Next out of our ever-expanding magazine rack we leave the shores of dear old blighty and take the short hop over to the Netherlands. Here we check in with Slovak graphic designer and typographer Peter Bil’ak who is the man behind international design magazine Works that Work. The magazine, which comes in both a print and digital edition describes itself as ‘a magazine for the curious mind, endeavouring to surprise its readers with a rich mix of diverse subjects connected by the theme of human creativity, searching for a deeper understanding of work and its motives.’ As a lover of design, but not a designer myself, it is great to see a title looking to celebrate the everyday creativity in design. We sat down with Peter to find out more.
Who are Works that Work?
WTW is just me (supported by my wife Johanna and Lieveke, my assistant), but it’s also an opportunity to work with people I admire. To start with, text editing is made by Ted Whang with whom I’ve been working for over 10 years on all text based projects. Graphic design is by Susana Carvalho and Kai Bernau, my former students from the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague. Small news-like items are managed by Anne Miltenburg, designer and writer from The Hague. And with longer contributions, we work with people around the globe, wonderful writers, journalists, researchers and photographers.
I’m delighted to be able to also discover many new contributors – for example young NYC design writer Barbara Eldredge has written two wonderful pieces for us, and it is likely we’ll work together again. We also work with more established writers who previously had worked for more traditional media (BBC, NY Times, Wired, etc), but are now looking for new angles in writing. And some fabulous photographers, many of them recognised by the World Press Photo and other awards.
For those unfamiliar with the magazine, explain the concept? What are you trying to do?
One of the frustrating things about design is that it often stays on the surface — it’s often about the embellishment. Design writing is often very predictable and reports on the ‘trade’. It’s very much a discussion for the people inside the design trade. We forget that creativity is used by almost everyone, not just artists and designers, and that all man-made things are designed. Even most mundane things — bricks, balls, waiting rooms are designed, and often when they perform well we just take them for granted.
We document that design is not the exclusive domain of artists or designers, but something that surrounds us in our daily lives, something so embedded in our everyday experience that it often escapes our attention. We look beyond the surface, and look how people improve their lives by innovation, creativity and design. Often in situations with less resources, people tend to be more creative, and we look at overlooked examples of creativity.
What do you look for in the works that you cover?
In simplest terms, the editorial policy is to ask if a particular story is strong enough to be shared with friends over a dinner. These friends may not be designers, so the story should be centred around ideas, rather then execution.
I first made a list of stories that could be presented in the magazine (what and how army chefs cook, can an image of a fly on a urinal reduce cleaning costs, can removing traffic signs improve road safety…). This list has grown as the number of collaborators grow, each bringing more stories from around the world. It becomes easier with more people reading and contributing to the magazine.
Tell us about Social Distribution? Where did the idea come from? What is the philosophy behind it? How does it work economically?
Besides publishing the magazine, we (our company Typotheque) publish fonts. We always look for the most direct way to reach our clients, and cut the middle-men. When we started the magazine, we tried doing the same, looking for the most direct way between the publisher and the reader.
The magazine was funded by the readers, they are the investors and made the project possible. To distribute the magazine we reached out again to readers for help — to bring it to their favourite places, not necessary bookstores, to sell the magazine. And we are happy to pay them for their efforts.
It’s about the engagement with the readers. Many readers feel strongly about the contents and operations of the magazine and want to be part of the growing community. Their engagement goes beyond buying the magazine, but they are involved in suggesting content and helping the operations of the publication.
It is a beautiful magazine. Tell us about the decisions around production and design.
Thanks. First and foremost, we wanted to create a magazine that is readable, easily accessible by designers and non-designers alike. There are a lot of cliches about how design magazine should look like, which we ignore, and instead focus on the storytelling and how to help understanding of the content.
The first thing which I defined for Kai and Susana was the weight of the magazine including the envelope, for easy distribution of the publication. The size is the result of most economic folding of the standard printing sheet in the Netherlands. We pay particular attention to binding, making sure the magazine can lay flat on the table, and can be held with just one hand — so it has to open well. We work with one of the best printers in the Netherlands, which optimise all images to the selection of papers that we use. Having said this, we also pay attention to digital edition of the magazine, getting most out of the screen based media. Susana and Kai are designing the print edition, and Ondrej Jób designs the online and eBook version.
Finally, we’ve developed our own workflow for managing the content of the magazine — it’s an online collaborative system for writers and editors, which exports the text directly to HTML, EPUB or even InDesign.
In terms of magazines any office favourites? Ones you take inspiration from?
I personally read more newspapers than magazines, they tend to be more surprising in terms of content than periodicals, which tend to be very formulaic. I like NY Times and International Herald Tribune, and read almost daily the Dutch daily NRC Next. From the magazines I love National Geographic, for their work with images, limited advertising, and good writing.
Any interesting feature in the pipeline? Anything you can tell us about the next issue?
We work on the third and fourth issue at the same time, so there is already plenty of content. We found out that research takes a lot of time so we reserve sufficient time for each contribution. In the next issue we look at design made for extreme long duration — for example how to indicate dangers of nuclear waste storage, when it will continue being dangerous for the next 100.000 years. Will people understand English? Understand graphic symbols? We also have more light-hearted stories of for example why Lada cars haven’t changed in 40 years, surviving political systems, presidents, but design hasn’t changed.
As a successful independent magazine what do you make of the health of the industry at the moment?
We hear plenty of stories of mainstream magazines closing, shrinking in size or readership. But for every one of those, there is new one magazine popping up, and the new players have a possibility to rethink its operation, distribution, financing, production, which is very exciting. This is much harder for established magazines, which try to preserve what they have.
What’s in store in the future for Works that Work?
It’s still early days, we’ve been out just for months, so we need to increase our readership to make the magazine sustainable. We organise public events to meet our readers, and even extended some contributions into live event discussions. Beginnings are very enthusiastic, and I am genuinely excited about this project.