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Skaaren Design: Editorial & Good Design – What Magazine Making Has Brought Together, Let No Shrinking Budget Put Asunder – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Cody Skaaren, Creative Director & Designer, Skaaren Design

July 28, 2016

Ethisphere Cover Award Winner“I think budgets have shrunk a little bit and a lot of people are interested in digital magazines over print magazines; we get a lot of calls and a lot of interest in doing digital magazines. I think they believe it’s going to be much cheaper, but when they dig into it and realize how much a digital magazine actually costs to do right; basically the same price except the advertising isn’t as expensive. You can’t make as much money on advertising with a digital edition as you can in a print edition, for the most part. So, I see a lot of interest, but I see a lot of interest wane once they get into it. I think people kind of see digital magazines like a website, where it’s not going to cost much money.” Cory Skaaren

 “I find that working closely with the client is almost a necessity. So many people want to hire you and just tell you to do what you do and that’s just a recipe for disaster. We always try and sit down, and I can’t use the word education enough, and educate our clients, and not just about the business of magazines themselves, sometimes they know that kind of stuff, but I really like to talk about the process of design and setting up a magazine that is great, but giving it room to evolve. And, I want to know certain things too. I really need to understand the editorial model. If we’re not a part of creating the editorial model, then I want to understand why the editorial model is the way it is. Why they’re writing the kind of articles they are. I want a 360 degree understanding of that magazine or I can’t design it.” Cory Skaaren

What is good design? According to Cory Skaaren of Skaaren Design in Phoenix, Arizona, good design is the marriage of all elements of the process. From the editorial to the original photography, to the typography and the illustrations; good design is more than filling 96 pages and calling it a completed magazine. There is the flow and the feel; the life of the content that literally breathes from the pages. And Mr. Magazine™ would definitely agree. The magazine is certainly a living, breathing entity.

cory_portrait_01_111213I spoke with Cory recently and we talked about the genetics that make a healthy magazine; one that’s not only easy to absorb, but also highly successful. After 20 years in the design and visual communication business, Cory makes it abundantly clear that narrative is everything. The stories are as much a part of the design as the grids are. And it’s definitely a marriage made in heaven when it’s done right.

From Kono, a martial arts magazine for children, to Ethisphere, a quarterly magazine that’s dedicated to information on ethical leadership for CEO’s, directors and other business professionals, to Beyond Cinema, all about the film industry; Cory has experienced great design firsthand, his own. With Skaaren Design he works with many new magazines as he designs, consults and shares how important the art of storytelling really is to good design.

So, I hope that you enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ interview with a man who knows good design is much more than lines and grids, Cory Skaaren, Creative Director & Designer, Skaaren Design.

But first the sound-bites:

On the difference between how design and creativity are implemented today versus prior to the digital explosion: I think budgets have shrunk a little bit and a lot of people are interested in digital magazines over print magazines; we get a lot of calls and a lot of interest in doing digital magazines. I think they believe it’s going to be much cheaper, but when they dig into it and realize how much a digital magazine actually costs to do right; basically the same price except the advertising isn’t as expensive. You can’t make as much money on advertising with a digital edition as you can in a print edition, for the most part.

On whether all of these changes are helping or hurting the creative industry: Well, I guess I think it’s hurting it. We just have to keep justifying the importance of the psychological effect of good art and good design and good flow. I work with a lot of people who are doing a magazine for the first time, so we’re ushering them through the process. And I think sometimes part of the reason why they decided to do a magazine was because they thought it was going to be cheap because they’ve heard about stock photography and all of these things that are easy and fast and relatively cheap to get.

On whether he encourages or discourages people who have no magazine experience when they come to him with an idea for a new launch: Some of the best experiences I’ve had with people and magazines are newcomers to the publishing space because you’re kind of starting clean with them and you can explain things and as long as they’re reasonable, I think you can get to the heart of the matter pretty quickly.

On a few determinates that are a must in today’s creative design marketplace: Being a designer I really don’t work on magazines that don’t have an art budget. I think original photography and original art is vital to just the life of the magazine. That’s probably a pretty cliché answer, but I also think editorial structure and the flow of the magazine is something that’s very important and a lot of people don’t even consider, going back to the people who are entering publishing for the first time, it’s surprising sometimes that they don’t understand the very basics of the front of the book and the back of the book, and the well, things like that.

On how he made the transition from starting out drawing comic books to designing magazines: I was in college; I was going to design school and I was doing the cartoon for a local nightlife magazine in Phoenix, Arizona. I was basically a glorified intern; I really hadn’t designed anything of note. I had just been an illustrator. Late one night I walked into the office to turn in my cartoon and the publisher’s wife was there and she said that the art director had just quit and asked me to design the magazine. And I just said yes because that’s what we were taught to do; you never said no. So, the next day I started designing the magazine.

On the biggest stumbling block that he’s had to face and how he overcame it: I really believe in the importance of good design. Obviously I see, even though I’m a writer and I’m probably more hands-on with my magazines than a lot of “creative directors” are, we help direct and create editorial. A lot of the magazines that we’ve done over the last 10 years, we helped create and launch. But getting people to understand the importance of good design and spending money on good design; and when I say design I’m including illustration and photography and good writers even for that matter. And I think the only way to truly overcome that is to spend a lot of time with the client educating them on what makes a magazine good.

On his most pleasant moment: When you find a client who really understands and who wants to build something with you; that’s great. And they’re in it for the long haul; that’s when magic really happens. My favorite thing about doing a magazine, obviously besides the design and working with illustrators is working with the editor and working with the editor in chief. During the production of one of our magazines, I’m probably on the phone with an editor in chief almost every day, talking about things, going over articles; what we can do to make them better; what information we can add to make the content better.

Kono BatsOn which of the magazines that he works on he would use as an example to a potential client: I think the best magazine that I ever worked on was Kono magazine, which was a martial arts magazine for kids. But it was really a kid’s lifestyle magazine. That magazine just had a lot of life and it caught on with the readership very quickly. We broke almost all of the rules of magazine design; we didn’t have a baseline grid. The whole magazine was designed as if a kid made it.

On the new magazine he’s launching this summer: We’re launching a new magazine called Hyper and it’s kind of a continuation of what we did with Kono. Even though we built Kono from the ground up, Kono wasn’t my idea. Kono was an idea of two guys who were in the martial arts industry and who realized that every kid in the United States took martial arts at some point in their lives. It’s actually one of the largest sports for kids in the United States; more kids are in martial arts than football or little league baseball. And there are around 35,000 martial arts schools across the United States. And they didn’t have a media platform.

On what motivates him to get out of bed in the morning: It’s a challenge sometimes, because doing magazines, and we’re doing four magazines right now, so there’s always a magazine to do. A lot of time magazines can kind of weigh on your psyche a little bit because there’s no respite from it. There’s so much to do that you finish one and the next one just starts; you don’t even get a breath sometimes. I think the challenge of just getting it right is enough for me. I take it very seriously that someone has decided to give me a fair amount of money to design their magazine.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up one evening unexpectedly at his home: I’m probably watching a movie on Apple TV.

On what keeps him up at night: Print deadlines. (Laughs) Print deadlines and the million unknowns that can happen overnight. One of the dangerous things about being an outside counsel to clients is you’re not in the room with their employees, so a lot of discussions take place on their side of the fence that you’re not privy to. So, sometimes you wake up to a decision and that decision could go either way; it could be an amazing decision or it could be a bad decision. And sometimes you have to spend the time to walk them back from that or you just have to change course or go with it.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Cory Skaaren, Creative Director & Designer, Skaaren Design.

Samir Husni: You’ve been a creative director for some time now; what do you think are the major changes in design and creativity when it comes to print, before 2007, and after 2007? Do you feel that there’s been a line drawn in the sand; this is how we used to do it and this is how we do it now?

Cory Skaaren: Yes, I think there is a difference. May I ask why you chose the year 2007?

