A year ago, Julie Lasky left the world of glossy design magazines to edit a new, nonprofit, online publication called Change Observer. Dedicated to covering design as social innovation, it's funded by a Rockefeller Foundation grant and launched last July as one of three "channels" of Design Observer. The move marks a significant shift for Lasky, the former editor-in-chief of Interiors and, most recently, I.D., which folded late last year. A 1995-96 NAJP fellow, she spoke by phone about her new venture. This is an edited version of the interview.
In the popular perception, design is associated with luxury, not necessity, let alone politics and social innovation. But Change Observer is explicitly focused on "design strategies aimed globally at improving health, education, housing, and the environment" -- which seems very different from what you were doing at I.D. and Interiors. So is that part of the appeal to you as an editor?
Well, I think that one of the problems, as you say, is it is the public's perception that design is associated with luxury. But, you know, I never thought of design as just simply being an activity to produce consumer objects, and I think both Interiors and I.D. reflected that. So, for instance, we did an entire package of stories related to China, just before the Beijing Olympics, but those stories really went into how do you fashion a vocabulary for what design is bringing to China, and the new developments of design in business in China. Or there was a journal about an industrial designer, trying to navigate his way through the whole system of having things produced, with all the qualms about production in China. So, you know, I don't feel like I ever really stepped away from a mission. I just kind of got a little bit more focused.
What does that focus mean that you do cover, and what sorts of things are now outside of your mission?
I think now outside of the mission is design that is purely for consumer goods without any consideration of how something is made, and how it's being used and disposed of. Which is a substantial amount of content in Interiors and I.D., by the way. A lot of the stuff we showed in I.D. did not pay much attention to those questions -- and a lot did. Now we are exclusively interested in design for the improvement of society.
Another thing that apparently you're interested in is investigative reporting, which is such a rarity in arts journalism, but it's one of the things that Change Observer promises to deliver. Why is that important?
I think design journalism has always given short shrift to serious analysis. Too often -- and I've been as guilty of this as anybody -- it has leaned toward the questions of "How much does this thing cost?" and "Where can I buy it?" And so we have tried to do probing journalism, but not to the extent ever, even now, that I think it's demanded. You can find in Esquire, The Atlantic, tons of stories -- or The New Yorker -- where there's in-depth reporting on the things that we buy, how they're being made, how they're being used to improve our lives. You know, how they're being designed. And they take all sorts of different tactics -- and this is a tradition that dates all the way back to Rachel Carson. But I think that it needs to be brought front and center to web-based media, and there are a lot of journalists out there right now who have these abilities who don't really have the outlets anymore to practice that kind of journalism.
Is it a new thing, though, for a design publication to claim that sort of journalism for its own?
It may be a new thing, but I'm a little bit chary right now, I'm a little hesitant to make the claim that we're accomplishing it, because it takes a lot of resources. I can give you an example. We recently did a story, a report on organic cotton. It's called "The Cotton Club." The reporter went out and just looked at what does it mean to declare that something's organic, and what kinds of hidden costs might there be, because the production of cotton is very expensive. I mean, are we talking about severe exploitation of workers in order to produce something that has that particular label? Now, a story like that is exactly the sort of thing that I want to be doing, but I would like to do it in even more depth. I would like to have done it with a reporter who is able to go to ... Turkey or India: places where cotton is being produced. But right now, that's still in the ideal realm. I don't have the resources, even though it's a generous Rockefeller Foundation grant.
Are there other topics that you envision for investigative reports?
I wasn't thinking so much of specific topics but certainly the notion of being able to follow stories over time. You know, we've been doing a number of project reports. There are certain initiatives that turn up all the time in all sorts of realms. In design and social change, it might be a program for improving the way water is transported in India, say. Or improving the way medicine is transported on camelback in Africa to desert regions through solar-powered carriers that will keep the medicine cool. So these are design problems, and they are projects that have been funded. But I'd like to see how well they do. I'd like to carry through. Just to backtrack a second: Change Observer, the title, is related to Design Observer, and it means, quite strictly, people are watching what's going on in this world. But I also want to observe -- I mean, make it literal and say, "How much change is really being accomplished?" So that maybe where the investigations could be focused is simply in following up projects rather than applauding them and watching them disappear over the horizon to be effective or not effective. I would like, with every project story that we've done, which are fairly objective, straightforward, 500-word reports, I would like to go back and just say, "Let's see where this is right now."
How does being a nonprofit affect the way the publication operates?
Part of it has to do with the fact that I don't have to be concerned with advertisers. And I don't look at traffic as the first thing. Obviously when you're running a for-profit magazine, you're constantly aware of who your audience is and how many are out there and how many are buying you. Right now I am concerned with traffic, and I track it all the time, but I'm not doing it with that same feeling of its overarching importance in the decisions that I make. It certainly shapes them. When I came to Change Observer, I threw a lot of spaghetti against the wall. I felt I had several months to just sort of, you know, "Does this work? Does that work?" Because not only was I testing, not only am I editing in a new realm for me, but I'm editing on a medium which doesn't follow any of the rules of print media. My readers may be coming because they've heard about a story on Twitter at fourth remove from the place it was published, and they've floated over, read it and now they've left and will never return. Because I'm working with this new medium, I'm also trying to understand how I publish for my audience.
Is that part of the reason that you're looking so carefully at the numbers even though they're not driving you the same way they would in a for-profit publication?
