Steven Heller interviews Joshua Berger
Steven Heller is one of the most accomplished design writers of all time. Visit his website to learn more about his work: www.hellerbooks.com This Interview was conducted in June of 2007 for the book The Design Entrepreneur, available through Rockport books.
Magazines are not easy
to sustain, how has Plazm done so?
Why did you launch Plazm?
Plazm was formed by a group of artists dissatisfied with avenues of expression available to them. Actually when we first started meeting, we didn't know were going to form a magazine. There were writers, photographers, illustrators, and designers all coming to these open-ended weekly gatherings. We were talking about things like media control and how we'd like to see artists representing artists. These discussions led to the launch of Plazm magazine.
Plazm is a type foundry, magazine and book publisher, and other entrepreneurial ventures. Is it part of your design collective or separate?
Plazm has grown organically, garden-like. Some shoots sprout up and take hold for a long time; others only last a few seasons. The type foundry grew out of the experimental design that our magazine came to be known for in the early 1990s. The books came from the same idea as the magazine—to produce content that interests us and is perhaps marginalized by mainstream media. The design firm arose naturally from the mass of creative energy at the magazine; and our need to support our magazine habit. Client work is really what ends up paying the bills.
Sometimes you have to trim things back, as when we temporarily stopped producing the magazine in order to focus on writing and designing books. Occasionally, an entire vine gets transplanted; Plazm Design still does custom fonts, but we spun off the font foundry into a separate business owned by one of our original founders, Pete McCracken.
What are the most important concerns for Plazm - art or commerce?
This question really is at the crux of most of the issues we struggle with, Steven. The short answer is that we create what we want and if it has a commercial value, great. If not, so be it. That said, we all need to put food on the table. So for fifteen years we have tried to figure out how to make a living doing this. Plazm magazine has never made any money. In the beginning, we all had other jobs and worked on the magazine on the side. Starting in 1993, we tried to subsidize it with Plazm Fonts, which helped, but never really brought in enough to put us in the black. in 1995 we decided to take the form/content/ideas we had been exploring in Plazm magazine and apply them to commercial design work. This is what has sustained us. The irony now is that the magazine is still something we do on the side and Plazm Design has become the day job.
In the consumer culture which we operate this sometimes requires us to serve corporations, solicit advertisers, and otherwise prostitute ourselves for money in order to do the things we want to do. Sometimes dichotomies arise: for instance, there will never be an instance of censorship in Plazm magazine, or on our web site. However, this uncompromising position has cost us more than a few advertisers over the years. As a commercial design studio, is helping multinational corporations market their products worthwhile if their payments enable us to distribute political and cultural materials via our magazine, books, anti-war posters? I often wonder. Of course much good work can also be done by designers in partnership with corporations—from simple things like specifying recycled materials or reducing packaging to discussions about social responsibility and connecting corporations with community non-profits, and so on. Our baseline is to maintain a 50/50 balance between clients and causes.
Has the type business subsidized the other activities, or have you managed to be self-sufficient?
Neither Plazm magazine nor Plazm Fonts could have been self-sufficient without Plazm Design to support them. However, all of the things cross-pollinate in positive ways. The typographic expertise developed through Plazm Fonts has allowed us to do custom alphabets for corporate clients. For instance, we have designed typefaces for MTV, Nike, Starbucks, and others. This knowledge has also directly informed the creation of custom letter forms for brand identity work. The magazine has provided an orientation towards editorial content in general—in many cases informing the types of materials we create for other clients—a magazine for a non-profit college, being hired to write and/or design books, and developing editorial content for websites.
The magazine has shown people what we can do, given us a forum for collaborating with well known designers alongside newcomers. Fifteen years is a long time in independent magazine years. By now we're a magnet for all kinds of people involved in art, design, politics, and culture. All of that helps our design business, directly and indirectly, which in turn funds the magazine. It's great when we find an artist or they find us through the magazine and it turns into a long-term relationship doing commercial projects. This also happens in reverse—hiring an illustrator for a commercial job leads to contributions to the magazine.
