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It was a couple of hours into the judging process of the Type Directors Club TDC 53 competition that I saw the first cover of Metrópoli, a weekly supplement of the Spanish newspaper, El Mundo. Well, it was then that I saw the first five — then ten, and maybe more — covers of Metrópoli. I was initially attracted to the super tightly set egyptian slab typeface of the masthead in all its uppercase glory. As I sidestepped through the table to see the rest of the covers, the blocky letters mutated, distorted, adapted and genuflected to a dizzying variety of styles and tropes, of mannerisms and executions as the imagery — in this specific context, typographically-based imagery — changed completely from cover to cover. “Consistency”, as we know it, was clearly not the goal. Since the competition is judged anonymously (and I had not heard of this magazine) I had to know who was responsible for this and who did they have to cast a spell on to be allowed such titanic liberties with the cover and logo of a magazine. I made a note on my Treo to make sure I would check it the next day once my optical nerves regained feeling from eight hours of judging.
The logos — or mastheads — of a magazine are sacred. They are the bastion of recognizability on which publishers rest the majority of their hopes that the passersby will choose to grab that magazine in the newsstand — although cleavage may prove to be a better sales tool. They are to be left alone — the logos not the cleavage. At most, their color may change from issue to issue. Some magazines who have a certain sense of security will go as far as to let a celebrity’s head come partly in front of it. Others, like HOW magazine embrace the possibility of different executions of their logo, but always reminiscent of the original. And no matter how daring any magazine might be, there is always an element of consistency, be it the grid, the typefaces or the layout. Not Metrópoli. Metrópoli uploads consistency to its iPod and sets it to shuffle. It turns the unexpected into consistency, the Zeitgeist into its brand manual, and decades of visual history into its palpable inspiration. Designing the covers of Metrópoli seems like a dream job. And it belongs to Spanish designer, Rodrigo Sanchez.
Rodrigo joined El Mundo in 1992, where he is the Art Director of three of the newspaper’s supplements along with other tasks required by the large publishing group. Since graduating from Universidad Computense de Madrid, Rodrigo has been working in the editorial field: The finance magazine Mercado, was the first job that offered him design control; he then joined El Sol in 1990 where he met legendary editorial designers Roger Black and Eduardo Danilo (of Danilo Black) whom he credits for opening his mind (and doors) to editorial design of the highest quality. For the last 15 years Rodrigo has been producing covers for Metrópoli that defy normal design routines and display a wonderful range of visual executions that range from the expected to the short-of-breath-magnificent. As you can guess, I voted yes for Rodrigo. (And apparently, my fellow judges did too.)
Rodrigo was gracious enough to interrupt his wild schedule to speak with us about Metrópoli. The interview was originally conducted in Spanish and was translated by yours truly, please excuse any odd wordings.
We have also compiled a gallery of 50 Metropoli covers.
ARMIN VIT Just thinking about designing a different cover every week — on top of a whole magazine — makes me feel tired, lacking ideas and wanting to hit my head against the keyboard. Tell us about a typical week of yours, specifically regarding the cover: How much time do you have for each one? How do you involve illustrators in the process? Who approves (or disapproves) the covers?
RODRIGO SANCHEZ Of my work week, Metrópoli occupies little time. Basically, I’m the Art Director for the Sunday magazine — large format, almost tabloid [ed. note: and it’s called “Magazine”] — of the newspaper I work for, El Mundo. I dedicate most of my time to it in the form of management, execution and commissioning material from photographers and illustrators. I also coordinate two other monthly magazines from the same group, one dedicated to Art (with a capital A) and another one to History, for both I design some editorial spreads and the covers. On top of these tasks, it’s common for an extra piece of work from the marketing group or other complementary job from any of these magazines to sneak in.
So it’s almost impossible to determine how much time I actually spend on any of these. What is ponderable is the amount of energy I apply to all of my projects. To Metrópoli, of which I’m also officially Art Director of, I dedicate little time, but a lot of energy.
The idea is more important than the execution. I can spend more time thinking about the solution to a problem than in the execution proper.
A quick cover will take me two hours, maybe less. The most laborious one can take two weeks. And, as always, everything is relative. It’s not the same to design a cover in which all the elements solely depend on you as opposed to depending on other people: photographers, illustrators, writers, etc.
It’s not the same knowing beforehand what the theme of the cover will be as opposed to learning of the theme just a day, or just a few hours before, as it may occur that the opening of any given movie may warrant changing the cover even as the issue is going on press.
It’s also not the same working under pressure as opposed to relaxed. En general, even if it sounds weird, I work better when I have the least amount of time to do something. Creativity always surges from the scarcity of materials and methods. When I have all sorts of help at my disposal the results tend to be mediocre and predictable. Stress enables ingenuity.
In terms of illustrators and photographers, I’ve been working with most of them for a long time and we are on the same page. There is mutual trust and any comment or correction I make is understood as a step to making the final product better. I need that trust, as they develop a part of my work that I don’t have the skills to realize on my own. In every case, it’s fundamental to understand that we are all working for the same product, Metrópoli. No one gives in, we just make way to find a place for everything and strike a balance. There is always a time when the solution comes up before our eyes, we never know when it might happen but, at that point, it’s time to stop. The cover is ready.
