Scott Dadich & Gael Towey: The Future of Design in Media

“Though media and technology are changing rapidly and fundamentally, the essential ingredients of good design are not.” Abstract Conference, an exploration of editorial design’s new relationship with technology and media, kicks off June 10th. In preparation, ADC sat down with two creatives at the forefront of change: Scott Dadich, Executive Director, Editorial Development for Conde Nast, and Gael Towey, Chief Creative and Editorial Director for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

How did Abstract Conference come together?

Scott: Me and a few of the guys were having dinner as we frequently do and we all commiserated about work one night over steaks. And we were talking – this is probably about two years ago – about how editorial design doesn’t seem to get a place as prominent in the American, and frankly sometimes the international, conference scene. I think we’ve all spoken internationally and domestically about it here and there, but there’s never been a day dedicated to great editorial communication and design. So we started talking about this idea of doing something about it.

Then of course the world imploded ecomonically and we found ourselves on the other side of an iPad, and things really started to click into place. We were in a position to influence the conversation about design, about publishing, about media. So all of us being friends and colleagues through SPD and having worked together at various points across space and time, we all gathered and decided it was time to put on a conference and really address some of the changes that our industry has been going through.

And Gael you just hopped aboard?

Gael: Yeah, you know I think the guys looked around and said “hey, wait a minute, we need a girl.”

Scott: Guilty as charged!

Gael: I’ve never said that before, I just want you to know!

Scott: Besides that, the apps that Gael has been working on at Martha Stewart are best in class. We couldn’t legitimately have this conversation without her.

Things are certainly changing – you work in print, PC, phone, tablet – what’s your design process like now?

Gael: Well the digital magazine is essentially a “replica-plus,” and for us at Martha Stewart, the reason we thought we would be really success at this is because we have a television show and our editors are used to thinking about their ideas for TV, the website, their blogs and the magazine at the same time.

Art Director: Rob Van Wyen
Photographer: Emily Kate Roemer

Having the opportunity to take these brand new tools like video, slideshows and stop-action in order to express the ideas that they’ve already been expressing in these other media gets it all in one place so that the consumer doesn’t have to be fishing all over the place for all their different content. It’s all sort of findable. That’s the beauty of the iPad and what was so exciting for us, and that’s why we got onto this and thought we were uniquely positioned.

We also have a lot of evergreen content, things that people will always love, like cupcakes and cookies and stuff like that. So we’re itemizing that content and creating particular apps like our cookie app. We have a couple other, we just released an iphone app for 101 egg decorating ideas. Those types of smaller pieces of content are also uniquely perfect for our audience who are looking for ideas.

Scott: I’m going to take issue with one word that Gael used, that we find a dirty word now, and that’s “replica”

We look at this year as… we joke about it being our “roads and schools year”, where we’re building up a new kind of infrastructure as we move into a new normal; about that new normal being a multi-channel world where you’ve got a powerful brand that has a strong relationship with a group of people who identify with Martha or Vanity Fair or Wired or GQ, and they want to access that content through the channel that’s most available to them.

Gael: [Agreement]

Scott: Now that we have other ways of connecting with that group of folks that we have this relationship with, whether it is on a phone or a Kindle or an iPad, we’re going to take advantage of that. We’re trying to look at it more holistically as a spectrum of experiences, so when we sit down in an editorial meeting we can think about the engagement on the phone vs. the paper vs. the iPad.

There has been this criticism of what the publishing industry is doing that says, “well it’s just a replica, they’re just stuffing the magazine onto the iPad” and it’s really not the case. From the editors to the floor editors to the designers, they are actually thinking about what is the appropriate engagement, what is the appropriate way to tell a story?

I think that’s really the exciting thing about where we’re going. When it ceases to become a technology conversation and the advent of a real creative conversation occurs, that’s really where it gets exciting.

I think that’s the point of this conference: great design is technology agnostic, it’s device agnostic. Great design is great design, and that’s fundamentally centers on communicating.

Gael: I agree with you, “replica” isn’t the right word. It’s almost like telling the story with different ways of telling the story, and different aspects of that story will enlighten the reader in different ways. There’s certain content that’s more suited for video and other content that’s more suited for still photography or any of the other tools that we can use now.

