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GX – A Magazine Designed For The National Guard Experience & Mr. Magazine’s™ Interview With The Man Who Watches Over That Design Proudly – Dustin McNeal, Senior Art Director at iostudio*

November 24, 2015

“I like being able to hold our product. All of the design is done on a computer in the digital space, but we even have a wall that we put up and place the printouts of the design on so that we can take a look. Even then these flat spreads are just single sheets of paper. It’s just a completely different experience when we get our advances in from the printer and we can actually flip through it and it’s a bound piece of work. It really comes together then in a way that, for me at least, is hard to replicate in a digital space.” Dustin McNeal

GX_11-5_Cover Taking care of the dignity and the reverence that is The National Guard is a job that iostudio takes very seriously. As part of the reserve components of the United States Armed Forces, The Guard has units from each state in the country and its stories of heroism and courage come from its service members on a regular basis. GX magazine, a product created by iostudio and the official magazine of the United States Army National Guard, brings the conviction of the Guard’s mission to the forefront with this publication.

Dustin McNeal is senior art director at iostudio and leads the marketing agency’s design staff. Dustin’s leadership and creativity has led to more than 30 industry awards for publication, advertising and book design, including the prestigious 2015 Folio Award for Design Team of the Year. Dustin leads the editorial design of GX magazine with a creative and loving hand.

I spoke with Dustin recently and quickly discovered that he combines his passion for the military with his passion for design, producing an excellence in contemporary editorial design which resulted in a best-in-class print magazine. He is a man who believes in every facet of the editorial design process and has a love for his work that won’t be denied. Not that he’d ever want to.

So, sit back, relax and enjoy this very fascinating discussion with a man who led his design team to win the 2015 Folio Award for Design Team of the Year, an achievement that isn’t easy to do. And now the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Dustin McNeal, Senior Art Director, iostudio.

But first, the sound-bites:


dustin_mcneal_7225 On winning the 2015 Folio Award for Design Team of the Year:
We normally send all of our entries into the custom publication categories and to be recognized as the best design team overall, for everyone, was quite a humbling experience. But it let us know that our work is definitely paying off and getting noticed.

On the day-to-day interaction of his design team with the editorial staff:
For something that editorial would maybe like to see in the design; they never hesitate at all to say – could we try this or try that. Similarly, with the design team, if we have something that just doesn’t seem to be working or if we have a great idea that would need the editorial team to maybe look at the copy a bit differently; it’s an easy request and most times both teams are really eager to work with each other to make something that could really stand out.

On a day in the professional life of Dustin McNeal:
Pretty much first thing in the morning our small teams get together for a review of what’s taken place since our last meeting the day before. And we talk about different stories and how they’re coming along; our different sources and our different writers; things that people are getting hung up on. We deal with an editorial slate and we kind of break that down into a tier calendar. We work on basically about a quarter of the magazine per week.

On the way the design team incorporates the photography with the typography:
We’re inspired by a lot of different things and a lot of different publications. Sometimes we push the envelope as to what we think our readership might be comfortable with, but we don’t push it far enough where it starts to have a disassociation with the content, especially on some of those articles where we’re dealing with a unit, a training event or an historical article.

On one design he and his team created that he’s most proud of:
Oh wow. We had an article that was a blowout kind of feature of a small article series called “Survival Skills” and in it the story would teach soldiers how to catch fish without a fishing line or a pole; how to start a fire in damp conditions, and things like that. So, we decided that we were going to have this feature where instead of one tip list; we’d have 15 or 20. All the different pieces; photography, illustrations, hands-on type, and all of the copy and the different blurbs; everything was at different lengths. It just came out beyond my expectations. And it was one of the pieces that we submitted for the Design Team of the Year nomination and I can’t say that it won it for us, but I would like to think personally that it was one among the collection that stuck with the judges.

