Stack is such a refreshing concept in these days of online algorithms constantly narrowing what we’re exposed to in line with what we’ve expressed an interest in before. The premise is that you pay £5.50 a month and every month you’ll receive a different independent magazine in the post. Founder Steve Watson doesn’t promise that they’ll relate to anything you’re interested in, but he does promise that they’ll be beautifully designed, thoughtfully written and well produced. I subscribed just before Christmas and I’ve been so impressed with the quality of the magazines I’ve received, I had to pin down Steve to find out more…
How did STACK come about? What made you decide to start it?
I was writing for a few small independent magazines, and I knew that most of my friends would love them but they’d never heard of them. It made me realise that often the problem independent magazines face isn’t the product – they tend to be made with love and dedication by incredibly talented people – the problem is more often to do with marketing and distribution. Around this time I read a blog post by Russell Davies about ways to stay interesting, and one of his ideas was to read a different magazine every week, because magazines are packed full of interests and points of view. It was while talking to a friend about the t-shirt subscription his wife had bought him that the penny dropped. He received a different limited edition t-shirt every month – he never knew what he was going to get next but he loved the surprise, and I realised that maybe I could do that with magazines that help to make you more interesting.
How do you select the magazines you distribute?
I’m looking for magazines that are open and inclusive, because my subscribers are all sorts of people living all over the world, so it’s not good sending out some very cliquey magazine with a narrow worldview. I’m looking for magazines that have something to say for themselves – far too many magazines look great on the shelf, but when you try to read them you realise there’s no real substance there. And I’m looking for magazines that complement the Stack selection – I want to have a range of interests represented on there, so I’m careful to make sure we don’t have too many food magazines, or too many cycling magazines (both very popular subjects amongst independent publishers!)
Part of the appeal of STACK for me is breaking out of what I once heard you describe as the “ever decreasing circles of the Amazon algorithm” – why is it important for (creative) people to do / see / read something different from time to time?
Because it’s so easy not to these days. The internet makes it feel like we’re at the nexus of all the world’s information, when actually we’re only ever exposed to a tiny corner of it. Social media is particularly tricky – I love Twitter and Instagram, but if you looked at my feeds you’d think that the whole world was obsessed by independent publishing, which of course isn’t the case. And of course the algorithms get it wrong – I bought some Sylvanian Families for my little sister a year ago and Amazon is STILL telling me when a new badger family is about to come out! Magazines are a brilliant antidote to all this – they’re built on the pleasure of turning the page and finding something new, and I love that sense of discovery.
How important is good design to the success or failure of an independent magazine?
Absolutely crucial. Magazines aren’t books – you can have the best, most compelling writing in the world, but if it’s not presented properly on a magazine’s page it loses its power. This is why the best magazines are built around great partnerships – you need to have a great editor and a great art director working side by side and firing off one another. You can’t do that on your own.
What defines good design?
That depends on the context of the magazine. Jeremy Leslie makes a good point about design either helping or hindering the reader – there are some magazines that make the reader work a bit, and that can be a great thing. For example Little White Lies in its heyday was often quite difficult to read because it would use incredibly ornate typography for its headlines, or articles would start and finish in strange places, but that’s a perfect example of the essential partnership – Paul Willoughby as art director and Matt Bochenski as editor walked that fine line between helping and hindering and came up with some of the best, most memorable magazines I’ve ever seen.
What’s your very favourite independent magazine and why?
Oooh – now you’re asking! That classic era Little White Lies will always be up there – I used to write for them around then and it was really special, a great group of people doing great work. These days I’m really into Delayed Gratification because of the sheer quality of their editorial output and their understanding of the things print does well. And looking back I absolutely loved Zembla, a literary magazine from the early- to mid-2000s.
Which graphic / magazine designers do you admire?
I saw Patrick Waterhouse from Colors speak last year and was really impressed by him. He’s totally turned around a magazine that was getting a bit tired and he has really reinvigorated it. When he spoke he talked about the way that he works, deconstructing things, showing how things work, exposing interconnections and revealing the systems at work around us. For him it’s not enough for a story to be interesting – it needs to have a way of looking good too, and I was massively impressed by his dedication to that.
What are you most proud of?
Professionally, it’s Stack. I love the fact that every month people discover magazines they wouldn’t otherwise have found – reading people tweeting about the magazine they’ve just read and loved is incredibly gratifying.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of starting their own magazine?
Do it! But have a very clear idea of who your reader is, how you’re going to reach them and why they’re going to decide that your magazine is the one they should spend their time and money on. Publishing magazines is a tough business, but if you get that right you stand a good chance of making something that will last.
And finally, what’s your favourite colour?!
Erm, I’m not sure I have one! My wife bought me a new notebook for my birthday that is a lovely shade of red and I can’t wait to start using it. So let’s say it’s notebook red.
Further reading for the especially geeky:
Ella Doran is an award-winning designer, who pioneered the use of digital printing techniques, and specifically the application of photography onto functional, everyday objects, when it was first developed in the 1990s. Now an established …
Having established confessions of a design geek in 2010, Katie Treggiden has gone on to a career in design journalism, writing for titles such as The Guardian, The Telegraph, Elle Decoration, Stylist, Design Milk and Ideal Home. In 2014, she launched Fiera, an independent magazine dedicated to discovering new talent at the world’s design fairs. Her second book, Makers of East London, was published in 2015.
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