[Cover Story] Politico Magazine creative director talks about the “Media Issue”
Politico Magazine’s “Media Issue” has been creating a buzz for the past couple weeks, as readers, publications and designers try to identify the sources of the typography sampling. Creative Director Janet Michaud took the time to share the process behind this unique cover and catch us up on how Politico Magazine is evolving after three issues.
Courtney Kan: As a designer, this cover immediately caught my eye for the clever typography sampling. And I remember when you spoke with SND in November you mentioned how important typography is to a publication’s identity, so this approach seems very fitting for “The Media Issue.” How did you settle on this concept?
Janet Michaud: We knew that if we were going to go with the big idea of The Media that it would be tricky. It’s hard to represent the media with a single iconic image or with one person. If we chose a microphone, we’d be shutting out print media. If we chose a newspaper, we’d be shutting out magazines. If you chose a pencil, we’d be shutting out digital media. Concepts can be hard to nail and we didn’t have a slam-dunk idea, so I reached out to a number of artists and photographers in the interest of bringing in options to see what felt right. I had a strong gut that typography could be really interesting and Post Typography kept popping into my head as I was working through who to call for this cover. I had worked with them in the past and really admire the range of what they do and the smartness and sophistication they bring to their work.
CK: Tell us a little about the process for this cover. What was the timeline like from brainstorming to proofing? Who else was involved?
JM: The process for this cover was not linear. I guess it rarely is. About 2 weeks out from deadline, I reached out to a conceptual photographer. I threw out a bunch of my own ideas and asked for his as well. He sent back about eight or so very strong ideas, but none felt right yet to Susan and me … A little over a week out from deadline, I reached out to 3 more artists: an illustrator who would focus on some of the great personalities we were profiling in the issue; a photo-illustrator who would focus on concept; and Post Typography. I had a strong gut that a typographic approach could be the solution. You could say it was the wild card.
When all sketches came back (we probably looked at 25-30 ideas in total), it was just very clear to both Susan and me: Post Typography’s ideas were really strong and we loved the collaged letters from different media outlets. It said it all in this very sophisticated, fun way. The hope was that readers would want to figure out which letter came from which publication, making it much more engaging… at least in theory! Once we decided on that direction, I played with color, scale and how we would incorporate teasers. As far as color, we felt red had the most impact (plus: black and white and red all over!). We published the key to the cover collage in the print magazine in the editor’s note and also online—on Facebook, Twitter, etc. — and saw lots of people guessing at the letters or even tweeting out, as a BuzzFeed editor did, when they discovered their own publication was included in the collage. So it was very interactive in the way we hoped.
CK: Can you tell me some more details on the surrounding content for The Media Issue. What was the biggest obstacle with such a broad theme? Did any other concepts arise from those stories that competed with the approach you took?
JM: The tension for us was between highlighting the great individual pieces in the issue – a big article on Hillary Clinton’s long, troubled relationship with the press; another one on how Tina Brown lost $100 million on the failed Newsweek-Daily Beast merger; an ideas package on the future of news – and going with the overall concept of The Media Issue. We considered making the Clinton piece the cover, for example, and narrowing the focus. I did prototypes for it, but we decided to aim more broadly on the theme, even though we knew that might be a steeper climb to get to a good cover (in fact, we did a whole spread inside on the history of Hillary Clinton on magazine covers – clearly, putting a big picture of her on a magazine cover has been a strategy that has worked for a lot of magazines over the last couple decades.)
CK: From the typography sampling to the color choices to the wording of the teases, this cover is quite bold. And yet, there’s a certain restraint about it — I think it achieves the simplicity and clarity in its aesthetic that you said you hope to aim for with the magazine. How does this design philosophy play into your brainstorming process? How difficult is it to edit a concept back?
JM: Susan and I share the belief that a simple, powerful image on the cover is most effective. This isn’t always possible, but we held on to the hope that it was until the end. Post Typography came up with a wonderful idea that got us there, but that was after exploring a lot of other routes. I think the way I work with artists and photographers is part of my design philosophy. More often than not, I’m reaching out to them as collaborators in helping me solve a problem.
Also, I like to version my designs and on covers the equivalent of that is to cast a wide net. It means stashing away more of my budget for covers. Even though we’re not on the newsstand and we’re free, the cover is still the most important page. We are competing for people’s time. The cover sets the stage for the issue and influences how much time a reader is going to spend with us. I want to grab as much of their time and attention as possible.
It’s hard to edit a concept back and to clarify it. I think it takes an open mind, a lot of creativity and an active back-and-forth between those involved in making it happen. Post Typography’s solution shows you can represent a broad theme sparingly. It’s a very clever concept that is driven by the content. For me, it’s about always asking what can be taken away while still keeping the visual storytelling clear. I think that’s where restraint comes in.
CK: How would you say the magazine has evolved since it’s first issue in November?
JM: Well, this is only our third issue — and I think there’s so much more evolution to come. That’s the cool part. But Susan and I both knew something different was happening with this issue as we were creating it. I assigned a lot more photography in this issue. But I think it goes deeper. I think there was more synthesis between the words and visuals. There were also more layers to engage with, which has been a goal we’re working toward. The continuity between print and web also took a step in the right direction with this issue. Print and digital are their own animals and should be treated as such. But the goal is for you to know you’re reading us whether that’s in print, on your computer or tablet, or on your phone. Maybe it’s because we’re new, and so without a lot of institutional structure, but there is this cool connection between the magazine’s website and its print edition; the site is very magazine-y in a great way and signals a different kind of reading experience than the rest of POLITICO. It showcases the print content so well and yet in a way that feels organic to me. We’re not just taking something that works in one medium and awkwardly translating it to another.
CK: Now that you’ve got a few issues of POLITICO Magazine behind you, how do you feel the pace and process compares with your experience in daily newspapers?
JM: It’s totally different. But my career has been weaving in and out of newspapers and magazines, so it’s not totally surprising or unfamiliar. I’m a one-man show and the magazine team is pretty small, so the extremes are more accentuated and the cycles are more defined. I think I’m learning to be very pointed about where to put my energies and resources in a way that’s best for the magazine as a whole.
CK: Where do you look for inspiration?
JM: Everywhere. I get inspiration from obvious places, like looking at other publications; as well as from more random places, like city signage on the bus to work or a drawing my son brings home from school. Music has also been a major source of inspiration for me and continues to be. I studied it for a long time and am drawn to the design and art it, particularly Blue Note album covers.
[SND regularly features a Q&A on how magazine covers were developed. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.]