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The New Republic: The Legacy Brand Debuts A Redesign That Integrates Authority With Intellectual Playfulness – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Chris Lehman, Editor & Pentagram Design Firm Partner, Eddie Opara…

March 11, 2020

“With this redesign, what Eddie Opara and his team at Pentagram understood were the key, defining qualities of The New Republic as a media property. He has highlighted a sense of authority; a sense of intellectual playfulness, incisiveness, and broadly speaking, what The New Republic has represented over the past century-plus. And I do think because of the destabilizing points such as what you mentioned, fake and alternative news, there is a greater need than ever for publications that can speak to an intellectually engaged and politically positive audience with some wealth of experience, a commitment to politics as a form of ideas.”… Chris Lehman

“I knew of The New Republic previously and of course that it is 106-years-old. When we started looking at the magazine from a redesign perspective, it obviously had so much heritage. There were certain degrees of change over the course of time, as it moved from different publishers and owners. And at one particular point, multiple hands had worked on it and molded it into a design that didn’t salute to where it came from, from a visual standpoint or in its sense of global engagement. We wanted to go back through history, look at all the values that The New Republic held then and now, and make sure it aligned today with how we look toward the future.” … Eddie Opara

When it comes to legacy brands the 106-year-old magazine, The New Republic, certainly qualifies. Over the years the title has seen many incarnations, from progressiveness to conservatism to what it is today under the guidance of its editor Chris Lehmann, a reinvention of feisty political commentary that leans decidedly to the left.

With Chris celebrating a little over a year at the helm, and the magazine back in its place of political journalistic authority, it became obvious it was also time for a redesign of everything New Republic: the magazine, a new metered paywall for its website and  the launch of a politics-focused podcast. And when it came to the actual design of the redesign, Chris turned to Eddie Opara, a partner in the independent design firm, Pentagram, and a man who could see everything Chris had in mind visually for The New Republic. (TNR)

I spoke with Chris and Eddie recently and we talked about this new redesign and the web relaunch where they will be launching a series of online verticals that focus coverage on what’s going on today, from climate change to national politics and culture. And with a new logo, typography, layout, photography and illustrations, the brand has been given a complete and total facelift that offers readers a new view into the heritage that is The New Republic and the politics and subject matter going on in our world today.

So, without further ado, Mr. Magazine™ gives you Chris Lehmann, editor, The New Republic and Eddie Opara, Pentagram Design firm partner with a glimpse into the “new” The New Republic.

But first the sound-bites:

On the significant achievements Chris Lehmann feels he’s accomplished since becoming editor of The New Republic (Chris Lehmann): The obvious one is the redesign; the web relaunch, where we’re going to be launching a series of online verticals to focus coverage on what’s going on today, climate change, inequality and identity, national politics and culture. So, I’m very excited to see those online and up and running.

On what he feels is the role The New Republic plays in maintaining the necessity of journalism today (Chris Lehmann): With this redesign, what Eddie Opara and his team at Pentagram understood were the key, defining qualities of The New Republic as a media property. He has highlighted a sense of authority; a sense of intellectual playfulness, incisiveness, and broadly speaking, what The New Republic has represented over the past century-plus. And I do think because of the destabilizing points such as what you mentioned, fake and alternative news, there is a greater need than ever for publications that can speak to an intellectually engaged and politically positive audience with some wealth of experience, a commitment to politics as a form of ideas.

On what was the first thing Eddie Opara thought of when redesigning The New Republic (Eddie Opara): I knew of The New Republic previously and of course that it is 106-years-old. When we started looking at the magazine from a redesign perspective, it obviously had so much heritage. There were certain degrees of change over the course of time, as it moved from different publishers and owners. And at one particular point, multiple hands had worked on it and molded it into a design that didn’t salute to where it came from, from a visual standpoint or in its sense of global engagement. We wanted to go back through history, look at all the values that The New Republic held then and now, and make sure it aligned today with how we look toward the future.

