May 29, 2014

284: The Phoenix

Following years of smooth sailing/status quo, an opportunity recently arrived to revitalize Conservator, the magazine published by my employer, Ducks Unlimited Canada. For years a dependable quarterly workhorse for the organization – and a staple of my workday routine – Conservator steadily adjusted and adapted over the last few years to accommodate belt-tightening. Most recently, attempts to house the magazine exclusively online eventually resulted in much internal debate to find the means to reintroduce, and reinvent, a print edition for our somewhat non-conventional (older/rural/western) readership – while attracting new readers to the mix.

The magazine has long been a centerpiece of my design career. I've had the responsibility – and the prize – of designing Conservator (and its French-language equivalent) in its entirety since 2002. Fanning out issues from those salad years through to the present day reveals a steady growth in my design abilities and sensibilities – and during the magazine's heyday of photo budgets and freelance writers I strung together spreads that evoked pride and anchored my portfolio. I explored trends, texture, colour and typography. I showed off. Sometimes I flew by the seat of my pants. The stories often inspired me, and in turn I did my best to complement them with an ever-increasing toolbox of skills and intuition.

Above: Been there, done that – the last of the red hot ice cold previous designs.

Even as times became leaner and the budget dried, I've remained engrossed in piecing together each issue. The number of magazines produced each year fluctuated and the situation trundled toward an inevitable online-only presence – a period that commenced in 2013 following one last big score: a plush, 80-page special edition highlighting Ducks' 75th anniversary that featured a cover that, for the first time, featured one of my own photos.

The online issues performed admirably enough, but there was no longer the grand prize of a paper-and-ink/flesh-and-blood printed piece in hand. I missed that, and was not alone in this sentiment. Talk began to swirl of a modest return to print, culminating in an issue released two weeks ago that showcases an new, entirely redesigned Conservator.

Above: Some guts – featuring words, messaging, and all that other non-design-related stuff.

Chief among concerns was the magazine was becoming overly institutional, and it was reflected in the design as articles became more hard-news, straight facts and concise – but less entertaining. My hands became frequently tied, as department pages fell by the wayside, swapped for a deluge of single-page articles and press releases that lent themselves to Macleans-style templating. A primary aim of the new-look Conservator is storytelling, and I couldn't be more in favour: storytelling is a key facet of design as much as it is with writing. And the better-written the magazine is, the more I want to fight for it.

Also paramount is photography. It's been Conservator's bread and butter since I hopped aboard, and I've held firm the belief for ages that for this magazine, pictures are invaluable – and as designer I'm not to stand in their way. (I know, I know, the old adage exists that Content is King and I'll tow that line, but come on: I'm a designer. Design is King.*)

To further the theme of letting the photography do the heavy lifting, I crafted a simple masthead of Garamond, tightly kerned with a custom R-V ligature, to replace the previous one that had held firm on Conservator covers since 1999. Though, only after experimenting in the concept stages with a flashier masthead (below) that I ultimately nixed. The Cabrito family and Intro, an online freebie, were selected for more decorative purposes. Two holdovers, Bembo and Gibson, remain on body copy and shorter-article headline duty, respectively.

Above: An earlier concept, thankfully felled by the wayside.

Now, as is so often the role of the designer, I quietly take a backseat and await the results, and the feedback. Early response has been promising, and if the aim of this issue is to build a renewed sense of excitement around Conservator, generate interest (and advertising dollars) and then springboard to something eventually resembling a standard, quarterly production run once again – I've done my best. 

Time will tell whether this all takes place. For now, I'm just proud of this quiet return to the game, and happy to hold it in my hands.

* OK, fine. They can both be King.

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