We talk to Erin Spens, Editor of Boat, a magazine that is re-thinking what a Travel magazine might be in the 21st Century
Design Week called Boat magazine “One of the most exciting new titles we’ve seen in a while. A brilliant concept and equally brilliant execution.” Creative Review couldn’t resist a seaworthy metaphor in its praise, “Still moving, Boat Magazine continues to be one of the most inspiring ventures out there.” While The Rumpus, a San Francisco-based culture mag with the tagline, “A love letter to the convict in your heart” clearly enjoyed the prison library duties, “This is the best magazine I have read in a long time – one of the most creative, beautiful, and engaging things to ever land in my mailbox.”
In some ways The Rumpus is the most telling blurb in that Boat magazine has clearly escaped the design-world calling-card of its origins to become a stand-alone publication. But in truth, the truth is always more complicated.
Editor Erin Spens and Creative Director Davey Spens launched Boat magazine in 2011, as a project of Boat Studio in East London. Like many new niche magazines in the new publishing model both online and offline, Boat also served as a portfolio piece for the Studio except its proposition was always much more conceptual and interesting. Not only did each issue focus on a single city, but for each issue, the magazine team relocated to the city it was featuring.
We often think of research as a kind of ‘before’ in a project, that it’s the stuff we need to help us succeed on a brief for a task that’s already set, research as a kind of backstory for a problem that’s already been defined. But quality research becomes experiment, it introduces disorder into a familiar working process and changes goals, changes thinking, changes the problem we set out to address and gives us a new opportunity. Rocket engineer Wernher Von Braun once said that, “research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.” Which is how Boat Studio redefined the ‘Travel’ magazine – by travelling. Research is about not-knowing.
Boat magazine plugged into the urban-centric trends of globalization, where the commercial and cultural power of cities such as London challenge that of the nation state, but it explored cities who have undergone enormous change, through war such as Sarajevo, or through crisis-capitalism such as Detroit, Athens, Reykjavik.
In the interview below Editor Erin Spens explains how Boat’s nomadic working process evolved, the studio in the early issues closing itself down in its London base then reforming in the city that was being covered in its issue – up till now these cities include Sarajevo, Detroit, London, Athens, Kyoto, Reykjavik, Lima.
Boat (what other name would a nomadic studio and magazine have?) reformats the Travel magazine as part anthropology, part culture, part geography. So the Reykjavik issue includes features on geothermal energy, William Gershom Collingwood’s saga paintings,
genomics and a restaurant where each day the suppliers of the food get their photo placed on a ‘wall-of-fame’ – the face of provenance.
As much as the journalism and the stories are a carefully selected slice of life, it’s how the text is married with images that makes Boat unique – the images are rarely obvious, and each issue has a slightly different colour palette that reflects the city as much as the stories. It’s the geography of colour that in the current issue mixes features on folk art,
to a feature on a highly innovative recycling scheme
to an article on the culture surrounding the hallucinogenic Ayahuasca plant.
In researching and making the magazine, Boat have reinvented the travel magazine, reinvented themselves and reinvented a way of working.
To find out more and to buy issues of Boat, click here.
Could you tell us a little about your educational/professional backgrounds?
Erin Spens: I worked in New York in printing and display design, for high-end fashion brands. I helped to design, produce, and then install window displays and in-store displays all along 5th Avenue and Madison Avenue. I became familiar with printing production and design processes but I’ve always wanted to be a writer and that desire only got stronger the longer I worked in other fields. I’ve kept a journal my whole life and I’ve always had writing projects going on the side so when I met my husband and moved to England without a work visa, I was forced to step back and work out what I really wanted to do. We started a creative agency together and the first time we had a slow month, we decided to do something fun together as a studio – that’s how Boat Magazine started.
Was Boat Studio always conceived as having a nomadic component, or did it emerge with the magazine?
Erin Spens: Boat Studio was always based in London but when we had that slow month we thought it would be interesting to take the studio away and set it down in a new city, working on a project together. None of us really knew anything about Sarajevo and the flights were cheap so we booked a whole month there. We closed our other projects down that time so that we could focus totally on gathering really amazing content in Sarajevo and then we brought it back to London and put it together in a magazine. To have an entire month in an interesting city with nothing to do but explore, meet the locals, learn the history and write, photograph, and draw – it’s a dream, really, and was so good for us all creatively.
How does doing the magazine impact on the rest of your work, both logistically in terms of being away, but also creatively?
Erin Spens: Sarajevo is the only issue we closed down our other work for and focused totally on the magazine. As the magazine has grown, we’ve had to split the studio work away from the magazine in order to keep a focus on both. Inevitably the work each side of the studio is doing inspires the other, but we’ve had to separate them a bit more to make sure one doesn’t get lost in the other. Logistically that means that the entire studio doesn’t come with us to the focus city for each issue anymore. Now we handpick the team for each issue based on the city and what the needs are around it. This seems to work well and since the studio still subsidizes the magazine a bit, it’s been a necessary but hard decision to make.