Metrópoli No. 331, Week of September 27 - October 3, 1996.
AV In an article about your work, you mention that it was a cover featuring the movie Trainspotting — ten years ago — that provoked this way of designing the covers in a different way every week. How was this process of transition? Not just in terms of the design, but also in changing the way of thinking of the editorial team and your audience?
RS Everything was much more casual than premeditated. It had only been a few weeks after I had taken over the publication. I had already redesigned the interior — since then I have redesigned it another four times — and the cover. From that moment, it was just a matter of making it a project.
As I mentioned before, Metrópoli is only one of the magazines I’m in charge of. But it was then that I believed that Metrópoli should be something more. Something extraordinary. Something I could consider to be more fulfilling and entertaining than just work. And then Trainspotting happened. Opportunity and necessity came together.
I changed the masthead and integrated it fully with the rest of the cover design. That’s when Metrópoli was born. The end result took the directors and audience by surprise, but no one complained, we just received praise. Nobody complained about readability, we just did it and nothing major happened. Since then, we’ve had good and bad stages of creativity and/or enthusiasm. I have had my share of problems with the directors and the organization. I’ve argued until I’m blue in the face, but always respectfully. They were simply surprised that something like this could be done without any complaints. Highs and lows, like anywhere else. To this day, to this moment.
AV In 2004, Metrópoli and La Luna merged to form a single supplement; how did this union reflect in the cover design of the new publication? Was it a unanimous decision to adopt the style of Metrópoli or was leaving the pressure of designing a new cover every week behind considered?
RS Metrópoli was distributed solely in the capital, Madrid, and only in its influential areas, focusing on urban and family related idleness: movie openings and listings, restaurants, food reviews, bars and all sorts of other idle novelties.
La Luna was an entertainment and idleness supplement for younger people. With exclusive information for them like music, movies and trends that would be hard to mix with the usual information of Metrópoli. Its design was also risky and aggressive. A robust staging, simple but robust. The merger was actually dramatic as it resulted in the disappearance of one our best supplements, La Luna.
The merger not only led to the disappearance of one supplement but the mutation of the other. With the fusion, Metrópoli went from having local distribution only (Madrid and its province) to national. Its covers lost some freshness, as some of the topics it had to cover were more generic instead of more local topics: the best bars of the neighborhood, the best corner stores, unique buildings, best menus under 10 Euros, etc.
Certainly, the change in distribution, from local to national, implied a “normalization” of the covers, meaning, a sweetening of the styles, a less aggressive use of graphics and typography and, definitely, a more conventional approach. It’s usually argued — and I imagine it’s the same in the U.S. — that readers in the big city are more accepting of, or are more likely to “get”, conceptual graphics. It’s as if thinking that citizens of Kentucky would not understand the covers of The New York Times Magazine because they are more “elevated”.
But as we say around these parts, “the cow beats the mountain”. [ed. note: “la cabra que tira al monte” is impossible to translate with enough chutzpah, apologies]. So, after a short transition stage, I was able to to rein the covers back to their old ways and give them that special “touch”. Much to the disdain of the directors, by the way.
AV You have designed more than 1,000 covers and it’s surprising how minimum ideas, styles or executions may be repeated. This might be the most straight question of the interview but, how do you do it?
RS Yes, it’s true. It’s been more than 1,000 if we take into account published and some unpublished ones. Keep in mind that, each week, we design at least three different cover ideas (and this is only for Metrópoli). I don’t feel satisfied if we only have one option, sometimes it just feels as if I have worked too little. It’s common that we develop ideas for a single week with an illustration, photograph or just typography and we then select the one that works the best. I need more to be able to choose. I don’t mind wasting time doing a lot of covers if it means that I’m crystal clear which one is the right one. There have been occasions when I dedicate a lot of hours to covers with laborious graphic styles — something I call “dottism” — only to discard them in the end. I can only tell that they wont work when they are finished, never before that.
Covers that transcend the mere informative (as is the case with Metrópoli) are intimately related with the mood of the designer. Personal events, sickness, trips, movies or books that may have influenced the designer will be reflected in their work. In fact, a look at back at specific personal work might denote optimism or pessimism, happiness, monotony, being conformist, extravagance or inquisitiveness.
General and particular events that affect me directly in turn affect my work. Personally, I must look inside me to be able to give the best of me in my work. My mood is reflected in a cover. Luminous if it’s positive, dark if it’s negative. The time of year, even the day or the hour, will affect the final solution of any given idea. By being such a personal endeavor, the evolution of the work will be parallel to the evolution of the person. It’s a permament adolescence, where you can refuse thoughts and acts and of course, works done before. Sometimes you can’t explain how you managed to create a cover in such a way, whether because now you wouldn’t be able to come up with such an idea or by thinking that you are now above what you used to do or by thinking that your creative capacity is not what it used to be.
