Birth of a Magazine: Houstonia

Birth of a Magazine: Houstonia It is not very often that you get the chance to start a major city magazine from the ground up in your hometown. Especially a hometown that doesn't have an established city magazine to compete with. That is exactly the chance Design Director Chris Skiles got this past winter when he returned to Houston to launch Houstonia, a completely new magazine that just sent it's third issue to the printer. We had to a chance to catch up with Chris and hear about this once in a lifetime opportunity.

You were in Seattle working when you found out that your company was starting up a magazine in your home town. What were your thoughts?

"Hell yes!" was probably the first thing that came to mind. Our owner--Nicole Vogel--and her brother Scott are both originally from Houston. They grew up here and lived here for years, so I think a little part of them had always wanted to do this. When Nicole came into one of our editorial/company "status report" meetings and mentioned the idea of launching a new publication in Houston I about jumped out of my seat. Being a native Houstonian I've said for years that this city needed--no deserved--a good city 'zine, but I had really just given up hope that it would ever actually happen. After that meeting I marched straight down to Nicole's office and told her that if she seriously moved forward with this idea that I was all-in. 

Can you give us a bit of history on magazine publishing in Houston? Our understanding is that it might be the largest city in the country that hasn't really had a steady city magazine.  

Well, your understanding is completely correct. Houston is an odd and unique place. It's a pretty remarkable city that has largely been overlooked for years. And people in Houston know it.  There have been several fly-by-night smaller magazines come and go--most of which have been free pubs. There's a pretty solid alternative weekly in The Houston Press, a small freebie zine called 002 and a Modern Luxury title in Houston (which is also free). Some people in the area also read Texas Monthly, but there are a lot of people in this city that have had a rather big chip on their shoulder for years that this city doesn't get enough of the editorial coverage it deserves in that magazine. It's sad, too, because to me this is the greatest city in Texas hands-down. 

Being the original DD for a magazine brand comes with quite a few unexpected design responsibilities. Any of them surprise you?

Oh, man. Where to begin? Being the DD here has been nothing short of surprising. I luckily have a pretty solid background with branding and advertising from my days in the ad agency realm and college years. It's funny, because a large majority of my time in the months leading up to this launch weren't spent doing actual editorial design--they were spent researching brands, digging through thousands of typefaces, helping choose paint swatches (for the color of the house), hiring staff, redesigning media kits, laying out rough looks of the website, designing slides for our Viewmaster Save-The-Dates, working with printers and designing launch party invitations and scheduling meeting after meeting with possible future contributors. And being a bit of a startup you have to do all sorts of things you never really planned on or imagined. I mean, I was helping pick out desks, arrange our art department, buy all of our art supplies, help set up computer workstations, move equipment to temporary offices and more. Hell, I was putting toilet paper in the bathroom and bringing in paper towels from home to make sure we had something to dry our hands with the first few months!


How did you decide to approach the task of developing a magazine from scratch? What was your philosophy in setting the design tone?

This was tough for me because there's really no hard and fast rule for this sort of thing. It's not everyday you launch a magazine literally from the ground up, so I sort of just broke things down and attacked them one at a time.

First, I started with the basics--build the brand identity. We needed a logo before we could do nearly anything, so I started with that. But as I was in the process of creating the logo I was also researching the typefaces that would be the base of the magazine. I feel like the typefaces can really help do a lot of the heavy lifting in creating the overall identity and feel of publication (or really any brand for that matter), as well as started loosely deciding on a color palette. After getting those bases covered I was pretty bogged down with more of the marketing, sales and advertising side of things for weeks. There was trying to implement a "look" into the media kit, business cards, letterhead, splash page, etc., that would fit the overall look of the publication - which is tricky because the publication hasn't been created yet. But we needed these items as sales tools to get other parts of the company up and running. 

Second, I started attacking the editorial side of things with the creation of the design template.  Luckily, I already knew the size dimensions and what to expect from our other sister publications Seattle Met and Portland Monthly. Loosely using what they had done as a rough base, I started my template in a very similar fashion, looking at margins, columns, baseline grids and the typographic style sheets. Keep in mind, there was pretty ridiculous amount of research along every step--from digging through archival photos of Houston's visual past to tearing apart every other regional and national magazine I could get my hands on to really contemplating why they are making the decisions they do. I really have AndrĂ© Mora in Seattle to thank for that--he really engrained that into my mindset from the year and a half I spent working with him. At the end of the day you want to make a magazine that's legible. I think editorial designers sometimes get so caught up in doing stuff that's creative and different and outside-the-box that we forget to do the thing that really matters the most--make things as readable as they can be. 

That said--I'm a pretty firm believer in changing things up as much as possible. None of these things are major advances in the way we do things, but they're just different. For instance, I went with an 11-column grid for our templates. So what that ends up doing is giving us these odd columns that I like to call "gap columns." But instead of getting annoyed by them (what do you mean I can't make a simple 2 column or 3 columns layout that fits the grid?!?). I just embraced them and really explored what they were capable of. And honestly, they're really quite fun! It gives us the chance to help steer the direction of what our editors can do by giving them space to add additional information into the columns (fun facts, web callouts, by lines, credits, etc.), and it gives us the chance to add additional design "twists" to each page that can help make each page feel unique and different--but still cohesive as a whole.

Another fun little touch is pulling the folios and department head tags into the grid instead of leaving them floating outside in the margin. Our folios are actually tucked up inside our column, which means I can pull the baseline down farther and keep the margins smaller and even all the way around the page (except the inside where the gutter needs a bit more space). Same goes for the departments. I feel like those are always a bit of wasted page space. I took a cue from the web and figured it's really only navigational.
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