Pentagram spiffs up Middlebury

The Summer 2012 edition of Middlebury debuted that magazine’s new look, courtesy of D.J. Stout and Barrett Fry of Pentagram Design. I think it looks great, page after page. Editor Matt Jennings and art director Pamela Fogg discussed their reset in an email interview.

UMag: This sort of thing is a big project. When did you start?

Matt Jennings: It was a huge project. Far more stressful and exhausting than I anticipated. To say that I’m not comfortable with messiness is a massive understatement, and a redesign is an inherently messy process, to a degree that I didn’t fully comprehend until I was ready to have a nervous breakdown. But I’ve learned that it has to be this way to get the result you want. And we couldn’t be happier. Now, to answer your question (thanks for listening, Dr. Keiger) . . . We started almost exactly a year ago, late August 2011. We held a retreat with the magazine stuff to just talk magazines—what makes a good one, what defines a successful redesign? We came up with enough ideas to probably make three or four different books. I then sketched out a very rough issue map of what I thought we should consider, and then Pam and I travelled over two mountain ranges in the days after Hurricane Irene ravaged the state’s roads to spend a day with the mag guru that is Jay Heinrichs. Time well spent. We came out of that meeting with a more refined issue map, and more importantly, a way forward. Jay was invaluable. We contracted with D.J. and his team in the Austin office of Pentagram in late November, brought them to campus for a kickoff meeting in December, saw initial concepts in February, batted those around for at least a month. And then we were off and running, really beginning in earnest in the spring.

UMag: Why do it at all? The existing Midd Mag looked pretty good to me.

MJ: We certainly were not unhappy with the magazine before we redesigned, but there were some things that we were itching to do that wouldn’t have worked as well with the old design. We’ve been wanting to switch to a paper that “felt” more like Middlebury, that featured a higher recycled content that was more in tune with the college’s sustainability mission. But the biggest thing, to me anyway, was that the college has changed so much during the past decade (the last time the magazine was refreshed, much less redesigned), and we needed a magazine that reflected those changes. We needed a structure, an architecture that would allow us to cover the college in a comprehensive and seamless way. At the same time, we want folks to feel like this is still “their” Middlebury. I think of Middlebury as a place that has roots in Vermont but is also forward thinking and global in its outlook. We wanted the magazine to reflect that, as well.

UMag: In addition to a graphics refurbishing, was this regarded as an opportunity to think about the whole book—content, structure, audience, history?

MJ: Yes, absolutely. The redesign was as much about creating the best architecture possible as the best look possible. We spent a lot of time talking about how to structure the magazine, how to approach the new book, well in advance of thinking about how it should look. One of the first things I said to our staff was there are no sacred cows here. Anything can go. Let’s think about what makes the best possible magazine for us.

UMag: Was the pg. 1 essay related to the cover story a one-timer, or will that be a recurring feature of the magazine?

MJ: A recurring feature. I loved the idea of opening the book with an essay that speaks to what you just saw on the cover. It’s unexpected. And I like being able to establish additional context and tone for the package that appears in the feature well. It gives you a substantive taste for what is to come. It can stand alone, but it also works in concert with the feature package.

UMag: OK, what’s up on the letters spread with the smidgen of Russian on pg. 13? And the other cameo appearances by foreign tongues? This is America, ya know.

Pam Fogg: Last I knew the United States is not an island. Language learning is essential to understanding other cultures and is part of a well-rounded person’s education. Middlebury teaches 10 languages and has study abroad programs in 38 sites in 16 countries . . . makes sense to engage directly to the folks who participate in these programs, eh? (That’s my Canadian . . .)

MJ: I was intrigued with including marginalia in the new book, and it was D.J. who came up with what he called the “secret codes.” Everything that is written is germane to Middlebury. I’ll leave it at that. And it will have to be left at that if you don’t speak the languages included because we forgot to include a box with the translations in the back of the book! That was our intention, to reveal the translations there, but in the chaos of closing this issue, we forgot! Next time.

