Summer 1998

Reputations: John Plunkett

‘We wanted to avoid the unspoken design taboo: Good design = subtle, tasteful, elegant, restrained. My feeling about that is: maybe so . . . depends on the context. We felt it was more important that Wired be alive than subtle . . .’

John Plunkett is a partner with Barbara Kuhr in the design firm Plunkett + Kuhr, based in Park City, Utah. They are also the creative directors of Wired magazine and Wired Digital, companies they helped found in 1992 and 1994, and in this capacity they are responsible for the look and feel of Wired magazine and its books, as well as HotWired, the world’s first commercial website. Plunkett is a 1976 graduate of the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied with Louis Danzinger. In 1979, he joined Dan Friedman and Colin Forbes in a corner of George Nelson’s office to help bring Pentagram New York to life. Plunkett remained with Pentagram for three years, and went on to direct projects for Saul Bass, Deborah Sussman and James Sebastian before opening Plunkett + Kuhr in 1990. Their past projects include signage for the Musée du Louvre (with Carbone Smolan and I.M. Pei), exhibitions for Carnegie Hall, and the graphics for the Sundance Film Festival.

Wired magazine has received three National Magazine Awards – two for General Excellence and one for Design. An exhibition on the design of Wired opened at the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, in December 1997.

Steve Heller: Where did the idea to start Wired come from?

John Plunkett: I met Louis Rossetto [founding editor and publisher of Wired] in 1984 in Paris, where he was the editor and I was the designer of an investment newsletter. We became good friends after discovering we were both closet media junkies. We would go out and buy an armload of American mags, and end up in some café, criticising them. Louis kept saying we should start a magazine, and I laughed at the likelihood of that.

Four years later though, Louis was working for a technology magazine in Amsterdam, where he first began to encounter the people and subcultures that Wired would later report on. Barbara [Kuhr] and I were back in New York when we got a call from Louis in the fall of 1988. The conversation went like this:

“I’ve got it. I know what our magazine should be about!”

“What?”

“Computers!”

“Oh.”

“You don’t understand – computers are going to be the rock and roll of the 1990s!”

“You’re right; I really don’t understand that at all.”

As it turned out, Louis was able to persuade me and a lot of other people that he really was on to something. Technology would become a dominant cultural force in a very short time.

SH: What was your design background? Were you already “wired”?

JP: When I was a student at CalArts in the early 1970s, my mentor Louis Danziger used to tell his design students that “one day we’ll all be working on computers.” We thought he was nuts.

SH: What changed your mind?

JP: At Pentagram in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I spent a good deal of time devising proportional systems for American Express and other clients, so they could “proof” text for their annual report on their word processors, cutting their typesetting bills in half. We would design the reports and then build silly looking, oversized templates – but with accurate character and line-counts – that could be output directly from their machines. But I still didn’t view the computer as a tool I wanted on my desk.

In 1984 when I worked on the newsletter in Paris, that changed. They had one of the first Macs, and I became very excited to have Apple’s handful of typefaces to work with directly. This was before any page layout programs, so we output the type and made traditional mechanical paste-ups.

In 1986/87, Barbara and I were hired to create the visitor information system for the Musée du Louvre, working with Carbone Smolan and the office of I.M. Pei. Somehow we survived a year of speaking French, arguing with Parisian government bureaucrats and learning PageMaker, which we used to layout the whole giant signage program on a fourteen-inch screen. It was like scanning a football field through a microscope. Perhaps more importantly though, we began working remotely and in real-time, on a giant “Facsimile Machine” with the office in New York. This technology stuff was beginning to get interesting. In the late 1980s I began working on projects with Jim Sebastian at DesignFrame in New York. I introduced the Macintosh to his office and Barbara and I bought our first home computer when the Mac II was released.

Like a lot of designers, I doubt that I would ever have touched a computer if the Macintosh interface hadn’t been invented.

At DesignFrame, we created the ColorCurve System (which itself was based on computer calibration of colours) entirely on the Mac, and devised a desktop publishing system for Hillier, the architectural firm in Princeton, NJ. We also began using modems to transfer files, combining the networking of fax machines with the increasingly sophisticated design tools of the Mac.

Between FedEx, modems and faxes, and the computer’s ever increasing power, Barbara and I began to think it might be possible for a small design office to do national work from a remote location. We began looking for a small town near a good airport in the West, which brought us to Park City, Utah in 1991, with no clients and a lot of fear. In the next two years, though, we designed exhibits for Carnegie Hall (remotely) and graphics for the Sundance Film Festival (down the street).

SH: When did Wired get wired?

JP: Funnily enough, the first prototype of Wired was made [in the spring of 1991] by hand-collaging colour Xeroxes to look like it was done with the high-powered computers and programs we knew we needed but could not afford. Once Wired received funding in late 1992, we began what has now become five years of near-weekly commuting to the San Francisco office, accompanied by high-speed tele-commuting from our home office in Utah. For better or worse (or both) we are committed to living the life Wired reports on.

SH: Couldn’t you do the entire magazine electronically from a distance?

JP: Ironically, considering the editorial mission of Wired, this is the most highly collaborative effort I’ve ever been involved in, requiring huge amounts of face-to-face interaction. We’ve experimented with video-conferencing, which works well enough for deciding logistical problems, but is terrible for “blue-sky” creative sessions. Maybe one day there will be hi-res, real-time video that somehow captures a sense of “being there” for all the participants, but in the meantime there’s no substitute for our weekly edit/design meetings.

SH: In designing a magazine that chronicles the present and heralds the future, what were your primary concerns regarding form and style?

JP: William Gibson, the science fiction writer, once said: “The future has already arrived. It just isn’t equally distributed.” We used this formulation to guide the design of Wired. Our job as both journalists and designers was to track down the future, and then make it visible to our readers. But in 1992, the future of communications was invisible to most people.

The chief formal issue to resolve then, it seemed to us, was the inherent contradiction of using ink on paper in a fixed (old) medium to report on this emerging, fluid, non-linear, asynchronous, electronic world. Since we couldn’t be the new medium that we were reporting on, what could we do to signify it? What does that invisible future look like? Perhaps more importantly, what does it feel like? Is the future good or bad, scary or friendly? A threat or a promise, etc. Then there was the technical question of how electronic could ink on paper look?

I’m no lover of fluorescent ink – it just seemed appropriate to this particular problem.

There were also the more pragmatic issues of packaging the product. How do you differentiate yourself from the competition on the newsstand? How do you gain attention? Louis wanted Wired to be a premium-priced magazine – $5 instead of the average $2 or $3. That led us towards a look and feel that might be closer to a book you want to collect, as opposed to a magazine you throw away.

We also deliberately tried to avoid as many contemporary magazine design techniques and clichés as possible. It remains non-obvious to me why most magazines look alike. And in particular we wanted to avoid the unspoken design taboo: Good design = subtle, tasteful, elegant, restrained. My feeling about that is: maybe so… depends on the context. We felt it was more important that Wired be alive than subtle . . .

SH: Now that Wired is online too, what are the hierarchies and characteristics of the parts of the media mix that Wired Inc. has become?

JP: Our goal is a Wired “brand” that signifies useful and entertaining information about the future, delivered via any media that makes sense. To date we’ve developed the magazine, books and various Web media and tools, all primarily text based. We have also begun to experiment with television, which seems better suited to delivering the emotional subtext rather than anything approaching deep content.

We are also interested in television in a more pragmatic sense, in that we’d like to be present on the day the Web and television collide. In particular, Max Kisman made some simple, beautiful animations of the Wired logo that will eventually show up in our media products. If the technology allows it, they will show up on our website first. And if the right funding or partner comes along, they may show up on a television product first. But don’t overstate our interests or activity – it all comes under the heading of R&D.

SH: Do you see the wired world as having already developed design clichés and stereotypes?

JP: We put ourselves in the business of developing some of those very clichés six years ago. This is, of course, a double-edged sword. We try to develop visual metaphors that are meaningful in relation to the content they are meant to serve.

It’s sometimes painful then to see the surface appearance of our work picked up and used as decoration, detached from its original purpose. This is not a new problem for designers – we are just more aware of it now from our experiences with the creation of Wired.

SH: What are some examples of these stereotypes, and their appropriate context and use?

JP: “Fluorescence = electronic future” is the obvious device. To some degree I has become part of the Wired brand, although when investment banks begin using it for brochures, one wonders. And we have sometimes used a layered technique that, while not exactly novel in the design community, was unusual to find in the context of newsstand magazines.

SH: Talking of stereotypes, how did Mind Grenades develop? Is it a visual code for the future?

