February 20th, 2009

Collecting Matter: Adventures In Magazineland

By Cara Brower

I’m a big believer in the power of friendships. When you have a best friend and you are both passionate about what you do creatively, you can achieve anything together. It’s like an unstoppable force. Or, at least, that’s what it feels like. Rachel was my best friend in design school at the University of Cincinnati. She was in Industrial Design and I was in Graphic, and we were full of enthusiasm, passion, and naiveté — the perfect combination for taking on anything.

It was the Christmas break before the last stretch of design school when I got an email from her. “Hey,” she said. “Got an idea for my thesis project. I want to make a proposal for an eco-design magazine. But not some old green granny crap. Mega dope shit.” Now, somewhere along the way, we scaled this idea up. Way up. No longer was this a mere thesis project but, instead, a full-fledged independent magazine launch. And why not? The concept was to launch a hip magazine for a generation of young, fresh designers that highlighted the most imaginative design. It also had to be eco-conscious. But not all in your face about it, simply using eco as a regular quality of good design.

In our minds it was a win-win situation for everybody. We could spread the word about cool young designers of our generation while mixing it up for the audience and advertisers by throwing in a few big peeps and making the world a better place through green design. During the process we got to skip working for the man by starting our own business. We were still at university, but in our minds we were sipping margaritas on the roof of our Brooklyn office. Genius.

Building the Foundations

Because neither one of us had any magazine or business experience, or THAT much practical experience, period, this was going to be a ground-up operation. But we weren’t about to let lack of “experience” knock us down and, besides, how much experience does one really need?

So Rachel and I created an identity for our magazine concept by figuring out who our audience was, who the competition was, and other ad-agency/business-y stuff like that. After a few gruelling sessions on thesaurus.com we christened the magazine Collected Matter, a name we thought sounded interesting, straight-forward, and not all in-your-face about being eco. I’m terrible with numbers, budgeting, and checking my account balance, so I was stoked that Rachel was on top of all that. Not that she was a business-planner extraordinaire, but her dad’s friend was a lawyer (somehow that was enough).

With a registered name and identity behind us we were now in full-fledged business partner mode. Behind the television in the living room we set up our “office,” which consisted of a plastic table with two unmatching plastic chairs. We were in overdrive and spent more and more time in the apartment, leaving only to hit essential classes and the grocery store. We were starting our days at eight and working til 1 or 2 in the morning, not even taking time to get out of our pajamas or brush our hair. We were feeling big time.

A Little Strength

With the addition of each contributor, we became more and more confident in our concept. We were gathering tons of material, but knew we had to get on the ball with the actual publishing part. We needed a little Strength.

Strength was a skateboarding magazine that a few of our friends had worked for in Cincinnati. It had started out independently and was distributed nationally, so we thought, “these are the guys to get some advice from.” Jeff, the intern-turned-editor who’d seen it from its beginnings, turned out to be amazingly helpful. He had tons of advice and answered all of our zero-experience questions without making us feel like idiots. He pointed us in the direction of a few good printers and told us how to figure out ad rates, etc. He even gave us a few dirty little tricks of the trade for beginners. His final words to us: “Best of luck and keep me posted! And hey, just so you know, this magazine stuff… it’s pretty damn tough! I’m serious. Make sure you are really, really up for this… It’s going to be hard as hell.” I had no idea.

85 Grand

Our next mission, in the fun world o’ budget land was to find out our printing costs. Fair enough. Now, part of the whole concept of this thing was being eco-consciousness so, obviously, this magazine had to be, at least, printed on recycled paper or the whole thing was going to be completely hypocritical. We wanted the whole eco shebang — non-toxic soy inks, wind-powered presses, that melty-biodegradable paper. I made up my dream list and got in touch with an eco printing rep in NYC. We were going to go for a 10,000 to 15,000 copy launch — all eco friendly. And then I got the numbers back — an $85,000 quote! Four times a year!

Needless to say, our jazzy printing rep in NYC didn’t hear from us again. We were moving on and cutting costs. Yes, we were shipping our business to good old Bob in Ohio. And maybe we could get some recycled paper with that? 40% recycled? Well. That’s better than nothing.

Excelling

Rachel had Microsoft Excel on her machine and I didn’t. Therefore, she was going to be in charge of this business-y stuff. We’d gotten our printing quote way down to what seemed like a semi-reasonable amount. We’d figured out our ad rates and now it was time to get down to business and sell some of these bitches.