Samir Husni: That’s when the Smartphone arrived on the scene, and then in 2010 here came the tablet. Supposedly, that was the beginning of the digital explosion, which actually hit in 2009.

Cory Skaaren: I think budgets have shrunk a little bit and a lot of people are interested in digital magazines over print magazines; we get a lot of calls and a lot of interest in doing digital magazines. I think they believe it’s going to be much cheaper, but when they dig into it and realize how much a digital magazine actually costs to do right; basically the same price except the advertising isn’t as expensive. You can’t make as much money on advertising with a digital edition as you can in a print edition, for the most part. So, I see a lot of interest, but I see a lot of interest wane once they get into it. I think people kind of see digital magazines like a website, where it’s not going to cost much money.

But I think the bigger thing is just the rise in popularity of these design element sites, like Creative Market and obviously stock photography just gets cheaper and cheaper every year. I really have to struggle to get people to spend money on original art and original photography sometimes.

BC Hawke SingleSamir Husni: Do you think that all of these changes, including the budgets and the tightening of the budgets and this myth that people can go digital and will not cost them anything to print or to distribute; is this helping the creative industry or hurting?

Cory Skaaren: Well, I guess I think it’s hurting it. We just have to keep justifying the importance of the psychological effect of good art and good design and good flow. I work with a lot of people who are doing a magazine for the first time, so we’re ushering them through the process. And I think sometimes part of the reason why they decided to do a magazine was because they thought it was going to be cheap because they’ve heard about stock photography and all of these things that are easy and fast and relatively cheap to get, and you kind of have to walk them back from that a bit and talk them into spending a little more money so that they’re investing in something that people will actually care about in the long term.

Samir Husni: If someone came to you today and told you they were starting a new magazine, would you encourage or discourage them in today’s market? They have no background in magazines whatsoever, just that fascination that they have an idea no one else has ever had and they want to launch this new magazine.

Cory Skaaren: Some of the best experiences I’ve had with people and magazines are newcomers to the publishing space because you’re kind of starting clean with them and you can explain things and as long as they’re reasonable, I think you can get to the heart of the matter pretty quickly.

But I do say this is not a short-term way to make money. I tell them if you want to make money in publishing, it’s going to take a lot of infrastructure and a lot of building and it’s a long-term investment and depending on, obviously their industry and what they want to accomplish with their magazine, I give them a general ballpark of what it’s going to cost.

And reasonable people understand that and they thank you for being honest with them and then there’s some people that you can’t reason with and they’re just going to go to someone else and they’re not going to be around after their third issue.

So, it’s a pro and con there, but I’m a big believer that part of my job is to usher the client through the process of any design project, whether it be a logo design, a magazine design, or anything, and try to get them to think about it a little differently and how we can do it; get more bang for our buck, because that’s a big deal today. And how to do it faster and easier, because let’s face it, there are a lot of hands in the pot when it comes to magazine design, or magazine creation, I guess.

Getting all those people on one page and getting people to focus on their jobs; that can save a client a lot of money just by developing a creative process that works within their structure and allows us to do the magazine without 400 revisions for every page.

Samir Husni: If you were to have a formula; although I know that in the business of design there’s no such thing as formulas, but if you were to come up with some determinates that you think makes a good design for a print magazine and its website in today’s marketplace, could you name two or three things that are a must?

Ethisphere-MagazineCory Skaaren: Being a designer I really don’t work on magazines that don’t have an art budget. I think original photography and original art is vital to just the life of the magazine. That’s probably a pretty cliché answer, but I also think editorial structure and the flow of the magazine is something that’s very important and a lot of people don’t even consider, going back to the people who are entering publishing for the first time, it’s surprising sometimes that they don’t understand the very basics of the front of the book and the back of the book, and the well, things like that.

I have loved magazines since I was a child. I started in this business in comic books, so that story structure meant a lot to me, so whenever I picked up a book in my formative years, the impact of how that story was structured meant a lot to me, and the comfortability of a reader being able to pick up any issue of Rolling Stone and going right to the movie reviews or right to the music reviews; that consistency and quality over time, that’s really what I drill into them from the first meeting.

