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When the Design Spotlight series was being conceived in January, Esquire design director John Korpics' name was at the top of our wish list. He was the winner of last year's National Magazine Award for Design, his second, and he had done for the visuals what editor David Granger had done for the magazine as a whole—raise a steadily sinking ship. In the process, he easily topped earlier redesigns by peripatetic legends Roger Black and Robert Priest. But he had been there for more than five years. How was he going to keep pushing himself? What obstacles were left to overcome? Two days after composing that list, the news broke that he was jumping to InStyle to replace the departed Rip Georges. [His successor at Esquire was announced Tuesday: David Curcurito, who will arrive from American Express Custom Publishing Solutions.] Mediabistro caught up with Korpics after two weeks on the job to reflect on his time at Esquire and to explain what's wrong with InStyle.
Mediabistro: How did this happen? Did Time Inc.'s headhunters call you, or had you begun to burn out and decided to bail out instead?
John Korpics: It happened very quickly. I'd always liked InStyle, my wife gets InStyle... It's an open, airy, kind of a good-looking, breezy magazine. And honestly, I'd always seen it as an opportunity. It's a good magazine that I thought could maybe be taken to another level, and when it came up, I knew they weren't going to call me. So, I called them up and said, "I know I'm not the kind of guy you would think of calling for this job, but I'd be interested in talking to you about it."
I talked to Charla [Lawhon], the [managing] editor, and we hit it off. I didn't talk to Rip [Georges], but I know him. It all sort of happened around the holidays—we talked on the phone a little bit, I told her what I thought I could do with it, and I told her what I thought I might need and we had a lunch or two. And that was pretty much it.
Mediabistro: Consider how informal the hiring process was, what have the first 10 days on the job been like? Is there any way to hit the ground running with a magazine of this size, or do you have to stand back for a while?
Korpics: My approach any time I come into a new magazine is to just learn how it works. And so basically—and I'm still doing this—I just watch. I say "Do it the way you normally would do it, and I'll watch you" for a few weeks or a month, and then I'll slowly see places where I think I can improve it. I think we're going to look at rejiggering it slightly, maybe play with some of the fonts and things like that, so I've got that going on in the background, but that's maybe not slated to go in for a long time.
It's amazing because it's a really big magazine. There are 110 editorial people here, and they have the production down to a science. I'm on the sidelines with my mouth wide open every day, going "My god, I can't believe you guys are working this far in advance!" Slowly but surely I'll stick my nose in and say "Hey, have you ever thought about doing the headline this way, instead of that way?" I think I designed my first little feature the other day. So in a way, I'm coming in as an entry-level designer, learning how the process works.
Mediabistro: Flashing back to Esquire for a minute, how did you get worn down at that job? Was there a moment when you realized you just couldn't keep doing it anymore?
Korpics: It's not that I couldn't do it anymore. I could have continued to do it. It's just that I was excited about the opportunity of doing something else. Designers are all different. There are some designers who can work at the same magazine and stay fresh and stay good for 10, 15, 20 years. I don't think I'm wired that way; it's hard for me to do that. That's not to say I'm going to up and leave here in four or five years. I hope to be able to stay here for a while. But you do reach a point sometimes—or at least I do—where it's hard to find inspiration, especially since magazines are cyclical. They tend to repeat themselves every year if you're a monthly, and when I was at Entertainment Weekly, we used to do movie previews every season. By the time I'd been there for four years, I'd done sixteen movie previews, and you just stop. You run out of ways to do them. "I don't know! I mean I've done 16! I can't think of another way to do one!" And at that point, it starts to look attractive to you to maybe go over to, say, Esquire and do "Women We Love" for a change.
As designers we're really conduits. We have to process the editorial information and interpret it visually, and once you've done that for the same information for four or five years, it gets to be hard to be reinterpret it. You wind up running into problems where you're basically trying to do it differently just for the sake of doing it differently, but it's not necessarily better, so...
Mediabistro: Well, with Esquire in particular, there's a history. Henry Wolfe just died, and much was made of his contributions to the look of the magazine, and then there's George Lois and the legendary '60s covers, then Black and Priest, and so on. How did you deal with the weight of that legacy?
Korpics: I never thought about it.
Korpics: No, honestly! I think that was because Granger's direction was to respect the old Esquire, but the new Esquire had nothing to do with the old Esquire, and I think that was a smart decision on his part, editorially. I had to take my cue from him.
You know, A lot of people would say nobody's ever done magazine covers as well as George Lois has, and nobody ever will.
Mediabistro: And they didn't sell.
Korpics: Right. And even if they did sell, the whole process was different and the time was different. Who are our Muhammed Alis and our Marilyn Monroes and our Richard Nixons these days? I just don't know if America is as naïve about those personalities and is as infatuated with them as they may have once been.
The reason some of those celebrities were able to have the mystique that would make such fascinating covers is because it was the '60s. You had Martin Luther King, and you had JFK, and you had all these amazing people at a really turbulent time in our history. Lois was allowed to create these fantastic covers that were statements, as opposed to "Pick celebrity X and try and sell your magazine that month."
The approach was to try and pick the most interesting person in the media that month and do an interesting cover on it. It's possible you could get close to some of those covers, but you're right—they probably wouldn't sell. They didn't sell when he did them.
