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My Interview with Sam Martin, Design Mind’s Editor-in-Chief
When the first issue arrived in my office I was stunned by an elegant personalized hand-written note from the editor-in-chief. It was something I have not seen in ages. The handwritten note and the magazine were reason enough for me to get in touch with Mr. Martin and ask him a series of questions. Whose behind Design Mind? What does it offer? Why in print? Is there a future for print? These questions and more were answered by the magazine’s editor-in-chief Sam Martin. I asked Mr. Martin What is Design Mind?
Design Mind publishes articles that comment on the intersection of technology, business, and culture. A lot of what informs this intersection is design, so we sort of look at culture, business, and technology through the lens of design.
This is the product Frog Design, Inc. Can you give us a little background? What is the link between the two?
Yes, there is definitely a link. That is, it is published by Frog Design and is part of the Frog marketing platform. It is a custom publication. However, we are very much looking for a journalistic voice here and some really objective commentary. We consider it a thought leadership effort at picking out trends that are building, looking at the fringe of what is happening in culture and business and where things might be headed. Frog is what we call a global innovation firm. We’re going to have our 40th anniversary as a company next year.
We were started in Germany by a well-known German product designer named Hartmut Esslinger. Hartmut worked for Sony in the seventies. His big break was being hired by Steve Jobs at Apple in the early eighties where he helped design and actually came up with the design language for the Apple 2C computer, which is called the Snow White computer language. It was a big break that came with a lot of attention. That’s when Hartmut and the whole team moved to California.
Over the years, we have taken on a lot more. We get a lot of product design. We also moved into sort of visual design, designing user interfaces in cell phones, web sites, and other kinds of digital software and that sort of thing. After all of this, we’ve now become design consultants, where we give largely global Fortune 500 companies advice on product strategy and that sort of thing. So, Frog is the reason behind the magazine, but it’s also its own brand.
Which brings me to my next question: why a magazine? Are magazines still matter? Does print still matter in your business?
Yes. I think print does matter. I don’t think print is dead, as has been the contention for so many years. I think that this is because print has a longevity that’s not available by digital means. Now, I do think that print is being redefined. We think it’s a good idea because we can target our audience, almost hyper-targeting. We do a small print run at 5000 copies an issue. And we have the ability to partner with other media groups or with conferences like Poptech. We think that the value that it gives our clients as a piece of marketing material is second to none. In fact, there are statistics that show that business executives still read print. It’s almost a 2:1 margin in print versus web reading. While my opinion is that news and print aren’t necessarily compatible, I think print offers much more memorable long term and valuable outlet for information. It’s something you want to keep around. It’s the tactile feel that people really enjoy, and, from a marketing prospective, it’s also a little bit of a surprise. We got a lot of media attention because of it. Why are you doing print? And for us, it’s actually working quite well. It’s doing what we need it to do, which is drumming up some PR. It’s an excellent outlet for the people that work in our company. We have over 400 people worldwide working at Frog, the kind of people that always have great ideas. They’re looking for outlets, and this a great place for them to show their ideas off.
So, what is your publishing model that you are following with Design Mind?
That’s an interesting question. We have to figure out a different way to use print, and I think that might be what you’re getting. The fact that it is significant that this magazine is being published by Frog Design Company, using a marketing budget. I think it speaks to sort of the splintering of news. It’s commensurate with what’s happening with this world. This long tailing of fact where you’ve got lots of small businesses or many voices as opposed to one voice. Because we produced it from the inside looking out, it worked. It wouldn’t work if we did it as if we were talking at people, even overly pushing the fact that it comes from Frog Design or tried to sell our brand. This really is about talking about relevant ideas and exploring trends. It just happens to be sponsored by Frog Design. It works for the reader and the publisher in that regard.
Why themed issues? First it was Numbers, now Motion….
Well, the themes that we choose are largely based around the areas in the industries that we’re playing in, we want to play in, or we want to get involved with. They are very, very loosely interpreted.
On Motion, Frog does a lot of work in the mobile industry. We also do a lot of work in the health care industry. So, we thought motion could encompass both of those things. There is also stuff on the entertainment industry, so we could talk about moving pictures on a very basic level. There’s also going to be an article on ADHD, because children with ADHD are often described as being in perpetual motion. The mobile industry and the movement of digital media and social media is also gonna be part of the next issue. So, we choose the things because we think they’re interesting. They’re focused on the industries that we deal with.
One of the things in the magazine that has received a lot of high accolades is terms of the design in terms of the presentation, and if we look at the name, Design Mind, how do we create a name for a magazine? Where did the name Design Mind come from?
I think a lot goes into a name of a magazine. Design Mind, for us, speaks to our background as designers. That is the reason why we’re in existence. That is the lens through which we look at all of our dealings, so design had to be in the title somewhere. Design Mind really speaks to the fact that we want this to be a thought leadership publication. We wanted to let people know that if you’re reading this magazine, you’re reading our minds. You’re seeing what’s going on behind the scenes. You can have a better understanding of how designers think, and how we are applying design to lots of different problems going on. I think that’s the key. Design has changed so much over the years. What we’re talking about with the magazine is how design can be applied to various problems be they social, how you use a product, how you approach a life situation, how you organize information, how you get to the doctors, how you measure your health, how you watch media or how you connect with other people. Design isn’t just graphic design. It’s not just product design. It’s really kind of a solution-based issue.
What makes Sam Martin tick?
I’m in a unique position here. My background is in journalism. I was an editor at This Old House Magazine for a number of years and before that Mother Earth News. I’ve written a number of nonfiction books, so coming into a company working for a marketing team is a little bit of a change of pace for me. Doing a custom publication has a lot of freedom. Handwriting a note is part of that customization. It’s part of being able to be personal with my audience. I think that is lost sometimes in digital. I think print is very personal because it’s so tactile. It even has a smell to it. I also think that’s very much what this company’s all about. We work with some of the largest companies in the world on many different continents, but we’re small, and we we’re able to give personalized attention to each of our clients. It’s just a culture here, and, for me, it’s important as a writer. You always want to know that you can reach out and influence somebody with your writing and I guess that’s why I sent the handwritten note.
Do you consider yourself a writer or designer or both or can you separate between the two?
I definitely consider myself a writer wearing an editor’s hat right now. Design is something that, I specialized in over the years. I feel very close to the process and being here I’m learning a lot more about it. But I’m a writer first and foremost.
What about the future of print?
I think that this splintering and this hyper-targeting of print products is the future, because I think that’s the only way it can survive. You know the newspaper industry is in such turmoil right now because they just can’t keep up with the news. I think we’re seeing an increase in op-ed style articles. We’re also seeing an increase in trend stories. That’s the only way for print to survive right now. It can’t compete with online news reporting. Print has to become either a thought leadership proposition, or it has to become a deep dive into trends. If you look at successful books like Freakanomics or Malcolm Gladwell’s books, these are books that have picked out trends. They’ve gone past the first couple layers and they’re making connections on the fringes of culture that are not normally made. That’s what innovation is, and, interestingly, Frog is an innovation company. In order for print to innovate, you have to be able to spend time writing your stories. It used to be where reporters would go out and 80% of the time was spent reporting, 20% of the time was spent writing and that’s the way print would work. It would make sense that you would have this hyper-targeted magazines targeting smaller audiences but having many more of them. It’s the long tailing. It’s the same idea behind the long tailing business or the boutiquing of businesses.
So we’ll be doing more digging then?
More digging. Yeah. More searching. There’s too much information. You have to be able to make sense of the information, and you have to be able to draw atypical conclusions. You have to be able to spend more time looking at the information in order to make relevant conclusions.
If somebody asked you and said, Mr. Martin, recommend some magazines for me to actually engage with, benefit from, learn from, imitate, what would those magazines be, besides Design Mind?
I think The New Yorker is still perhaps the best magazine out there right now because of the resources they give to their reporters and the quality of the reporting. Fast Company is one that kind of plays on the same field as Frog does, where they have one foot in design and one foot in business, using that to comment on the culture of those things.