AV Have you ever had a cover cancelled — because either the content was too provocative or inappropriate or because someone didn’t just like it or get it — that you thought was excellent?
I’ve had some serious problems with our organization and directors because of some of the covers. And I mean serious problems, to the point of believing that I would be fired. I say that honestly. They probably never really had the intention of following through, but many times I pictured myself in the street. Nonetheless, I have always felt that it was worth being on the edge and gambling for the benefit of Metrópoli. Fortunatel, everything that I have thought I should be doing I have done and, until now, no cover has been nixed, aside from my own self-censoring.
It’s as important to do as it is to let it be done. This product and its designs have been made possible because someone has decided to respect my work and not discuss every letter, every drawing and every typeface that I have chosen. I understand and endorse teamwork, but at the end of the day we all have to let each other do our work, and have confidence that the job will get done in good terms. Only one hand can handle the brush. I can’t imagine a painting done by various hands.
AV I rarely ask this question, but I think this case deserves it: Where do you get inspiration from? Or, how do you generate so many references? How do you decide which “style” to use?
RS The creative process is slow. You can never tell when it’s coming, and it usually comes when you least expect it. So it’s essential to possess certain skills, experiences and abilities to be able to make the most of every opportunity.
Creativity, just like other qualities, exist in all of use. Some have that quality more developed, others less. I suppose it’s the need for creativity which forces it to be more developed. For example, the lack of graphic resources (photos or illustrations) to solve any given problem increases the need to look for substitutes. Sometimes a good idea takes care of the rest.
Creativity, the IDEA, substitutes everything. And the main idea is to surprise. But not just through the idea, but through the visual execution of the idea. Putting ourselves in the position of the reader, asking ourselves what would we like to see in the cover if we were the ones buying it.
In other cases we wonder what the competition would do in a similar situation and we then do just the opposite. We’ve come to the conclusion that there is nothing that can’t be done.
Everything has its moment, its motive and it also has its own form. And for that, its form, we have many resources. We have the advantage that when ideas fail us, it’s the execution and graphic resources that can solve the problem.
Metrópoli is the magazine to enjoy leisure in Madrid. It shows you what you can see, listen and eat. After reading Metrópoli the reader will take the decision of what to do in their free time. And in this free time the reader can do everything. Even things that are not in the magazine.
We not only show things that have little in common, like movies and cycling, we also show related things that, in their execution, have little in common as well: What’s the similarity between two movies, Azul by Kieslowsky and Saving Private Ryan by Spielberg? What’s common between skiing and snowboarding? Or between track cycling and trial biking?
In light of this, why concentrate on one style of designing? And how do we transmit these differences to the reader? Metrópoli is a consult guide. It would be impossible to change the interior of the magazine every week without damaging the legibility of the listings. The only solution is to modify the cover. We had to change the design every week yet still maintain the magazine recognizable.
The covers of Metrópoli have the luxury of winking at the reader, so that they feel as accomplices in the product. It’s evident that those who take risks have more chances of being wrong. But this risk is controlled and calculated. We only take it one out of the ten supplements from El Mundo.
AV Do you ever worry about other designers thinking that you are just recycling and appropriating existing styles?
RS If an idea has already functioned in another time and place, it shouldn’t be inappropriate for another time and place. An idea is not the design of a newspaper or magazine, it’s no more and no less than an idea. In general, I don’t believe that an idea should stop being used just because someone came up with it before you. If we all thought this way, we would stop compiling and buying they millions of design books sold every year.
I have, like we all do, designers that I admire and envy. From them I learn and dare to experiment with similar styles. You can’t advance any other way, or at least that’s how I see it. The inventor of impressionism did not avoid the international wave of impressionists, nor did the cubist avoid that of cubism, nor dadaists, neorealists and minimalists. Can you imagine a single author of any of these movements? Or, above all, any of these artists excluding the rest? Picasso is not cubism, he didn’t even invent it. Yet, does someone doubt Picasso?
It has been the influence, inspiration and the copying of ones from others that has allowed, and still allows, the evolution of different artistic movements.
How many paintings of religious themes have been done throughout history? And how many of them have of them have represented, in the same way, the same position, layout and ornamentation, the image of Christ and the Virgin Mary? Is that plagiarism? Or is art just not understood in any other way?
We are not artists, we are communicators and, in many cases, we are almost journalists. But there is no doubt that in our specialty there is a high percentage of relationships with art and the use of visual/creative impact. Many times we need to rely on purely artistic factors to achieve effective communication. What has worked in the history of art can, I humbly think, work for us as well.
AV By now, you probably already have to get to work on next week’s cover, so one last question: How many more covers can you design? What keeps you dedicated to this process fifteen years into it?
RS The truth is that I have a lot of fun. I have a good time with my work. If I didn’t have to work to make a living I would do this as a hobby. It’s nice to do what you like and get paid to do it.
I hope to do another 1,000 covers, with a little bit of help and another pair of eyeglasses.