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How to redesign a fashion magazine for the digital age

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Solenn Heusaff’s cover shoot spread in the May 2016 issue of L’Officiel Manila, photographed by Patrick Diokno. “For any cover person — we don’t want to limit it to just women — the key is, they have to have some kind of creative credibility, meaning they’re actually making something, and they have to be interesting,” says creative director Miguel Mari.

Manila — When it launched in May 2015, L’Officiel Manila was tagged as a “new face of fashion,” an incarnation of a style glossy that looked unlike anything we’ve seen in today’s local newsstands. While most of its ilk preferred a celebrity on the cover, L’Officiel was brave enough to feature fashion itself on its inaugural cover — an unnamed model with an intense, almost confronting look in her eyes, daring you to reexamine your perception of what a fashion magazine should be. L’Officiel followed this brand DNA for its first year, an elegant, effortless kind of style that, as the name suggests, stems from the Parisian way of fashion, distilled for the local audience.

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There was one disadvantage to this: Some people deemed it inaccessible, perhaps to an audience used to consuming fast fashion. This was something that the magazine addressed, as more familiar — yet unexpected — names graced the cover, yet still in keeping with the idea of the L’Officiel woman. There were Bea Valdes, the designer Betina Ocampo headlining the magazine’s emerging-talents issue, and the global style upstart Margaret Zhang, who styled and photographed herself on the March 2016 cover.

As the magazine neared its first-anniversary cover, Miguel Mari, its creative director (as well as Rogue’s), saw an opportunity to redesign L’Officiel in line with its fresh-faced approach. Encouraged by the warm reception of the readers after the Betina Ocampo and Margaret Zhang issues, L’Officiel now embodies a more youthful spirit, the pages bristling with an air that’s “less elegant and rigid but more unpredictable and chic,” as Mari describes the new design philosophy.

Design is an integral part of any kind of magazine — it guides your reading experience. And what Mari and the design team have done for the May 2016 issue is some kind of disruption, in the vein of magazines such as 032c and Lucky Peach, in which layouts burst out of the pages with unexpected turns and elements. The new L’Officiel Manila is still chic, but it’s bolder in terms of telling stories on the page.

CNN Philippines Life talked to Mari, who was also one of the founders of Rogue Magazine, about the changes in the magazine and its design evolution. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

For you, what’s the difference between a newsstand cover and an online cover?

In the past, what I’ve been trained to think is that, for the newsstand, you have to have many cover lines.  And online is where you can get a little bit more creative with design, because mostly, people are just going to pass it around on social media, and so it’s got to look good very small on your mobile phones.

Although, I’m hoping one day there won’t be any difference between the two, that we can have crazy, creative covers without the usual rules of newsstand covers and still get it to sell. I’m not sure if we’re there yet in the Philippines, but we’re always trying to kind of push that. That’s the fun part of being in a magazine: You can experiment, you can try something. If it doesn’t work, then, OK, it didn’t work. We’ll just try something else next time.

Do you think having a logo like this for a young magazine is important?

In a lot of our covers, the logo was obscured, and for a relatively new brand that doesn’t have too much recall yet, it wasn’t such a good thing. I think now, the masthead is very clear, people will be able to read it, and at least, from a branding standpoint, have some recollection of it when they see it again.

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A spread from L’Officiel Manila’s front of book section, which has a varied use of headline font sizes. It also uses the common font Courier for subheads and captions and Futura for titles.

What are the big changes, design-wise, in the magazine?

First, the cover. The cover template comes from L’Officiel Paris. We’re not required to use it, but I really like it. You can do a lot with a square format. I could have tight shots, we could have more artistic shots because it’s framed by this big border, and I don’t have to worry about the logo being obscured by the head or by any part of the body.

