Magic-Ink Testing with Brian McMullen

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The McSweeney’s art director and senior editor talks Garamond, kids’ books, and the future of print.

Photograph by Jason Fulford

McSweeney’s Quarterly has taken radically different forms: a bundle of mail (No. 17), a newspaper (No. 33), a crate in the shape of a head (No. 36). What’s the idea behind the shape shifting?

For me, the Quarterly has always communicated a sense of endless possibility. This is the publication’s great strength. The format will gladly twist and stretch—a whole lot, if necessary—to accommodate any interesting idea, but every twist will strive to encourage real reading. If the design distracts from the reading experience, it is a bad design. You note that the Quarterly has taken “radically different” forms, such as a box that looks like a human head. What’s never so radical, though, is the design of an average interior page. When you crack open many of the booklets inside that human-head issue, you’ll find clean, legible, conventionally typeset layouts. We’re not so interested in design on the level of different-fonts-for-different-fonts sake. Forty issues in, we’re still typesetting most pages in justified Garamond 3.

The newspaper issue—The San Francisco Panorama—has been cited as a model of how to breathe new life into the format. It was beautiful and a great read. But, with its high production costs and long lead time, I wonder if it points to a different model: fewer, smaller print publications producing more boutique-oriented products. The question we asked ourselves with The Panorama was: What kinds of things might we, as newspaper readers and print enthusiasts, love to see in a broadsheet newspaper? The end result was a 350-page dream-book of ideas and experiments, a handful of which had long lead times. To try to take The Panorama as a whole and model a real daily newspaper after it would be missing the point. Our big hope was that any reader, writer, editor, or designer who picked it up could find something inside to be inspired by.

We ourselves were inspired by The Panorama in several unforeseen ways. For example: The Food section laid the groundwork for Lucky Peach, the new McSweeney’s food quarterly. It’s hard to imagine how Lucky Peach would exist, as a print publication, without The Panorama.

So I take it you’re not worrying too much about the imminent death of print? Nope.

You recently helped start a namesake children’s-book imprint, McSweeney’s McMullens. Were there any unexpected considerations in designing bespoke books for kids?

We favor super-thick paper for the McMullens books because it’s sturdier and lasts longer. We tend to avoid glossy materials because we prefer the softer, plusher look and feel of uncoated paper. Several of the books come with dust jackets that unfold into big posters, suitable for extended gazing.

We’ve just published a heat-sensitive, color-changing kids’ book—Jordan Crane’s Keep Our Secrets—that’s chock-full of hidden material. Heating the book with vigorous rubbing—or, even better, with a hair dryer—makes all the black ink in the book become transparent for a little while. When the pages get warm, a whole second world is temporarily revealed. In the early stages of making this book, we had the magic ink chemically tested. No magic that cool could be nonpoisonous, I feared. But the ink passed all the tests, and we’re proud to have just published what we believe to be the world’s first 100 percent nontoxic color-changing children’s book.