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Luke Tonge, Birmingham Design Magazıne
At work with

Luke Tonge, Birmingham Design Magazıne

Luke Tonge is co-director of Birmingham Design, the organisation responsible for, amongst other things, the Birmingham Design Festival.

He’s also a visiting lecturer at Birmingham City University and a designer specialising in identity & editorial work—previously he has art-directed the magazines Boat, The Recorder & 99% Lifestyle. For this year’s Festival, he’s put together the first edition of Birmingham Design magazine, highlighting the work done by the organisation he co-founded.

We hear from Luke as the new magazine arrives from the printer, in time for its launch at an event this coming Thursday.


What are you up to this Monday morning?

Today is a little different being Easter bank holiday. Usually my wife Tash and I would be driving into Birmingham from our neighbourhood on the outskirts—our commute is about an hour. Despite the traffic it’s lovely to spend some time together.

Sometimes we chat about our days ahead, others we quietly think through our to-do lists, sometimes I subject her to my questionable music tastes.

We get up at sixish, leave the house by seven, arrive in Birmingham by eight. If I have a day of calls I’ll often head back home—if not I’ll work from town. Covid has altered my routine (and work) significantly—I do less lecturing nowadays, and I spend more time working from home—which feels like a better balance.


Describe your desk and your work space.
Our kitchen table is my usual workstation by day, and the sofa by night—all of my work happens on my laptop so I can work from anywhere—but the kitchen has the best view so that’s my usual spot. We have a lot of visitors to the garden – cats, birds, butterflies, bats, the occasional fox, so it’s a peaceful little space to escape from the laptop at times. We were particularly thankful to have it during lockdown!

Many a lunch break has been spent eating an ice-cream stroking the neighbours cat outside in the sunshine. The dream is to one day convert our garage to a proper home studio (and place to keep all my books and magazines).


Which magazine do you first remember?
The iconic yellow frames of National Geographic, and the red border of Time both feature heavily in my magazine memories of childhood. My dad had subscriptions to both for a time, along with his BMJ (British Medical Journal).

The magazines I grew up reading and loving however were based around my interests: RIDE Bmx, Daily Bread and Unity skate mags, AP and Rock Sound, and most influentially in my teen years—Adrenalin.

I used to trek to the WHSmiths at Meadowhall in Sheffield, desperately hoping they'd have the latest issue in stock. It really opened my eyes to the power of expressive editorial design that didn't feel commercial or mainstream.


Which magazine matters to you the most this morning?
Copies of Empire, my Stack subscription and a giant oversized stitched zine from Jack Arts all recently plopped onto my doormat – but as we're still busy planning our events I'd have to say Backstage Talks. I've loved all of their issues, and the subject—design—is obviously right up my street.


Describe Birmingham Design magazine in three words.
Birmingham. Design. Magazine.


How did you go about making the magazine?
It’s been a while since I’ve had such full control over an editorial project—probably not since my Recorder days, and even then that was working with the brilliant Emma Tucker as editor.


This time around it really was a bit of a one-man operation, so for better or worse I’m designer and editor. I started contacting people late last year about involvement after planning out the rough content I’d hoped we’d include—a good mix of people, some opinion pieces, interviews, overheard conversations, a gallery, some fun stuff.


Then it was just a case of chasing people this year for content and slowly shaping the mag over a couple of months. We’re working closely with a fantastic local printer here in Brum called Clarkeprint and having access to high quality local printer is such a gift—so we've been able to do some fun stuff with it, multiple cover variants (above, art by Super Freak), metallic inks etc. and we're also having a ‘create your own cover’ sticker sheet included in each copy.


What do you hope the magazine will add to the Festival?
The magazine isn’t actually strictly to do with the Festival—the entity (I run with my pal Dan) that organises BDF is simply known as ‘Birmingham Design’ and the magazine is part of our community focussed, year-round work to inspire, connect and profile the amazing scene here in the West Midlands.


BDF is our big tentpole event, but there’s so much stuff happening here we wanted to try and encapsulate that into an annual publication. Of course it’ll be available at BDF, and given our international / national audience we hope it'll play a small role in the continued work of helping folks reassess their assumptions about Brum & this region. It’s funny to have come full circle with a print project aiming to help change perceptions about a location, as that’s really what Boat Magazine started as, which was my first mag.

We are also putting together a print programme for BDF we’ve just begun work on, that will be printed by our friends at Newspaper Club (we're going tabloid size this year). Attendees to the festival can pick one up for free.

The Festival concerns design in general but always includes names from the editorial world. What do these speakers add to the event?
BDF is very broad—we have design districts which include Graphic, Digital, Product and new for this year, Illustration. We have over 70 amazing speakers joining us for three days in June, which after two years of disruption is a very welcome thing.

Editorial is obviously a rich and exciting area of design (and a personal fave) so it's only right we have that sector well represented—this year that includes mega-talents Richard Turley and Holly Catford—alongside other names familiar maybe to your readers like Jimmy Turrell and SPIN studio. I’ve no doubt they’ll all add some fun to proceedings.

Please share one piece of advice for somebody wanting to launch their own publication:
Go for it! Even your favourite magazine had a wobbly first issue once upon a time, don’t worry if it could be improved—or feels lacking in some area—as the wise advice goes ‘done is perfect’. This riff on ‘Perfect is the enemy of good’ came from a print that accompanied a copy of Offscreen, and it’s stuck with me ever since.

A second bonus bit of advice would be to engage with and seek help from the editorial community—I’ve always found it to be one of the friendliest and most accommodating corners of the design world.

What are you most looking forward to this coming week?
We have a big week! Gather: Off the Page! Our first big in-person talks event in two years is happening on Thursday here in Birmingham. We’ve got four great magazine-makers speaking about their work (Andrew Diprose of Wired, Holly Hollister of Bab Mag, John Joseph Holt of LAW and Ella Paradis of The Black Explorer) along with the launch of our new magazine, the aforementioned Birmingham Design magazine.

If that wasn’t enough we've got some great street food (including this amazing new ice-cream van) and we’ll be announcing our full BDF line-up. Some tickets still remain, so if you can get to Brum on the 21st, grab one quick! I’m selfishly really looking forward to folks picking up the magazine.


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