Scott: Today we’re in a sprint to get the first Vanity Fair ebook out and this is an invented book just for digital editions, mainly kindle and nook. The sort of design decisions we’ve been struggling with – we’ve been up all night working with the limited range of choices we have. We’ve gotten used to this sense of high fidelity design on the iPad, and equally challenging is the low fidelity end, where we don’t have color and we don’t have ultimate typographic control and all that we’re used to. It’s interesting.

Gael: Ebooks are actually really tough

You both brought up the relationship with content. Are you called upon to be interactive designers now as well as editorial designers?

Scott: Yeah, we find ourselves now shaping interactions rather than designing a page. In the past it was the placement of a headline and a drop cap and a photograph and a piece of copy. We were still designing an interaction at that point, we wanted you to read one thing first – the headline first and then the deck next and then engage in the story. We were shaping how your behavior would generate an understanding of the content.

We’re still doing that, but we now have time as another tool. So not only are we going to convey a piece of information, we have the ability to speak and narrate and show and tell and do and actually activate the reader so that they can shape what the experience looks like. So we’ve become less designers and more interactive designers, more directors more guides and sherpas through the mass of digital content.

Gael: And for us, because we’re a how-to brand, we’re finding this addition of more tools to tell the story even more exciting. We can make you more inspired to make that cake because you can see it before you in video, or more inspired to cook that meal, or less confused about how to make a craft because you have step-by-step slideshows. It’s so easy to be clear.

Scott: Gael’s done an amazing thing here, and almost invented this idea of a visual recipe, where you don’t even need the text. When you see the steps happen it’s as powerful or more powerful than actually reading the recipe – that’s the way I like to cook. That’s certainly something where you’re changing how you shape the interaction.

We think about that for everything – an editors letter, why do you need to read an editor’s letter? Wouldn’t it be better just to actually watch a video of the editor introducing the issue? A story, a 5000-word narrative, why doesn’t that want to be a documentary? Those are the kind of conversations we’re having every day, and that’s really fun for us.

Gael: It gets the designer really into the center of the conversation. The other thing we’re experimenting with is game-like activity. One of the things that I like about the cookie app is there’s a childlike feeling of wonder and awe. You’re gliding along and seeing all these fabulous looking cookies and you touch one and it takes you someplace. It’s cool that it’s non-linear but it’s also more like a game than like a magazine or a book.

So as creative directors now is it important to understand things like distribution models, coding and pricing as well? Has technology expanded your role?

Scott: I’d say exponentially expanded it! [Laughs] It’s like, can’t I go back to just designing stuff? I find myself in consumer marketing, technology, interactions, UX meetings, business meetings, device meetings… and then I go and design from seven to ten PM. It’s certainly a different kind of day for me as a creative director.

I suspect that’s going to change as things level out and a new normal does get established, but for the foreseeable future it’s certainly going to a situation of intense change over a short periods of time.

Gael: You know, we’re not making money yet, and that’s a big problem. We’re spending money to build the roads as Scott was saying. I am on the line with our executive team trying to explain why this is a really important thing to do.

You have to know what you’re talking about at least a little bit. You have to get people in the company on your side – the digital team, the advertising team. You have to be able to talk through why it’s necessary to the financial guys.

It’s really imperative to spend the time with the business folks so that they understand why it’s really important to take these next steps. And I don’t stay and design from ten to two in the morning! Cause I don’t really design anymore, I just go to meetings!

Let’s talk about the problem of getting people to pay for content – what’s the designer’s role in that conversation?

Scott: You know what, I’m big on preaching about number one: discoverability. But also the sort of training that needs to go into the conversation with our reader. If you think about 2004 and you think about the literally hundreds of millions of dollars that Apple spent on educating people that iPods were meant for music, and you think about the bill-boards that graced every piece of New York and San Francisco and LA and every magazine that was out there… That was a huge reeducation process where Apple tried to get people to think of music past a little plastic disc.

You think about where we are, and where the ipod was in 2003 when it came out vs. where we are today: we’re not even a year into iPad. So I don’t think there’s an understanding yet from the consumer standpoint that this device is ideally suited to reading magazines and consuming media content. Certainly it is on the video spectrum, and the gaming spectrum, and utility apps, but a third of the people aren’t even going and opening the app store. So we need to do our part, and I would hope that Apple does their part, in educating the magazine consumer that this is a device ideally suited for this kind of activity.

