The Blender Redesign: It's all about the "E."
Before he became creative director of Blender late last year, Dirk Barnett held the enviable position of art directing bothÂ Play, the New York Times Sports Magazine, and Key, the New York Times Real Estate Magazine. He had landed at the Times after completing a highly-lauded redesign ofÂ Premiere, where he was art director from 2004-2006. Before that, as design director of Popular Science, he won a General Excellence award from the American Society of Magazine Editors.
Dirk's industry acknowledgements include recognition from the Type Directors Club, the Society of Publication Designers, the British Design and Art Direction Awards, the New York Art Directors Club, Communication Arts and Print. His work is included in the permanent collection of the American Institute of Graphic Arts.Â
We were thrilled to have the talented Mr. Barnett sit down with us this week and discuss his Â magazine, the challenges surrounding change, and his partnership with newly-mintedÂ Blender editor Joe Levy.Â
How was the transition into the Blender world?
Well, I would be lying if I said the first 3 months at Blender were easy. I had just come off a wonderful professional experience at the New York Times, and what I faced in coming here was vastly different from that position. At Blender, my staff was disjointed, the editor that hired me was fired within a month of my arrival, and the edit team was used to doing things a certain way.Tell us about the new logo?
Being an agent of change in that situation requires a lot of selling. I'd been through it at Popular Science and Premiere, so I knew how to navigate that environment, but I just wanted to create a slick, beautiful, music magazine and not have to explain every little step. The flip side was that I found myself working with an edit team that is 100% devoted and passionate about music and the magazine itself, which is very inspiring. When Joe Levy was hired as editor-in-chief from Rolling Stone, things became much easier. With both EIC and CD as agents of change, the transition from what the magazine used to be, to what it could be, became much smoother. Plus, for some reason the guy just trusts me; he let's me do my thing.
When I came on in 11/07, I brought along the Locator typface because its fun, quirky personality was a nice fit for a music mag. At the beginning, then-CEO Kent Brownridge told me to never call the redesign a "redesign," but rather an "evolution" of the magazine. I had been hired to redesign the magazine, but when I got there, the terminology shifted slightly so we didn't scare advertisers into thinking we weren't happy with the product. I began by slowly leaking Locator onto the pages, and within 2 issues had a soft "evolution" in place until the new logo was finished, at which point I would roll out a complete "evolution". Locator was designed by Erik Olson of ProcessTypeFoundry; I looked to Erik for further typeface inspiration as I worked to build up a new font family that would eventually be the look of Blender. His other faces, Stratum and KlavikaÂ (paired with Locator) created a typeface family that is both distinctively modern and strong. What I loved is that they're all three created by the same designer.
So naturally, I thought of Erik when approaching the logo. I started by combining two or three different fonts into a logo sketch, and passed it off to Erik who played with some more ideas until coming up with the final solution.Â
There were some other ideas that popped up, but of course, given the nature of the publishing industry today, the "risks" were too great, so we settled for a more commercial approach.
Did the logo propel the feel of the inside?
Music affects people in different ways. A basic principle of music theory is that many people react to musical sounds by seeing shapes in their minds, organic forms that sort of sift through your mind as you listen to different melodies or tracks. There is a whole science behind music and the shapes that it can stimulate in your brain. For me, these shapes come in sort of blobby "shapeless" forms, if that makes any sense.
Since I started here at Blender, I've had a folder and a pdf packed with these different shapes. Everytime I came across a new one, I would throw it into the folder or add it to the pdf.Â For me, a natural fit with the new look was to rely on these organic shapes to bring together the redesign as a graphic interpretation of music. Olson's typefaces use some nice curves to help propel this idea, especially the rounded stems of Locator Display, specifically the E's and F's. As soon as we had the logo locked in, I simply took the stem off the E, rounded both ends and used that as a graphic element for the front and back of the book.Â
We took that element and extended it and overlayed it for the FOB Burner section, which created a beautiful shape at the intersection of these thick rules that we also use as a graphic element.
It looks like you went beyond the Stratum/Klavika/Locator family in creating a typographic identity for Blender.
Those names are so Star Trek--I think Eric must be a Trekkie.
Yes, actually during the soft redesign....er...evolution...I had stumbled upon a font I was obsessed with but couldn't find. I was literally searching for three months with no luck. When my new associate AD, Claudia de Almeida started, I showed her the face, and she said,"Oh, I think I have that." Sure enough, she was right! The sad thing is we have never been able to track down the designers (so if you are reading this, email me!) to pay them. But the font, Mr.Big, just felt perfect for Blender, so I started using it as a display face only, and it's worked quite well.Â
When I first got to Blender, I commissioned Tom Brown to design another new face, something really chunky and blobby. When I got my hands on Mr.Big, I asked Tom to create something still blobby, but with some tight corners to give it a nice contrast to Mr.Big. As the months went on, and he was booked with other clients, he never got around to it. Then he told me he had a font that Matt Lenning had commissioned over at Bon Appetit that he hadn't finished and Matt didn't want. I took a look and it was exactly what I had in my head, so we made some further revisions, and Blender Display was born. This typeface really locked in the redesign, as it has really nice organic shapes that fit in well with the whole "music as shapes" idea.
It looks like the structure has changed...
It has. We pulled the margins in and set in a strict 12 column grid. Like a pop song, we wanted a tight structure to jump out from, with a swift tempo and rhythm, then trick out the feature well a bit...verse-chorus-verse. My design team, Associate AD Claudia de Almeida and AD Rob Vargas, have done an amazing job of really pulling the strings tight with the detailing in the design work to create a platform that feels organic and breezy while looking really structured. Â
How do you utilize illustration to fit into the Blender vibe?
Being a young music magazine, we are trying to match that energy with illustration that is cutting edge and fun (and done by young illustrators!). I set a loose rule (with a few exceptions...Nathan Fox is just too perfect for Blender to pass up!!!) that we can't hire anyone we have seen somewhere else. Obvioulsy, this isn't always possible, but we are trying, and we have a few in our arsenal that are kicking ass. Instead of faking a headline design element, like, say, spray paint, we actually do it. We apply this same ethic to our illustration when it lends itself to that, like cutting things out, etc...using real elements as opposed to relying on photoshop trickery.
What about the photography direction?
Before I got here, Blender sometimes had a tendency toward goofy photographs of bands jumping out of cakes or Jack White holding a chicken (?!?!), so we wanted to move away from that.
There is a great column in Blender called Collect Call where we basically send a photographer to go and hang out with a band for a few days on the road. I loved the photojournalistic feel of this column, and wanted to extend that more to the overall feel of the photography, when possible. Readers love this shit because it gives them that "backstage" access that you don't get in a straightforward studio shot. People love US Weekly's "Celebrities, They're Just Like Us!" because they see their fave celeb actually mowing the lawn or hauling their kids to school. Why not get a strain of that into the photography when possible?
We try and balance that out with the requisite studio stuff. but even then, we try and keep it raw and loose. Not a lot of high-concept going on, more of a down to earth approach.Â David Carthas just came over from the New York Times (Dolls was his handiwork). We worked together at Premiere, so we are really trying to turn it up. His team--Chris Ehrmann and Rory Walsh--is tireless in their devotion to seeking out the best photographic solutions, so we are getting there.
So how much do you see yourself sticking to this design? Do you think you'll get bored with it and "evolve" again soon?
Like I said, we're getting there, but I'm not so sure I want to get there, because the "getting there" is the fun part. We will keep exploring and pushing and pulling the format to see what comes up.
Music is always changing, so it seems appropriate that the design should too. I'm loving this direction, but if you compare the Lil Wayne TOC to the Pussycat Dolls TOC, they are very different. I'm a firm believer in strict formats to create the identity of your magazine, but there is no reason for magazine designers to be so damn religious about it. That's either because you are lazy, or you have run out of ideas.
Yes, I plan to evolve things as we move forward. We have some cool stuff up our sleeves, so keep watching! This redesign was one of the hardest ones I've ever done because we are toying with different ways to let the details evolve from issue to issue. I had planned to do that at Premiere, but left before I could try it because of the negative atmosphere that place fostered (or festered?) Nothing like laziness to kill a good thing.
And at Blender, the last thing you will find is laziness. Everyone on the magazine's small staff loves the subject matter and is excited to bring things to the next level, so we are just going to try and make a kick-ass music mag. Stay tuned!