At work with: Oli Stratford, Disegno

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Oli Stratford has a background in philosophy and journalism, and has been the editor-in-chief of Disegno, the international quarterly design journal, since September 2016, having previously served as the journal’s online and deputy editor. We speak to him this week as issue 22 hits the shelves.

Tell us about your typical Monday journey to work
I live just off Finsbury Park’s Parkland Walk, which is an old railway line now given over to serve as a forested pedestrian pathway. It’s absolutely lovely, and means that much of my walk to work is surprisingly sylvan – a route filled with muddy pathways; old railway arches; spooky tunnels; and groups of dogs who are clearly delighted to be out rolling in the filth of the forest floor. Once I’m off the Parkland Walk, it’s NISAs and off-licenses as far as the eye can see.

Describe the state of your desk and what you can see in your office
The desk is a wreck and, frankly, I wish you hadn’t asked me about it. I’m not a naturally organised person, and this has spread into my environment – it’s a viral infection of mouldering coffee cups; forgotten press releases; and a full-on jailor’s ring of jangling USB keys. When my desk is at its fighting weight, I like it to hold nothing more than my laptop, pencil case and dictionary. That doesn’t happen very often.

In terms of what I can see from my desk, the answer is disappointingly little. We’re a box office with no windows, so the only view from my desk opens out onto the colleagues whom I share it with – they’re a very nice bunch though, so I’m fine with that. We’re also lucky enough to be regularly visited by a little dog from one of our neighbours. He’s a lhasa-apso cross called Porridge. He’s absolutely brilliant. I think “Porridge” is the best dog name I’ve ever heard.

Which magazine do you first remember?
Is the Beano a magazine? If so, that. I used to get it every Wednesday on my way home from school, and I loved the routine of the whole thing. If ever it wasn’t in stock on time, I would lose my mind – I couldn’t fathom how it couldn’t be there. People think children like the Beano because of all the fun and japes it packs in. Wrong! They like its regular publishing schedule.

Which magazine matters to you the most right now?
The London Review of Books is a superb research tool and a vivid example of how great writing can draw you into a topic you might otherwise have neglected. I do disagree with its fortnightly publishing schedule, though. I find that my LRBs have begun to stack up unread, and I feel a tremendous sense of shame whenever I spot the ever-growing tower of pristine newsprint. Once a month would be much better. I hope they read this interview and heed my advice.

Can you describe your magazine in three words?
Critical, curious journalism.

Every branch of design – product, graphics, interiors etc – sees their sector as ‘Design’. What does Disegno mean when it refers to ‘Design’?
One of the best decisions we’ve ever made as a journal is not to be too precious about how we define the field we work in. There is an awful lot of bleed between disciplines within design, and connections to fields such as technology and art – and I suspect it would be a fool’s errand to try and pin down a single thing that unifies everything that gets defined as “design”.

In general, however, we’re interested in considering design’s entanglements with other fields: what is its social impact, its industrial context, its political value, and so forth. Similarly, we’re always fascinated by looking at disciplines and projects that wouldn’t self-identify as “design”, but which we believe are interesting for a design audience (whatever that might be).

We once, for instance, reviewed the Australian government’s Pacific Solution – a shameful policy of transporting asylum seekers to island detention centres. The Pacific Solution is clearly not an example of architecture or design, but writing about it did represent an opportunity to consider a number of issues that swirl around those fields – how space becomes politicised; how spaces can dehumanise, for example. I would not want Disegno to operate with a definition of design that excluded stories such as this.

Describe the relationship between your many channels: print, digital and events?
Disegno prides itself on the quality of its journalism and in some senses we’re quite a traditional publication: we work on stories that are highly researched, consummately written, and which take advantage of all of the fine journalistic traditions that exist out there.

We try and use digital and events in ways that can complement this. While the journal is very tightly curated and edited, for instance, events such as workshops or panel discussions provide a platform for us to engage with our audience through more informal or spontaneous ways of talking about design – we like the mixture between registers that this provides. Similarly, digital represents an opportunity to be a little bit more reactive.

At the moment, we’re particularly interested in podcasts as a format for journalism, and we’re launching our own take on the genre a little bit later this year. We’re all excited to see how launching that kind of immediate, conversational space to reflect upon design and current affairs shapes the other channels we work in.

As a journal about design, it’s obviously important that the magazine is designed well. How do you define/manage that?
We’re very lucky to have exceptionally talented creative directors in the form of Annahita Kamali and Florian Böhm of Studio AKFB, as well as our brilliant designer Jonas Hirschmann. Annahita, Florian and Jonas work from Munich, and I’m delighted to say that they do all the heavy lifting in terms of defining the magazine’s appearance, as well as consulting on the photographers who we work with.

Given the geographic distance between Disegno’s editorial and design teams, we largely produce the journal over Dropbox. This means that production can occasionally be a little logistically challenging, but we’ve found it to be a rewarding experience overall. Having people evaluate and work with Disegno’s content who stand at a remove from the commissioning process has proven useful – it’s a form of in-house critique and review that keeps everything running smoothly.

What’s going to be the highlight of the week for you?
Last week was Milan’s annual Salone del Mobile – the design world’s annual festival of product launches, installations and exhibitions. As lovely as it is to tour a sunny Milan, it’s also a draining experience. I suspect that this week’s highlight will be the sense of calm after the storm, as well as the opportunity to properly reflect on what I saw last week. That and picking up the Beano on Wednesday.

What are you doing after this chat?
I thought I might go and see what Porridge is up to.

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