This one’s a long one folks. So, if you’re looking for the trivia answer, just click here. A couple months ago GraphicHug had the opportunity to meet with John and Jiae at THEME, a bi-monthly Asian Culture magazine published here in the US and distributed worldwide. On a gray morning in DUMBO they humbly chatted with us and allowed us to pick their brains.
GraphicHug: Theme has a keen attention to design in every issue. How does design tie into the voice of Theme magazine?
THEME / JIAE: I feel like a magazine is a reflection of the people who make it. We were both designers before we were publishers. So you can’t divorce the design from the magazine because it’s the point of view we’re coming from. Neither of us studied design, so we approach it from a less visual perspective and more from a content perspective. So we try to marry the design with the content. That’s why the magazine is an interesting endeavour for us because it allows us not to just do visual styling, but direct the styling with a concept because we come up with the stories. So once you control the content, then you really control the design because you can marry the two, or divorce them.
GH: As curators and controllers of your own content have you guys been able to really push the boundaries of design?
THEME / JIAE: We could take more liberties, but we made a conscious decision earlier on that this wasn’t going to be an exercise in design. We wanted it to straddle the line between commercial and crafted. Takeesopus for example, they’re really pushing the boundaries in everything from printing and design and it becomes very much an object. We decided that that’s not the direction we wanted to go. It’s a little too esoteric. We wanted the content to resonate with people and we knew that all our readership weren’t designers.
We could definitely go hog-wild with the design if we were a design magazine, but we’re not, we’re a lifestyle / culture magazine. So we have to just figure out what our message is, who we’re targeting, and how we can service design to that end. The design is good, it’s clean, and we both have a keen interest in typography. And you should because a magazine is words and a bunch of images and you put them together. But beyond that, whiz bang effects, printing, production, we’ve tried to stay away from that. Besides the fact of cost, it’s alienating. The magazine becomes too precious. And we want it to be something that people pick up, now that it’s a bimonthly.
GH: Could you talk a bit about your curatorial taste. How has being former designers influenced your choice in content?
THEME / JOHN: Every time we approach an issue it’s always been about having a good mix of high and low culture. it’s not about having one kind of thing, one kind of story. And the approach has always been anything that’s interests us, and that has always guided us. We are the barometer and we are the litmus test for content. And we try and not do stories that everyone else does. So, somewhere in there lies a sweet spot that is the soul of themes.
THEME / JIAE: We’re a culmination of a lot of different experiences. We’ve traveled quite a bit. John’s not an American, he’s a New Zealander. We’ve lived abroad for a huge chunk of both our lives. All of those collective experiences in our lives affects how we look at the world and the magazine is an extension of our world.
THEME / JOHN: We brought in LinYee who’s pretty hands-on with the magazine now. So, we’ve got more voices, which is good. The drive of the magazine has never been to be this lovely esoteric object meant for you to finger. It’s meant to be read, and it’s meant to sort of affect culture and reflect culture. In order for it to do that it has to have a strong point of view, but the content has to be broad enough to appeal to a larger audience base.
THEME / JOHN: It’s also meant to have an element of surprise as well. For example, the food issue we have an artist that works in salt. I don’t think most other magazines would take that sort of approach for a certain theme and I think that’s what keeps us going. That surprise factor.
GH: Has there been a guiding theme or concept or mantra that’s been moving you guys for the past four years? An overriding goal?
THEME / JOHN: Get through the next issue? [Laughter]
THEME / JIAE: Like a lot of designers we didn’t think about the business aspect of it. A lot of people jump into project, and that’s a really good thing because it doesn’t stop you from starting the project, but once you dive headlong you start to understand that if you’re going to do this for a living you got to make it a business. So that’s something we try to impart on people who come and ask us about the magazine business. If it’s a business you have to think of it as a business. You have to do the research and learn what people are doing right and wrong and figure out what you can do to keep going on. For the most part we’re very successful, we’re still around which is a good thing considering the market. We’re actively looking for different ideas and iterations of the magazine so we can keep doing what we’re doing.
GH: Was this an escape for you guys?
THEME / JOHN: I don’t think it was an escape.
