Three questions to:Kai Brach, Offscreen
Two years ago, the first issue of Offscreen magazine was published. The latest issue (number 7) demonstrates that Kai Brach’s “one-man magazine” is making good progress. We put three questions to him.
Kai is actually a web designer but he changed over to print to publish a magazine about “pixel people”. He does the research, conducts interviews, writes, designs and organises the distribution and sales. It comes as no surprise that there are digital tools for everything in today’s world. But what impresses us is Kai’s international network: the people he discovers and the stories that he tells. It is also worth visiting his blog that offers an interesting glimpse behind the scenes and where Kai discloses his finances, for example.
The reason why the magazine is so successful is its good stories. At its core, Offscreen is a magazine for digital designers but over time it has become a publication read by all sorts of people around the world. It has caught the attention not only of architects but also baristas, teachers and many others. So Kai has decided not to write about ‘pixel people’ any more but about the people who use digital products creatively - including authors, photographers, labourers and taxi drivers. In the 7th issue of the magazine he has introduced new narrative formats (while retaining the six big interviews) and has slightly modified and adapted the design.
Scott Thomas from Chicago, also known as SimpleScott, is one of the people presented in the current issue. The designer combines his knowledge of architecture and design history and uses it on the web. His most successful work assisted in bringing President Obama to office. At the moment, he is working on The Noun Project, an archive of the global visual language. In addition to other interviews, there is also one with Oliver Reichenstein, who was one of the speakers at the Translations 4 Symposium last November in Mainz. Reichenstein is a Swiss designer whose background is in branding and philosophy and who gained professional and life experience in Japan. His agency is called iA; he is also the developer of Writer, a very successful “minimal text editor app”.
Kai, you work from your base in Australia but publish in Berlin. How did that come about?
I emigrated to Australia about 10 years ago and now live in Melbourne. Australia is extremely expensive in comparison to most other countries and this also affects the printing industry. If I had the magazine printed here in Melbourne - which would have its advantages and would simplify the production process - I would probably have to reckon on the price being two to three times higher. That would make the magazine so expensive that it would probably make fewer sales. As I go to Berlin regularly and German printers are known for producing good quality I take advantage of this option. Germans often do not realise just how reasonable prices are in their country. But it was not only the price of printing that was crucial but also shipping. Seventy-five per cent of sales are direct to my readers who buy the magazine via offscreenmag.com and receive it by mail. It costs me around 4 euros to send a copy from Berlin to Melbourne. From Melbourne to Berlin it would be twice the price. I often ask myself why it works this way - particularly as the Australian dollar is weaker than the euro by almost half.
There are articles by and about people from around the whole world: Australia, the USA, the UK, Denmark, New Zealand, etc. Where do you know them from? How have you built up this network?
Partly through the contacts I know through Twitter, Facebook and blogs, and through their friends and contacts. Anyone who spends hours on the net and actively participates in the web development scene soon gets to know a few well-known faces. And as happens in lots of industries, when you know a few people the network becomes bigger and you are introduced to other people. I also meet people at conferences that are held in different places around the world. I think the web scene is a bit special in this respect: it is based on sharing information, solving problems and helping people. We all work with the same tools and almost everyone is self-taught. That puts everyone on the same level and so you rarely find a remote, hierarchical structure. In an environment like this, driven by global networking, you constantly meet interesting people. I always spend a few weeks before each issue skimming through the web. You should not always rely on your own echo chamber.
How do you do your interviews? Do you visit the people and find a photographer locally?
I wish that were feasible from a time and cost point of view! No, it all takes place in writing and online. Almost all interviews and articles take place within Google Docs. (These are Word documents that are stored on line. It is possible to simultaneously work ‘live’ on a document.) This has advantages and disadvantages. The greatest advantage of written interviews is that people have the time to consider their answers and the text is then available already written down. This of course makes the editing process easier later on. A great disadvantage however is that many people who I would like to interview do not have the time to write everything down. Such an exercise can easily take up five to ten hours - usually spread over one or two weeks. It doesn’t always work out that I manage to get the people I would like to include in the next issue. The photos for the interviews are taken either by friends or colleagues of the interviewee or sometimes by a photographer who I hire specially. It might not sound very complicated but if you are working with about 40 people at the same time and people keep dropping out at the last minute, it can often result in a sleepless night or two. Welcome to publishing!