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At Work With: Nick Carson, Computer Arts
At work with

At Work With: Nick Carson, Computer Arts

Nick Carson spent several years at 4Talent, Channel 4’s creative industries development hub, where among other things he produced an annual creative awards scheme and launched their first print magazine. He left in 2009 to edit Future’s design title Computer Arts Projects, before launching sister publication Computer Arts Collection in 2011 – notable for its ‘magaziney-ness’. He now oversees all the CA publications and iPad apps. Here he talks us through those many channels as he looks ahead at his week.

Where are you today?
I’m in our Bath office – I commute across from Bristol each morning. Despite spending eight years working elsewhere, I actually grew up in Bath, so while I appreciate its undeniable beauty I honestly don't think I could live there again; Bristol has a much more edgy, creative vibe to it.

I'll be heading up to London bright and early tomorrow morning to spend the day at the Global Design Forum as part of London Design Festival, and am also back up in town on Friday for the annual Podge design lunch, which should be good fun. I seem to spend a lot of my time split between the two cities at the moment.

What can you see from the window?
Since moving offices earlier this year I don’t actually have any windows within touching distance. If I wander over to the nearest window, however, I can see a classic Bath-style view of honey-coloured Georgian facades. It’s a funny place, Bath: almost the entire city centre is listed for its world heritage appeal, but as a result you won’t find much challenging, non-conformist modern architecture. I lived in Birmingham for many years, and there’s certainly a much more forward-thinking, bold approach to city planning there – perhaps because they made so many mistakes in the 60s, and had no qualms about pulling them down and starting again.

How many emails are waiting in your inbox?
I’ve just come back from a long weekend in Cornwall for my brother's wedding, so there’s a nice stack waiting for my attention. That includes an assembly cut of a video awaiting feedback, various queries and copy submissions from our team of freelancers, a brochure design to review, lots of inspiring work submissions and press releases about cool new projects, and countless meeting requests, ideas and things to follow up from my team. On an average day, I probably field anywhere between 100–150 emails, and try to keep on top of it all wherever possible – I hate being swamped by unread messages, as they all too often get pushed down the stack and forgotten about.

What’s your favourite magazine this morning?

We’re in the process of working on the next stage of development for Computer Arts Collection, which my deputy editor Julia will be taking the lead on. She popped into Magma a couple of weeks back to gather a haul of reference material, so there are plenty of beautiful print mags drifting around the office, as well as a nice stack of old D&AD annuals.

I’m watching It's Nice That’s new Printed Pages publication with a lot of interest – they’re really going from strength to strength, and it’s inspiring to see an online brand branching out to practice what it preaches in print.

There seem to be so many Computer Arts publications and apps. Talk us through them all.
Computer Arts is the main monthly brand, dedicated to the global design community in its broadest sense. Since the redesign earlier this year, our new tagline ‘design matters’ sets the agenda nicely: the title explores the inspiring people and forward-thinking ideas that make the industry tick, and showcases the very best projects. It’s available in print and as a fully-interactive, bespoke iPad edition that includes bonus imagery and video.

Computer Arts Collection launched in 2011 as a premium, collectable six-part annual series for the studio bookshelf. Whereas CA spans the whole industry each month, CA Collection is designed to explore six core creative disciplines in more depth – graphic design, typography, illustration, branding, photography and advertising. It features an exclusive trend report, compiled by a leading creative consultancy, and also a guest-edited 48-page ‘studio project’ that follows an agency’s entire design process, from brief through to debrief. It’s just come to the end of its second series, having had a cosmetic refresh at the end of the first volume, and as I mentioned above we'll be rethinking the product again for next year.

Our third main brand this year has been Computer Arts Presents, another six-part annual series – this time, they're highly practical, tips-based ‘handbooks’ covering task-focussed activities such as going freelance, setting up a design studio, improving your creative portfolio or progressing your design career. Again, this series has recently come to an end – it’ll be revised and updated for 2014. We also produce a range of more focussed special editions, covering areas such as how designers can get the maximum possible use from particular industry-standard software packages, and more workflow-based advice.

