Eye Magazine at 100

Wes Del Val interviews the acclaimed graphic design magazine’s editor, John L. Walters, on the publication of Eye’s 100th issue.

By Wes Del Val July 14, 2020

If you’re reading this you’re certainly already familiar with Eye, but you might not know how it got its name. Here’s founding editor, Rick Poynor, on how it came to be:

“When I told Tibor Kalman about our plans on a trip to New York, he immediately proposed ‘Eye.’ I liked this at once, but it was essential to the magazine’s international aspirations that the title worked abroad, since the text would be in three languages: English, French, and German. Only when a marketing survey produced “Eye” as the favorite was the name adopted.”

That comes from Poynor’s essay in the latest issue on the early years of the magazine. It’s fitting that it appears in this issue because after thirty years in publication, Eye’s hardworking, dedicated staff and contributors just released number 100, a perfect time to reflect on the beginnings. Also a perfect reason to speak with its editor since Eye 33, John L. Walters. While only English (French and German were dropped by issue 7) still appears in the magazine, the title still very much works all over the world.


Wes Del Val: First of all, congratulations on your 100th issue, that’s a remarkable print achievement today, especially for a specialized independent magazine. Did you feel any added pressure that, say, issue 99 didn’t have, and how did the final result match up with your original plan for 100?

Eye, cover of issue no. 100 (2020).

John L. Walters: There was a lot of self-imposed pressure, and our original idea, to have 100 projects in our 100th issue, was somewhat different. We didn’t announce that theme, other than to close friends and contributors, and when we hit on “Talking about graphic design,” we didn’t give that away until the issue had been printed and bound. There was also the pressure of knowing that readers and advertisers expected something special—the support from advertisers for this issue was really something, and we don’t take that lightly.

WDV: I thought your cover choice of Richard Turley was spot-on. Most everything he’s touched since his Bloomberg Businessweek days makes people who rarely think about graphic design think about graphic design, and I think there’s a lot to be said for that. Can you walk me through how you landed on Richard? I imagine ideas and comments around multiple names, art direction, more than one cover, etc., all arose during the meetings.

JLW: I take absolutely no credit for that, other than actually doing the interview with Richard, one of eight I did at great speed in January/February, first on a video call and then in a series of follow-up emails. Simon Esterson (Eye art director and co-owner) actually interviewed him in 2010 while his work for Bloomberg Businessweek was in full flow, but this was the first time we had “met.” I really enjoyed talking to him about what he’s doing now, with the added bonus of a post-Covid follow-up during lockdown.

Eye, cover of issue no. 94 (Summer 2017).

With regard to the cover, I should point out that Eye covers are usually decided very late in the production cycle, when Simon and Holly Catford (art editor) have thought about and worked with all the visual materials, sometimes coming up with half a dozen or more possibilities which we whittle down to two or three that we print out, look at from different distances and finally decide upon, with other people in the studio making helpful comments. (Eye 94 was an exception to this, for obvious reasons, as was Eye 73, where Simon just saw the picture and said, “That looks like a cover.”)

With Eye 100, Simon went through Maria Spann’s superb pictures of Richard Turley and told us that he had an idea. He and Holly made a rough crop, with the words “Talking about graphic design” tumbling from Richard’s mouth and I laughed out loud (with delight and surprise). I don’t recall much further discussion, certainly no meetings.

I’m aware that some people’s ideas of how a magazine works are shaped by seeing movies like The September Issue and Funny Face, but Eye is really, really small, and no-one is full time.

This is the first time we have featured an actual designer on the cover of Eye— we usually show a piece of work, like Olivier Kugler’s refugee stall-holder (Eye 93), or the typefaces on Eye 90 and Eye 98. And Simon’s predecessor Nick Bell wrapped the front and back cover of Eye 53 (the ‘brand madness’ special issue) with Magnus Rakeng’s hard-working Eye logo, which dates back to Eye 41.

Interior pages from Eye, issue no. 100 (2020).

WDV: I was happy to see Milton Glaser make it in this issue and I bet you especially now are, too. So much has been written about him since his very recent passing and a lot of the same stories and examples of his classic designs have circulated widely. Can you share your personal feelings about him and might you have a favorite anecdote or two about Milton which most of us wouldn’t know?

JLW: I saw Milton Glaser at an AIGA conference a decade and a half ago and he had the audience in the palm of his hand. Utterly gripping, and that was not just because of the visual richness of his slides, but because of the way he discussed ethics. I can’t forget his rule 3 (from “Ten Things I Have Learned”): “Some people are toxic avoid them.” That’s good advice for people in the music business, too. In 2014, I also interviewed Milton about design for food. It was intended for the food special, but sadly the pictures weren’t good enough for print.

Eye, cover of issue no. 33 (Autumn 1999).

WDV: You started with Eye on issue 33 back in 1999. Would you say the person who picks up the magazine today is generally more intelligent about graphic design because of the rise of broadband and social media since then or less so because both of those factors often wreak havoc on attention spans?

JLW: Most of Eye’s readers are professional graphic designers or serious design students or academics, and that’s been the case since the magazine was founded (before my time) in 1990. Our readers are pretty smart, which keeps us on our toes. There are certainly more people who know about type and design now, thanks to all these great online resources (and of course much of the Eye archive is just a click away, without cost) but we survive by selling actual printed copies of the magazine, and through advertising in the issue. So the core readership is not that different, just broader in age.

WDV: Since you’ve been witness to two decades of change, what are key differences in your editorial strategies between then and now? I’d think discoverability and shareability features of social media would be the most significant, but I’m curious about others.