There were times, I guess, when I sat there and said, "Is it possible to even do a magazine like this anymore, much less an Esquire?" I don't think I could have done Esquire like that, but would it even be possible to do any magazine like that? I'm not sure that you could, because we're so celebrity-inundated these days that celebrities just aren't that special anymore. I mean, they're special in some sense. They have their niche in society and in the media, but in those days they were almost like gods. They don't hold that place anymore.
Mediabistro: What power did you actually have over the covers when you were at Esquire? Considering the newsstand sales Maxim, Stuff and FHM were all racking up while you were there, did you ever feel heat from anyone about why Esquire was unable to do the same?
Korpics: The covers were very loosely done. I mean that in the sense that I think David [Granger] struggled to commit a lot of time as to who we should put on the cover, and I think that a lot of times, when it came down to who we finally agreed on, it was difficult to get that person, and we had to go to a backup person. But I think he preferred working that way, and actually, I don't mind working that way. It makes it kind of fun and loose, but you do tend to struggle a little bit. You wind up putting maybe three or four covers out there that you never really wanted to, or you regret it when you see them.
I was very involved in the cover process. Four or five us would sit around and throw out names, and then we would talk about why they would be good, why they wouldn't be good, how we would shoot them and how we wouldn't shoot them. One of the big reasons I was brought in was because I had newsstand experience at EW, and I think that they needed to bring Esquire a little more back into the mainstream. And so I did a lot of stuff to the covers where we wound up running second covers and these banners, and things like that, and we boosted the newsstand sales from when I first got there, and then I guess last year they were flat.
I didn't personally get a lot of heat from that. I think, ultimately, the decisions of who we put on the cover and how we presented the cover were David's, but I definitely felt a certain amount of responsibility for it because I was trying to sell the magazine as much as anybody. That's part of my job.
Mediabistro: Well, what's your job going to be InStyle? Do you need to start tweaking the look to signal that it's under new management?
Korpics: No, certainly not as a vanity thing or anything.
Mediabistro: Do you ever feel that urge?
Korpics: No, I think that what I can bring to InStyle is... it needs to be reorganized. I think it's a confusing magazine right now.
Mediabistro: Confusing? I wouldn't have thought of information architecture as being InStyle's problem.
Korpics: (Laughs) What would you have thought of as its problem?
Mediabistro: I don't know. I'm not exactly in the target demo.
Korpics: I think it could stand a big change in that arena. Ultimately, it's a populist fashion and celebrity magazine. I think they need to do certain things to trade on what they have. They have access to celebrities whom a lot of the other magazines don't have. I think we need to show that more in the magazine.
Then there's the whole service side. I think they've been attacked on all fronts by magazines like Lucky and Vitals that have really jumped on this service thing. I think they need to come back to their roots to do that a little more clearly and straightforwardly.
Ultimately, I'm just trying to make it what I think it is—almost like a magazine that was thought of as a business first when it was invented 10 years ago. It kind of exploded in the first two or three years, then got huge and unwieldy. I think it could stand some organizational changes to make it a little easier to navigate, and there's a lot of things about it that... it's hard to explain. I'm not sure how much I should say. But if it's a magazine about celebrity style and elegance, then it should feel that way. You should get that sense when you're going through it. You should feel stylish and elegant and glamorous in certain parts, but if it's also about products, beauty and things like that, then that needs to be clearly shown and presented in a way that's easily accessible to the readers, so the readers get a little bit of both worlds.
Mediabistro: It's interesting that you mention elegance, because I always think of InStyle as populist—it's the progenitor of both the rise of the celebrity weeklies and of the shopping books.
Korpics: It is.
Mediabistro: Neither of those genres are especially glamorous or exclusive.
Korpics: But InStyle has an elegance that it never lost. Just look at its typography. The text styling is 10 [point type] on 16 [point leading] or something like that, and where most magazines will try and jam as much as they can onto a page, InStyle has always taken the approach of making it as clear and clean and as breezy and open as they can. And that, in and of itself, I think, feels a little more elegant and a little more stylish.
Because when I look at a lot of these... I mean, you're right—the celebrity weeklies came around after InStyle, but they've definitely taken that supermarket tabloid approach. They're much closer to The National Enquirer than they are to InStyle, although InStyle told them it could be done.
Now that magazines have gone much more toward The National Enquirer model, I think that the one thing that InStyle really has that a lot of these other magazines don't is the access to celebrity and this sort of elegant approach to the way they do things. And maybe I see it differently from the way everyone else sees it, but I really do believe that it still has a lot of elegance and style and sort of grace to its pages. I think that's part of the magazine that I want to keep and to maybe improve on.
Mediabistro: You're the only person in this series to have won (or at least won recently) the National Magazine Award for Design. What has that done to validate your status amongst your peers and your standing among editors?
Korpics: I think that it's weird for designers, because we get the token Design award. There are 16 or 20 editorial awards, and then they give one for photography and one for design. And it's strange. (Laughs) It's like, "Okay, I won the National Magazine Award, does that mean my magazine is better than everybody else's?" No, I don't think so. It just means that it was good enough to make it into the final judging, and then I guess those people liked it. To pick one magazine over all the others seems sort of ridiculous, but that's the American way. Everyone likes to win an award. But the next day, you're still trying to coax your editors to pull some words out of the story so you can put some pictures in them. That doesn't change. They don't look at you any differently after you've won. I won it once before too.
Greg Lindsay a freelance writer in Brooklyn, has covered media for Inside.com and Women's Wear Daily.