Last week was the much anticipated (in editorial design circles anyway) Abstract Conference, in Portland, ME. Co-sponsored by AIGA Maine, the conference is a new venture by Condé Nast’s Executive Director of Editorial Development, Scott Dadich, and his dream team of creative friends, including Luke Hayman of Pentagram, Arem Duplessis of the New York Times magazines, Gael Towey of Martha Stewart Living, Florian Bachleda of Fast Company, and Dirk Barnett of the Newsweek Daily Beast Company.
Held over the course of a single day, and deftly guided by moderator by Alice Twemlow, Chair of SVA’s MFA in Design Criticism, the speakers presented talks on topics including “Design Frameworks” (Bachleda), “Identity” (Hayman), “A Day in the Life” (Barnett), “Reinvention” (Duplessis), “Brand Extensions” (Towey), and “Technology” (Dadich). Needless to say it was a lot to absorb in a single sitting, but if you have any interest in the current state of editorial design—and where it’s heading—this was the place to be. As Twemlow herself said:
These are six of the nation’s best art directors working on globally renowned publication brands—[who] took such care in crafting narratives to frame their work. They really lifted up the curtain and showed us what goes on behind the scenes to produce complicated photo shoots, to iterate towards the solution for a cover, or just the day-to-day activities and decision making involved in creating and maintaining a visual identity for a magazine.
Some people suggested that at times the presentations veered a bit too far toward straight portfolio reviews, but wow, what portfolios! Barnett’s talk about a manic day of putting an issue of Newsweek together after Osama Bin Laden had been killed was pretty stunning, including early morning and late night emails from editor Tina Brown, last second image swaps, and constantly shifting news stories, all while juggling a wife and young son at home.
As a huge fan of The New York Times Magazine, I was excited for Duplessis’s talk about the recent redesign under new editor Hugo Lindgren. I was curious how one would go about re-imagining a publication that was already one of the best-designed in the country. Apparently you go back to the early days, which is what Duplessis and his team did, combing through decades of older versions of the magazine and newspaper to create some subtle but powerful design changes to the new version.
I was probably least familiar with Towey’s work but most intrigued by her talk because she operates on so many creative levels at Martha Stewart. She revealed how they’ve expanded the company into one of the most recognizable and influential brands in the world, as well as the inspiration behind the popular Martha Stewart tablet apps, and how you, too can buy a replica of her kitchen. Plus, she’s a great presenter, energetic, sharp, and funny. And when all else failed she could just show a photo shoot of one of Martha’s countless breathtaking gardens and everyone in the audience would ooh and aah.
Hayman talked about his journey from being a young designer in England to partner at Pentagram, one of the most respected and accomplished design firms in the world, and how, no matter how hard he tries, he can’t seem to break away from magazines. Any magazines. Seriously, put a magazine in front of him and he’ll redesign it.
Bachleda showed some great work he did to rejuvenate Latina, and also revealed how they planned and executed the photo shoot with Conan O’Brien for the current issue of Fast Company. I don’t want to reveal all the magic, but let’s just say that a little Conan goes a long way.
The grand finale was Dadich’s riveting presentation on the future of publishing and the work his team is doing at Condé Nast to create digital versions of each of the company’s magazines. While the digital revolution is still defining itself, especially in the magazine world, Dadich has been one of—if not the—most formidable visionary for what the digital magazine experience is for the reader. The level of complex thinking, discussion, and invention that goes into creating a new media platform is quite impressive. Of course, the behind the scenes look at his work at Wired and Texas Monthly was a lot of fun as well. Ask him to tell you the story about Texas governor, Rick Perry sometime.
All in all it was a day well spent and my understanding—and hope—is that there will be more Abstract Conferences in the future. There was even whispers of the group taking the show on the road, so sit tight and we’ll see where they go next. As Dadich himself told me:
I can’t tell you how thrilled my fellow speakers and I were to see Portland—and greater New England—come out to support the belief that great design has a central role in the future of publishing. The validation of this idea was one of the keys to Abstract Maine’s success, and I know there’s more to this conversation, including more Abstract conferences around the world.
*All photography is by Kevin Fahrman for AIGA Maine
More photos from the conference below, courtesy of AIGA Maine’s Flickr stream: