again for this cover, a really great photo came in late in the game that allowed us to pursue an entirely new conceptual direction. You might say the experience itself was an exercise in creative destruction.

Since this photoshoot took place in Des Moines — a flight away from our offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts — I was unable to attend. But I’d worked with Ryan before and knew I could trust him. And our project manager and photo editor, Lisa Dalsimer, made sure everything came in on time and on budget (and looked great).

Did you run into any obstacles while working on this cover?

If anything, the hardest part was letting go of some of the other cover ideas my staff and I came up with. But that’s the right kind of problem to have when you’re working on a cover.

Looking back even just a few issues, the MIT Technology Review covers are all vastly different in their approach. Where do you look for your inspiration?

We want our designs to be flexible enough to address the stories on their own terms, but consistent enough from issue to issue that we establish a distinctive point-of-view — what some people might call a ‘brand identity.’

Though there’s a fair amount of conceptual and aesthetic diversity, each cover design follows a very specific — almost rigid — formal structure. Every single one is designed around a circle with very pronounced vertical and horizontal axes. They’re all targets, basically.

We draw much of our inspiration from 114 years of Technology Review magazine archives, especially the midcentury work done out of the MIT Office of Publications. The innovative typographic designs of Muriel Cooper, Ralph Coburn, and Jacqueline Casey smartly merged European formal sophistication with American vitality – and defined the look of MIT in the Modern era. We’re grateful to have that history to draw on. And in a way, we’re attempting to reclaim some of that heritage.

Have you received any feedback on the cover?

After a number of typographic and text-based designs, people are happy to see a human being on the cover again — especially someone who is gleefully breaking stuff…

Have a magazine cover you’d like to share with SND, or want to send a tip on a cover you’d like to see profiled? Contact Courtney Kan at kan.courtney@gmail.com.