Within days of winning Art Director of the Year, Digital, at the BSME Awards recently, the Digital Magazine Awards named GQ creative director Paul Solomons Designer of the Year. Not bad going for the one-time shop floor night shift worker at a specialist printers in Caerphilly who, contrary to his subsequent digital design achievements, insists he owes it all to print.
The printers job was a way of paying his way through college (he did a degree in graphic design), but it was also to prove a powerful foundation for his appreciation and understanding of what makes great magazine – and, subsequently, digital - design.
“The entire village of Caerphilly seemed to work in this factory called St Ives which used to print The Face, Marie Claire and Arena,” Solomons explains. “My job was to open boxes of inserts and feed them through the printers. It was then, though I didn’t quite understand how they worked, that I fell in love with magazines – Arena, especially. And when, every now and then, one of the art directors came to look around the factory, I thought: one day I’m going to be like them.”
After graduating, unable to reach GQ’s then art director Tony Chambers by phone to ask for a job (he did try), Solomons spent six months as a junior designer on a bike magazine at Emap before persuading Suzanne Sykes to take him on as a fully-fledged designer at Marie Claire – a position for which, he readily admits, he lacked experience. Nevertheless, he made his mark, and two years later, landed a job at British GQ.
Telling stories through pictures
“When I joined GQ, it was all about the magazine. And I came in thinking I was pretty good … until I worked with the team here at that time - Dylan (Jones) and Tony (Chambers) in particular, who both had newspaper backgrounds. They re-taught me what a great magazine is: proper journalistic design that tells stories through pictures, with a deep understanding of typography,” he recalls.
“That’s when I learned it was an art and a skill which mostly goes unnoticed, and that good magazine design is a thought process. You don’t know why it looks so great, it just does. It comes from every element that’s there being there for a reason. And it comes from trawling through 1,000 negatives on a light box – as we did back then – to find the right picture, rather than simply clicking Google and gathering the first five.”
Though digital was stirring, Solomons admits to having done his utmost to stay analogue, blaming a short attention span. So he remained print-focused throughout college. But once at GQ, two things forced a re-think.
The first was a growing requirement to produce visual content for the GQ website and a ‘mood film’ he conceived - GQ’s September 2009 moving digital cover of Sienna Miller, which won Cover of the Year at that year’s Maggies. The second was the arrival of GQ’s iPad edition in July 2011.
The Sienna Miller shoot was the first time Solomons says he set out with the clear intention of creating digital visual content: a behind-the-scenes film from a shoot which would also lend itself to becoming a moving cover on digital billboards on London Underground. But celebs at the time were reluctant to be shot behind the scenes because of concern about control and fear of how it might make them look.
So he and his team filmed Miller covertly, then packaged the results to give back to her with the promise that if she didn’t like it, nothing would be used and the content destroyed. Luckily, she loved it and the digital content proved a highly successful extension of what might otherwise have been a ‘conventional’ celebrity shoot.
Designing for iPads
Confirmation of the development of GQ’s iPad edition two years later marked another watershed moment. “I thought: that’s it, I'm out of a job,” Solomons recalls. “Because I just didn’t think I had the concentration span to learn how to do digital design.” But having taught himself as much as he could, he and his team found success here, too, thanks to a determination not to copy what others were already doing.
“People were putting videos on an iPad; you’d press ‘play’ to watch against a black screen, but to me that was boring,” Solomons says. “What I wanted was a video that looks like a photograph – a page with type on that then becomes something completely different; something that felt like moving photographs that would visually be more impressive. We had the same tools as everyone else, but we set out to treat the iPad in a different way.”
So Solomons’ design aesthetic was shaped both by journalistic principles and old world, paper-based print.
“I left printing just as it was going computerised, and entered magazine design just as it was moving on from print – and I think that an understanding of design before the Apple Mac has been a real strength,” he explains. “It’s all very well having software and apps that change type or crop a picture at the press of a button, but a real understanding of how something will work on a 7”, 10” or 12” screen in print and or on mobile before you’ve even gone out and shot it – that’s what’s really important.”
Today, Solomons is responsible for GQ art direction across all platforms. Magazine sales are strong and digital sales growing: 125,090 is the latest combined print and digital figure from ABC (July-December 2014), and sales of digital editions for phone and tablet now account for just over 10% of GQ’s total circulation. GQ.co.uk has 1,248,891 unique users and 13,011,791 page impressions (Google Analytics, Dec 2014-Feb 2015).
A juggling act
Print and non-print involves not two roles but a bigger, single responsibility, he explains. Even so, getting the physical magazine out remains his top priority and main focus as pretty much all GQ content comes from content generated for the printed version – for now, at least.
“With a magazine like ours, there are three starts to your day: UK time, New York Time and LA time. And while you are passing the print version for the next calendar month, you are designing the one after and planning the two beyond that as well as coming up with design solutions for the last issue as it’s about to launch on mobile or iPad,” Solomons says.
“You’re now working on six different issues at any one time on eight different sized devices but still trying to keep a cohesive design language and keep up quality whilst juggling it all with less time.”
Design: the GQ way
What sets GQ’s design aesthetic apart from other magazine brands is its attention to detail, he believes, pointing to the April 2015 edition with Will Ferrell on the cover. The photo, of a be-suited Ferrell in a blue cowboy hat, is a strong image that works well in print and on-screen but he wanted to push it further for iPad. So the tablet cover is actually a film of a cardboard cut-out of the same photo which, as it plays out, is drawn on, knocked over and then carried off by a man in a white coat.
“We force ourselves to look for something in a photo to enrich each device on which it will appear,” Solomons explains. “Yes, a tablet is like a mini light box on which you can read a PDF, but is that enough? It’s all about enriching digital, and that doesn’t have to cost much in time or money – it’s about paying attention to the details, using technology to put more personality into our magazines, and delivering something quirky or unexpected.”
Another principle behind great digital design is having navigation that’s intuitive with as little overt signposting as possible, he believes, citing as an enduring inspiration PlayStation advertising featuring no brand name, just the game console’s distinctive symbols.
“That’s what I wanted to do - come up with a few, instantly recognisable buttons which, whenever you saw them, tell you there is something there to do or find,” Solomons recalls. “Which is how GQ’s iPad app was launched and it made us quite different at that time.” He adds: “You’ve got to be brave, but you need to be confident, too. In my opinion, if something does need explaining then you’ve not designed it properly.”
Since 2011, software – and, as important, the technical support provided by software suppliers – has improved markedly.
“In the beginning, I was training up our team, fast-tracking my years of print experience to encourage a richer, deeper design aesthetic while, at the same time, designing almost every single digital page myself,” Solomons says. “But now the team is bedded down, and I look forward to a time where I can spend less time problem-solving and more time thinking more about, well, design.”
Innovation in design is an obvious area of interest, though he adds that an on-going challenge as tablets and hi-res screens become bigger, better and faster is keeping file sizes down.
“A magazine like ours will always try to enrich its output. But putting in high quality images takes way more memory than it used to, and a constant focus is on ensuring what you create can be downloaded as fast whether you are in London or the valleys of south Wales,” he explains.
“You’ve got to stay focused on giving a good user experience, and when that means keeping file sizes below a certain level, it will limit some aspects of how innovative you can be. But on the flip side, that limitation pushes us to be more creative in other ways.”
Looking ahead, however, Solomons says he feels only excitement for whatever comes next.
“My role has changed massively over the past ten years and will continue to do so,” he observes. “I can’t remember a more exciting time to be a creative director. And I can’t imagine doing what I do without having the time I had when print was king. I have so many ideas for taking things forward, and the thought that technology will enable this is thrilling.”