What Paper! What Ink!
Jesse Lenz and Seth Putnam are the co-founders of the beautiful “travel/nomad” magazine Collective Quarterly. After receiving their first and second issues themed around Marfa and The Mad River, and having been a print person all my career, I wanted to ask them why at this moment in history have they invested in such an ambitious print magazine. Lenz told me that they believe print is the soul of media. “It’s an ancient medium—and it’s true that it’s no longer ideal for news—but now more than ever people are gravitating toward beautiful, tangible stories in droves.” Below are Lenz’s answers to my probes.
Why is it named The Collective Quarterly? The name originally referenced the “collective” of storytellers that assembled to create each issue: journalists, photographers, artists, filmmakers—unified by a deep belief that it’s important to be there in order to tell the best stories. We were each successful freelancers in the media, but decided to band together and create something greater than our individual careers.
After two years, we’ve realized that this is a rallying point not just for our team, but for like-minded people who value the journey more than the destination. “The Collective” has come to include our team, our sources, and our audience. Together, we’re a sum of the experience.
Each issue is thematic. What determines the theme(s)? It’s funny; people are always asking what our next “theme” is going to be, and in reality, the theme is the place. Within that, we’re constantly searching for the thread that runs throughout—the central complication that the region and its residents are facing. By listening to people’s stories, examining the location’s history, and experiencing the culture first-hand, the overarching story becomes clear.
The magazine is not a collection of disparate articles but a big story. How do you determine how the story will be told? Each issue is the product of two, sometimes three trips. First, we scout the location four to five months before we plan to shoot. This allows myself and our editorial director to find the voice, visual approach, and theme. Once we are on the same page, we can then organize an editorial trip that lasts about two weeks and articulate the vision to our team and guest contributors before they arrive on location to get to work.
Who is the audience? All who are interested in the human experience. We aren’t doing anything groundbreaking here, nothing that National Geographic hasn’t been doing since they first started. These are stories of human struggle and overcoming obstacles.
The early supporters of our magazines have been Millennials (like ourselves) who value authentic experiences above all else. But over the past three issues, it has been incredible to see our demographic widen dramatically. We receive emails from folks in nursing homes who were brought issues by their to high-schoolers asking what they need to major in in college to be able to do what we do for a living. We really believe that we’re all part of the same story.
Is there a rationale behind the design scheme? The idea is to keep most layouts simple and allow the photography to shine, while keeping important aspects of traditional magazine readability. Many indie pubs don’t flow well because they’re designed like product manuals. They are beautiful, but often lack details that make the reading experience for the end-user more enjoyable and easier.
We do choose four to six big features each issue to break out of the standard template. Those we design organically based on their content. This allows us to retain the element of surprise that makes reading and designing magazines so much fun.
The photography is dramatic and alive. Is there a pictorial “philosophy”? I don’t know if I would call it a philosophy, but photographers we work with are deeply routed in the mindset that the best images come from being fully present and immersed in the subject. By having a limited timeframe to produce the immense amount of photography needed for each issue, it forces us to make the most of what we have.
About two-thirds of each issue is shot on medium format film. I usually team up with a couple of other guest photographers each issue, and a lot of us shoot film because of the freedom and workflow it allows us to have. You’re not obsessing over a good image you just took, or taking thousands of images when you only need one good one. You have to trust your process. It forces you to pay attention and be ready for “the decisive moment.”
How is CQ funded? Our high cover price helps to cover some costs, but we have always viewed our print magazine as a product that our brand creates. With our portfolio of engaging content, we have been able to work with some great brands to create great work for them. This allows us to keep our editorial content separate from any directly branded content we are producing.
Thanks to our supporters, we can run the magazine separately and be very selective about the other companies we work with. That ultimately engages our audience even more because we only seek out great brands with great stories to tell.
What does the future look like? We have so much in the works: We’ve got four issues waiting to be printed. We’re about to launch an online story platform that will allow us to cover stories about places that don’t have an entire issue devoted to them. Farther down the road, we’re working on artists’ residencies in the locations of some of our past issues.
And we’re particularly excited about the “Always Go” Tour—an experimental documentation of nomad culture. My wife, three sons (ages 3, 2, and 1) and I will be living and working from the road in an Airstream trailer as we explore hideaways across America.
We’re constantly trying to put ourselves in the way of great things. Every choice we make centers around being able to experience more, be on location longer, and connect deeper with the people and culture around us. That way, we can find and share even better stories with those who care deeply about the human experience.
PRINT’s Summer 2015 Issue: Out Now!
The New Visual Artists are here! In this issue, meet our 2015 class of 15 brilliant creatives under 30. These carefully selected designers are on the scene making the most cutting-edge work today—and as many of our previous NVAs, they may go on to become tomorrow’s design leaders. Why not get to know them now? Check the full issue out here.
About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →