John L. Walters is is co-owner (with Simon Esterson) of Eye, the independent, international review of graphic design, which he has edited since 1999. He was a musician and a music producer before he entered the world of publishing with the project Unknown Public in the 90’s. Apart for Eye magazine, Walters was writing for many other magazines such as The Guardian, Port, Boat, London Jazz News, Varoom, Crafts, The Wire, AR, Pit and Jaguar. He curated and created programmes of many events connected to the Eye magazine, including the Critical Tensions conference, as well as a few “archive nights” (in London, New York and Amsterdam), and regular programme Type Tuesdays in the St Bride Library in London. He also edits Pulp, a journal that Eye makes for Italian paper company Fedrigoni. Walters is the author of Alan Kitching: A Life in Letterpress (Laurence King) and Fifty typefaces that changed the world (Design Museum).
MG: You have a very interesting professional background – you hold a degree in maths and physics, you were a founding member of a synthpop band in the 1970s, had a hit single in the early 80s, eventually moved to music production, started an audio journal about music in the early 1990s, wrote for a number of newspapers and magazines long before you joined Eye as a managing editor in 1997 and becoming editor in 1999. That’s at least two decades of intense creative activity, mostly related to music, preceding your tenure in Eye, which now itself lasts for a bit more than two decades. It’s almost like two different people succeeding one another, but still the same person. Do you think that this experience is something that influenced you as a design writer and editor?
JLW: Every experience shapes what you do later on, though it’s not always clear how at the time. I’m lucky in the way that the choppiness and inconsistencies of my early life prepared me well for the unpredictable nature of my later career. This, however, is not unusual. Many people that I admire have had quite varied career paths. When I wrote the biography of Alan Kitching, I realised that it was the non-linear nature of Alan’s career that made it such an interesting story – and that made his work so rich and varied within the field of letterpress design and printing.
“We bring our experience and knowledge to a subject, but a magazine is for its readers – whom we presume to want the best words and the most appropriate pictures for each feature or review. Magazine-making is not a form of self-expression.”
MG: What is it that initially attracted you towards graphic design? Is it the record covers, the images produced in the context of music, like for so many of us, or is that just too obvious?
JLW: My first encounters with graphic design were as a fan, drawn to record covers by Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton, Mati Klarwein and Robert Flynn (Viceroy), though I didn’t use the term ‘graphic design’. I loved making pretend record covers of imaginary bands, and copying band logos and I also experimented with concrete poetry, using my dad’s typewriter with a two-colour ribbon. Then, as a young jazz composer/bandleader, I became a graphic design client. I found that I liked the company of designers – designers were kindred spirits, natural collaborators with strong minds, who seemed to think in similar ways to me but could nonetheless make and do things I could never achieve. There are analogies between working in a band (especially a jazz ensemble), working as a record producer (which I did in the 1980s) and working in editorial teams.
MG: I couldn’t think of a way to make this question any easier: what constitutes, for you, a good design writer and a good design critic?
JLW: Curiosity, tenacity, the ability to look and understand and analyse. And the patience to question things – not least their own work – and to check every detail, and then deliver to a deadline!
MG: Eye is, as you’ve mentioned a number of times, first and foremost a magazine for graphic designers, they are your main audience. From my experience, what graphic designers find exciting about graphic design are not always the same things that attract our own attention, being non-designers. So, I guess there is a small challenge there – how to keep the content relevant to that particular audience, but still be true to your own passion, to what drives you as a writer and editor?
JLW: Writers and editors (and magazine art directors) should not be the story. We bring our experience and knowledge to a subject, but a magazine is for its readers – whom we presume to want the best words and the most appropriate pictures for each feature or review. Magazine-making is not a form of self-expression. Having said that, there will always be parts of one’s personality that leak through, and that occurs in designing, too. Milton Glaser put it well, talking about the drive to express things personally in Eye 25: ‘Given the choice between making it your own and not communicating versus communicating and not making it your own, there seems to be very little question about which is the more appropriate role.’
MG: In connection to the previous question – how much and in what ways do you learn from your audience, from their expectations, their own passions? I sometimes think affection and love about certain things can be very convincing and are “contagious” if expressed in a strong way. Often things I didn’t much care about become important because someone directed my attention to them.
JLW: If you are curious, you can go beyond your narrow ‘passions’. In a Remainiacs podcast on 31 Jan 2020, political writer Ian Dunt said: ‘Everything in this world is interesting when you actually look into it and spend a bit of time on it … To be interested in things is to have a commitment to life.’ To answer your question more specifically, there are subjects that we sense our readership would enjoy when we frame them in an Eye-like way. There are things worth showing or discussing that need to be written and laid out in a way that addresses a readership of designers. Which brings us back to the need for good writers. Also, Simon Esterson (art director) and Holly Catford (art editor) are graphic designers themselves, so they have strong views about what goes in the magazine, and how we present it.
MG: How important is it to look outside of your core subject sometimes? To talk about what you love about design by addressing something seemingly outside of it?
JLW: As a writer you can make use of metaphors and analogies to illuminate certain elements of the subject you are addressing. But sometimes a poster is a poster; a gif is just a gif. Write about what is in front of you, and don’t let the reader go to sleep.
MG: Many designers that I admire are also exceptional design writers. In that sense, do you think there is some natural overlap between practice and discourse in the case of design?
JLW: In my experience, some practitioners are really interested in their peers, and some are focused entirely on their own work. Some are good writers, and some find writing more difficult. So that creates four sub-sets, all of which might end up in print sooner or later. (By the way, this applies to musicians, artists, illustrators, architects, poets, craftspeople, writers, etc.) Some less experienced writers have plenty to say, and it’s part of my role as an editor to bring in new voices, and to help people express their views. Each issue of Eye has at least five writers new to the magazine.
“We’re used to reading images very quickly, online. Designers read images very well, on the whole – and there can be visual delight in images that you don’t know how to read.”
MG: There is a small statement, small “manifesto” about Eye attached below every article on your website which starts with “Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal…”. It’s how Eye sees itself and how it wants to be seen, it’s what it strives for and it’s how it says hello to us. Critical and informed writing comes next, of course, but how much exactly this first formal, aesthetic statement tells us about Eye and what it wants to be, and how it reflects on everything else, including the writing, the selection of articles, the things that you want to show and talk about?
JLW: From quite early on in my dealings with graphic designers, I noticed that people with very different approaches – from minimalists to modernists to techno-evangelists to exuberant illustrator-designers – would all use the word ‘beautiful’ for something they liked, much in the way a mathematician might talk of a beautiful proof, or a tennis player of a beautiful serve. It’s not necessarily objective beauty, but a sense of the ‘rightness’ of the thing being examined. So in this context, we are saying to potential readers, subscribers and collectors that we are aiming to do the right thing in bringing you these design stories.
MG: Let me quote a designer friend, Borut Vild, who says “we’re living in the age of images, but nobody taught us how to read them”. Do you agree?
JLW: I’m not sure. We’re used to reading images very quickly, online. Designers read images very well, on the whole (and there can be visual delight in images that you don’t know how to read.) One of the satisfying things about making a magazine is the way it can slow down time for the reader, the turning of the pages, the captions, exploring the images in the sequence the art director chose.
MG: As a writer, do you immediately imagine how a piece of your writing could work in visual form while writing it? Or is it just the words, and then the images and how it’s laid out evolves out of that?
JLW: Interesting question – no-one’s ever asked me that before. Some of the writing I do (and commission others to do) is ‘functional’. I write an editorial to go on the contents page, and I know what that will look like. A book review will be accompanied by a spread or two and the cover. Or just the cover, if it’s not a fundamentally visual book. A feature about a studio will be accompanied by examples of work and a portrait, etc. etc. What I love about working with Simonom Esterson and Holly Catford is that they always read the copy very closely, make crucial editing decisions in the selection of pictures and then lay out the article. That’s why Eye is so beautiful – it’s nothing to do with me. Looking at another kind of feature, I really enjoyed researching the articles I did in tandem with photographer Philip Sayer, where we went to Private Eye’s editorial office (‘Old school layout’ and a French printing archive Imagerie d’Épinal (‘Hidden treasure’). Simon and Phil have a working relationship that goes back to the launch of Blueprint magazine.
“A magazine, like a printed book, is a mature medium – you don’t have to buy new kit or update the operating system. However, it is interesting to look at what an arcane, printed magazine can still offer when the default reading space is a variety of screens, at home and in the studio.”
MG: One of the things I love about Eye is that it’s visually always up to date with everything, but doesn’t look like it’s struggling to be trendy at all costs.
JLW: We cannot be up-to-the-minute, but we can’t avoid reflecting contemporary concerns, albeit through a more considered ‘long lens’. Hence articles such as ‘Ethics in the age of data capitalism’, in Eye 99, ‘Messy medium’, in Eye 64, which was probably the first time we used the term ‘social media’ and ‘Should you be on the internet?’ in Eye 16.
MG: If I look at the covers, for example, from issue number one to the current 99th it looks like it absorbs something from every era, but the “feel” is the same.
JLW: I would say the covers are ‘consistent’ – the physical size hasn’t changed in 30 years – which also makes a set of Eye copies highly ‘collectable’. There have never been cover lines, just a small masthead, which gives us a huge amount of freedom compared to most magazines, which are obliged to ‘sell’ their contents on the front covers. The cover designs are usually decided quite late in production, and they always reflect the content. Some of my favourite covers combine several ideas (Eyes 48, 60, 92), but Simon Esterson is also a master of the grand gesture with a single image, such as in Eyes 73 and 91.
“There are many challenges in making a print magazine. But to be positive, we have learned that the people who make it possible for us to publish are incredibly patient and supportive.”
MG: Eye for me today feels like a magazine that reminds us of what printed magazines are about, especially in the digital age. So, apart from the inevitable financial pressure that the digital brought upon the printed publications, do you think there are things that we’ve learned from the internet that can make magazines better than they were ever before?
JLW: A magazine, like a printed book, is a mature medium – you don’t have to buy new kit or update the operating system. However, it is interesting to look at what an arcane, printed magazine can still offer when the default reading space is a variety of screens, at home and in the studio. You have your work machine, where you earn your living, with multiple files open and Dropbox, etc. The phone is probably your place for news and social media, while you might read e-books on a tablet, which works well in a crowded space like a train or plane. The typical Eye spread is a 297 x 437mm reading zone that lies in your hands, when you’re ready for the pleasures paper, in your own time. If you want to look at Hansje van Halem’s Lowlands animations after you’ve read about her work in Eye 98, just pick up your phone and go on Instagram. If you want to download a typeface that’s mentioned or advertised in the issue, that’s a few minutes online. Physical media and experiences are finding new ways to co-exist with online media and services. When it comes to promoting magazine sales, social media has been invaluable, and online tools have become essential elements for initial research, and in putting the contents together across continents and time zones.
MG: Do you think there are certain skills, certain sensibilities that we’ve lost along the way?
JLW: I was lucky enough to learn about editing – on the job – at a time when everything was changing, in the early 1990s. I was a novice, working for experienced professional journalists, but also stumbling into the new software and reading the manuals as I made my own independent journal (Unknown Public) at the same time. I learned a lot from old magazine hands (some of whom I taught to use Macs), and also from working with the young guys at Tomato, who designed the first eight issues of UP. It is easier now for an emerging journalist to make an indie mag or a zine – it is more difficult to get that hands-on experience of a busy daily, weekly or monthly.
MG: Twelve years ago, after a series of changes of publishers, Eye successfully bought itself out and is now managed by the people who are making the magazine. It must have seemed as an adventurous, risky, dangerous, scary decision back then, but here it is, at least as vital as ever. What were the main challenges you had to face, and what have you learned along the way?
JLW: It is still scary – there are many challenges in making a print magazine. But to be positive, we have learned that the people who make it possible for us to publish – readers (students and professionals), subscribers, advertisers, sponsors, magazine shops – are incredibly patient and supportive.
MG: You’re now preparing the really special, celebratory 100th issue of Eye, which is from what I know a very different, very ambitious one. What will we read and see in it?
JLW: One of our ambitions for the issue is to ask designers what the term graphic design means in 2020 – what’s changed and what’s remained the same since Rick Poynor and Stephen Coates (with Simon’s blessing as a director of Wordsearch) launched the magazine in 1990. There’s no single answer, which is what makes the question interesting and challenging. And of course it will be beautiful and collectable!