Exactly. Exactly. You know, I'm constantly being surprised. I put up a story that had a fashion connection to it. It was about a woman [from] Colombia who was designing dresses for pregnant women, but the idea was that the same dress could be used before, during and after your pregnancy because of the way that it stretched. And it created quite an attractive graphic pattern when you're in your full-blown pregnancy. It's something that's a pilot project, being manufactured by women who were at least in their 50s, because there's been a high unemployment rate in Colombia of middle-aged women. So this particular designer is an industrial designer based in Brooklyn but was originally from Colombia and working with a workshop there. [The story] had several dimensions that fit into my program very well. But what surprised me was the people who were following the story and really drove up the traffic were people who simply wanted to buy the dress. And I think the poor woman is absolutely overwhelmed, because I don't think she has the manufacturing capacity in motion right now. So it speaks a lot to the power of the web and to the unpredictability of who your audience is. Because when I was editing I.D., we did do stories that were related to fashion, but they weren't going out that quickly to people who were reading stories off of Madison Avenue. The Women's Wear Daily crowd was not picking up I.D. magazine, except by some fluke.
Design, like the rest of the visual arts, is thought to demand a print format in ways that other subject matter doesn't, just because of the display possibilities. So what are the advantages and disadvantages of writing about design, and editing coverage of design, online?
Well, there certainly is nothing that beats paper for the lavishness of showing an image. My traditional readers just loved that component of the magazine. And, you know, sometimes I felt that I could just be writing gibberish and it didn't matter if I had beautiful pictures. This isn't to insult my audience; it's just that they really lived with those images. But I do find that there's so much flexibility on the web to be able to show things and then of course link to other things, and to be freed of so many of the constraints like, you know, permission to republish things. You can lead people to other websites and web pages without any kinds of copyright concerns. So there's a lot of flexibility to augment a story with a link, to lead them to other areas of visual enticement. And I've found Flickr to be the most remarkable source of images, even though my heart breaks for all my photographers I used to commission images from -- because, you know, I'm getting those images, with permission, for free off of Flickr. But everything in the world that I need is there, and a lot of it is of a very high quality. The site makes it very easy to e-mail the photographer and ask for permission, explain what you're using it for, and then you can link to them. For that organic cotton story, for instance, you just type "organic cotton" into Flickr, and you get an enormous wealth of things. The person I ended up linking to, it was some woman who had a knitting blog.
It seems to me that design consciousness is on the rise in our culture, and it also seems that that's partly due to our day-to-day interactions with the same technology that's making survival so difficult for print media.
Absolutely. It's quite the paradox.
So what has the increased design savvy of the general public meant for design coverage?
You know, it's a good question. It hasn't ensured the survival of design magazines, and that kind of breaks my heart. It may help to ensure the survival of designers who will find a market, not only because their customer base is growing but also because, as you say, the Internet is providing them with an ideal marketing tool. They can go on Etsy and sell their stuff -- in limited editions, without having to go through a formal manufacturer. And then, of course, it's given rise to an efflorescence of design blogs: people who are willing to scout the world and show things and editorialize about them -- or, you know, sell them, depending on which angle they're taking -- and doing it for pennies, if anything. And that, of course, also creates my competition. I haven't been able to sort out yet where the benefits and where the detriments are going to be out of all of this.
From what you just said, though, it sounds like the deck is kind of stacked against any kind of professional design journalism.
It's the journalism problem, period. No different from any other realm in journalism. I had hoped, foolishly, that design might survive in a print medium longer than other areas of journalism because of what we were talking about, because there's such a bonus of showing design in a printed format. And also what print gives you that the web doesn't give is a different kind of archival benefit. You can always archive anything on the web and [use] Google or any other search engine and bring it back, but not with the consistency or flow or character. And when you're a designer, for instance -- most of my audiences over the years have been professional designers -- you know, they had shelves and shelves of these magazines that they would pull down, and it would give them inspiration in a way that just kind of rumbling through Google would not. So I thought that that archival quality, the fact that things look so beautiful in print, design looks so beautiful in print, would help to guarantee the survival of design magazines. But I'm not sure that's going to happen, at least judging from the casualty rate.
Is there anything else I should ask you?
I feel right now when I talk to people like you that my mind is kind of exploding because I really don't know how things are going to shake out. And I'm excited by this -- I'm very privileged to be sitting right now doing what I'm doing, to have foundation funding, to be able to explore. I feel there's no question about the value of what I'm doing, for so many reasons right now: that I need to be learning how to be an editor in this medium, and I think that the message of design and its connection with social change is a very important one to get out into the world. And I'm also really, really happy to have this extremely broad audience. I may not know who these people are or whether they'll ever return to me, but I'm having a far more eclectic readership than I've ever had, and I have, through all my editing experience, sought to have eclectic readers. I've always wanted to edit design magazines for a general public, to make the writing accessible and relevant to anybody who picked up one of my magazines and read them. And now I have such an audience. By the same token, I'm, like many people, a one-man band here. I have partners, but I am my own photo editor. The idea that I ever had an assistant is so laughable I can't even believe it. What was that fantasy world far, far away, you know? I am glad that I had so many years under my belt of being a copy editor and doing line editing and doing all that nuts-and-bolts work that make it much more useful for me now to be a one-man band. I don't know what's going to happen to the next generations, who didn't have that experience that I had. My generation went into journalism the same kind of way: bottom-feeding, and trying to float upwards into the sun.
Photo courtesy Julie Lasky