JP: Mind Grenades was Wired’s first book. It is a compilation of the first 30 intro quotes we created for the magazine, in collaboration with a lot of extremely talented designers and illustrators – Giles Dunn, Erik Adigard, Max Kisman, James Porto, Jeff Brice, Nick Philip, among them. We conceived the intro quotes as Advertisements for Ideas. They were meant to compete with the actual advertising in the front of the magazine – and win! Ironically (or is it inevitably?) the ad world seems to have responded to our attempts to fuse word and image. The intro quotes are also an homage to our “patron saint,” Marshall McLuhan, and Quentin Fiore’s amazing 1967 design of The Medium is the Massage. But is it a “visual code” for the future? I’d prefer to think not, that the visualisation of the future is by definition a moving target, one that we at Wired hope to keep up with.

SH: What about the wired or digital world do you find most challenging for designers?

JP: Lots of things. First, we need to move on from seeing the computer as a box on our desk that isolates us like television, and embrace computers as big magic that increases our connection to each other, transcending time and space.

Which brings up collaboration. The nature of networked computers is to break down the distinctions between disciplines, between clients and consultants, boss and junior. Designers who embrace this notion will prosper.

Equally important, if we don’t quickly move from a print-based paradigm, a good chunk of the design profession is likely to be replaced by film-school graduates in the next few years. Think “real-time film-making,” not “print” or “graphics.” The means of story-telling are changing. Previously separate and distinct technologies and disciplines are all migrating to desktop, one-stop shopping. Combine this with quickly expanding bandwidth, allowing the Web and television to merge, and you enter a new world of telling stories with sound and motion from your computer to others’ computers and/or televisions.

Print is not about to disappear, but the centre of the design profession is likely to gravitate towards this emerging media form. Witness the work of graphic designers who have gotten their hands on a Media 100 machine, such as Laurie and P. Scott Makela at Cranbrook. Amazing.

And lastly, not all, but most designers are still far too in love with their shiny new machines. There is the temptation to use every new bell and whistle that comes along – sometimes simultaneously. The loss of typographic craft has begun to be corrected, but now we very much have the same problem with pre-press and printing, which accounts for a lot of murky imagery and crazily contrasted colours (gee, they looked nice on-screen). I say this having committed each of these sins and more in public a number of times over the last five years. I only hope one sees a trend over time in Wired to solve these problems rather than repeat them. Colour and contrast that looks beautiful via the transmitted colour of a monitor screen can look terrible when transmuted into the reflective colour of ink on paper.

SH: As a creative director/publisher of magazines and books, how do you see the print environment changing vis-à-vis the digital?

JP: My own sense is that ordinary information delivered in ordinary ways will tend to gravitate quickly now to electronic media. My hope is that extraordinary information presented in extraordinary ways will become the future of print. This is much like the futurist John Naisbett’s “high tech/ high-touch” notion. I think there is a possibility for certain books to tell their stories entirely visually. We did a book last year on the Burning Man festival in Nevada, that attempts to tell the story of the event through 160 pages of photos. It’s a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, and a few diversions on the way. But we hope the reader comes away with a greater understanding of the event than if they read the accompanying essays. In a different sense, Mind Grenades tries to operate on a purely visual level, separate from the text track.

SH: Is there a typeface that says “future”?

JP: I think there are typefaces that can say anything, but it depends almost entirely on the context, and then on the designer’s knowledge of the world around us, and especially our collective history.

SH: Should we, as designers, be concerned with how the future looks?

JP: I don’t think we have a choice. Design, or any other creative endeavour for that matter, is inherently concerned with giving form to the future.

SH: Is design a vehicle for spreading notions of what the future “should” look like?

JP: Spreading notions of how things should be, no. Creating notions of how things could be, yes.

SH: Do you still consider yourself a graphic designer? Do you think graphic design can make an essential contribution to online design?

JP: I have never been any more comfortable with the term Graphic Designer than with the previous misnomer, Commercial Artist. The term graphic design only connotes that-which-you-can-see: the end product, the tip of the iceberg of a long and primarily invisible problem-solving process. But it is the problem-solving process that matters, much much more than the end result it provokes.

I’m really from the classical Modernist school of design on this subject. I believe that designers design, and whether it’s a book, a chair or a business strategy is immaterial. One brings the same problem-solving approach to bear regardless, and through a combination of luck, experience and timing, one is sometimes able to solve a problem well and truly.

So yes, designers can certainly contribute to online design if they choose to. It’s just that, from my point of view, the designer concerned with matters of content is more likely to make a meaningful contribution than the designer who is primarily concerned with form.

First published in Eye no. 28 vol. 7, Summer 1998.

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