UMag: Talk to me about the paper.

PF: We adopted an environmental paper policy at Middlebury about four or five years ago and this was the last, and biggest, project to fall into line with that policy. The text sheet is Rolland Enviro 100, which is 100 percent recycled and the cover is Rolland Opaque, which is 50 percent recycled, and both are FSC and Process Chlorine Free.

MJ: I should add, I have yet to hear from anyone—good, bad, or indifferent—who has not remarked on how much they like the paper. My favorite might be “the paper is softer than a baby panther’s fur.”

PF: You didn’t ask about the size but I’m going to tell you about that anyway. We have always loved Garden & Gun and at our retreat that was a clear frontrunner for format. So when D.J. brought that up as a size he thought was appropriate for us, we were all in agreement. It’s the same height (10 7/8 inches) but 1/2 inch wider at 9 inches. Makes for yummy double page photo spreads.

UMag: Old front-of-the-book features out, new front-of-the-book features in. Your thinking?

MJ: I always loved our front-of-the-book, but it wasn’t allowing us to cover the college as broadly as I wanted. It didn’t allow us to seamless integrate Middlebury and Monterey (our graduate school in California) the way we could with our new “Dialogue” department, for instance. And as creative as we could be with the old front of the book, it could feel a la carte, sometimes. I saw this as upgraded our toolbox, adding some new tools while refurbishing some older ones.

UMag: “The Observer” is a clever idea. Whose idea was it? (Please don’t tell me it was Jennings’.)

MJ: Ah, I take great pleasure in letting you know that it was my idea. Several years ago I read Robert Boynton’s collection of conversations with narrative journalists titled The New New Journalism, and in his introduction he wrote about the progenitors of literary journalism—not Wolfe and Talese and Didion, but Charles Dickens and Daniel Defoe and Stephen Crane, who all wrote marvelous nonfiction sketches before they each turned to fiction and novels. In particular, I was struck by the description of Crane’s work, who, Boynton wrote, perfected the “closely observed sketch of city life . . . Crane writes not as a social commentator or a polemical, muckraking journalist but rather as a detailed observer.” As soon as I read that, I knew this could be a great narrative department, exchanging “city life” for Middlebury life. The ultimate in showing and not telling. So I just held on to this idea until it we decided to redesign.

PF: How pretentious.

MJ: [ignoring Pam] As far as the anonymity of “The Observer,” I like the air of mystery, the intrigue. Who is the person? The idea is not original by any means—one of my favorite things about the Dartmouth magazine when Jay Heinrichs edited it was a column he ran under the pen of Eleazar Wheelock, the founder of Dartmouth. This particular “Observer” is under contract for one year. I already have some ideas for the Observer 2.0, though I hope folks will be clamoring for the assignment, as well.

PF: Pam, could you describe the experience of having another design team work up your new design template?

PF: I think it’s a good idea to solicit the ideas of the people on your staff and then work with an outside agency to take those even further. The in-house staff knows the institution and what will fly better than anyone. But an outside agency can push you a little further. Then we have to reign in the agency or push them in different way, and they do it back to us and over and over. Its all a good, necessary and, sometimes, messy process. (Can you tell we thought this was a messy process?) Getting as much brainpower as possible in the room makes for a better piece. A lot of the structure of this magazine came out of our team brainstorm session, but D.J. and his crew came up with some of the department names and a few of the other goodies like the “secret codes.” Plus who has time to redesign a magazine while doing the myriad other things one has to do?! For the love of Pete you need help and you need separation. Having said that, I would love to clear the decks and do this in-house if it were even possible. What’s wrong with me?!


  1. Jeff lott

    I loved the new Midd Mag the moment it arrived. To open the cover and find an essay by Bill McKibben was a delightful surprise that made me want to look deeper. And now to learn that Pam admires Garden and Gun—one of the best new magazines of the past decade—well, I am even more enamored. Oh, and I agree with her that Jennings is pretentious. Totally hogged the interview. Great job, everyone.

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>