Here are my notes on the presentation by Scott Dadich, creative director at Wired Magazine, at the Editors Forum in San Francisco. Our senior editor Lori Shontz filled in some gaps in my notes, and if any of you remember additional things from Dadich's presentation, please add them in the Comments. Thanks!
Dadich came to Wired from Texas Monthly magazine. He's the current president of the Society of Publication Designers.
Early on, he showed a photo of his art department and it had probably 20 people in it!
He talked about the rigorous process that goes into developing a cover. For their "Rocket Boom" cover (issue 15.06, sometime in 2007; http://www.wired.com/wired/issue/15-06) Dadich had an idea about rockets blasting off from a field. He had been watching Terminator 3 and Battlestar Galactica, so he was thinking of those styles. They went to New Mexico and got some photos at White Sands National Monument, I think, then hired something like four different illustrators just to try some ideas for the rockets shooting up from the sands. They ended up not using any of the ideas!
(Compare that to our magazines, where we hire one illustrator and we go with what they give us—I got the sense that Wired will hire illustrators just to give them material get their thinking started.)
Ultimately they went with an agency that does computer-generated images. (Side note: Dadich says that most of the photos you see of cars in magazine ads are not photos, but computer-generated renderings.)
They fussed over things as detailed as the types of propulsion systems—what color the “exhaust” coming out of the rockets would be, depending on the kind of fuel. There's a huge amount of editorial direction, retouching, etc. going on. Scott said that their process for the cover is pretty much this rigorous every time.
Obviously, none of us has the staff or money to do what Wired does (and I wish one of us had thought to ask Dadich how the economic downturn has affected their ability to spend this kind of money). But still it was fascinating to get a look at their process.
I was struck by how unbelievably creative they are. It seems like they’re always thinking, “What if we did this?” Some examples:
—For the cover of a “how to” issue, they got Martha Stewart to pose as if she were baking a cake in the shape of a Nintendo Wii (issue 15.08, sometime in 2007; http://www.wired.com/wired/issue/15-08).
—They did a piece called “Operation Christmas” (December 2007) in which they posed the question, What if Santa Claus were real? And had to deliver a present to every Christian child in the world in one night? What would be the logistical and geopolitical challenges he would need to overcome? The intro to the story says: “Santa oversees a massive network of container ships, naughty/nice surveillance, and special-ops helpers trained for covert entry into homes.”
NPR did a piece on this: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1755840
—They also did a chart tracking the cup size and body-mass index of Playboy centerfolds against the average American woman over time.
—They did a photo essay on classic instruction manuals (I think from the Smithsonian), from the Gemini space capsule to a nuclear power plant (issue 16.11, http://www.wired.com/culture/design/multimedia/2008/10/ff_manuals)
They just have such creative minds.
Because they're a newsstand magazine, they have the ability to know which covers are popular and which ones aren't. They know which covers sell 75,000 copies on the newsstand and which ones sell 100,000. Three best-selling covers over the past year have been:
—“Evil Genius” (Apple computer logo with chains)
—“Attention Environmentalists” (Screw the spotted owl cover, which was their top-seller … all text and neon colors)
—“Why Things Suck” (Sarah Silverman on the cover). On this one, they purposely screwed up the registration on the spine—another example of how much details matter.
They just did a cover on GPS technology (February 2009), and it did not sell well at all. He thinks because it wasn’t cutting-edge enough for their readers. A week or so later, he saw an almost identical cover on a telecom magazine from Greece—a direct ripoff of the Wired cover.
A cover they did on Bill Gates’ replacement, Ray Ozzie (Jan. 2008), also sold very poorly.
There’s an adage in the business that “cancer is death on the newsstand,” but Wired’s cancer cover (Jan. 2009) sold very well. It was “a really smart story,” he says.
They recently did a Wall Street/economics cover (March 2009) that sold surprisingly well. The cover was very stark: black and white, which is unusual for them.
You can see their covers at http://www.wired.com/wired/coverbrowser/.
They know their covers right now through December of this year. (Jeff Lott leaned over at this point and said to me, “That would be like me knowing my covers through 2012.” Me too!)
He talked a lot about typography. His favorite typographers are Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, who designed such fonts as Interstate (used on road signs all over the country), Gotham (used in the Obama campaign), and others.
Dadich worked with Hoefler to develop a custom typeface for Wired called Vitesse. It has “horizontal lines that keep your eye moving through the word.” They also designed a sister font called Forza, and one called Exchange. Exchange is vaguely similar to Times Roman, but with a slightly larger x-height and a significantly larger cap height; it allows them to get 1190 words on a page instead of 1150.
So they don’t buy fonts off the rack; instead they spend big money to develop their own custom fonts. I'm guessing a lot of big-time commercial magazines do this. Dadich said: “We have a wide variety of content; we needed a range of fonts to reflect that.”
These fonts were designed to be part of Wired’s branding—“a variety of typefaces that feel very ‘Wired.’”
Then they have what he calls “sprinkle fonts” that they use here and there throughout the magazine. (That's my favorite new phrase from the conference: "sprinkle fonts.")
Some miscellaneous other notes from his session:
They did a cool (and gross) story on a lab in Seattle that’s slicing and mapping human brains (issue 17.04, April 2009 I think; http://www.wired.com/medtech/health/magazine/17-04/ff_brainatlas).
Lately they've done some feature where the opener is more than just the first spread. They did a story on Jim Gray, the guy who went out to sea, off the California coast, to scatter his mother’s ashes—and was never seen again … Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates were involved in the search for him (issue 17.04, http://www.wired.com/techbiz/people/magazine/15-08/ff_jimgray). That story had a four-page opener, i.e., two full spreads before you actually got to the body copy.
Another story called “Screw Organic” had a 10-page opener! (I think this was issue 16.06, July 2008.)
During the Q&A, someone asked him for his take on the future of print, and he quoted someone (James somebody; does anyone remember his last name?) as saying that magazines might go the way of the horse. That is, they would become a bit of a luxury—only wealthy people would have them, but they would certainly still exist.
He said, If you just want information, the internet is better. But if you want a cinematic experience, or to tell a story, it’s better in print. That's why (1) storytelling and (2) design matter so much in magazines today.
That's also why Wired spends so much time on things like 10-page openers, if they think it’s interesting/cool/worth it, and why they pay so much attention to little details, like the folios. For example, in a story having something to do with fuel efficiency in cars, the page numbers were rendered as tiny odometers.Their readers love the cute little things the magazine does with its folios, and even write them letters about that.
Someone asked if he minded that readers might not notice a little thing like the page-number-as-an-odometer the first time they look at it, and he said no. He actually prefers that they notice it the second or third time they look at it. "We engineer for multiple readings.” It adds value, and makes you hold onto the magazine longer.
—Tina Hay, The Penn Stater magazine