Eye Magazine editor John L. Walters and art director Simon Esterson talk issue number 94 and all things Eye

Over the last 27 years, Eye magazine has maintained its reputation as the best magazine for intelligent and critical writing on graphic design, with many leading design writers regularly contributing. It certainly lives up to its billing as “the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal.”

The writer and journalist John L. Walters took over editorship of Eye in 1999, aided since 2006 by current art director Simon Esterson, of the editorial design agency Esterson Associates.

The latest Eye, number 94, is a special issue focusing mainly on typography. There are fantastic features on Dutch designer Mark van Wageningen of the foundry Novo Typo, Nadine Chahine of Monotype, House Industries, Rudolf Koch’s Kabel typeface and its new revival the Neue Kabel type family designed by Marc Schütz, and much more.

The cover of the new Eye was designed by Hamish Muir and Paul McNeil, who are featured in a detailed article in the issue. Thanks to digital print technology and MuirMcNeil’s typography, no two covers of the magazine’s 8000 copies are the same. I caught up with John and Simon at the Eye office to find out more.

Theo Inglis: How did the idea of having a different cover for each copy of the new issue of Eye come about?

Simon Esterson: It was really about the technology. We had seen the Mosaic software extension available for the Indigo digital press, and it seemed exactly the right combination for MuirMcNeil. Letting a machine almost make the design decisions for you within a set of parameters.

Did the article on MuirMcNeil precede the cover then?

John L. Walters: Yes definitely. Some of the coverage has implied that we just commissioned MuirMcNeil to design the cover, which is something we never do. The cover is always based on the contents of the issue itself.

SE: We were already going to run the feature, and the technology behind the cover has interested us for a while. Suddenly, it seemed like the right subject and reason to use it.

JLW: Also, we do a Type special every four issues, and we have known Hamish and Paul’s work for quite some time and had a feature on them at the back of our mind for a while. In this issue, we have three articles, all of which are on a quite different approach to type design. There is the article with MuirMcNeil as well as NovoTypo from Mark van Wageningen, and then the piece on the Kabel revival by Marc Schütz. There is also a meaty Reputations interview with Nadine Chahine. So, it is a type issue but not like any of the others we have done before. Using this innovative MuirMcNeil cover makes it really obvious it is something new for Eye.

I can’t imagine every designer being able to do a cover as complex as that

SE: The complexities are what interest them. They talk a lot about process, and in fact, there was a lot of experimentation and to-ing and fro-ing and samples. That’s the only way you can see what’s going on.

JLW: We’ve got a few test sheets that were rejected, which is interesting. They talked about this at our recent Type Tuesday event. There is a huge number of possibilities with Mosaic, so part of what they did was work to reduce the number of possibilities. There was one particular idea that had something like two million different possible outcomes, so Hamish and Paul were very interested in restrictions. They wanted to produce something that is both ever-changing and remarkably consistent. It is so pleasing to see the combinations as they come out, especially if someone has two copies, or you see them lined up together in shops like magCulture.

I think mine has an entire E on it which is quite nice.

JLW: So, you can actually see the E of the pattern?

SE: (Laughing) That’s not common! 

Ah, see, lucky me! It must be quite fun being able to see all the different covers coming up on social media and it being different each time?

JLW: It is amazing actually. People are starting to upload pictures to Instagram and Twitter and tell us what number they have out of 8000.

I was wondering who has number one!?

JLW: It hasn’t turned up yet. A friend of mine has 7996, and he is in Swaziland, and his arrived before the American ones weirdly. They go out in batches.

SE: We could have picked number one off the binder, but we didn’t. After that, they get stacked and boxed, and we had no chance to control who got what.

I’ll have to double check what number mine is! Do you have any more exciting ideas for other innovations with printing or format lined up?

SE: I think it is about the appropriateness for a particular issue.  Obviously digital printing is more complicated and has far more possibilities. Mosaic is only one piece of software. In the past, we have used various new varnishing techniques on litho presses, and different screen technologies and special colors. It is good working with Pureprint as they have both digital and litho equipment and they are advanced and always trying new things. We generally keep an eye out for what is going on.

