The Daily Heller: The Fall and Rise of 3x3 Magazine
During the unpleasantness of 2020, a print magazine—in fact, the most luscious of all magazines devoted to the wonderful art of illustration—is coming back to life after more than a half decade of dormancy. 3x3, founded, edited and designed by Charles Hively, is twisting fate and taunting the odds. And I think—and hope—it will succeed. I asked Hively to share some work from the first new issue as well as his long-term plans.
Charles, you closed 3x3 magazine over six years ago, after almost 10 years in publication. What inspired or compelled you to have a second coming?
Our final issue was back in 2014, deciding to put the magazine on hiatus but not knowing if or when we would resume. Starting back in 2003 there were not that many resources for art directors and illustrators to see what was happening in the field; then, social media took a lot of that need away, so we felt our importance had gone away. So we continued our juried annual and directory. But while these do give exposure to individual illustrators it’s not promoting the industry as a whole like I felt our magazine did. And I honestly missed doing the magazine. My role is creative director for 3x3 and Creative Quarterly—I oversee over 1,200 pages of content each year plus direct our social media efforts; with just us three designers, that’s a lot of work to get out the door. Last year I was personally involved in the redesign of our 3x3 International Illustration Annual, which was enormous fun, and that started me thinking about bringing back the magazine. Also, we had internal discussions [about] whether or not to change our url, 3x3mag.com—if we’re not doing a magazine should it be 3x3pub.com instead?
I recall filling out your survey asking whether or not you should relaunch the printed edition. I don't recall my response, but if I was a downer, I apologize.
In early February I did a survey of past subscribers; half responded to the survey and the majority thought it would be a good idea to bring back the magazine, saying they’d subscribe. Then the pandemic struck and only half eventually subscribed. But it was a good indication that there was a place for 3x3 and that people actually missed it. On a personal note, I happen to be in the high-risk category for COVID, and not to sound morose but I started thinking about what the future might hold and decided I wanted to go out swinging if anything bad were to happen. I’m sure everyone can understand how scary these times are—it’s like 9/11 in slow motion. I just had drinks with James Yang yesterday, bringing him copies of the issue he’s in. It was windy, so I was covering my drink and then later worried about what I may have touched before covering the drink, and then you wait five days to see if anything bad happens.
So after the shelter-in-place order in mid-March, I’m here in the apartment with my partner in life and work, and I dove in. It was so good to have a creative project that I could control from start to finish and I think it helped me gain some sense of stability. And sanity. I’ve always loved working with illustrators, from my days as an ad agency art director to my days at Graphis and then 3x3. I knew this time around we had to approach the magazine in a different way. And we all understood this was not a moneymaking proposition; we just wanted to make sure it at least broke even. And I have to say, hats off to the SBA for the PPP program and taking care of six months of our line of credit payments as part of the CARES Act. That took a lot of pressure off our design firm and helped fund this new venture.
I'm glad 3x3 is back. It's not just a beautiful publication, it "does right" by the illustrators you feature. And most important, it is a magazine about illustration. How will you keep it afloat?
Thank you, Steve, you’ve been a great supporter of our efforts. I just read a blurb at newsstand.co.uk describing 3x3: “3x3 is based in New York but with a distinctive international feel.” That’s exactly how I like to think of us. It’s a global market; there are so many talented illustrators out there who we can feature.
We are taking a different tact from the original launch. We’re more or less strictly a subscriber-based publication, with the only newsstand sales being in the UK and Europe—and we realize that newsstand sales will be off this year simply because of the shutdown. So I set a goal of a certain number of print and digital subscribers to pay for the writing and printing of the magazine. A few people had suggested a digital-only publication, and I was prepared to do that in the worst-case scenario. But we were able to find a printer, one in China and the other in the UK that were affordable for our smaller press run, so that helped in meeting our budget.
We’ve never enjoyed the fiscal support of an organization like Varoom has in the UK; in the past we relied on paid advertising that didn’t look like advertising in the Gallery and Showcase sections, but that always took so much time to pin down—we eliminated that. We had illustrators writing articles about their friends, but that could be a scheduling nightmare—we eliminated that. So we’ve streamlined the production this go around and I only bring in the team when absolutely necessary, whereas before they were more heavily involved.
Another evolution was developing a page-flip approach for our digital edition, which I’ve always wanted. In the past we provided PDFs that you would scroll through, but as an art director I like to have the feeling of a printed publication where you’re turning the page. Now we offer both, flipbook and PDF.
Bottom line: Subscribers will keep the magazine afloat, and if the print edition isn’t widely accepted, then [we'll switch to] a digital-only publication where we eliminate printing costs. I don’t want to miss the joy of showcasing illustrators.
You've always planned a website, obviously. What will make a reader choose the magazine as well?
We actually have a couple of websites: 3x3mag.com and 3x3directory.com. In both you’ll find illustrators featured along with their contact information. These have been valuable but aren't something that replaces the magazine. Going back to the survey, we found a portion of the universe wants and needs the magazine. We won’t be for everyone, and some will just use our sites and social media to see the work of illustrators. Others want a more permanent record of what’s happening today. Social media is so fleeting that there needs to be some physical form to refer back to. I know as a young art director, I would take the New York Art Director’s Club annuals and actually blow up an ad to see what size the type and leading were, to do the research on what combination of typefaces they were using, and then take those lessons and apply them to my work. And it didn’t matter whether it was print or television; I only concentrated on looking at really good work and I believe that helped improve my own work. And I think by curating a magazine, young and established illustrators alike will benefit.
The two choices, print or digital, is a pretty standard one, but what was surprising was how many people in the survey preferred the print edition. Print subscribers get both the print and digital versions, but primarily people wanted the print version. The digital offering helps with foreign subscriptions; while the subscription cost is the same for all countries, shipping is an added cost that we have no control over, so it can unfortunately be very expensive for someone outside the US to subscribe. Also, what’s different this time around is the help of social media in promoting not only subscriptions but also the illustrators we’re featuring—today we have over 13,000 followers on Instagram thanks to the efforts of our social media coordinator.
Are you planning editorial changes? Or are you on a steady path?
Moving from friends of illustrators writing the articles to assigning stories was the biggest change. I looked back through past issues and I was always impressed by the writing, so I selected a handful to start and asked them if they would be interested in writing about illustrators they didn’t know; some felt they couldn’t, while others were eager. So I’m in the process of assembling a writing staff filled with journalists who write about art and design as well as illustrators. And we’re paying the writers this time.
I found a wonderful writer in Europe and all our articles are tailored around her approach that is more personal. She insists on meeting the illustrators, usually by Skype or Zoom, so she can see their surroundings and have a more in-depth interaction; we encourage all our writers to follow that direction. We also added a copy editor to review each article, which adds a bit more professionalism to the publication and resolves a problem that some of our readers had.
In each issue we still have our usual three illustrators and industry icon, an illustration survey; now we’ve added an industry news feature, book reviews and a "Seen & Noted" section where I select images that catch my eye, whether found online, in promotions I receive or publications I read. Another change is supplementing the illustrator’s text with pull-quotes from interviews I’ve found. I also moved the credits from the page to an index, freeing up the design, along with six-point type for captions to provide contrast with the main text and imagery. And I’m having fun with the art director and illustrator pull-quotes; not quite Ferlinghetti, but less conventional—like I can hear them speaking—the lines breaking for emphasis. And I’m considering changing the Contents and Intro pages with each issue to keep it fresh and interesting for at least myself. Free digital subscriptions are available to art directors, so our featured artists will be getting added exposure that way as well.
What are your criteria for who and what you select from what appears to be an ever-growing talent pool of illustrators/artists/designers?
It has always been hard to just boil it down to nine illustrators each year and three icons—we’re up to 75 illustrators and 23 icons. That hasn’t changed.
How I approach each issue is either theme-based or a grouping of illustrators that I can see in my mind’s eye working together graphically. The first issue back I wanted lots of color and a more light-hearted approach, the second issue features portraits and the third issue is still up in the air, but again, it’ll be more cheerful as the situation we find ourselves in deserves something less dramatic. As we move forward I’ll follow the categories from our Directory and Annual—i.e., conceptual, picture book, lifestyle, whimsical, etc. I also want a mix of gender, countries and styles. Our "Seen & Noted" has 14 illustrators in each issue, and it’s here that I can promote a variety of artists without regard to a theme—42 additional illustrators each year.
As to what I select, I design the magazine page-to-page, spread-to-spread, so the images have a relationship, as opposed to just selecting images and putting them in an order—and usually no more than two images per page. So there has to be a cohesive approach to the presentation of each artist and how everything flows throughout the publication. If an artist wants to replace an image in the layout it causes a rethinking of the entire article, so I try to get upfront approval of the images I’m considering. With each article I’m trying to tell a story about that particular individual and what makes them unique.
Do you agree that the field is growing, with more talented illustrators, or is this an illusion (or, shall we say, a frequency of the same artists in the few outlets)?
I have to say, a few years ago I happened upon womenwhodraw.com and I was both super impressed and depressed. Impressed by the range of top-quality work, depressed because I didn’t find many of them being published. We’ve done over 500 monthly portfolio reviews with illustrators all over the world, and it is always interesting to see where they come from, what their interests are and the talent they have. A good many are graphic designers who want to move into illustration, others, surprisingly enough, are self-taught—and you wouldn’t know that from seeing the work. Some want help in expanding their market. But my example to them all is that in the golden age of illustration there were 200 publications and 20 illustrators. Today it’s just the opposite. And the recession we find ourselves in is not a good time to be entering the field or finding new clients. My observation during the last recession was that the top-tier illustrators continued to get work while those that might have just entered the field, or hadn’t had that many jobs, suffered. There is no lack of talent out there; I just wish there were more opportunities for each of them. Certainly we’re seeing a lot more entrepreneurship than we found in 2003, expanding beyond editorial, advertising and picture books. I still believe the present and future for illustrators is bright, and I want to shine a light on as many as I can. My dream, much like what happened in graphic design, where now you have the public talking about fonts someone uses, is they’ll be referring to such-and-such illustrator and appreciate their uniqueness.