On whether Chris Lehmann feels The New Republic would be considered the inflight magazine of Air Force One today as it has been in the past (Chris Lehmann): I think we have to start by electing a president who actually reads. I have lived and worked in Washington for two decades now, and the quest for maximum access in the sanctums of power can be a tough proposition. And the reasons for that is, not just at TNR, but journalism across the board in Washington made that point. Obviously, you do want access and you do want it to be from others who hold power and authority within Washington, but our politics is changing in a very fundamental way right now.

On whether the political content affected the new design of The New Republic or was the design based more on the historical legacy of the magazine (Eddie Opara): I think it’s both of those elements, it has to be both of them. I would say that it’s the values that are manifested within The New Republic that allowed it to develop, the visual framework that TNR can actually utilize, on a month to month basis. And it’s really important that a person like myself and the team are readers and digest info that is liberal orientated to see that this is a magazine that is elevated by its writing, and that offers a truer understanding of the American landscape politically.

On designing that first new cover (Eddie Opara): So, the choice of the cover was an editorial one, not viewed through the lens of our work as a branding and design house. But we had set a specific framework about the types of covers that we need to see over the course of the new design. So, from that the cover came from editorial, from Chris, and also Win, and the decision that the covers would be more forceful in what they are trying to say and more iconic in their approaches. They were always going to be engaging and dramatic, but there’s also this sort of wit as well and how to marry that at certain times.

On whether the new cover is the climax of pinpointing an idea in print (Chris Lehmann): I think as Eddie was saying earlier; it’s sort of a both/and proposition. The challenge in any redesign is to integrate the new visual identity that’s being put forward as an expression of the magazine’s sensibility and outlook. So I don’t see it as a climax per say, I see it as a very powerful welcome mat for the reader – here is a really strong set of arguments about the abysmal state of right wing politics in America, and the image very effectively captures that message and the treatment that Pentagram has put forward for the cover reinforce that message really effectively.

On whether the audience will see Pentagram’s footprints in all the formats of The New Republic (Chris Lehmann): Yes, I am happy to report  that you will. Eddie and his team have put together a really exciting… it’s still a work in progress, but the web redesign is going to be dynamic, visually really inviting to readers. We not only have the new nameplate on the cover, but we have a new logo which is the wordmark of the magazine’s acronym, which will replace the old ship, which we decided was ready to be mothballed. The Pentagram wordmark is going to be pretty much on everything, branded as The New Republic.

On how hard it was to design for all the platforms, from print to online to podcasts (Eddie Opara): You definitely have to have a team that is platform agnostic, that can leap from print matter to digital matter and back again. But as you know, these are two different spaces, and what we’ve tried to develop in the use of this typography, is that when you migrate them over the mediums, they will still work. Of course, you have to reconfigure them based on the context of the medium that you’re in, and you must make sure that it works fully loaded, and that it’s well-equipped to deal with the different mediums that you’re working across.

On whether Chris has any preconceived ideas about success with this new redesign (Chris Lehmann): (Laughs) It’s been my experience that if you start editing for an imagined constituency, your work will suffer. I think the same holds true on the visual side of things too. It’s important that you have the highest possible standards for yourself. And you know internally when you’ve achieved something worthy and when you’ve fallen short. The product should speak for itself. And I feel very strongly that it does.

On whether there is a role for an opinion publication to bring this country together or just enhance the divide (Chris Lehmann): I think those are questions that are or should be put to political campaigns – we are in the business of airing out intellectually honest arguments. There is a piece in this new issue that is making a straightforward case – it is a provocative case, but a case that the Republican party is a menace.  And we have to start thinking about ways to start over. And that’s not to say we are advocating that we abolish a conservative presence but this party has become, as we’ve seen – in the wake of impeachment, and in the daily news cycle – it has become a corrupt cult of personality that is dangerously lawless, that is unaccountable to basic separation of powers, provisions to curb authoritarian access in our democracy, so we have to put that argument out. Not for the sake of dividing the country or uniting the opposition, but for the sake of asking at a basic level, what is happening in our political order and how do we as engaged citizens address it honestly?

On how you take that journalistic mission and translate it onto the pages of a print publication or into pixels on a screen (Eddie Opara): It’s the idea of being visceral and provocative, but stating the truth. And being as transparent as possible. Coming back to the cover and being iconic and stating what’s there, and no more than what’s there, so people can react.

