Interview - John L. Walters Eye Magazine

By Michael Schepis → Wednesday, January 2, 2013

In with the New Year and we talk to John L. Walters a British editor, critic and composer
who tells us about his background in publishing, experience as Editor of Eye Magazine and what magazines and music he's into right now (and did I mention how quick he is replying to his tweets).

For those who don't know John L. Walters here is a brief background. John was a founding member of the band Landscape, best known for the 1981 hit ‘Einstein A Go-Go’ which reached no. 5 in the UK charts.

In 1992, with Laurence Aston, he co-founded the audio journal Unknown Public. Aston and Walters also founded the SoundCircus label with pianist Joanna MacGregor and producer James Mallinson.

In 1997, after working for various newspapers and magazines, including the Architectural Review, he joined Eye magazine as managing editor, and subsequently became its editor and co-owner. He holds a degree in Maths with Physics from King's College London.

Walters also writes about creative music (jazz, electronica, world music, etc.) for The Guardian.

Walters has been the editor of Eye since the publication of Eye no. 33 in 1999. He became its co-owner (with art director Simon Esterson) after a management buy-out in 2008. In January 2010 he was the co-curator of a one-day conference about music and design at St Bride Library, London.

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue. You can see what the latest Eye Magazine looks like here.

Interview by Katy Ibsen for MagSpreads

You boast a varied background, how did you find yourself in publishing?

I don’t think ‘boast’ is quite the correct word, but I guess I’ve filled a dozen or so job descriptions since I left school. Composer / teacher / bandleader / recording artist / record producer / curator / subeditor / consultant / journalist / columnist / editor / critic / media owner. They all overlap, however.

However I’ve always written, and if you write, you’re in publishing. As for editing, my wife works in book publishing and magazine journalism, and she suggested that I could do it (and taught me how) when our kids were small and money was tight.

What do you enjoy most about editing Eye?

The content, the contributors and the readers. Being in touch with a wide range of talented, interesting people.

In your opinion, what continues to make Eye such a popular publication?

The content, and Simon Esterson’s highly assured art direction of that content. We also have an amazing archive, going back to the first Poynor / Coates issue in 1990, so new or returning readers can quickly grasp the history of the magazine and read the new material in the context of the older articles.

Because Eye magazine’s content is on graphic design, what inspires you about graphic design?

Graphic design is nearly always about something or for something – there’s always a story, a context, a relationship between designer and client. And its execution depends on human ingenuity and appropriate technology, so it’s always changing. Furthermore, our understanding of graphic design history continues to evolve: our perspective on the form, content and context of past work changes all the time, informed by fresh ideas and insights and the hard graft of new research.

Graphic design for magazines is such a delicate endeavour, how do you and Simon work to best capture the design you are featuring?

You have to treat the content you’re showing with respect: good photography and repro. We do our best to check and subedit the original text with care. The layout has to present the images and the article and caption text as clearly as possible. The display copy – headlines, standfirsts, pull quotes – all need thought. However we are putting this together for our readers – we want them to be simulated by what they see and read (often in that order) in Eye and the readers should come first.

What is a day in the Eye office like for you?

I pick up a coffee on my way in. I sit at my desk. Then it could be anything. On Monday I went to see an amazing archive; last night I had a drink with a designer who’s organising a design event for later next year. Some days we have several interns and freelances helping out; on other days I’m on my own. However we share a space with three other companies (including Simon’s) so it’s very sociable. Simon and I discuss what’s coming up; what needs finishing off. Contributors drop by for a chat. Sometimes I go to an exhibition, or interview someone, or visit a college or conference to give a talk or chair a discussion. There’s commercial stuff to do, too: meeting and briefing our advertising sales team; sending out newsletters; encouraging potential readers to buy copies, subscribe or re-subscribe; and thinking up schemes that might attract new readers. Sometimes we set up shop at an event and sell issues face to face – that’s always fun.

If you could send one message to your readers, what would it be?

Thank you for reading.

What do you value in your contributors?

Enthusiasm for (and specialist knowledge of) their subject. Clear, accurate writing. A point of view. My aim is that each new issue includes at least one writer new to the printed magazine (the current issue, Eye 84, includes five: James Clough, Elizabeth Glickfeld, Henry Stanley, Daniel Benneworth-Gray and Elizabeth Biedler).

What has been your favourite feature in Eye?

Too difficult! Revising the design and management of the Eye website has meant going deep into the archive, reminding us of some terrific articles, reviews and opinion pieces. Some are timeless; some are dated, but even articles about CD-ROMs and early Web design, etc. can be fascinating as ‘time capsules’ from the recent past. And there are ‘topical’ articles, such as Robin Kinross’s overview of digital type design from 1992 (‘The digital wave’, Eye 7),  that read just as well nearly a generation later. Every Sunday I endeavour to Tweet one of these classic ‘long reads’.

One pleasing aspect of the new site is that links to many of these articles (as well as to blog posts from up to four years ago) are displayed at random on the home page, so there’s always the possibility of visitors discovering articles about Massin or Müller-Brockmann or Jacqueline Casey when they are merely browsing to see what the latest issue might have.

The magazine has shown great success since its launch in 1990, and under your helm as editor. What do you attribute this to?

Not sure about ‘great success’ (which is a term one might use for Google, or Adele, or Mo Farah winning two golds at the 2012 Olympics). But Eye has kept going through some very difficult times for media businesses. And we’ve been able to grow, and possibly improve the magazine. That could be attributed to the fact that the people who make the magazine (Simon Esterson and me) own the magazine. We love what we’re doing and we’re pretty tenacious.

What does the future hold (for you and Eye)?

More of the same. And a few things that will be completely different. Simon and I are collaborating on a book, too, for publication in 2014.

Quick Fire Questions
What is your favourite typeface?
I don’t really have a favourite (and you may know that Eye changes its typefaces with each issue), but when I’m scribbling notes I have an attachment to Monotype Grotesque 215 (long story) and American Typewriter. Emails (like this one) are usually in Matthew Carter’s Georgia or Verdana.

What is your most treasured magazine subscription?
I’ll steer clear of all the design magazines I receive! Sentimentally, I valued the BBC Music Magazine subscription that I bought for my Mum in her final years, which gave her a lot of pleasure, and the subscription to Selvedge I gave to my wife. Subscriptions make great gifts.

What is the best thing about editing Eye?
Content. People.

What are you currently listening to?
File Under Zawinul by The Syndicate. The Necks. Mara Carlyle. Tango Crash. Christine Tobin. Zoltan Kodaly. Gil Evans (of course). Antunes, Scandurra, Diabaté. Joe Jackson. Snarky Puppy. Stravinsky. Gustavo Santaolalla. Inch-Time. Peter Blegvad & Andy Partridge’s Gonwards …

Can the creation of print be compared with the creation of music?
Yes and no. Print is not a ‘heritage’ (or device-specific) medium like vinyl – making magazines is more like putting on gigs or going on the road. 

Thanks again John! We appreciate your time and commitment to Spreading the MagLove. All the best with your future endeavours and may you have a prosperous New Year!

Michael Schepis

MagSpreads is dedicated to the process and progress of magazine design and the publishing industry and its practitioners, students and enthusiasts. Its purpose is to define and promote the world’s best magazine design, and provide a place where the magazine design community can review, critique and stay informed of the latest industry trends and design projects being created in the field.

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