All posts by Andy Cowles

The Big Issue wins PPA Cover of The Year 2015 with a stunning demonstration of editorial expertise

Big-Issue-cover-of-the-year-2015The Big Issue has won the prestigious 2015 PPA Cover of The Year award with this powerful image of former Sergeant Rick Clement. The cover was designed by art director Scott Maclean and the photo taken by rock star turned photographer, Bryan Adams.

Judged by public vote it secured over 25% of all 30,000 votes cast, beating out Elle, Time Out, Shortlist and GQ, with the pre-race favourite Radio Times‘ Doctor Who cover not even getting in the frame.

ppa-big-issue-cover-of-the-yearThe award was accepted by Big Issue Editor Paul McNamee, who in a moment of considerable drama, then invited Rick Clement onto the stage, with his wheelchair pushed by none other than Bryan Adams himself. Here they all are, flanked by PPA CEO Barry McIlheney and host for the night Lauren Laverne.

It’s not often you get a thousand industry hacks to pay any kind of attention, but on this occasion there was nothing we could do but deliver a heartfelt standing ovation. In the silence that followed, Rick took the mike, and after explaining what a pleasure it was to be with a bunch of people who were as legless as he was(!), he paid tribute to the mates he left behind in Afghanistan, declaring that this trophy was ‘for them’.

I’ve been to plenty of industry awards, but I’ve never seen anything like this. Apart from being genuinely moving, it was a clear reminder of the Huffington Post’s recent declaration that a magazine cover remains ‘one of the modern age’s most widely consumed pieces of public art’.

The Big Issue has a long suit when it comes to front cover innovation. From crowdsourcing their Christmas cover, to leveraging the heart of their brand, using a hashtag strategy to celebrate their vendor, all the way through to understanding what makes you pick up a cover in the first place. The Big Issue may have a unique distribution method, but their editorial skill is universal. It talks to the reader one-to-one, it’s personal and it’s emotional.

Returning to their cover of Rick Clement, I’m reminded of the editorial photographer Giles Duley, who also lost his legs to an IED in Afghanistan. Both these men are pushing on with new ventures, determined not to let their injuries make them victims. Rick leads an impressive looking charity for injured soldiers at A Soldiers Journey, Giles is now setting off on Legacy of War, a massive project documenting the long term cost of conflict around the world. It’s a going to be a really important body of work, you can support it here at Kickstarter.

‘The interface is the product’. Apple prove Steve Jobs’ mantra yet again with the introduction of their new system font.

san-francisco-fontHere’s a video from WWDC 2015 where Apple introduce their brand new font, San Francisco. It’s similar to Helvetica, but with several key differences that create a warmer, more gender neutral feel. In my opinion it draws heavily on the success of Proxima Nova discussed on this blog at length a few weeks ago.

Font freaks will find the video is a bit 101 in places, but elsewhere it explains the benefits of this new font with terrific clarity. On the WWDC 2015 video landing page Apple claim that ‘Fonts lay at the intersection of design and engineering’. Given how much care and attention they have invested in this new San Francisco font, they’re still holding true to Steve Job’s mantra: ‘The Interface is the product’

There’s more reporting on the San Francisco font at 9to5mac, and fastcodesign.

Thanks to film director Billy Boyd Cape for the link, which as you might expect from Apple, only works in Safari.

The single reason why Proxima Nova is the world’s best font

proxim-helveticaThere’s a good story by on Medium today about Proxima Nova, the font that by many measures has replaced Helvetica as the world’s most popular typeface. Proxima was first drawn by Mark Simonson in 1981, it took a while to gain traction but after the release of Gotham in 2002 it really took off.

Fred Woodward commissioned Hoeffler to create Gotham when he took over as Creative Director at GQ, and very nice it looked too. But I had just taken over Fred’s job as art director of Rolling Stone, and was looking for a new geometric sans myself, so after consulting with my art department of Kory Kennedy, Devin Pedzwater and Matthew Ball, I chose Proxima, because it was just…better.

proxima-grabSince then I have used it in dozens of different roles. I put it in the million selling weekly What’s On TV, where the vast amount of TV listings require an exceptionally functional and legible font. I chose it for Chat, to bring a little glamour to the real life women’s weekly market, and I’ve used it endlessly on development projects where it’s essential to have a font that looks cool and modern, but that does not have a prescriptive point of view.