On anything they’d like to add (Chris Lehmann): It’s an exciting time to be doing the work we do at TNR. The stakes could not be higher, and I feel really gratified to be working with this team of amazing writers we put together, and to be working on a product that is, in visual terms, a really strong, elegant, platform for our central ideas that we’re putting out into public discourse. So, even though I’m a lobbying Democrat in Trump’s America and I am prone to long bouts of despair, I could not feel more engaged and excited by the work we’re doing at TNR.

On anything they’d like to add (Eddie Opara): We just posted a few images on Instagram just overnight from the redesign, and the reaction from the design community has been absolutely spot on. There’s one person in the comments that says “Oh hell yeah” – this is next level awesome.

On what keeps Chris up at night (Chris Lehmann): The typical family and house concerns. I mean, you know, all too obviously I am a political journalist who lives in Washington and cares deeply about liberal politics. So, the Democratic primaries keep me up at night, the politics of the Trump administration keep me up at night, the somewhat authoritarian leanings of William Barr keep me up at night. I could go on and on – I’m not getting a ton of sleep.

On what keeps Eddie up at night (Eddie Opara): In that vein, the manic aspects of the media, delivering information at every second. I have an “Eddie-ism,” as one of my mentees calls it: “Slow the fuck down.” We have to do that. We need to take a step back and look back at what we’re all trying to do and achieve here.

And now the lightly edited Mr. Magazine™ interview with Chris Lehmann, editor and Eddie Opara, Pentagram Design firm partner, The New Republic.

Samir Husni: Not too long ago, we chatted about your plans for The New Republic and it doesn’t take a genius to see that part of the plan is starting to be unveiled as we look at the March issue and April on the online side. What would you consider your significant achievements since you became editor of The New Republic?

Chris Lehmann: The obvious one is the redesign; the web relaunch, where we’re going to be launching a series of online verticals to focus coverage on what’s going on today, climate change, inequality and identity, national politics and culture. So, I’m very excited to see those online and up and running.

The other achievement would be just keeping up with the insanity of the Trump era and the great unknowable beast called the Democratic Primary. (Laughs) Off the top of my head, that’s what I got.

Samir Husni: In this age of fake and alternative news, what role do you think a 100 + year-old opinion publication plays in maintaining the necessity of journalism today?

Chris Lehmann: With this redesign, what Eddie Opara and his team at Pentagram understood were the key, defining qualities of The New Republic as a media property. He has highlighted a sense of authority; a sense of intellectual playfulness, incisiveness, and broadly speaking, what The New Republic has represented over the past century-plus. And I do think because of the destabilizing points such as what you mentioned, fake and alternative news, there is a greater need than ever for publications that can speak to an intellectually engaged and politically positive audience with some wealth of experience, a commitment to politics as a form of ideas. I think the role we have to play is more vital than ever and I’m really happy that Pentagram understood that at the outset of this project and executed it artfully and powerfully.

Samir Husni: With the redesign, Eddie, when Win (McCormack – editor in chief) and Chris approached you with the idea of redesigning a century-plus-old publication, what was the first thing that came to your mind?

Eddie Opara: I knew of The New Republic previously and of course that it is 106-years-old. When we started looking at the magazine from a redesign perspective, it obviously had so much heritage. There were certain degrees of change over the course of time, as it moved from different publishers and owners. And at one particular point, multiple hands had worked on it and molded it into a design that didn’t salute to where it came from, from a visual standpoint or in its sense of global engagement. We wanted to go back through history, look at all the values that The New Republic held then and now, and make sure it aligned today with how we look toward the future.

Samir Husni: When I was in school my professors used to refer to The New Republic as the Air Force One Inflight publication. (Laughs) Do you imagine the new The New Republic being the Air Force One Inflight publication today?

 Chris Lehmann: I think we have to start by electing a president who actually reads. I have lived and worked in Washington for two decades now, and the quest for maximum access in the sanctums of power can be a tough proposition. And the reasons for that is, not just at TNR, but journalism across the board in Washington made that point. Obviously, you do want access and you do want it to be from others who hold power and authority within Washington, but our politics is changing in a very fundamental way right now. And it’s not the kind of support of political elites that it formerly was, so as journalists we have to recognize that fundamental fact and work within the audience constraints imposed by political journalism. You have to be mindful of those changes as you go forward.