THEME / JIAE: I think we wanted to take a risk. We were quite comfortable with where we were in life. We had a choice at that point. You kind of go along that trajectory and you’re relying on a certain standard of living… So we made a choice. We either buy a house or we start a project, which meant that we were starting our careers all over again, which is kind of exciting, scary, but both of were looking for a bit of an adrenaline rush. I was working at Pentagram and John was doing creative direction for Equinox and kind of rising along the ranks. We’re both risk takers. We do dangerous sports we like rushes of energy. In that way it’s an escape, but it was more about needing to shake things up. To think about the world a little differently and we both really wanted to produce content. We were both at a point where design wasn’t fully fulfilling us in of itself. Both of us have jumped around from interests and careers because we’re constantly curious about the world. Design, there’s a certain curiosity to it, but it gets formulaic after awhile, whereas content you can really jump around. I think there’s craft there because you have to craft the message, the medium, so we love the craft. The magazine allows us to jump around and ask a lot of questions.
GH: In Theme’s fourth year now is it still maintaining it’s original rush. How has the curve of energy been?
THEME / JIAE: Anything you do over along period of time will become formulaic even if you redesign it, which we did two issues ago. We’ve been slowly mixing up the content. You have branch out in order to bring in something new and exciting. I think if you’re going to succeed as a business / magazine you kind of have to do that anyway, because it’s all these associated properties you build around the magazine that are just as valuable as the magazine itself. What more can you make that in to? whether it’s a conference, a shop, whatever.
GH: Over the past four years what has been the most exciting project or interview?
THEME / JOHN: For Issue 2 we got an opportunity to go to both China and Japan. And I have to say one of our most memorable interviews was with Daido Moriyama. That was really cool. He was very cool. We got to meet him at this local cafe. It is in a back alley, in the backwoods of Shinjuku. Its like the sixth floor of this office building. We walk in and its a dingy little cafe and he has photographs everywhere. He obviously knows the cafe owner. And he starts talking. He’s smoking. It was just a really unique kind of experience.
THEME / JIAE: Super, super talented guy.
THEME / JOHN: Yeah, he was like, we should go drinking!
GH: You were mentioning earlier, the mindset now is to often just make it to the next issue. One theme, we are constantly grappling with at GraphicHug is this notion of future. We are wondering if you have something in mind, past the next issue, something you are aiming towards and are considering for your future?
THEME / JOHN: I’d like to say, there are definitely graphic design brands. Michael Bierut is a graphic design brand. Paula Scher is a graphic design brand. People know them and they expect to be treated a certain way. There are definitely opportunities out there. The thing is, people need to understand once you are known for something, there are definitely opportunities for you to do other things. If you look at every opportunity, as an opportunity to try something different.
THEME / JIAE: I think you need to invest in it. So that means if you have never done it before, and you do it for free, well that’s what you do. You have to shape your career on a day to day basis. I mean you could just take on the same type of projects that you are good at and people recognize you for and you will get paid handsomely for it over time because its where your expertise lies. But I think again, it is about making a conscious decision that you want to take a risk. That you want to expand your set of tools and the projects you work on. And you have to develop them. And it may take years. Someone said, ten years is how long it takes to develop expertise (Malcom Gladwell’s, Outliers). I think its pretty accurate I’d say. After ten years, you are going to be pretty good at what you do. You can’t expect transformation overnight. I think everything happens in gradual steps. The opportunities are there, you just have to identify them. And you have to decide if you want them or not.
For us, I think right now, because of the whole historic election, I think John and I are thinking more about creating opportunities for giving back. We don’t know what that means yet. I used to do a lot of volunteer work growing up, but I haven’t done it in ages because I have been so absorbed in my life. This is a good time to think about maybe getting back to that. But of course we tend to think that we should start a new project. So we are kicking around new ideas like kicking off a non profit project. But perhaps, we are thinking we should perhaps give hours to the soup kitchen first before we decide to start a non profit to feed the hungry!
GH: What are you guys hugging these days?
THEME / JOHN: Our baby.
THEME / JIAE: And each other when we can. And that’s pretty much it. And the dog occasionally. Yeah, he gets very little love from us these days. He’s just the dog… just the dog…