On when he realized that design was in his future:
I’ve always been a doodler and liked to draw, starting around age five. We’ll be at my parents’ house and my mother will pull out some drawing I did with a red Magic Marker on a cardboard box top and I’ll ask her why she’s keeping such stuff. (Laughs) But the fact is I’ve always been interested in art. And it baffles my mom, because she doesn’t have a creative bone in her body. Around high school I got into my first art classes. I guess I was drawing in a particular way, it wasn’t exactly great at that time; I hadn’t had formal education, but something in that made the instructor say to me that I might want to look into graphic design and that I saw things in dynamic shapes and colors.

On whether he thinks all of iostudio’s success with GX magazine would have been possible without a printed edition, if they were only working within the digital space:
No, I’m really old school. I like being able to hold our product. All of the design is done on a computer in the digital space, but we even have a wall that we put up and place the printouts of the design on so that we can take a look. Even then these flat spreads are just single sheets of paper. It’s just a completely different experience when we get our advances in from the printer and we can actually flip through it and it’s a bound piece of work. It really comes together then in a way that, for me at least, is hard to replicate in a digital space.

On the one facet of design that excites him the most:
I’m a big color guy. A very close though would be contrast. It’s a very interesting thing; the type, you really have to focus on it to understand it. And images, they’re kind of an evolution of color, but for a purely basic mental stimulation, I think that color and contrast is really what grabs people.

On what motivates him to get out of bed in the morning: Our client, The National Guard, is one that is in no short supply of inspiring stories or individuals. And there’s a common insulation, just among the team, to know that our work on GX is possibly influencing the current and future generations of service members. The Guard soldier who can see their service celebrated in GX might consider extending that service.

On what keeps him up at night:
The client. As a custom publication there’s no one in our office making the final call on anything, so we can put together the absolute best product that you could imagine, but at the end of the day we send it up to The National Guard Bureau in D.C. for someone to review and they have to approve it. And our content has to be reflective of the Guard’s integrity.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Dustin McNeal, Senior Art Director, iostudio.


GX_12-3_Cover Samir Husni: Congratulations on your big win at this year’s Folio Awards; as senior art director of the iostudio team; well-deserved to all of you.

Dustin McNeal: Thank you.

Samir Husni: Tell me, when you heard the news that you’d won the overall design award over everyone else out there from all the other publications; what was your first reaction? I mean, it’s a very tough competition.

Dustin McNeal: A little bit of disbelief, I guess. I’m not always the most boastful person, so part of me was thinking why in the world, because as you may know that particular category was open to all entrants. It wasn’t exactly commercial, consumer, association or anything like that. We normally send all of our entries into the custom publication categories and to be recognized as the best design team overall, for everyone, was quite a humbling experience. But it let us know that our work is definitely paying off and getting noticed.

Samir Husni: As the lead designer; what value do you put on the design of the magazine and the day-to-day interaction with the editorial team?

Dustin McNeal: Our day-to-day interaction with the editorial team is quite close. We have a very small team; there are three people on the editorial side, including our editor-in-chief, Mark Shimabukuro, and then there are three on the design team. Many times we can do a quick turnaround on things just because of the close proximity, we sit back-to-back of each other, and the camaraderie that our team has with one another.

For something that editorial would maybe like to see in the design; they never hesitate at all to say – could we try this or try that. Similarly, with the design team, if we have something that just doesn’t seem to be working or if we have a great idea that would need the editorial team to maybe look at the copy a bit differently; it’s an easy request and most times both teams are really eager to work with each other to make something that could really stand out.

Samir Husni: Tell me a little bit more about your role as senior art director at iostudio. Describe a day in the professional life of Dustin McNeal.

Dustin McNeal: Pretty much first thing in the morning our small teams get together for a review of what’s taken place since our last meeting the day before. And we talk about different stories and how they’re coming along; our different sources and our different writers; things that people are getting hung up on. We deal with an editorial slate and we kind of break that down into a tier calendar. We work on basically about a quarter of the magazine per week. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. (Laughs) And that takes into account all of the time prior to that four-week schedule of writing assignments and that sort of thing.