Samir Husni: Eddie, when you look at the political content of The New Republic, did that impact or affect the design or the design was based more on the historical role The New Republic played?

Eddie Opara: I think it’s both of those elements, it has to be both of them. I would say that it’s the values that are manifested within The New Republic that allowed it to develop, the visual framework that TNR can actually utilize, on a month to month basis. And it’s really important that a person like myself and the team are readers and digest info that is liberal orientated to see that this is a magazine that is elevated by its writing, and that offers a truer understanding of the American landscape politically. And so, when designing you have to then say ok, this is written incredibly and is well crafted – it has authority and is an asset. How do we visually determine that authority? How do we bring that well-made craftsmanship back into the covers and pages that adorn this particular magazine?

And so that’s what we’re trying to do – we’re trying to align that. The elements were always there, but they were not as overtly visualized as they are now, and hopefully they will mature in the months to come.

Samir Husni: When you look at the first cover, the new design with the March issue, it’s definitely a very specific point of view. Was that helpful for you in designing that cover? Did it make it easier having a specific point of view immediately, or did you just reflect the editorial aspect of the magazine?

Eddie Opara: So, the choice of the cover was an editorial one, not viewed through the lens of our work as a branding and design house. But we had set a specific framework about the types of covers that we need to see over the course of the new design. So, from that the cover came from editorial, from Chris, and also Win, and the decision that the covers would be more forceful in what they are trying to say and more iconic in their approaches. They were always going to be engaging and dramatic, but there’s also this sort of wit as well and how to marry that at certain times.

So, when someone goes to a newsstand or a Barnes and Noble and they’re looking for  a political magazine, they see this as more of a presence than they had seen previously.

Chris Lehmann: One thing that stuck with me in one of our meetings – Eddie had said apropos of this idea of honing in on a singular, iconic image for the cover – that you in a general way were reconceiving the magazine cover as almost a poster. And that is a very effective way to think. It certainly helped us in making this choice for the March cover, and in going forward of asking ourselves “What is the single strongest image?” – and this is a cover package of three features – so it is a talent to take the voices of the argument of three very distinct writers and marshal them into a single image and I think it was a very beneficial discipline for us. It is a strong and arresting image and you don’t mistake it for something that is noncommittal, certainly.

Samir Husni: Chris, you said 10 months ago or so that you still believe that print is one of the natural and preferable mediums for ideas. Is this the climax of your ideas with the new cover: the Lincoln Memorial , the Confederate flag; is this the climax of pinpointing an idea in print?

Chris Lehmann: I think as Eddie was saying earlier; it’s sort of a both/and proposition. The challenge in any redesign is to integrate the new visual identity that’s being put forward as an expression of the magazine’s sensibility and outlook. So I don’t see it as a climax per say, I see it as a very powerful welcome mat for the reader – here is a really strong set of arguments about the abysmal state of right wing politics in America, and the image very effectively captures that message and the treatment that Pentagram has put forward for the cover reinforce that message really effectively.

Samir Husni: How are you going to take that fresh approach to typography, layout, photography and illustration to the new website, the podcast; will we see Pentagram’s footprints in all platforms?

Chris Lehmann: Yes, I am happy to report  that you will. Eddie and his team have put together a really exciting… it’s still a work in progress, but the web redesign is going to be dynamic, visually really inviting to readers. We not only have the new nameplate on the cover, but we have a new logo which is the wordmark of the magazine’s acronym, which will replace the old ship, which we decided was ready to be mothballed. The Pentagram wordmark is going to be pretty much on everything, branded as The New Republic.

Samir Husni: How is easy or hard is it to design for all platforms, from print to online to podcasts? You basically have to be platform agnostic, so that wherever and whenever people see it, they know this is The New Republic brand.

