Tag: UNDERSCORE Magazine

Self-Publishing: Graphic Design’s New Muse in Singapore?

Singapore graphic design studios like fFurious, PHUNK, Asylum, and Kinetic may have different styles and approaches, but there’s one thing that binds their practices: music.  The founders of these studios grew up listening to bands like New Order and Joy Division that had record and CD covers designed by the likes of Peter Saville and Vaughan Oliver. They also watched  animation graphics on television channel MTV and browsed magazines such as The Face and Ray Gun, which were designed by Neville Brody and David Carson respectively.

These studios, established in the late ’90s and early 2000s,  have acknowledged the influence of music on their designs, whether it was introducing them to the profession or inspiring them to work on music-related projects — PHUNK originally started as a music band and still refer to themselves as a ‘visual rock band’; one of Asylum’s goals was to design record covers such as 4AD, and they  started a music label; the founders of Kinetic were also in the band Concave Scream and work with local band The Observatory; while fFurious designed album covers for Singapore music bands and also worked on legendary local music magazine BigO.

But with the slow death of albums, the design scene today, however, seems to have found a new muse. In the last few years, many younger designers have gotten involved in self-publishing. Just this weekend, Galavant, an annual magazine focusing on collaborative and curated content from around the world, was founded by photographer Dilys Ng and designer Nathalia Kasman. The inaugural issue uses a mix of poems, short stories and images to explore the theme of “Absence”.

It is a familiar format found in UNDERSCORE MagazineCasual Days, Ceriph, kult, Bracketand Terroir Magazine — independent publications started in Singapore by designers or design-conscious founders over the last three years. By and large, these publications focus on literature as well as arts and culture from Singapore and around the world. And as I’ve written elsewhere, these magazines share a similar outlook and ethos.

Could self-published projects become the definitive element in the portfolio of Singapore’s future graphic designers? It fits into the global trend of designers becoming authors, and magazines have proven to be one of the best mediums for projecting a distinctive “voice” with images and text.

Two Singapore studios are already taking self-publishing further than just magazines. Epigram has been working on annual reports and occasionally published books since it founded in 1991, but last year in July, it started a separate entity Epigram Books to publish its own books, including literature, photography and children’s books.

A much younger entity is Studio Kaleido, which is behind Ceriph. The magazine preceded the studio’s founding last year, but since then, the founders Amanda Lee and Winnie Goh have gone on to initiate several publishing projects including GRAPHME, a zine lab, while busying themselves with design work too.

Of course, the one major difference with publishing a magazine as compared to designing a record is it is continuous. You got to regularly come up with the next issue. So it’s not very surprising that many of these magazines are annuals, and the most prolific is quarterly. Will these publishing efforts sustain in the following years? Read on.

Has media become nothing more than marketing?

“Media and publishing is now just another form of marketing for those who can afford it.

“And those who create good content? Get close to nothing — or nothing.”

So says my friend, Zakaria Zainal, an independent photojournalist.

It’s hard to disagree, going by what I’ve been seeing in the media market both in Singapore and the world. A couple of months ago, I wrote about how new publishers of media here today are not purely media companies anymore, but graphic design studios or companies that essentially do not earn from media at all.

Underscore, published by design studio Hjgher, is a classic case. At The Design Society’s Sessions last night on the phenomenon of self-publishing, I got to ask publisher Justin Long how the magazine earned its revenue. His answer? It barely breaks even. But Underscore is not about making money, he said. Instead, it earns its “value” through the network of friends it has gained, and how it has helped to market the studio to the world. According to Long, only a 1000 copies are sold in Singapore, and the rest, some 4000, are distributed overseas. The other two speakers that evening also had similar models. Basheer distributes and sells books, when it does publish books, it makes sure the market is big enough. Yanda, the man behind THEARTISTANDHISMODEL keeps his blog going purely out of passion, and also makes a living from elsewhere.

What surprised me the most was that none of the contributors to Underscore magazine get paid, according to Long. For someone who earns his keep from producing media, it only proves that I cannot earn from creating media I like. Instead, I have to “sponsor” work that I like by taking on jobs that actually pay — essentially Underscore‘s business model. Although I still continue contributing to magazines and websites that pay very little, because I believe in the magazine and the content that it puts out, you always question how sustainable is this. Will the contributor/magazine who doesn’t get paid or gets paid miserly eventually die out? Highly likely.

A conversation that happened after Sessions also proved Zakaria’s point. A designer told me about a client who wanted to create media online to attract eyeballs to his brand. It shows that people do demand good content, but at the same time, they are not willing to pay for it directly. So, businesses have benefitted the most from the boom in self-publishing. They can easily fund and create media that will eventually attract attention their brands. On the other hand, media not meant for marketing or commercial gains find it easy to start, but hard to sustain.

But this problem is nothing new, traditional media’s approach has been to sleep with advertisers. But now that readers are immune to the advertisement and content distinction, media owners are forced to blur the lines, producing advertorials to keep this age-old funding model alive. Look at Monocle and how it partners with governments and corporations to produce content, events and even products. While a Monocle x Porter bag shows how strong the media brand is, you also question, what difference does Monocle make to the Porter bag? It’s a fine line between meaningful collaborations and selling out.

So where does all this leave media producers like me? Are we cheapening ourselves by sleeping so readily with companies and organisations just for a platform to say our piece? Can we demand media owners pay bigger share, especially if they are profiting from it? Should consumers pay us more and directly?

I haven’t figured it out. But as Zakaria says: “Exciting times nonetheless.”

D&AD winner UNDERSCORE launches issue two

Fresh from winning a pencil from this year’s D&AD in the Magazine & Newspaper Design section, UNDERSCORE magazine, created by local design collective Hjgher, is launching its second issue at four venues this weekend. From Oct 21 to Oct 25, four versions of the The Constant Issue will be showcased together with four limited edition Vanguard bicycles crafted for UNDERSCORE. The magazine and four bicycles will be available for pre-sale at the installations.

You can view the installations at the following four places:

  • 2902 Gallery, OldSchool, 11B Mount Sopphia, #B2-09
  • Books Actually, 86 Club Street
  • Grafunkt, Park Mall, 9 Penang Road, #B1-21
  • Fred Perry Laurel, 19 Ann Siang Road