Second, the layout grid and font choices inside have changed drastically. Most of the redesign, you’ll really see inside. We selected the font Courier for the text and captions and stuff like that. Why Courier? Because parts of the brand values of L’Officiel are effortless, chic, unpredictable, cool. And so I felt like the design needed to reflect that. We chose Courier because it’s just such a pedestrian font, and so I wanted to use that, to really give off this vibe that it’s effortless, and I didn’t really want to try to go into over-design mode. Not trying too hard with fancy typefaces. Futura, a typeface that L’Officiel has used forever, although not for headlines, is the main typeface for most of the magazine. It’s beautiful and doesn’t have too much of a personality on its own that it doesn’t take away from communicating the overall message of the page design.

Photo direction is also very important in delivering the values of our brand to the public. Personally, I’m not such a fan of fashion fantasy in photos. At least not anymore. We feel the zeitgeist is moving toward a direction of authenticity, something real, something you can relate to, that doesn’t put the fashion or the model in a place that looks too unreachable. I mean, with social media, every celebrity in the world is accessible to the public; you see them in all stages of their lives.

I think that’s what most people are being drawn to now, the relatability of things. And the authenticity of everything. Young people are just so much more attuned to bullshit today than I was when I was in my young 20s. This is a fact that I always have to keep in mind today as a designer. I’m not sure if that makes sense to anyone. [Laughs] But it’s a guiding principle in the way I’m going to be designing the magazine.

Did you also have the old serif fonts that you used before?

Yeah, only because it’s more readable for long body text, but we did replace Baskerville with a typeface called Chronicle. It just looks really good when set in large point sizes, especially the bold version.

So this is more for subheads?

Subheads, captions, and the bylines. But I think you’d get a headache if you read 2,000 words in Courier. We don’t want to do that. But also with the design inside, everything used to be very centered, we used to have a line at the top and at the bottom of the page, and all subheads were on top, and the title below, and then the content below that. It was all very templated for consistency and elegance. And all the sizes of the typefaces would be the same.

We’re just having more fun with it now. Basically, what we’re doing is, we’re breaking the same grid that was there before. There’s still an invisible grid here, there’s a tiny, tiny grid behind everything, but it looks more alive now. What we do is, we have to finish each page within five minutes. ‘Cause if you take any longer than that, then there was too much effort and over-thinking in my view. There has to be that kind of effortless feel, like you walk into your closet, you just grab a bunch of clothes, you put it together, then you walk out, and you look good. It’s that kind of idea. We just wanted the design to reflect the ideal L’Officiel woman.

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A feature on photographer Czar Kristoff’s zine. The spread, as creative director Miguel Mari puts it, employs tension in the design elements, with caption boxes violating photos, breaking the usual uniform grid seen in magazines. The title font is set in Baskerville.

Did you think the grid was restricting you?

No, I still believe in grids. Everything before had to be aligned perfectly, and now, I don’t care so much about that. I’ve always been a rigid and precise designer, and I feel like with L’Officiel, now I’m growing. It’s something I’m not used to. I mean, Rogue, it’s very precise and aligned. And this, it goes against everything I’ve been doing for the last 12 years. But there’s a whole design concept around it that I felt like, “Hey, I’ve never tried this. I haven’t done this yet. I want to play around with this design philosophy.” Sometimes, Chesca Gamboa, L’Officiel Manila’s designer, will do something, she’ll open a page, andparang I want to align things, but then I just stop myself, and I just look at it objectively, and I say, “You know what? I like it. There’s energy. Things were meant to fall into the places that they did.” So I just leave it alone, and I don’t touch anything. There’s a lot of gut and instinct involved now as opposed to using too much of my head in the past.

There are still design rules that I like to follow, like composition, and balance, and your eye moving across the page in the right way, and I think that still applies, but you’ll see that if you flip through every page in this issue, it’s unpredictable. You don’t know where the headline’s going to be. You don’t know how big the fonts will be. You don’t know where the pictures will be. It’s not as predictable as our first 10 issues.

Do you think it helps that L’Officiel is more visual than, say, a magazine with a lot of words?