JLW: I’ve always wanted to make a great magazine for our readers. Still do. The brevity and speed of social media may have encouraged us to do more long, in-depth pieces, like the three type essays in Eye 98, the long, multi-part profile of R. O. Blechman in Eye 95, the in-depth historical pieces (Thérèse Moll, David King) and the two editorial design specials (Eye nos. 96 and 97), where we were able to cover Tom Wolsey alongside the photographers he commissioned. When we became independent, Simon encouraged me to write more, and I’m grateful for that. My main strategy is to seek out writers (plus experts, collectors, enthusiasts, and so on) who can contribute articles, reviews, and ideas to the magazine. I love working with writers, whether they are old friends or new (to us) voices such as Gabriela Matuszyk and Katie Evans (Eye 98), Paolo Ferrarini (Eye 99), and Silas Munro (Eye 100). I aim to include a handful of new contributors in each issue.

Eye, cover of issue no. 95 (Winter 2018).

Earlier this week a student asked me how we had adapted to the wider use of technology and social media, and I replied as follows:

Eye has benefited from huge technological advances in layout software, photography, scanning, pre-press (“repro”) and printing. The color, clarity of image, and sharpness of type we get with contemporary printing is so good compared to what most mags were like decades ago (when magazines were more mass-market). Like HD compared to SD (or even VHS). And digital printing has made it possible for us to do adventurous, almost sci-fi things like the 8,000 covers of Eye 94.

Social media, linking to web pages, has helped us keep in touch with old readers and attract new ones, pointing people to interesting articles, ticket sales, a stockists list, and subscription sites. (We used to rely on perforated forms that people had to fill in and post by snail mail!) Tech has also been invaluable in networking all the people you need to make a mag. My assistant editor Sarah Snaith lives in Buenos Aires, four hours behind me. I can’t imagine going back to old tech (though I still appreciate DVDs when the internet goes down in South London).

WDV: Do you have any dream advertisers for the magazine? No harm in putting it out there, maybe they’ll see and consider!

JLW: Great question. We actually have an amazing roster of dream advertisers already, with all the major type foundries and many of the up-and-coming ones, not to mention paper companies, printers and other resources, image libraries, educational institutions, and so on. We made this pdf to thank all the advertisers in Eye 100. But everybody’s welcome, as the song says. In Eye’s earlier days, there were ads for fashion brands (Paul Smith), booze (Absolut), and even Apple, of all companies.

WVD: When you’ve paid attention to graphic design to the degree you have on a daily basis for so long, how often does something graphically wow you? What are some recent examples?

Window display of a selection of 8,000 different cover designs for Eye no. 94 at London’s magCulture Shop. Photo: Courtesy Eye magazine

JLW: There’s that famous quote from Milton Glaser, isn’t there, about “wow.” I think I may have uttered that word when J. P. Hartnett first told me about Kiel Mutschelknaus’s Space Type Generator (Eye 100), but “wow” isn’t enough to make a good article about a subject; you need context. You need a story. One of the things I love about this job is the way I start to understand a piece of work as I work on an article (mine or someone else’s). The process of writing and editing means you are learning all the time, finding better ways to draw your readers into the story.

WVD: Graphic design certainly isn’t going anywhere and you clearly have a dedicated audience, so what are the next five years looking like for the magazine?

JLW: Magazines that serve niche audiences may have more of a future than mass-market titles, but it’s not easy. In my Q&A with the aforementioned student, I said that the magazine market may become more niche, more premium (think of Whole Foods, delis, jazz, wine, vinyl, and specialist bike shops). And nearly every printed magazine needs a website and an online archive, so we can’t ignore the challenges of presenting magazine-like content online—however print-focused we are.

However, the most important factors may be out of the hands of magazine makers. Will there still be specialist bookstores and magazine shops like Do You Read Me?! in Berlin, and magCulture in London (where we did our recent “Every Eye ever” event)? Will there still be good distribution to stores and chains like Barnes & Noble? Will the mail and delivery systems evolve and work in favour of indie mags and their readers, or make it even harder?

One new thing for us is the online event, which we could have done years ago, but the pandemic has kicked us into doing. Today, it’s ‘I ❤️ MG’, our second online Type Tuesday after doing them in a physical space since 2013.

Eye, cover of issue no. 1, the magazine’s inaugural issue (Autumn 1990).

WVD: Since this is for Designers & Books I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask if you’ve been able to get any reading done over the past few months and are there any titles you’re eager to tell us all to get our hands on? Anything coming out in 2020 (fingers crossed) which you’re hotly anticipating?

JLW: The Letterform Archive has some ambitious publishing plans to follow up their books on W. A. Dwiggins and Jennifer Morla, so I have great expectations. I have high hopes for the new magazine Inque from art director Matt Willey (who profiled R. O. Blechman for Eye) and editor Dan Crowe. Recently, I read Death of a Typographer by Nick Gadd (2019), which made me chuckle, though it’s extremely niche. Chris Ware’s Rusty Brown (2019) is magnificent. There’s a new Tom Gauld I haven’t got yet. The book by my desk right now (a rediscovery) is The Push Pin Graphic (2004) by Seymour Chwast. For research … and pleasure. I’m still reading the hardback of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff (2019), which is great, and also big enough to prop up your laptop during Zoom meetings. The book by my bed is the paperback of Robin D. G. Kelley’s wonderful biography Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2010). After that, there’s Hitchcock/Truffaut (1967).

WDV: A long, interesting list, just what you’d expect from a true editor. Congratulations again on 100 and we’ll all be on the lookout for 101 … and beyond!

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