Samir Husni: I too fell in love with comics. Those were my magazines when I was growing up in Lebanon. The storyline; the whole aspect from A to Z was what moved me into this magazine direction. Where did you grow up?

Cory Skaaren: I grew up in Minnesota, but my first job in this business was drawing comic books.

Samir Husni: How did you make the transition from drawing comic books to designing magazines?

Cory Skaaren: I was in college; I was going to design school and I was doing the cartoon for a local nightlife magazine in Phoenix, Arizona. I was basically a glorified intern; I really hadn’t designed anything of note. I had just been an illustrator. Late one night I walked into the office to turn in my cartoon and the publisher’s wife was there and she said that the art director had just quit and asked me to design the magazine. And I just said yes because that’s what we were taught to do; you never said no. So, the next day I started designing the magazine. I had never designed a magazine before. I thought I understood magazines, but that magazine was horrible. I did a horrible job designing it. They paid for my education in print production and how to set up Quark. This was back in the day of Quark XPress.

So, that’s how I got into it; really by accident. Coming from comic books, I really and truly understood the structure of a story; how to illustrate a story; how to create a flow through 84 pages. I just kind of got onto it. And what I realized living in a town like Phoenix, which is certainly not the publishing capital of the world, there was a lot of magazines being published out of here at the time and I was someone who had some experience, so I just slowly started doing it. And now it’s about 50% of my business.

Samir Husni: What’s the other 50%?

Cory Skaaren: Mainly branding and brand consulting. But we do a little bit of everything.

Samir Husni: What has been the biggest stumbling block that you’ve had to face and how did you overcome it?

Cory Skaaren: I really believe in the importance of good design. Obviously I see, even though I’m a writer and I’m probably more hands-on with my magazines than a lot of “creative directors” are, we help direct and create editorial. A lot of the magazines that we’ve done over the last 10 years, we helped create and launch. But getting people to understand the importance of good design and spending money on good design; and when I say design I’m including illustration and photography and good writers even for that matter.

And I think the only way to truly overcome that is to spend a lot of time with the client educating them on what makes a magazine good, and how that affects the bottom line, and so many of them believe that if they make it, readers will come. And so many go into it with the idea that all they have to do is get that first issue printed and the advertisers will come flocking. It’s a pretty rude awakening when that doesn’t happen.

Samir Husni: What has been the most pleasant moment for you during your career?

Cory Skaaren: When you find a client who really understands and who wants to build something with you; that’s great. And they’re in it for the long haul; that’s when magic really happens. My favorite thing about doing a magazine, obviously besides the design and working with illustrators is working with the editor and working with the editor in chief. During the production of one of our magazines, I’m probably on the phone with an editor in chief almost every day, talking about things, going over articles; what we can do to make them better; what information we can add to make the content better. Those are the things that I really enjoy. I enjoy creating content and then visually realizing it.

I find that working closely with the client is almost a necessity. So many people want to hire you and just tell you to do what you do and that’s just a recipe for disaster. We always try and sit down, and I can’t use the word education enough, and educate our clients, and not just about the business of magazines themselves, sometimes they know that kind of stuff, but I really like to talk about the process of design and setting up a magazine that is great, but giving it room to evolve.

And, I want to know certain things too. I really need to understand the editorial model. If we’re not a part of creating the editorial model, then I want to understand why the editorial model is the way it is. Why they’re writing the kind of articles they are. I want a 360 degree understanding of that magazine or I can’t design it. And it’s hard to do that long-distance.

And there are a lot of litmus tests that people need to pass before they get into the magazine business. I think that’s one of the big misunderstandings. Publishing is still kind of sexy; owning a magazine is kind of sexy. And it gives you entrée into a lot of things and people get caught up into that, but they don’t realize that they’re going to lose money for a fair amount of time. And they have to have a decent enough runway to let the magazine be successful. And that’s a challenge.