Was this issue the first time using digital printing for Eye?

SE: Yes, because the run length isn’t economical for digital, unless you want every single one to be different. We have seen other magazines where people had the chance to design and upload their own covers. Wallpaper did that and Boden did a really nice and clever children’s catalogue with the same idea. But essentially you just got back what you had put in. With the new Eye cover, the fun is that you aren’t part of the process. It arrives and is unique, but is also part of a bigger system.

JLW: The other interesting thing is that it is a complete front and back cover. Normally we have cover lines on the back or adverts sometimes. In fact, it is all four covers. The two insides show the seed patterns from which Mosaic generated the covers. 

Eye 94 cover story: printing and binding 8000 unique covers from Eye magazine on Vimeo.

You use a new font in each issue. How do you decide what to use? And in general, is it fun or a bit of a pain?

SE: It is quite a lot of extra work, because you have to rebuild the baseline grids, and redo your style sheets and all those kinds of things. It’s a mixture of decisions. Sometimes it is because there is a feature about a particular type designer so you try and use their types. It’s usually a display face and a text face, or an extensive single type family. If it is a separate display and text font we try and use the same designer for both because I feel if you are going to highlight someone, let’s show the full range of their work. 

JLW: Occasionally, we use a typeface which is very new and not quite finished, and I have to wait for the italics! For me, as more of an observer in the process, it is actually quite an education. Since Eye number 72 we have gone through a lot of typefaces, so the issues, regardless of their content, form an interesting story of type design in the current age.

Not much risk of running out of typefaces to use is there!

JLW: A lot of aspects of the design do remain the same which is why it isn’t always that noticeable that the font is different. The grid stays the same and the margins, and the physical size is the same as the first issue which was released in 1990. The logo on the front has been the same for 16 years; the spine is consistent too. So, some things are reassuring.

SE: It isn’t a redesign. We still have the same editing and design sensibilities whatever font we are using. Because we are only out roughly four times a year, it is work to do it, but it’s not like running a weekly magazine. I wouldn’t recommend it as a technique for a weekly magazine!

You have a ‘Reputations’ feature interview each issue, which is a real mark of success and recognition for whoever you include. How did you decide on Monotype’s Nadine Chahine for this issue?

JLW: She is someone we have known and watched for quite some time. The great thing about doing the Reputations feature is that it’s a Q&A and you get to hear someone’s voice. We knew that Nadine had interesting opinions on things and was very articulate. There are some designers, of all generations, who you perhaps wouldn’t do a Reputations interview with, because they aren’t very articulate about their own work even though it is great. With Nadine, we knew she could talk about her work, as well as other issues.

SE: We are also very conscious that there is a lot of detailed discussion about Latin typefaces, but Latin isn't the whole world of typography.  I think the Arabic scripts and other non-Latin languages are becoming more and more understood and talked about. And Nadine is an expert in Arabic type design. 

JLW: Type design technology has advanced such a great deal with this app called Glyphs, which Nadine talks about in the piece. Glyphs has made things possible that you wouldn’t have dreamed of doing twenty or even ten years ago. So that is exciting. Of course, the challenge for us as English speakers is setting type in a language we don’t understand. We were very glad of some outside help.

SE: Mo (Mohamad Dakak ) from Reading University helped us, and Nadine saw what we were setting too. It was a challenge for us, something new.

You do a ‘Type Special’ regularly every four issues. Why do you think people are always so keen to read about typography in particular?

JLW: I think of our readers – a significant proportion of them love typography because it is the fundamental basis of all graphic design. We probably get some people who only read the type issues. There is a certain enthusiasm that some people have, and they make sure to get the type special of Eye, but are maybe less interested in illustration or photography say. 

How do you decide what goes into an issue of Eye and build up themes or develop issues with a good mixture of subjects?