I couldn’t recall in my mind how many times Rachel and I had had these conversations. “I mean, Nike, right? They are all about trying to eco up their image. I mean, they’d be so into this!” In our minds, we’d just pick up the phone and they’d already be on the other line with a blank check in hand. Later, after we’d called up every ad agency in America, we realized that people in business really were just that, in business. Maybe the CEO of these corporations cared about going eco, but Joe Schmo working the link in the chain closest to the telephone did not care about helping some first-time magazine. In a matter of weeks we had worked our choosy list of cool, eco-friendly corporations down to the recycled toilet paper brands. We had sold zero ads. Something needed to give.

Daddy Warbucks

It was a Friday afternoon and we had just gotten the last polite “no thanks” from our now-exhausted list of potential ad buyers. “What the Hell?” we thought. It had been half a year since we had blasted full-force into our project, investing an incredible (and over-achieving) amount of time and energy into our magazine endeavour. We had an amazing collection of contributors, everyone we’d asked had said, “yes,” no matter how big time they were. We didn’t get it. Well, we did: we had the skills, but when it came down to it, we couldn’t pay the bills. How the hell had Strength done it? Well, we’d found out that there had been a Daddy Warbucks. We did not have a Daddy Warbucks. Yet. Now that I recall this dark, dark period, I am sure that this was the closest to “loosing one’s grip on reality” as I have ever come.

The last granules of our dream were slipping through the cracks of our fingers. I didn’t see the bright lights and big magazine surrounding us. Instead, I saw Rachel’s messy pack-rat room. We had to do something; we couldn’t let all of our contributors down. Well, it was partly this, and it was partly fear of failing in general. All the work was done, we just needed someone to publish it! I mean, they didn’t have to do anything except fork out the money! But, who in the hell could we sell this thing to?

Our Competitor

Our so-called competitor? Maybe, just maybe, they would be interested in launching a younger, hipper magazine. So we dug up a copy of their magazine, looked in the table of contents, dialled the general number and asked for the big cheese. Was it really this easy? Yes. Yes it was.

And they really listened! They ended the conversation with “Well, it all sounds like you have a really good idea. I really will think about it and thank you for thinking of me.”

When Rachel hung up the phone we knew we would not hear back from them. Nor would we follow up because we had hit crazy level. It was time to get the hell out of the house and so we got dressed for the first time in weeks and took a walk. “I don’t know, Cara, I mean I don’t know if I can handle this! I need health insurance.” Good old health insurance. Whenever Rachel was having serious, SERIOUS doubts she brought up the old health insurance. I knew this was probably the end of our adventure in magazine-land. We had given it every last shot and for some reason we had hit wall after wall after wall. We needed to throw in the towel and admit defeat. Graduation was coming soon, so we decided just to enjoy our last week and then focus on getting REAL jobs. Real jobs. With health insurance.

But

But, of course, I knew we couldn’t REALLY give up. So we gathered up all of our “collected matter” into a book proposal, just to see what would happen and, like magic, I found the way around the walls. It was like realizing that you just had to turn left and you wouldn’t run smack into the crash barrier over and over and over again. So, Collected Matter became Experimental Eco Design and two year’s later was published all over the world by Rotovision. Of course, we worked nights and weekends getting it all together (after working our day jobs, Rachel’s with health insurance*), and going a little crazy in the meantime—but that is another story all together.

*Cara still has never had health insurance, even though she has worked real jobs now for several years.

Cara Brower randomly ended up in the graphic design program at the University of Cincinnati, mainly because it was the nearest big city to her small hometown in Kentucky. She was very excited when she later realized that it also happened to be a really good program. With its unique (and extremely long) 5 year co-operative program, Cara was able to gain a range of work experience with Doyle Partners, Landor Associates, Stoltze Design, Paul Sahre, and Open. After graduation, Cara returned to NYC to work at Scott Stowell’s Open as a certified designer. Since then she has also worked at MTV and Nickelodeon and in 2006 published “Collected Matter” as “Experimental Eco-Design”, with Rotovision. By the time this book has been published, she will have attended even more school and received her MA in Production Design at the Royal College of Art’s National Film and Television School. She may, or may not, still be living in London.

This essay first appeared in Never Sleep, a book written by Andre Andreev and G. Dan Covert, published by de.MO. Summary: There is a major disconnect between the life of a design student and the transition to being a design professional. To demystify the transition, we share the failures, successes, and surprises during our years in college and progression into the field: the creative process, monetary problems, internships, interviews, mistakes, and personal relationships.