Kono was a very interesting business model, because what we did was create our own distribution model. I think we put about 8 to 10,000 magazines on the newsstands and we sold individual subscriptions. But the bulk of our sales, because the martial arts industry didn’t have a media platform, we would print the magazines and then martial arts schools would buy them from us in bulk and give them to their students as a retention tool. In one year we went from; the first magazine we printed, I think we sold 60,000 copies, by issue #10; we were selling 275,000 copies per issue. We were actually profitable in 10 issues, but it was a very non-traditional hands-on approach to it.

Samir Husni: I’m a potential client and I have a magazine idea, so I ask you to send me a sample from all the things you’ve done, which magazine would you send me?

Cory Skaaren: I think the best magazine that I ever worked on was Kono magazine, which was a martial arts magazine for kids. But it was really a kid’s lifestyle magazine. That magazine just had a lot of life and it caught on with the readership very quickly. We broke almost all of the rules of magazine design; we didn’t have a baseline grid. The whole magazine was designed as if a kid made it. The demographic was like 6 to 12. So, we kind of went at the design with the mindset that if a kid who was 6 to 12-years-old designed their own magazine, what would it look like? We designed the entire magazine out of clipped paper and things were taped and pinned to the pages; it was very interactive.

I think that I would show that only because it showcases thinking outside the box and not everything has to be based on a grid system. It really ignored all of those traditional rules of magazine design.

Samir Husni: You said you were in the process of launching a new magazine this summer, could you tell me about it?

Cory Skaaren: We’re launching a new magazine called Hyper and it’s kind of a continuation of what we did with Kono. Even though we built Kono from the ground up, Kono wasn’t my idea. Kono was an idea of two guys who were in the martial arts industry and who realized that every kid in the United States took martial arts at some point in their lives. It’s actually one of the largest sports for kids in the United States; more kids are in martial arts than football or little league baseball. And there are around 35,000 martial arts schools across the United States. And they didn’t have a media platform.

Kono, unfortunately, was kind of shut down due to the recession. It was a very successful magazine, but we were so new that we couldn’t really survive that. So, Hyper is a continuation of that, but we’re gearing it more toward a slightly older demographic, like 12 to 16-year-olds. We’re taking everything we learned from Kono and putting it into an older demographic.

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

Cory Skaaren: It’s a challenge sometimes, because doing magazines, and we’re doing four magazines right now, so there’s always a magazine to do. A lot of time magazines can kind of weigh on your psyche a little bit because there’s no respite from it. There’s so much to do that you finish one and the next one just starts; you don’t even get a breath sometimes.

I think the challenge of just getting it right is enough for me. I take it very seriously that someone has decided to give me a fair amount of money to design their magazine. You and I both know that magazines are not cheap, so to have that faith and hand over that money and say to me, do the best job you can and get it right is something that I take so seriously that it almost drives me crazy.

And I think that there are so many challenges in there because if you’re a designer magazines are really a boot camp for design, because everything is in there. There’s typography, photography, editorial, copy fitting; you name it and it’s in there. And it all has to be functioning. We never get it 100% right, I don’t think. But maybe that’s just me never being happy with it, but there’s always some challenge to every issue, no matter how many issues of the same magazine that you do; there’s always something that can be improved or that you didn’t quite have the time to get 100% right, and that’s the challenge for the next issue. So, I think that drive to just get it right is what keeps me going.

Samir Husni: If I showed up one evening unexpectedly to your home, what would I find you doing; reading a magazine, reading your iPad, watching television, or something else?

Cory Skaaren: I’m probably watching a movie on Apple TV.

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

Cory Skaaren: Print deadlines. (Laughs) Print deadlines and the million unknowns that can happen overnight. One of the dangerous things about being an outside counsel to clients is you’re not in the room with their employees, so a lot of discussions take place on their side of the fence that you’re not privy to. So, sometimes you wake up to a decision and that decision could go either way; it could be an amazing decision or it could be a bad decision. And sometimes you have to spend the time to walk them back from that or you just have to change course or go with it.

So, that really keeps me up at night. Sometimes I wonder: what’s being talked about right now that’s going to affect my day tomorrow that I’m not going to know about until it’s too late.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

 

 

 

 

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