By this, I mean a font that doesn’t look too male, too female, too posh, too serious, too anything, but still holds deep emotional promise.

This is the genius of Proxima. The Medium article rightly makes the case for the lower case ‘a’ being the signature character, the single letter that defines the feeling of the whole font. And compared to Gotham, the Proxima ‘a’ wins hands down.

But in the first place, sans fonts are defined by the lowercase ‘i’. This letter can only be drawn in two ways, with either a rounded dot or a square edged dot.

Johnson’s London Underground font is an exception, with a diamond dot, and there are other fonts that have got squares with rounded corners, but you get the general idea here.

Helvetica has a square dot. This makes it strong, practical, manly even.

The alternative to Helvetica used to be Futura, the Bauhaus masterpiece so recently dumped by Ikea in favour of Verdana.

Futura has a round dot on the ‘i’. This makes it friendly, modern and possibly more female. But Futura predates Helvetica. It’s not built for the modern age, it’s got a small x-height and it doesn’t work on screen. What’s more, its ‘i’ dot looks underpowered compared to Proxima‘s

Which is why Proxima is so brilliant. It combines the strength of Helvetica with the feeling of Futura. And it’s the lowercase ‘i’ that proves it.

Mark-simonsenHere’s Mark Simonson at his desk, from a great story by Tamye Riggs on the adobe site about how Mark works, with lots of excellent examples and sketches.

original-proxima-grabAnd here is the original 1981 sketch for Proxima, taken from Cameron Moll’s Medium post.

Postscript: Mark Simonson and I exchanged a few messages on twitter after this post was published. In these he generously noted that Rolling Stone’s 2002 adoption of Proxima gave him the motivation to develop Proxima Nova with all the extra weights. 

Five must-see, must read stories


Here’s a brilliant story on Periscope, TV rights and the implications for copyright generally.

David Hepworth on how ‘creativity’ is not what we want, it’s ingenuity. Excellent, as always.

Outstanding advice from my colleague Andy Pemberton at Furthr on how to build the perfect infographic.

Ink’s very smart airline magazine Rhapsody gets the thumbs up in The New York Times. Editor Jordan Heller will be pleased.

I’m presenting at The Media Briefing’s Monetising Media conference 21st-23rd October. It’s already a stellar line-up, grab the early bird rate while you can!

Cartoon above from The New Yorker, obvs.

Fifteen hot links

20120826-Moncton_SetlistHandwritten1. This is one of Springsteen’s many back-of-an-envelope set lists, emotional, personal, and totally uneditable. So here’s my post for InPublishing on Wunderlist, the world’s best make-a-list app.

2. What do you believe in? And what are you going to do about it? Good post about how brands create trust.

3. ’Sticky content’ bullshit. And ten other content marketing buzzwords from SXSW.

4. Seventy eight places to find free, high quality marketing images.

5. Ace photojournalist Giles Duley is setting off on his biggest project ever. Here’s an interview with him at Time all about ‘Legacy of War’

6. How Marriott Hotels aim to become the world’s largest producer of travel content.

7. Look out! How programatic trading allowed these ads to run before ISIS propaganda videos.

8. Super bitchy, and super well informed. Michael Wolff on the new Guardian editor.

9. Buzzfeed really is the new king of the world. Here’s fine insight into how that happened, along with more detail on their social strategybusiness model, ethical standards and The Dress.

10. How the Economist has stayed ahead of the digital curve.

11. Here’s a blog post headline writing template!

12. Uber releases an in-house magazine.

13. Upworthy’s co-founder on clickbait.

14. Haters ahoy! Wired redesigns its website.

15. Good post on magculture about the surge in magazine podcasts.

How to produce pointless stories, devoid of meaningful value or engagement

packed-office-desksIn an extensive interview last week the legendary marketer Seth Godin lamented the ‘industrialisation of content’. He said: ‘As soon as organisations start to measure stuff and poke it into a piece of software, then we are asking people who don’t care to work their way through a bunch of checklists to make a number go up’.

He’s making the argument for editors, as opposed to brand managers. ‘A brand can’t care’ says Seth, ‘all that can care is people.

seth-godinSeth is famous for his book ‘Permission Marketing’, still regarded as the key text on how to engage consumers online. Here’s his definition: ‘Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them’

Seth’s view now is that ‘being trusted is the single most urgent way to build a business’. If you’re paying for content, then trust is acknowledged the moment money changes hands. But as I’ve written previously, when content is essentially free, trust has to be earned.

Because without it, we’re just looking at spam.

With the decline of one-way advertising as the only way to reach and influence large audiences, marketers and ad agencies are now trying to take ‘content’ and see if that will do the job for them.

However, as Saatchi’s strategy director Richard Huntingdon points out in his recent ‘Guano Marketing’ post, content is now being ‘ordered by the yard, with quality of no consequence’.

In a fabulously ranty post he declares: ‘Never in the field of human endeavour has so much crap sat on client servers to be consumed by so few’.

crap-contentEven content marketers themselves say similar, witness this slideshare from Velocity simply entitled ‘Crap’.

I quite agree. The term ‘content’ has had all the joy flattened out of it, crushed by the need for a single description to describe ideas of every kind shared across every platform.

But let’s not shoot the messenger here. The word may be totally inadequate, but that doesn’t mean the passion, authority, service and sheer fun of the exchanges behind it are redundant.

The opposite is in fact the case. Our society may have been founded on storytelling, but right now, our appetite for powerful ideas, inspiring  images, big thoughts, true feelings and passionate opinions has never been greater.

With the reluctance of people to pay directly for magazines and newspapers, the word ‘editorial’ has fallen out of favour in recent years.

You only have to visit linkedin to see how many journalists have rushed to replace it with ‘content’ in order to stress their digital credentials. I make no apology for doing the same, currently there being no better way of saying ‘I present stories to be shared digitally’.

The question is, what exactly are we sharing?

If it’s a genuine point of view, delivered in a relatable tone, with ideas that add value, either practically, or on a deeper emotional level, then readers will react.

They still need to know who’s doing the talking, as ‘editorial’ is explicitly the voice of the storyteller, not the paymaster. But if clarity around brand is maintained, then real connections will be made, real feeling will be created and real action taken.

howard-gossageAs for advertising, the words of Howard Gossage, the original Mad Man still hold true: ‘People will read what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad’.


Gavin Reeve-Daniels

gav-reeve-danielsLast Thursday saw the Gav Aid 2015 Pop Quiz completely fill the Troxy theatre in London’s East End. Over 800 contestants turned out in honour of Gavin Reeve-Daniels, who died of pancreatic cancer in September last year.

Gav Aid 2014Gavin did however attend the first Gav Aid event in 2013, having been diagnosed just a few months earlier. Here he is, making a typically funny and moving speech on that night.

By his own account, and that of his wife Leesa, being at that packed event and seeing just how many people truly loved him and wished him well made a real difference in the last months of his life.

See more

Type size is your friend

streetsofsalem.comMost people never read more than 25% of even their favourite magazine. However, many editors are totally blind to this fact, insisting on getting every single word of their deathless prose wedged into the page. Invoking higher authority, this often produces nothing more than a sophisticated internal memo that no one will ever read.

As designers, we’re culpable in this, as it’s we who set the size of the type in the first place. Not only that, many designers seem to think that readers have 20/20 vision, and are perfectly willing to read large tracts of text across super wide columns in sizes that would strain the eyesight of fighter pilots.

Among many other reasons, this is a reason why I love The New Yorker so much.  Their text is beautifully set, 10/12, I believe, across the correct measure and with perfect kerning.

I’ve written about the print version of The New Yorker previously on this blog, and also had the pleasure of interviewing their creative director, Wyatt Mitchell, the podcast of which you can hear here.

But it’s how they treat their digital platform that’s interesting me now.

eleven postsI have very mixed feelings about this brand online. One of the great pleasures of The New Yorker is that they tell me what’s important, and what I should read. I trust the editors to edit, so when I get messages like the one above I GET REALLY STRESSED OUT!

But on the other hand, if there’s a story I want to read on the go, I’ll happily consume 10,000 words on the phone, such is their quality.

New yorker mobile typeWhich is why I’m so appreciative of the way they’ve set the type. The screen on the left (above) sets up the story with a hed and a picture. But click ‘read more’, and not only do you get the picture caption, (right) but the body copy goes up in point size.

Young-Napoleon-Hugo-D-Aviles-hugo-avilesIt’s a tiny move but it really does prove Napoleon’s point: “Execution is everything.”

This post was first published as part of my guest editorship of the American Society of Publication Designers blog.