A non-commercial, highly creative experience like the magazine has taught us, in a different way than a commercial job, how to help designers, illustrators, writers, photographers, and artists find and channel their passion. The result is often great and interesting work. We take this experience in collaboration and apply it to the paying work; our clients, whether they know it or nor, benefit hugely from what we've all learned publishing Plazm magazine.
How do you manage the work at Plazm - does everybody design or do you break it down according to business sub-sections?
The business structure has evolved and changed over the years. We connect the right designer, the most appropriate art director, the best writer, the perfect web developer, to each job we do. This happens across all categories of work. One of the keys is an openness to comments and criticism from anyone involved in the office during a project—from interns to principals—all opinions are valued, all ideas are important.
The hard costs of magazine production are funded by advertising, trades, and paper company sponsorships. Design and editing costs are subsidized by Plazm's commercial client work. Newsstand and online sales account for some revenue as well. None of it would be possible without the unwavering support we get from contributors. Even after all these years, I'm excited and a little surprised when someone like Milton Glaser or Matthew Stadler agrees to design a cover or write an intensive interview, without pay. It's like we're tending this massive bonfire. Creative people want to come warm themselves, but they also want to throw logs on the coals. Fires aren't always easy to sustain, but would you want life without them? Sustaining the magazine works the same way. Time and sacrifice are just part of the deal.
Do you have a particularly loyal demographic, or is your audience always changing?
At least a third of our audience is design-based. But really it is almost all creative people of one kind or another—artists, art directors, image makers, writers, designers. Cultural content like music draws in other folks depending on what's in any given issue.
What would you say your most successful products are, and why?
The book XXX: The Power of Sex in Contemporary Design was definitely successful for us—it was translated into a couple other languages and a bunch of articles and dialog on the subject. It won some awards, and led to the exhibit which became part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Sex in NY—and allowed for our collaboration in which you contributed an essay to introduce the exhibit. It has since been mounted at Western Oregon University and has led to writing and designing a few other books.
Some of the early fonts were successful in that they either sold well or have truly permeated the hierarchy of popular culture—for instance the typeface "Able" by Marcus Burlile ended up being used for the Harry Potter books early on and has stuck—it's on everything Harry. Ah, the success of a type designer: near total anonymity.
But I really don't think of things in terms of success / failure. If another issue of the magazine comes off the press—that in itself is a success to me. The act of making the thing you set out to make. It's a success to be able to survive doing work you believe in.
What have been your abysmal failures?
I probably blocked most of them out, but here's one:
We needed to move out of the building we were in for our first few years and we had found this great industrial warehouse in North Portland. It was pretty amazing, with 15' tall metal doors and a 2-ton winch hanging from the ceiling. Right next to the rail yard. The trains would go past all the time, like 30 a day. If you heard the railroad crossing bell and you had to be somewhere you would scramble for the door because the trains would often stop for 45 minutes blocking the road out. Either that or park on the other side and hop the train. Our editor got a federal ticket for that once. It was the perfect place for us. However, it needed a bunch of work and we invested a large amount of money in fixing it up. We had just settled in when we were notified by the city that they were going to kick us out in order to make way for the new light rail line. They needed to put a bridge across the tracks and to do so they would need to demolish one building—ours. We stayed in the building as long as possible trying to negotiate a settlement. We were the last tenants there. One day we came in and found the electricity wires to our space cut. It was getting dicey. We were able to come to terms with the city eventually and they helped us to move, but it was very difficult and nearly caused us to go out of business.
Where do you see Plazm in five or ten years?
I think you asked me this about five years ago and I said I wanted to retire in ten years. I guess I'll have to give it another ten. I still truly enjoy the editorial projects—be these in Plazm magazine, on web sites, in books, on film, either through commissioned work or self-generated. We are very interested in exploring the nexus of commercial and non-commercial work. How can our ideas about social responsibility in design cross-pollinate with commerce?
Are you amazed you've come this far?
It's sort of surreal really. Half of the battle is persistence. The longer you do something, the more people believe it will continue.
How important is design to your entire endeavor?
Design is absolutely critical to our entire endeavor. It is through design that messages reach people most effectively. Designers are trained in methods of mass communication and propaganda—we have a vast potential as agents for social change. I believe design can change the world.