I mean, fashion is a visual art. It’s tactile; you can touch it and see it. One thing we’re trying now, I don’t think we’ve done it completely, is, I want there to be more tension on the pages. Meaning there will be elements that just maybe are a bit too close to the edge of the page, or they overlap a bit here. My gauge is, if I feel uncomfortable with it, because it doesn’t feel so beautiful … My rule is, if I get that feeling, I leave it alone. I want things to be a little uncomfortable for me. I want there to be tension. I want things to be not so perfect. I think it will make it more human and accessible. To juxtapose the elegant perfection that we had before, which I think felt very detached and cold.

One of my main inspirations for this whole idea came from Neal Oshima, who has been telling me for years that I’m too rigid and that I need to fuck things up a bit more now and again. He sent me an article about the Japanese concept of “wabi-sabi” and that really hit me hard. It’s a work in progress, but I really feel I’m moving forward again as a designer.

Personally, the most exciting thing in design that I’ve seen lately is coming from Cenon Norial’s ADHD magazine. It’s just so free and unrestrained. It’s fearless and doesn’t seem to care what people think. It’s not about the technical. It’s the vibe, the mood, and the attitude. That’s something I truly admire in design, something that is closer to real art.

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l’officiel manila A spread in L’Officiel Manila’s May 2016 issue featuring Up Dharma Down vocalist Armi Millare. The feature is part of the new section, called “Voices,” featuring conversations with creative and interesting people.

One of the biggest changes we noticed was the “Voices” section. So can you talk a little bit more about that design?

We all had so much fun reading the Emerging Designers issue. Because it was new talent, talent many of us hadn’t heard of before. We wanted to create a section that had that every month and not just once a year.

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“Voices” is something we want to use to really feature emerging creatives and put them side by side with some well-known ones. So, in the May 2016 issue, we have the graphic designer Miguel Yatco of Saturdays NYC. Not many people really know him, but we find his work to be good, so we wanted to present him to our readers. We don’t want to wait until they’re super big-time everywhere. We want to talk about the creatives we like. And not just for fashion — we want graphic designers, we want artists, musicians, chefs, anyone in the creative field that we think are doing good work, we want to feature them in the “Voices” section to talk about their work and process in the hopes of getting more people to learn about them.

The main design element here, if it’s a Q & A, the title of the story will be a quote from them. I think it draws you in more — it’s called “Voices,” after all. I like Q & As because you can really hear the voice of the person. As opposed to a more literary translation of a long-form profile. With that, you usually hear the voice of the writer more than the subject’s.

“Voices” pages will be more typography-based. Our serif font is used, and it just looks good really big. Sometimes the quote will take up the whole page. It will be bolder, starker, but simpler compared to the rest. So we have that unpredictable, crazy design in the beginning, and then you jump into something bold and strong, and then you end with all photos in the editorial. I think that’s a nice flow, it will be a nice visual feast for your eyes.

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Instead of using titles, headlines in the “Voices” section are quotes from the respective subjects of the interviews.

So even your cover stories, they will follow an interview style?

If it’s a Q & A, it most probably will. Because our brand has to stand for authenticity.

For any cover person — we don’t want to limit it to just women — the key is, they have to have some kind of creative credibility, meaning they’re actually making something, and they have to be interesting. That’s it. Those who create are probably interesting people. I’m definitely very excited, because the pool of who we can feature has just grown by a lot. I’ve always loved championing the underdogs, because no matter how long I’ve been doing this, I always feel that I myself have always been an underdog and it’s what drives me every day to get better. To move forward as a designer.

If I’m not careful, I will fall back on old habits that I’ve been too comfortable with, and I think that’s true for many creatives in general. We tend to fall back on certain habits even when we’re trying to break out into new ones. As a graphic designer — I’m not an artist, at least, that’s what I feel. I’m not an artist, I’m just delivering and packaging a message to someone else. But real artists have this unrestrained thing, like their personality comes out in the work. They’re so fearless. That’s kind of what I want to do with this — be a little more fearless about things, about breaking the rules. That’s the goal.