We also kind of scatter it so that the editorial team will work on a set of stories and then they’ll have a two-design deadline and that usually takes place on a Friday. What that means is on Monday morning we should have everything that editorial worked on the week prior ready to go. And then we work on designing that quarter of the magazine during that week as well as working on the next quarter during that same time.

So, in those morning meetings, we’ll talk about which stories are ready for design; which stories may need a little more of a sit-down just to talk things out, whether it’s a story that has maybe veered away from our initial ideas or if there’s a change needed. We have an entire section of the magazine up toward the front of the book that deals with a lot of the more current news type things going on in the National Guard world. And you wouldn’t believe how often news changes, especially toward the end of the process when we have to constantly swap stories in and out of that section.

GX_11-6_WorkoutFeatureSpread After the morning meetings, designers will have their stories that are ready to go. And I’m a big proponent of you have to read the copy before you start any kind of design, before you try to fit any copy into a particular mold. They might come across something very inspiring that they want to try and match. They need to make sure the content will fit that mold and that they’re just not trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, so to speak.

A lot of times if they’re just simple one-page articles, the editorial staff has found a way to format those in a way that’s pretty straightforward, quick hitting and are really easy reads. We might support that with one piece of art versus the stories that are multiple pages and more in depth. For those type stories we might send a photographer or hire an illustrator to represent the art for us.

The biggest amount of research on our part is for our legacy features and the legacy section is once in every issue and it deals with the historical aspect of Guard service and that could mean a past conflict or battle, or a unit’s past achievements, or even the National Guard as a whole for an entire state. It’s quite fact-based and we have to typically pull a lot of historical images. We can usually find those either online through the U.S. National Archives or from different states’ historical associations. And then we also have a wonderful collection of contacts through state public affairs officers that we kind of partner with.

But just going through those and finding these images that correlate with the particular story that we’re telling; say we have a story on the 29th Infantry divisions of their role in the D-Day invasion of France; there are a lot of different D-Day images, but we have to make sure that the ones that we’re featuring are actually featuring the soldiers from the unit that we’re depicting in the editorial copy. And sometimes that can take a bit of legwork to make sure that you have the right images.

Samir Husni: You’re type of design, the role that you play at GX; the way that you incorporate the photography with the typography, has to also be historically relevant and accurate?

GX_11-4_SurvivalSkillsFeature5 Dustin McNeal: Correct. We’re inspired by a lot of different things and a lot of different publications. Sometimes we push the envelope as to what we think our readership might be comfortable with, but we don’t push it far enough where it starts to have a disassociation with the content, especially on some of those articles where we’re dealing with a unit, a training event or an historical article. You don’t want to have something that look like it just came out of Wired or something, and represented with those particular pieces of copy.

We just have to walk that line and go with things that are going to keep the readers engaged, but also choose something in reverence to the subject matter that we’re in charge of.

Samir Husni: If you were to pick one design; one story that you’ve done, and tell me that was the design that you take the most pride in that you and your team have created, and quite possibly is the one that resulted in your winning the 2015 Folio Award for Design Team of the Year; which would that be?

Dustin McNeal: Oh wow. We had an article that was a blowout kind of feature of a small article series called “Survival Skills” and in it the story would teach soldiers how to catch fish without a fishing line or a pole; how to start a fire in damp conditions, and things like that. So, we decided that we were going to have this feature where instead of one tip list; we’d have 15 or 20.

And for it I had an idea that we would try and combine equal weights of photography and illustration and sometimes that might not work out, but it was one that I was directly in talks with the illustrator, giving very detailed instructions on the type of style that I was wanting, thinking back on the old Boy Scout handbook illustrations, where they were more instructional looking.

And then I partnered up with a photographer here in our area. One of the great things about working at iostudio is that there’s no shortage of National Guard members on staff. So, we got a nice-looking guy and went out to the state park and shot the images to correlate with four of the tips that were going to be spread out through the feature.

GX_11-4_SurvivalSkillsFeature We had these rangers, one per spread, who talked about the things in the story, like traversing a river and catching wild game, topics like that. And we had all of these different kinds of tips around it and a lot of different things that were illustrated. And then I had the illustrator letter out the opening art and everything just sort of fell into place.

All the different pieces; photography, illustrations, hands-on type, and all of the copy and the different blurbs; everything was at different lengths. It just came out beyond my expectations. And it was one of the pieces that we submitted for the Design Team of the Year nomination and I can’t say that it won it for us, but I would like to think personally that it was one among the collection that stuck with the judges.

Samir Husni: When did you realize that design was in your future and it was what you wanted to do with your career?

Dustin McNeal: I’ve always been a doodler and liked to draw, starting around age five. We’ll be at my parents’ house and my mother will pull out some drawing I did with a red Magic Marker on a cardboard box top and I’ll ask her why she’s keeping such stuff. (Laughs) But the fact is I’ve always been interested in art. And it baffles my mom, because she doesn’t have a creative bone in her body.

Around high school I got into my first art classes. I guess I was drawing in a particular way, it wasn’t exactly great at that time; I hadn’t had formal education, but something in that made the instructor say to me that I might want to look into graphic design and that I saw things in dynamic shapes and colors. Before that, I was completely oblivious to what design was. Obviously, I saw it around me all of the time, but I didn’t really identify with it, such as this is a type of commercial art that I could do, and not commissioned-based art, where you’re doing things your own way and on your own time and trying to sell those, but this could be a job that I could do day in and day out.

You could pair that with my lifelong infatuation with publications. I’ve always been somewhat of a collector as well and I can remember probably back in middle school I had every issue of “Electronic Gaming Monthly,” I was big into video games as a kid. And this confused my mother, she couldn’t understand why I was keeping all of those magazines; she read them and then threw them out. But they meant so much more to me than that; it was almost like they were little collector items and I could go back and reference things that I had read in the past.

So, in college, fast-forwarding to that point, I went to school at kind of an odd time. It was right around 2000, the web was obviously gaining in importance, but as far as the curriculum at the school that I went to, it wasn’t quite moving at the pace that it needed to, so a lot of my art instruction was in the old style where you have your T-square and you’re doing hand-lettering and mock-ups with paper, exactos and all sorts of things. The desktop publishing course, which of course is basically what I do day in and day out, was actually taught through the Computer Science program and they had all sorts of prerequisites that I was never going to get through because of my bachelor of fine arts curriculum. But I had an instructor come to me and ask if I wanted to do the layout for an art and literary type zine and of course, I agreed because I wasn’t doing anything at the time. But that was my first experience with Adobe InDesign and that was still back in the day when the majority of folks were using Quark, but because I had the equivalent of the Creative Suite back then and I had to supply my own software to do the layout, I really got introduced to the program that I couldn’t live without today.

So, getting into the page layout and putting that little zine together, it just hearkened to something in the back of my mind that reminded me of all of those magazines that I was collecting as a child and I started getting interested in editorial design and publication design, things that I had been drawn to, but never dreamt that I would be able to do for myself. I knew that I was going into graphic design, but I guess that I didn’t put much thought into what it might become after school.

GX_11-1_Cover I got my first job in Nashville and it was at a book publisher-on-demand type company where out-of-print books and other items were sent and would basically get torn apart, the covers photographed, all the pages scanned and then put back together again. And I was on the quality assurance team that would go in and look at the image of the covers and compare the originals to the ones the designers would basically create with Photoshop. We had these crazy large libraries filled with hundreds of thousands of colors and I would take color samples and try to match them; it was very monotonous work. I don’t want to say that it wasn’t fulfilling, but my creative drive was beyond that.

It just so happened as I was being considered for a permanent hire, I get a call that there was a company looking for someone to help with magazine design. I didn’t hesitate; I was saying yes, I’ll be in and we’ll talk, this has got to work out. And I had to let the other company know that I was going to go off and do something else.

And of course the company needing magazine design help was iostudio and this was eight or nine years ago. And then we started working with GX magazine. Even from the point that I came in at as a beginning designer, the magazine has changed so much. We used to get copy from public affairs officers, plus we had a couple of staff writers and other projects in the company as we were trying to get the ad agency going. But it was people trying to do a bunch of different jobs as we were starting up. We had to rely heavily on outside sources to put the magazine together.

