How we redesigned Makeshift to merit its medium
In 1897, one year after Adolph Ochs acquired the New York Times, he coined the slogan, “All the news that’s fit to print.”
Print is not gone; it’s just changing. We can get our daily fix online faster and in more absorbable bites. But readers still crave print for another kind of reading — the kind of reading that fills plane rides and nights away from the television. Its content is based on a different kind of news. If the New York Times stayed true to its slogan, it would be printing entirely different material today.
Makeshift, a magazine about creativity in underground economies and other unlikely spots around the world, is part of a resurgence of independent print media. We’re members of the Little Magazine Coalition and Indie Publisher Club, both founded within the last two years. These publications are passionate about stories, paper, and type. And readers and advertisers are catching onto the difference.
Advisors and armchair critics have challenged us to move to a digital-only format (and we did just launch what we think is one of the best reading experiences on the web). But we know our readers hold onto our print issues, usually indefinitely. We know our issues are greater than the sum of their parts, and the social web values click-bait headlines. And we know that only print can make the right first impression with our audience.
These three truths formed the foundation of the following principles behind the redesign of Makeshift.
- Make me hold onto it
- Guide my journey
- Call me from the shelf
I am proud of this redesign, but even more so of the collaboration behind it. The new Makeshift was produced by a virtual team of freelancers and volunteers across six countries and 13 hours of time zones, including partners at Rifle, Openbox, and Oak. We needed an experience worthy of the high-quality, often dangerous, storytelling done by our 300 contributors across 80 countries. We knew if we were sticking with print we had to earn the right.
Principle No. 1:
Make Me Hold onto It
As beautiful as the photography was in Makeshift, we didn’t want it to be the kind of publication that sat around and collected dust. Makeshift is active, creative, adventurous. We wanted it to be something our readers would toss in a backpack and take with them. And in order to accomplish that, it had to be both relevant and inspiring in their day-to-day work and travels.
That’s how we landed on the concept: “A field guide to hidden creativity.” Printed on the back cover is our brand promise: Makeshift is a field guide to hidden creativity. Ingenuity can be found anywhere if you know where to look. Let us tag along on your creative pursuit.
Once we settled on the concept, we sought inspiration from nontraditional sources: old notebooks, warning labels, Japanese packaging. And we arrived at at a novel look and feel.
The first major decision was to go with a smaller, more portable form factor, bucking the trend of other magazines we saw moving toward large-format coffee-table books.
The field guide concept also bred one of our defining graphic elements, carried throughout the magazine and applied later in a variety of contexts. We call it the Navigator, and it was inspired, in particular, by vintage train timetables. It’s a way for us to display metadata about each article—a digital metaphor translated back to print.
The field guide idea drove our editorial direction too. Peppered throughout the magazine are illustrations, how-to’s, and case studies that hit home with our readers a bit more than the typical informal businesses we cover.
So how do these elements come together?
Principle No. 2:
Guide My Journey
Since our inception some two years ago, we’ve been driven by creating great issues—curated packages of stories greater than the sum of their parts. When we moved online, we found ourselves pushing articles with catchy headlines and click-bait tweets. That’s not what our readers appreciate about Makeshift, and it will never be our strength.
That’s why, in our redesign, we sought to push the issue further. How can we make the issue feel more unified? How do we make it worth it for a reader to dig in cover to cover?
We used to sequence pieces by format: short articles up front, then features; photos were shoved to the back. We’d use the Letter from the Editor to make sense of it all. This time, we wanted the issue to tell its own story from front to back simply by how the articles were organized and presented. Here’s an overall view of the issue in our new table of contents.
First, you might notice the articles are organized into three chapters. And then as you read the tweet-length introductions to each piece, a story will emerge within each chapter.
The story is also easy to flip through. The article introductions are repeated in large text at the beginning of each piece, and each chapter pulls out a quote to give a peek at what’s coming. This way, you can get a sense of what the issue is about without reading a single article.
Now we have a story, but it still has to fit into a neat package.
Principle No. 3:
Call Me from the Shelf
Ever since George Lois invented the modern magazine cover for Esquire, the industry has followed a few simple rules in cover design:
- Paste the brand name at the top
- Communicate the newness of the issue through color
- Use a photo to communicate with the reader
Today, this usually means a celebrity making seductive looks at you from the shelf. But in a sea of tabloids, these covers no longer garner the attention they used to. It’s the curious and precious object that captures our eyes. The one that triggers our imagination and calls us on an adventure. This is where detailed design makes the difference between grabbing Makeshift off the shelf and walking right on by.
It starts with a differentiating brand system. Clearface, with its quirky serifs, would set us apart in a sea of Roman characters. P22 Underground would offset Clearface with modern clarity and Chronicle with readability. Each issue would feature a different background color (George would be proud) with a persistent red accent, featured up front in each issue’s stamp. And it comes together in a cohesive cover:
Lastly, it ends with a mark. The Makeshift logo, intended as more of a “period” than a top-left-corner element, was the final piece we designed. The publication was already beautiful, curious, and engaging. This element needed to push the design that extra bit into what we called “cleverness.” This was the result, and you can only find it hidden on our back cover:
Indeed, ingenuity can be found anywhere if you know where to look.