The last two issues the size of the magazine has changed, the design and layouts have changed, so for example in the Lima issue you use hand-painted headlines and script. When does the thinking around this develop?
Erin Spens: The thinking around the design elements starts when the team is in the city. We have always tried to make each issue feel like the city it’s focused on and that means allowing the city to inspire the design elements rather than going after what’s trendy or ‘of the moment’ in the design world. We could never use the Detroit issue’s big, bold, athletic design in the Kyoto issue because Kyoto is a quiet, precise, private city.
Erin Spens: We decided with the Lima issue to pull all those changes back a little and try to set more of a style which will run through all of the issues while still leaving some design elements to be inspired by the city. We’ve always used titling as a way to get the personality of the city into the issue, and that will continue. The hand-painted headlines in the Lima issue is something taken straight from the streets of Lima – from the ‘chicha posters’ which are hand-painted and plastered all over the city – and we care a lot more about those elements being recognized by people who have been to Lima or by Peruvians than we do about what’s trendy design-wise.
Regarding photography, do the colour palettes change each issue?
Erin Spens: The colour palettes depend totally on the colour palette of the city, so yes they naturally change each time. I think the two most different cities we’ve covered were Detroit and Kyoto. Detroit was bold blues, oranges, black and white, yellow and Kyoto was very muted earthy tones. We get a pretty good idea of colour palettes as soon as we land in the city.
What do you think is the impact of mobility on your thinking and the execution of work?
Erin Spens: Physically going to the city makes such a difference in terms of what I talked about above – making the magazine feel like the city. If we were just remotely collecting a bunch of stories about the city, it would be much harder to get a holistic view and to put that across in the magazine. The fact that the team who creates the magazine spends a good amount of time in the city or are native to the city makes it much easier to get the heart of the city into the magazine.
To get a sense of your process, could you take us through the development of one of the stories, from research, to writing, to photography?
Erin Spens: A lot of our stories are written by locals in the city so they have a different process than we do as the ‘outsiders’. I should say that the inside/outside perspective in our magazine is something we always try to do – getting both views in the magazine helps us tell a more balanced, well-rounded story of the city. For us as the ‘outsiders’ we do a lot of research and tons and tons of reading beforehand so we have a ‘dream story list’ drawn up before we get to the city. As soon as we hit the ground, we’re off running and work insanely long days. In Lima the whole team were up into the early hours of the morning and then again at 6 or 7am to get somewhere for a specific photo they want or to travel to a meeting. It usually ends up that most of the stories on our list before we get to the city end up not working and being replaced by stories that come up once we’re there. That’s the perfect scenario – letting the city and the locals we meet speak for the city and inspire the stories.
Boat’s tagline is’ Travel to the Heart of a City’. In what sense is this a ‘Travel’ magazine? What reference points, inspiration in other magazines or books did you have in terms of words, images, design?
Erin Spens: That’s a great question and something we wrestle with a lot. As a magazine that needs to sell some copies in order to keep going (we rely on sales of copies, not advertising), we need to sit well on shelves and that means deciding what ‘genre’ we fit in. Travel is the best fit for us in terms of how bookstores categorize magazines, but you’re right, it’s not the perfect label for us. The content in Boat is much more about the culture of a city than what you find in traditional travel magazines. We are all about the people that make up the city and the incredible stories and history of a place which we believe will give you a better understanding of the city than you would by staying in the perfect hotel or making the right reservation. It’s always about the people.
As the editor, I’m hugely inspired by the great travel writers – Steinbeck, Twain, Kerouac, Theroux, Byron – for the way they explain life by simply reporting on it in these distant places. They were such incredible listeners, and that is the most important and sometimes these days a very rare characteristic to find in travelers. I am also incredibly inspired by The New Yorker and all their classic, untouchable journalism which seems to get something very basic and human across in the stories they report on.
Do the design elements change each issue? Looking through the issues online there looks like subtle changes in framing of imagery. Are there specific elements to the process that emerge from each city? Clothes, climate, local attitudes to work etc.
Erin Spens: I think I kind of answered this above but to add a bit, the Lima issue shows off our redesign of the magazine by She Was Only who we’ve worked with for a long time. In the redesign we’ve tried to set a bit more of a ‘house style’ while still leaving that room for the city to inspire us. I think after six issues, we felt like we’ve kind of found our voice a bit and feel confident in that so we’re able to make some decisions on things that will remain. As the editor, though, I always push for the story and the content to be first and foremost and for the city to speak for itself. That’s why it’s so important to me that the issue still leaves some room for the personality of the city to breath and color in. We’ve always gone by the advice that the design gets someone to pick up the magazine, but the content is what keeps them coming back each issue so we use design as a support to the content.