JLW: We like doing themed issues, but they are more time-consuming. When you do a theme, it suddenly sets up a certain kind of challenge. For instance, the issue before this one was an Illustration special, so we had to balance reportage with political illustration. When you do a non-themed issue, which is the one we are working on now, it is a bit more fluid and flexible and comes together in quite a nice organic way. But we do have other themed issues in the pipeline. Doing a themed issue every time would be a real killer.

You have a lot of ideas on the back-burner then?

JLW: Yes. There is a fantastic piece about historic magazine art direction which I’ve had drafts of on my hard drive for a couple of years now, but I recently reassured the writer that it would finally be coming out in 2018. But, as you know, we also print a lot of reviews, so new writers start with reviews. Simon is even doing a review for the next issue. There is a pile of books we receive and always interesting exhibitions going on which can be reviewed by someone.

SE: The difficulty with themed issues is that we always amass too much for them because we are trying to make a proper rounded statement with it and cover an entire area well. The food issue we talked about for years, and when it finally came together, we realized some things would need to be left out, including the reviews section. 

Eye has been independent for coming up to ten years now with you two at the helm, a period which has also seen a lot of changes in the magazine industry. How have you found it?

JLW: Well the indie sector has really grown; new magazine shops are popping up all over the world. A good example is magCulture in Clerkenwell, but there are also specialist magazine shops now in places like Brighton, Bristol, Bath and Berlin. And then Mumbai! We find out about things through Instagram before we find out through our distributors.

SE: In a way the independent sector has been the most interesting development and it doesn’t have the same economic model as mainstream publishing, so it has survived and thrived by not having to publish magazines in a conventional way.

JLW: It is also a massively broad church. If you go into one of these shops there is everything from little one-off handmade zines and loose-leaf papers wrapped in a band, to massive fashion magazines with huge amounts of sponsors and adverts, and then lots of points in between. Things on cheap paper or newsprint, small literary magazines or bigger lifestyle ones. I think the charge for us is to keep going, keep getting readers, and make sure people realize we are still here and putting out new issues.

Eye issue number 100 is looming on the horizon.

SE: Well, we are thinking about it, but a bit more about 95 and 96, which are the main concerns at the moment!

JLW: Doing 94 issues has felt like quite an achievement. Part of what we do is to still sell back issues where available. At our Type Tuesday event, we ran out of the current issue, and there was quite a brisk trade on back issues. There are always new students and younger designers, and there are things that we published when they were children, which are actually still relevant now. With the website, you can find anything from the back catalogue. It is a lot of work and maintenance for Sarah (Snaith, Eye’s Assistant Editor) and myself. We try to publish everything in full online from the issues once they have come out – so that people can track them down or use them for research. Some people only write one or a few articles for Eye but they are total corkers, so they are online now and we can say on social media, “Here is the definitive piece on this subject” especially if the issue is sold out or not easily available.

Has social media had a positive effect on the magazine?

JLW: Social media is one of the ways that people find out about us first, but it is a lot of work to let people know that there is this beautifully art directed and printed magazine they should buy. There is a bit of a challenge to show what’s going on physically, but through a digital medium. We do this quick flip through called ‘Eye before you buy’ which you can watch on Vimeo and get a taste of the magazine and see how nice and physical it is.

SE: We have always backed away from having a digital version of the magazine. We put the articles online but it doesn’t have all the images, and we don’t attempt to make the website the same as the magazine. They are very different.

JLW: Over the last few days, the more that Eye 94 gets seen on Instagram, the more messages I get from people saying “Can I buy it where I live?” Eye is available in indie mag stores, it’s stocked in Barnes & Noble in America, and you can now order a single copy online. Which was something we introduced and has been quite popular. We have also taken part in Stack, where people sign up and get a random magazine delivered to them each month, which has brought some new readers into the Eye orbit.

EBYB94 from Eye magazine on Vimeo.

Thank you to Simon and John for the really interesting conversation!

Eye magazine’s fascinating new issue can be purchased, along with a selection of back issues, on the Eye magazine online shop.