There is no denying that the significance of design is largely underrated. Given its abstract yet unobtrusive nature, its complexities are known only to those who care to discern them. For the most part, design maintains such a discreet presence in our everyday lives that we often take for it granted. Nevertheless, design need not be spectacular to be any more important.
At the 18th edition of CreativeMornings Utrecht (27 September 2013), graphic designer and editor-in-chief Peter Bil’ak expressed his overwhelming fascination with design and the endless possibilities thereof. His magazine Works That Work explores global instances of unexpected creativity and their impact on society. What began as an inspiring publication entirely devoted to the curious mind has surprisingly evolved into a remarkable project of its own, reflecting the rapid developments in design, new technologies and mass media.
“The world has changed quite a lot over the last decade,” Bil’ak claims. Due to increasing global connectivity, designers now have the opportunity to take the initiative when it comes to design. “It’s no longer waiting for clients for projects,” he insists. “We can do something proactive.” As a result, graphic designers like Bil’ak have ventured into publishing their own material, from books to magazines and even typefaces. “We forget that everything man-made is design,” Bil’ak says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s expensive or cheap, it’s still design.”
Recognizing a wide gap in the market for design magazines –made by designers, for designers– Bil’ak embarked on establishing his own publication. However, he was not at all pleased with the existing business models. “99% of [magazines] are funded by advertising,” Bil’ak declares. This, in turn, has a tremendous impact on the published content. “What is [actual] content and what is advertising?” he asks. “Even if you have all the money, it doesn’t really matter without the reader.”
In order to raise adequate funds to begin his new project, the designer created a crowdfunding website that showcased various design prototypes and engaged the creative community in distinguishing what an ideal publication would be. While international journals such as Newsweek have opted to convert to online editions (supposedly to abolish all advertorial content), Works That Work patrons unanimously preferred print as the magazine’s main format.
“I love reading on paper,” Bil’ak admits. “It favours longer formats and continuous reading.” Still, in this digital age, not everything works in print. “Digital things have advantages as well,” the designer says. The consolidation of the two media allows the magazine to utilize more versatile publishing tools. “I think the combination of it is really exciting,” Bil’ak proclaims. “Together, we can create something more valuable.” Be that as it may, the editor-in-chief had not anticipated that they would need to start from scratch.
“If you want to publish across all media, you have to rethink the workflows,” Bil’ak explains. Since there were no efficient tools available to execute their ideas, the Works That Work team had to build one for themselves. “Before making our magazine, we had to create our own collaboration platform.” This includes archiving all the changes made to the articles and editing them online. “We keep it in this stage as long as possible,” tells the editor. “We keep the creative part until the end.” Once the layout and content are finalized, the focus can then be shifted towards actual production and delivery. “In the end, it’s the content that matters.”
Indeed, by presenting a diverse mix of original stories that highlight examples of unexpected creativity, Works That Work continuously challenges our perceptions of design. “The magazine is highly productive work,” Bil’ak claims, resulting from the collaboration of a handful of journalists, photographers, designers and the like. “Although the themes of the magazine are quite diverse, there’s something that connects them.” From Indian Dabbawallas to visual communication aids used by US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even the ubiquitous urinal fly, these published essays (all featured in the 1st edition) are a testament to what design can really accomplish. “We tend to think that design is on the surface,” Bil’ak admits. “People use creativity in their fields to make the world better.”
The 2nd edition of Works That Work (available at the time of writing) delves into the world of transportation through the inquisitive eyes of design. The journey begins at Schiphol Airport (Amsterdam) where a vast, landscaped artwork of peaks and troughs doubles as a clever, noise-reducing solution. This is followed by a behind-the-scene look at two iconic innovations that have literally changed the world: the colossal Boeing 747 and the versatile intermodal (shipping) container. Keeping in line with the global transport theme, the magazine also investigates the rampant occurrence of smuggling – be it the thousands of mobile phones illegally exported from Hong Kong to Africa or the exotic ingredients concealed from the French Customs by award-winning chefs to be used in a prestigious culinary competition.
Inspiring though it may be, a magazine is nothing without an audience. “You can make really exciting content,” Bil’ak says, “but if it doesn’t get to people, it’s useless. If it doesn’t reach the public, it doesn’t work.” Considering the fact that the bulk of the magazine’s cover price only offsets the costs of production and distribution, sales contribute very little to the publication. According to the editor, “Some things must change to make it a viable product.” The end result is Social Distribution.
Bypassing the traditional methods of magazine circulation, Works That Work relies on its readers to partly manage its dissemination (for 10-20% of the profit). In doing so, the magazine has developed a close relationship with its readers, creating an informal network in the process. “Readers are partners in the magazine so it really helps as well with the distribution,” Bil’ak declares. “The magazine improves the more people learn about it, because they propose the content as well.”
As a creative publication entirely devoted to design, a complete rethink of the conventional system was only natural. While the success of a magazine is generally measured by its sales, Bil’ak defines achievement in his own terms. “Success is when you can operate long term,” the editor says, “to do the work I really love. If in the future I can get paid by doing it, that would be a success.” ✌
☞ For more information on Peter Bil’ak, Works That Work, CreativeMornings Utrecht and CreativeMornings™, visit the websites listed below: