Parts of the Process — Hurricanes and hand-rendered illustrations: The makings of It’s Freezing in LA!’s fourth issue

Posted 19 February 2020 Interview by Siham Ali

Since launching in 2018, thriving independent magazine It’s Freezing in LA! has continued to take an innovative approach to discussing climate change. In December 2019, the team released their fourth issue, Storm, focusing on the subject of environmental change and its consequences on our eco-system. Here, we speak to editor Martha Dillon and co-creative directors Nina Carter and Matthew Lewis to find out how its latest issue came together and what drives the team’s ideas.

Project Snapshot

Client

It’s Freezing in LA!

Project Duration

Four months

Team

Editor: Martha Dillon
Deputy Editor: Jackson Howarth
Co-Creative Director: Nina Carter
Visual Content: Nina Carter
Co-Creative Director: Matthew Lewis
Designer: Matthew Lewis
Editorial Team: Jack Cribb, Grace Duncan, Alexander Harris, Lily Hosking, Eleanor Leydon, Harry Lloyd, Grace Richardson Banks, Alice Skinner, Katie Urquhart, Eleanor Warr
Events Support: Joseph Dillion
Communications: Grace Richardson Banks

Project Background

For our first issue, we started small. Our print run was very little, we worked very closely together, and for contributions we drew on a lot of colleagues and collaborators that we had experience working with already. This meant that we were more free to experiment, and weren’t putting too much pressure on ourselves. We also made sure that we kept asking other people for advice and help - this is a great way to commit yourself to the project, let alone helping to delegate some of the workload!

We started growing once we began to develop a following, and to engage with the existing magazine and climate industries out there. Stack Magazines sent out our second issue to their subscribers, which was a great way to reach audiences across the world, and last year we won an Environmental Art Grant with Octopus Energy. The funds really helped us to scale up our production.

“The more issues that we create, the more comfortable we are creating them.”

As we’ve grown, the pressure and scrutiny has definitely risen. But equally, having a louder voice to reach new contributors, and the ability to improve the quality of the magazine and our events, means that it’s also become easier. The more issues that we create, the more comfortable we are creating them, each time understanding and fine tuning ways of working that suit us and benefits the magazine. We now have a really strong sense of the areas that we, as a team, don’t think we have a handle on, or that we feel are still unanswered in popular conversations.

Some of these are really big – they can be broad articles which attempt to capture massive topics – like religion, or capitalism. Other areas are easier to break down, but pretty hard to answer, like ‘what happens to the ecological systems after natural disasters?’ But it’s useful to remind ourselves that the topic we are working with is bigger than us: the conversations and ideas that we host are the reason we’re doing this.

Previous issues of It’s Freezing in LA!

Deciding on a Theme

Each issue starts with internal meetings to plan what we are interested in covering for the upcoming issue; plus what we’d like to improve on or repeat from any previous ones. We then spend a period of time looking for writers and illustrators that we want to work with, planning editorial content, developing the creative direction, design and planning the layout. Then comes commissioning, editing and flowing this content in.

We spent quite a lot of time at the beginning of issue four considering topics that were currently relevant, as well as those that had been missed or underrepresented by existing climate communications. We discussed how the pace of the magazine would develop; how introducing new types of content could improve a reader’s experience, and we considered how extending our reach beyond the print magazine could be a valuable way to connect with old and new readers.

During the research stage, we tend to revisit broader discussions we’ve had on the topic of climate change – as well as exploring any projects we’re individually working on outside of IFLA! In this instance, someone on our editorial team is currently researching ozone and aerosols – so that will probably inform a feature or an element of the production. Several others have been working on projects about ecology and botany, so we’ve been having a lot of conversations with people in that world.

Team meetings to discuss ideas and direction (sometimes formal, sometimes just at home)

Collaborating as a Team

Inevitably we’ve learnt a lot about our own internal workings and how we collaborate as a team. It’s really important to constantly review and discuss our approach – even if that can mean quite tricky conversations. We established professional contracts during the third issue to define our roles – something that proved helpful in the smooth running of issue four. It helped to maintain professional communication between all collaborators, enabling constructive criticism and feedback to happen between different teams.

We always try to keep work between different teams transparent so anyone in the magazine can contribute their ideas and thoughts. This is really valuable in a cross-disciplinary team: an editor from an engineering background will have a different perspective to a creative director from a design background. They will ask each other different questions and scrutinise the work in a different way which helps to enrich ideas and potentially broadening the audience we reach.

“An editor from an engineering background will have a different perspective to a creative director from a design background.”

While the same core group produce and manage the project, we normally have a new set of writers and illustrators each issue. We find them through approaching people we come across whose work we like, and through being sent pitches and portfolios. We also have a lot of support from friends and other collaborators when we put together events or offshoot projects - there’s a huge community of people out there who care about the environment and are putting together creative projects.

In passion projects there is also a real joy in being able to reach out to collaborators; people are often willing and pleased to be involved with something that the creators care about so much. We’ve been lucky enough to be able to work with writers and creatives whose work inspires us, like [British Green Party politician] Caroline Lucas and [Danish-Icelandic artist] Olafur Eliasson, who were happy to collaborate on a topic they also care deeply about.

Notes being passed back and forth through a working PDF

Pre-Production

Each issue takes about four months to complete. In the first month, we work on gathering ideas, direction, and potential collaborators. We also do some work refining schedules, designing elements and processes based on our experiences from the previous issue. In the second month, the writers start submitting drafts, and we can start working as a team to edit text and plan the layout.

We then begin commissioning illustrations and gathering other features and research. As the third month approaches we can start moving text and illustrations into the spreads. The final period is to pull everything together, edit the graphics and illustrations, copy-edit and typeset text, and finally work with the printers and shops to get the new issue printed and disseminated.

Shared planning documents on Google Sheets

Design Research and Insights

In terms of the creative direction of the magazine, our co-creative directors Matthew and Nina spent a lot of time researching magazines that have a strong tone of voice. We wanted to find ones that slot between science and activism. Colors and Migrant were two inspirations: Colors is very activist, and Migrant is very scientific in its tone of voice, and both make information beautiful – so these were big influences for us.

As we began collating data for the issue, Matthew researched and planned three routes – one about oil spills, one about forest fires and another about Hurricane Dorian. He worked with the editorial team to discuss narratives that the data could show, and finding possible sources. We were most enticed by data from a website called earth.nullschool.net which provided some beautiful images of wind patterns – this probed us to contact the meteorologist behind it, Cameron Beccario to ask if we could use it as our front cover image.

Images of Hurricane Dorian from earthschool.net

Issue four’s front cover inspiration taken from earth.nullschool.net

Issue four’s front cover inspiration taken from earth.nullschool.net

Issue four’s front cover inspiration taken from earth.nullschool.net

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Testing the cover

Testing the cover

Editing the graphic in Photoshop

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When we came to start thinking about illustrations for the issue, we drew on a project we had done with Winchester School of Art. The students on the graphic art course responded illustratively to two articles. Two of the students, Maggie Saunders and Rachel Wignall then had their work published in the issue.

The process of writing a brief in an educational context helped us understand and articulate what we really wanted to get from the illustrations we publish. Despite having written and developed illustration briefs and mission statements for previous issues, writing one for illustrators with little experience in editorial helped us simplify what we were asking for. It was a key insight for the creative team moving forward with how we handle and commission illustrations and visual content.

Research influences our approach by making sure we remain topical, but we’re also always keen to push conversations. We don’t want to mimic topics and approaches in mainstream media, we want to be a step ahead.

Nina Carter and Matthew Lewis working with students on the BA Graphic Arts course at Winchester School of Art

Nina and Matthew developed a clear illustration mission statement. The mission statement talks of how illustrations can ‘help readers digest and visualise information in a non-abstract way’ embodying ‘a sense of space and place to help our readers comprehend these issues tangibly.’

We articulated that we wanted the illustrations to ‘capture the natural environment’ and help readers visualise how awe-inspiring and sublime the environment that we live in is. We wanted them to help readers to recognise and visualise the meaning and urgency of these discussions.

Notes about crops to be made to the illustrations

initial swatches of the graphic colour for illustrators

A key moment was having to handle a piece on Olafur Eliasson which raised the question of presenting non-illustrative visuals. It required us to make an important decision as to whether we wanted to increase our use of infographic drawings.

The final illustrations are all hand-rendered. This was a considered decision: the style enables the reader to see the lines and textures made by the hand of the illustrator, heightening the sense of immediacy, urgency, honesty and the connection to the topic. This is still tightly curated, however; we introduced the idea that threads of the graphic colour might be knitted throughout the illustrations – a development that ties the work together without limiting the illustrators to a selective palette.

Infographic drawings in process (for an article about artificial coral reefs)

Infographic drawings in process (for an interview with Olafur Eliasson)

Infographic drawings in process (for an interview with Olafur Eliasson)

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Planning the Layout

We wanted to introduce different layouts and typography sizes to accommodate new kinds of content. Readability and accessibility was an important area of focus for us in issue four, so this was made a criteria when judging the typography. For example, a new grid was made to incorporate typography sizes that fit in the grid very tightly. We think this improves the magazine’s flow, and helps with distinguishing the various content categories – such as interviews and research features.

Notes from Matthew’s sketchbook planning layouts for different articles

The making of the grid involved maths to ensure little baseline grids fit into big baseline grids

Layout, illustration and infographic placement tests

The making of the grid involved maths to ensure little baseline grids fit into big baseline grids

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Challenges and Learnings

There will always be challenges – and they are never usually things you can anticipate. Something we’ve learnt from a creative standpoint is to test things, get the ideas out and then consider what works well. The luxury of hindsight allows us to analyse what we think worked in previous issues and what didn’t, but we had to create those issues to learn from our mistakes and successes.

Sometimes we’ve had issues with articles not being the quality we hoped for, or illustrations not quite fitting the brief. Sometimes the production isn’t what we expected, or someone might just be on holiday at a bad time, making things more stressful. The most important thing is to make sure that you avoid it happening again - making sure you are really clear with writers and illustrators and have a contract in place if necessary, introducing a proof print to test ideas or tweaking schedules to accommodate the team.

“There will always be challenges – and they are never usually things you can anticipate.”

We’ve also learnt a lot about the business elements of producing a magazine: financial advice is really useful, asking printers lots of questions to make sure you are improving your production. When we were starting out, we didn't have a particularly robust business plan – but we still kept a careful track of our finances.

Once we started making a bit of money we quickly started getting pro bono financial advice and making sure we were properly registered and managing our finances. It is very daunting and overcomplicated, but you do have time, and there is guidance out there. In the UK you can get a free consultation from an accountant through the Institute of Chartered Accountants.

Proofreading and developing spreads

Proofreading and developing spreads

Proofreading and developing spreads

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Final Response and Feedback

The reaction is always exciting. People seem to respond to several areas: we are quite serious, and don’t shy away from big ideas and difficult questions, which is the depth of engagement people seem to really want at the moment, especially when everything feels so uncertain in the world. We also don’t look like a typical political or scientific magazine, and it’s great hearing people respond positively to the design and images, the quality of which is sometimes contained to the creative industries.

We received nominations for the Best Use of Illustration and Subscribers’ Choice in the Stack Awards 2019, have appeared on Monocle radio and we’re included in The Guardian’s list of ‘Top Sustainable Zines’ in 2019. Our events program has been successful too, with hundreds of Londoners attending our workshops, film nights and talks.

“We are, to some extent, injecting climate change into spaces that haven’t been focused on it.”

With each issue, we see more people engage with our calls for contributors, or ask us to collaborate, or share work we’ve produced online. It’s been fantastic to expand the diversity of our collaborators, from friends and colleagues in issue one to a whole new community of like-minded people by issue four.

Often it takes a while to hear back from readers – people who read an issue early on in the project might get in touch a while later with an idea or pitch. Seeing the magazine stocked in locations that don’t typically display green media, like the Royal Academy of Arts, MoMA PS1 and Somerset House, has been rewarding. It’s also a bit simplistic, but seeing sales rise and the countries that we are stocked in expand is fascinating. It’s a good indicator for us that we are, to some extent, injecting climate change into spaces that haven’t been focused on it.

Posted 19 February 2020 Interview by Siham Ali
Collection: Parts of the Process
Disciplines: Graphic Design, Illustration, Publishing
Mentions: It's Freezing in LA!

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