Beyond that, I think people are willing to pay. I think they see value. We do see that small group of folks that are reading our magazines (small in the context of what our normal penetration is in print). We see those people highly engaged, highly motivated and consistently applied to reading and consuming the content. So I think there’s a silver lining in there, it’s just we have larger work to do about the general marketplace.

And the other thing is that there are 80,000 newsstands across the US, and today there’s one digital newsstand. We have to enable competition, we have to enable multiple ways to go buy a magazine digitally. And until that happens we’re still going to have a struggle.

Gael: I think Scott answered it very well. There just aren’t that many iPads out there yet, even though they’ve been selling like crazy. We have apps that are in the top ten or fifteen, and the number of apps that we’re selling per week or month is very small by comparison to a normal newsstand. So that’s just a question of time and evolution.

Editor in Chief- Gael Towey
Photographer- Gentl & Hyers

Who else is getting this relationship between design and technology right at the moment?

Scott: I think in general the app and developer marketplace understands. I think Apple has something like 30,000 registered developers now, and they’ve had ten billion app downloads. So certainly there’s a commerce engine there – they have 200 million credit cards.

People expect to pay for content, and they expect to understand the relationship between design and interaction and content. I think the groundwork is starting to fall into place. It will be interesting to see how communities like Hollywood get into this space, and it’s been interesting to watch the Time Warner conversation with the iPad app.

Gael: and Cable.

Scott: It will be really fascinating to see how that plays out.

Those are big industries to move, but Wired and Martha Stewart adopted the iPad incredibly quickly! How do you make an organization react to change fast enough?

Gael: You know I have to give Scott credit for that completely. Scott and I were having dinner one night with my husband, and he was working on this with Adobe way ahead of this, before everybody else. He was the pioneer there. He showed us what he was working on on his iPhone and I was so excited by it, because I’ve never liked how our brands look on the web. It’s such an information based research tool, as opposed to an experience tool, and this felt like an amazing experience.

I asked him if he would come in and show it to Martha – who loves technology and loves new things and always wants to be out there in front on the cutting edge. She got so excited about it. I think internally from our perspective, without Martha being the champion of moving forward and being ready for the next thing and making that leap, we would never have done it. She is such a proponent of doing the most creative thing.

But if I hadn’t had dinner with Scott that night we probably would still be twiddling our thumbs over here.

Scott: And really the credit goes to my bosses and colleagues here at Conde Nast: Mr. Newhouse and Chris Anderson and Tom Wallace, the editorial director. When I did bring that sketch forward and show what the possibilities were, it was at least nine-ten months before the iPad was even announced, let alone available. Nobody really understood what this device would be or look like or feel like, and I give them ultimate credit because they believed in me.

I’ve never had to make an argument in this company about the importance or value of innovation and progress, certainly around technology. So there’s always been a pathway for this kind of conversation around here.

We have a lot of graduating student members, do either of you have advice for new editorial designers entering the field?

Gael: Take a motion graphics course.

Scott: Yeah, [laughs] I’m not even considering resumes of folks that don’t have multimedia experience. We’re going to tell our stories within these grand frameworks in ways that we can’t even imagine yet. The ability to innovate, and learn new softwares and new production techniques, and to be able to ideate freely without constraint of what we’ve done in the past is really crucial.

I myself want to be challenged. I’ve learned so much from my colleagues everyday, I just look for people that want to learn and be challenged alongside me. There is a higher design metabolism, a higher creative metabolism out of some of the students that are coming across my desk, and that’s really exciting to see. It’s going to make it tougher – I’m glad I’m not a student at the moment!

Gael: Me too!

Scott: But it is encouraging, and I sat with Richard Wilde a few weeks ago and Carin Goldberg, and the excitement is there. They understand that this change needs to happen. Clearly we’re going to see a crop of students that understand and can metabolize this change as quickly as they need to.

Gael: The way we’ve always been structured (the Art Director) is managing and directing the photo shoots, because the concept is generally a visual concept or a how-to concept to get executed visually. So we really need people who can think in that storytelling way, and the leap from stills to video really isn’t that big.