Fast-forwarding through the years, we hired an art director named Laurel Petty and I really attribute her as being one of my best mentors, especially when coming up through editorial design and through GX. GX was the only magazine that I had ever known, but she’d come from a background where she had worked in D.C. and New York and all sorts of places. She showed me what true art direction was through editorial design. I learned so much from her and I received a promotion to senior designer and then when Laurel decided that she was going to go back to school in Chicago, that was when the opportunity came up for me to move into the art director position.

By that time, I had already established all kinds of creative goals and aesthetics that I wanted to shift the magazine toward and it was quite a change. Laure ended up moving on at a really good point, because it was at the very end of one volume and we were ramping up for the new volume.

I don’t particularly like to make major changes in the middle of the year; I try to make any significant changes between December and January. So it was me and another designer and we put our heads together, worked hard and came up with this new visual language for GX that really kicked things off for us to see the success that we have over the last couple of years.

Samir Husni: Do you think all of that success would have been possible without a printed edition of GX, if you were only working with digital?

Dustin McNeal: For myself? No, I’m really old school. I like being able to hold our product. All of the design is done on a computer in the digital space, but we even have a wall that we put up and place the printouts of the design on so that we can take a look. Even then these flat spreads are just single sheets of paper. It’s just a completely different experience when we get our advances in from the printer and we can actually flip through it and it’s a bound piece of work. It really comes together then in a way that, for me at least, is hard to replicate in a digital space.

I think just having pages with copy and art on them takes me back to those relationships that I had with magazines in my youth, where you can hold onto them and reference back to an article if you need or want to. For me, it’s a lot easier to go to our layout room where we have shelves and shelves of old GX’s, but we also have shelves and shelves of reference materials from other magazines that we use and subscribe to so that we can look at for inspiration or something like that. And for me, I just can’t get that in a purely digital space.

Samir Husni: People may think I’m speaking with an older person with your media philosophy; how old are you, Dustin?

Dustin McNeal: I’m 33.

Samir Husni: And you’re referencing the good old days. (Laughs)

Dustin McNeal: (Laughs too).

Samir Husni: What excites you more in design: color, pictures, typography, white space; if you could name only one thing about the art of design that really gets your creative juices flowing, what would it be?

Dustin McNeal: I’m a big color guy. A very close though would be contrast. It’s a very interesting thing; the type, you really have to focus on it to understand it. And images, they’re kind of an evolution of color, but for a purely basic mental stimulation, I think that color and contrast is really what grabs people.

Samir Husni: What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?

GX_12-5_IntelOpener Dustin McNeal: Our client, The National Guard, is one that is in no short supply of inspiring stories or individuals. And there’s a common insulation, just among the team, to know that our work on GX is possibly influencing the current and future generations of service members. The Guard soldier who can see their service celebrated in GX might consider extending that service. And because of that choice they may be the ones contributing aid after a natural disaster in our hometown or fighting a wildfire that’s endangering a relative’s home on another coast.

And we’re also creative professionals who just love and enjoy the process of seeing an issue come to life on our production wall. We love to be inspired by work from others, whether that’s from other publications, web designs, or photography and we think about how we can implement those things that we find ourselves enamored with into the magazine in a way that pays off for the readership.

You have to love what you do and it might be a little easier to do that when you’re working in a creative job. And with our editorial team, we have such a strong relationship that we can usually power through anything that comes up. It’s a very rewarding job.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Dustin McNeal: The client. As a custom publication there’s no one in our office making the final call on anything, so we can put together the absolute best product that you could imagine, but at the end of the day we send it up to The National Guard Bureau in D.C. for someone to review and they have to approve it. And our content has to be reflective of the Guard’s integrity.

That’s really the only thing that keeps me up at night is making sure that our client is going to be happy with our work and is pleased.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

*Truth in reporting: I am a publishing consultant with iostudio but was not involved with this design award for the magazine.

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