In short, our entire product portfolio is designed to appeal to the entire design industry at different levels, and to cater to particular needs. CA appeals primarily to the junior, middleweight and senior designers who make up the core of the industry; CA Collection is pitched a little higher, with content to appeal to creative directors; CA Presents is more entry-level and practical. Hopefully that helps clear things up!

The Collections are half book, half magazine. If I didn’t dislike the term so much I might be tempted to use the word ‘bookazine’. What do you call them?
I’m totally with you on the word ‘bookazine’ – it's a really cringeworthy portmanteau word. Internally, it’s often used to describe bumper collections of curated, repackaged and reworked content for the newsstand, and even with these types of product, we’re attempting to shift towards calling them ‘special editions’. Personally, I’ve been describing Collection as ‘a collectable six-part annual series of premium titles’ – a bit of a cop-out, I know.

Can the design-intensive ‘magazine-y’ approach of CA Collection be applied to areas of publishing beyond design publishing?

It’s no secret that print magazine circulations are declining across the board – some faster than others. As a global brand, we’re seeing a definite shift towards a more tablet-focused readership, particularly in countries where the extra costs of shipping and distribution can make the cost of imported print titles more of an issue, and have invested in the iPad edition of CA accordingly. Of course, as a design magazine we’re fortunate that our readers appreciate the tactile beauty of print perhaps more so than most, and over the last couple of years we've been deliberately pushing the boat out in terms of experimenting with different production techniques and finishes on CA Collection, and readers have definitely responded positively to that.

It increasingly feels like, for a print magazine to justify its existence as a physical entity, it need to do things that only print can do well – the potential in digital publishing is incredible, but it doesn’t appeal to the emotive senses of touch and smell in the same way. In terms of how this can spread to other areas of publishing, as a special interest publisher Future covers an enormous depth and breadth of subject matters and reader demographics, and there are several examples of titles in very different fields that have put faith in premium production values: over the past few years, ProCycling, The Knitter and Mollie Makes all made a conscious effort to invest in quality paper and cover finishing when they launched.

Over two volumes of CA Collection, we've racked up everything from bound-in photographic prints and posters to multiple internal spot-colours, various paper stocks, gatefolds, laminates and more. It’s an approach we took forward into the Computer Arts redesign this year, too, including a regular foil/emboss treatment on the ‘design matters’ stamp on the cover and a mixture of text stocks inside, while the redesign issue featured several different textured emboss plates to add relief to the cover artwork.

Independent publishing is a really key area to watch here, of course, with leading agencies such as The Church of London bringing a designer's sensibilities to non-design-focused titles like Little White Lies and Huck. Plus magazines such as magCulture favourite Wrap simply would never work in the same way digitally. As always, of course, it’s all about weighing up the cost of investment with the potential demand.

What was the last thing your art director said to you?
At the end of last week she was working from home, and asked me to send her through a list of illustrators that she'd scribbled on a notepad on her desk. She was firmly in commissioning mode – there are various regular slots in Computer Arts that are a great proving ground for new talent.

Other than that, it's a fair bet that one of the first things we'll say to each other this morning will be: 'Coffee?'

What are you most looking forward to this week?
Podge should be fun on Friday – I’m going to drop a few of the people I know are going a line beforehand to lay some groundwork. For those who haven’t come across the event, it was started by Phil Jones back in the 90s as a small gathering of the great and good of design, and has since grown and grown into a real highlight of the industry's social calendar.

What are you least looking forward to this week?
Another week, another deadline. The iPad edition of Computer Arts goes live this week – which always involves at least a day’s worth of testing and bug-fixing. Our deadlines are staggered, so we have a fortnight after the print edition goes to press to get the digital version sorted.

What will you be doing after this chat?
Popping upstairs to review some footage we shot at Wolff Olins last week, for the new Designer Series videos we run in Computer Arts. We interviewed creative director Chris Moody and a couple of the design directors about the agency's approach to branding, as well as a couple of particularly interesting case study projects – and Chris is also involved with a forthcoming conference and industry awards scheme that we have coming up on the horizon. More to come on that later this week.

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