I know a lot of people feel a little intimidated by that but I think that if your brand message is consistent then the thought process of how you achieve that (and I think that’s partially what this conference is about) is still one of the biggest hurdles in publication design: learning how to be both an art director and an editor at the same time.

What right now is the biggest challenge when you come to work everyday?

Scott: I’d say the pace of change. Just as soon as I think we’ve maybe got a corner on these things, some event streams, or apple changes the rule, something happens in the marketplace, a new technology comes along. The challenges and assumptions we made yesterday – I think that’s the double edged sword here. The exciting part is that it is so rapidly evolving, but that’s also the scary piece. So it hard to settle into a natural rhythm and say “this is where we’re going and this is how we’re going to get there.” At the same time that same situation provides new opportunities for us.

Gael: Yeah, I agree – I think pace of change. And then there’s the advertising hurdle, which we haven’t really talked about, and ADC has a lot of advertisers. I do feel like the advertising community is not completely engaged yet. So I’m excited to see what happens, because I’m sure something will happen. But we’re not seeing a lot of originality coming out of the advertisers yet. Certainly not on the level of the editorial.

Will you be addressing that at the conference at all?

Scott: Absolutely.

Do either of you have a specific message you will be trying to drive home at Abstract Conference?

Scott: I’m going to show how the developments that we established at Wired are now informing the entire company as my role transitioned from a single magazine into a collaboration with all of the magazines. That’s been an interesting division to be in, and I’ve learned a lot just by observing and seeing all the different ways that magazines operate and observe change and innovate on their own pace and scale.

I’m going to be sharing some of their work, and showing some of the company’s thinking of where the market is going and how the creative exercise of publishing and advertising hopes and I think looks to evolve in the coming years. I’m just going to deconstruct some of what I think are some of the most successful projects that’s I’ve been able to work on and why they’ve achieved a measure of success.

Gael: I’m going to talk about brand-building. It’s a little of what Scott was just referring to – each brand has its own DNA. How do you take those principles and guide them to build your business? Whether it’s on the iPad – in our case a lot of our product design comes out of what the essence of the magazine stands for – whether it’s the taste-making aspect of it and the style aspect of it, or the trusted content that drives people to trust the brand, whether it’s a brand in your magazine, or a brand on your website, or a brand in your store.

You’re still believing in that and using your design principles and visualization of the brand to make all those design decisions, whether it’s designing for the iPad or designing for product.

Is there anything exciting coming up for you on the horizon?

Scott: Vanity Fair is coming out next week, and I’m thrilled about that. I think David Harris and Graydon and their teams have just done a spectacular job of translating the magazine onto the iPad. I think it’s just a thrilling way to read Vanity Fair, so I’m excited about that.

I feel just as strongly about GQ, which probably is coming out the week after. So at that point we’ll be almost halfway through our portfolio and I’m thrilled about that as an accomplishment. We’ve accomplished a lot of change here in the company, still got a long way to go, but I’m proud of what my colleagues have done.

Gael: I really can’t talk about it yet, but I do feel like what Scott was saying, that everything seems to be changing everyday. Just keeping up with the amount of content that needs to be produced and constantly realigning, even just assessing, how much content you’re putting into every app and monitoring it and figuring out the workload is an ongoing process. Because we’re still in the early stages of trying to figure out what the right balance is.

Any last words about Abstract Conference?

Scott: I’m excited for the reason we started talking about: the idea of a conversation between all of us.

I think this is different from most conferences because we all are so intimately involved and friendly and competitive and aware of each others’ work that this is going to be a day where it’s not just going to be concise forty minute talks and then on to the next guy. I think there’s going to be a developing narrative that comes across over the day through Alice [Twemlow]’s work in framing the conversation early. And having the opportunity to have all of us back on stage for a long-form conversation, much as this has been, is personally something that I’m very excited about and I think is unique in the conference space. Especially in the design conference space.

We’re thinking of it very much like a symposium style day, where there’s a good back and forth between the audience and ourselves, and we really want to get as much out of it as we hope our attendees get.

We’re quite excited for it as well – the public attention on the importance of media right now is higher than I can ever remember it being.

Gael: That’s true! It’s great to be in that position.

Interview: Max Dunfey