Case Study by Paddy Harrington RGD, Frontier
Frontier is a magazine, design studio and ventures group based in Toronto founded by Paddy Harrington RGD in 2014. Paddy was formerly Executive Creative Director at Bruce Mau Design and SVP Design Innovation & Digital Creative Director at Indigo.
Frontier Magazine explores and celebrates the risks people take in the process of creating something original and worthwhile. The magazine was launched in the spring of 2015 with a web only edition. The process of creating our inaugural print edition began in June 2015 and was finished in November. As a team, none of us came from a publication design background, but we all came with deep experience in content design for digital, environmental and brand design contexts. What it really came down to was a common goal to offer a behind the scenes look at the design process of some of our favourite global projects and the risks people took to create them.
The main objective of Frontier Magazine is to help readers from outside the creative industry become more comfortable with the inherent risks associated with creative endeavours. We think the world needs more creatively minded people. But we also have more practical goals:
- To uncover the passion and risk necessary for any creative endeavour.
- To create engaging, thoughtful, quality content in a multi-platform experience.
- To build a sustainable editorial platform as an integral part of our studio culture and business model.
Each issue is centred around a theme. This first issue’s theme, Beginnings, explores stories of creative exploration spanning the business, design, startup and technology industries.
Stories from this issue include:
- An inside look at the design process of the new WayHome Music & Arts Festival
- A photo essay by renowned photographer Cristina de Middel
- An interview with Charles Adler, Kickstarter co-founder
- A survey of startups from Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District
- An introduction to a new ambitious project to create the world's best toque
Some companies have separate magazine and studio brands. For example, Monocle is a magazine produced by the agency Winkreative. Frontier is an attempt to capture all of our activities under one umbrella. Our company is about creative exploration in all its forms:
- The magazine: to research and explore the world around us.
- The studio: to work with clients on their projects as designers and collaborators.
- The ventures: to work on self-initiated projects where we design things we believe should exist in the world.
As a startup of six people, building a new magazine while also working with client was as scary as it was exciting. With such a small team, success depended on everyone contributing to the key elements of the project in terms of both content creation and design.
We began by brainstorming on the theme, format and content for the magazine. The team was made aware of the progress every step of the way with updates on the development of stories, the roadblocks we encountered, exciting new ideas or opportunities and the completion of design work.
We assigned two team members to focus on project management and editorial development. Our design director focused on the overall vision and design system, working closely with our designers to bring it to life. Everyone helped source, research and write stories, conduct interviews, establish partnerships and develop advertising, including assisting with business planning, digital community management and circulation planning, as well as working on website enhancements for editorial and e-commerce functionality. We used the same project design and management boards that we use for our client work to track the process and once the content began to take shape, we made a mock-up board of the entire magazine to visualize the final product. Throughout the process, we shared our accomplishments and what we learned over social media by sharing snapshots into what we were working on via instagram and twitter.
In terms of design, our team became obsessed with creating a magazine that had its own internal logic that was also a reflection of our brand. With our layout system, we sought to balance clarity and variety. Clarity came through the rigorous design system that could coherently hold diverse subject matter, while variety was achieved through special elements like the Feature article where all rules could be broken for the sake of the content.
The cover was a heated debate up until the last possible moment. We wanted to create something that really stood out visually, while also begging the viewer to touch and hold it. We worked tirelessly with printer Flash Reproductions to test different imagery, paper stocks, inks and processes. Flash was an invaluable resource and were more than willing to experiment throughout the process. In the end, we landed on what we felt to be an iconic image from our WayHome Festival feature.
1. Starting a fan base from scratch.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for starting any publication is not having a readership or partnership base. Getting the first magazine seen by the public eye is a huge obstacle when no one knows who you are. With the goal of producing more issues of the magazine, we knew that community development would be crucial to keep the project going. We decided to focus on our own circles of influence to build our community. We built partnerships with organizations like RGD and MaRS to help us tell the story to a larger audience. In return, we designed what we call our “Blue Pages” to tell our partners' stories. These pages are essentially our way of doing ads. The format, layout and colour are all signals to the reader that they are reading an ad, but we make every effort to make sure that ad content is relevant. For instance, we asked RGD, “What do you need to know when beginning work with a designer?” This allowed us to design the ads ourselves based on the partner’s own story, while still providing interesting content to the reader.
2. Prioritizing an internal project.
With many client projects on the go, it was often difficult to maintain momentum for the magazine. We realized that we had to find ways to treat our own project like a client project. To do so, we built project management boards alongside our client boards to track the process. We used these boards in our weekly team meetings, after which every team member was assigned action items and deliverables. We scheduled time to work on the project and milestone goals. Since this was the first time any of us had built a magazine, we realized some of our initial goals were aggressive. Since we had already built an outline for the process to print, we allowed ourselves to reassess milestones as we learned.
Though well rounded in our design expertise across the whole team, we lacked experience working in magazines, specifically the journalistic and organizational elements involved. To help us, we brought in editors and journalists to consult on process and ethics, as well as provide overall editorial guidance. This expertise was invaluable to the quality of the final product, in terms of both content and management. Involving people with experience and being open to what they have to say is never a bad idea.
Frontier Magazine, Issue 1, Beginnings, was officially launched to the public on November 15th in conjunction with RGD's DesignThinkers Conference in Toronto. When the first box of magazines arrived hot off the press, our team had a little celebration to commemorate the work. As with any print project, it was incredibly satisfying to finally hold it in our hands.
At the launch, we received feedback on how impressed everyone was with the quality of both the content and the magazine’s overall design. In the weeks following the launch, we have had many people reach out to us about contributing to upcoming issues and we are working to stock the magazine in a variety of shops across Canada and in the United States.
On the digital side, readers can now purchase Frontier Magazine on our website at www.frontier.is
On the studio side, the magazine has allowed us to tap into new communities via the stories in the magazine, while demonstrating the diverse capabilities of our team. We’re already looking forward to the next issue, which we have begun brainstorming for and will be out in 2016.
- Learn from the best. A magazine is a well-explored medium; there are countless versions in the world and it’s safe to say there’s likely nothing new under the sun at this point in terms of design. With that said, you will do yourself a disservice by not looking around at examples of beautiful and interesting editorial design before exploring your own. We looked over countless magazine examples and discussed as a group what we loved and didn’t love. This helped the team better understand the tone we were trying to achieve with the design even before we created a single sketch.
- Build a relationship with a printer. We worked closely with Flash Reproductions to decide on the physical format and various printing processes used for the final product. We worked with them to the point where they really became part of the team and worked through design challenges with us as we encountered them together. Because they are now integrated into the process, it will be much easier to hit the ground running on the next issue so we can all focus on how to make the work even better.
- Don’t fear what you don’t know. Creating a magazine from scratch was a first for our whole team. For many, this sense of naivety can feel like a weakness, in some cases preventing the pursuit of something new and unexplored. We really embraced what our magazine is all about and ventured into the unknown with this one. Our freshness gave us permission to ask questions (even the silly ones) from the outset and we learned much faster as a result. Being new to the format also meant that we would naturally pursue a project from a different perspective than the status quo, creating something unique and unexpected as a result.
- Know your focus. In building content and design, we determined one key filter that guided all of our decisions: “Is this about creative risktaking?” This helped us stick to our plan and make the right choices when the answer didn’t always seem clear.
- Look beyond the first issue. As this is Issue 1 of many for Frontier Magazine, we are always thinking about how our work and actions today build a base for our future. It’s a lot of work to build one magazine, but with one under our belt, we now have something we didn't have before—a model that can be replicated and refined and hopefully pushed much further.
- Enjoy the process. This was a passion project for our team, that we are working to build into a greater part of our business. There are always going to be ups and downs when doing something new, but we took the time to celebrate the many little wins along the way. It was a meaningful project that brought our team closer together. It also provided an opportunity for us to celebrate our team, contributors, partners and audience.
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