Eddie Opara: You definitely have to have a team that is platform agnostic, that can leap from print matter to digital matter and back again. But as you know, these are two different spaces, and what we’ve tried to develop in the use of this typography, is that when you migrate them over the mediums, they will still work. Of course, you have to reconfigure them based on the context of the medium that you’re in, and you must make sure that it works fully loaded, and that it’s well-equipped to deal with the different mediums that you’re working across.

That’s what we found across the board with TNR – it is visually consistent, and we know that print and online are entirely different in their structures, but our visual identity still works in the same way.

Samir Husni: Do you have a yardstick that measures success? Do you have any preconceived ideas, such as if you get 500 emails from subscribers and readers that the new design is great, you have achieved success? Or if you get 100 emails from people asking what have you done to their New Republic, you might take that as a no? 

Chris Lehmann: (Laughs) It’s been my experience that if you start editing for an imagined constituency, your work will suffer. I think the same holds true on the visual side of things too. It’s important that you have the highest possible standards for yourself. And you know internally when you’ve achieved something worthy and when you’ve fallen short. The product should speak for itself. And I feel very strongly that it does.

I understand that other users’ mileage may vary, but that is the nature of the business that we do. It’s a public business and I don’t dismiss criticism by any means, but after a very long collaborative effort with Pentagram I feel very strongly that this is a look and feel for a new The New Republic that is speaking in urgent ways to a new political moment.

Samir Husni: With this new political moment, do you feel this new The New Republic will increase or help divide our nation? Is there a role for an opinion publication to bring this country together or just enhance the divide?

Chris Lehmann: I think those are questions that are or should be put to political campaigns – we are in the business of airing out intellectually honest arguments. There is a piece in this new issue that is making a straightforward case – it is a provocative case, but a case that the Republican party is a menace.  And we have to start thinking about ways to start over. And that’s not to say we are advocating that we abolish a conservative presence but this party has become, as we’ve seen – in the wake of impeachment, and in the daily news cycle – it has become a corrupt cult of personality that is dangerously lawless, that is unaccountable to basic separation of powers, provisions to curb authoritarian access in our democracy, so we have to put that argument out. Not for the sake of dividing the country or uniting the opposition, but for the sake of asking at a basic level, what is happening in our political order and how do we as engaged citizens address it honestly? I always find discussions of journalistic vision or political agenda off-putting. The best summary of the mission of journalism in my mind, is George Seldes, who said the job of the journalist is “to tell the truth and run.”

Samir Husni: How do you take that journalistic mission and translate it onto the pages of a print publication or into pixels on a screen?

Chris Lehmann: That could make for a good cover actually.

Eddie Opara: It’s the idea of being visceral and provocative, but stating the truth. And being as transparent as possible. Coming back to the cover and being iconic and stating what’s there, and no more than what’s there, so people can react.

Samir Husni: Is there anything either of you would like to add?

Chris Lehmann: It’s an exciting time to be doing the work we do at TNR. The stakes could not be higher, and I feel really gratified to be working with this team of amazing writers we put together, and to be working on a product that is, in visual terms, a really strong, elegant, platform for our central ideas that we’re putting out into public discourse. So, even though I’m a lobbying Democrat in Trump’s America and I am prone to long bouts of despair, I could not feel more engaged and excited by the work we’re doing at TNR.

Eddie Opara: We just posted a few images on Instagram just overnight from the redesign, and the reaction from the design community has been absolutely spot on. There’s one person in the comments that says “Oh hell yeah” – this is next level awesome.

And so, for designers or design lovers too,  it seems to be working.

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

Chris Lehmann: The typical family and house concerns. I mean, you know, all too obviously I am a political journalist who lives in Washington and cares deeply about liberal politics. So, the Democratic primaries keep me up at night, the politics of the Trump administration keep me up at night, the somewhat authoritarian leanings of William Barr keep me up at night. I could go on and on – I’m not getting a ton of sleep.

Eddie Opara: In that vein, the manic aspects of the media, delivering information at every second. I have an “Eddie-ism,” as one of my mentees calls it: “Slow the fuck down.” We have to do that. We need to take a step back and look back at what we’re all trying to do and achieve here.

Samir Husni: Thank you both.

 

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