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The International Affair

By Andrea Damiani

Through its sleek design, diplo magazine represents the successful blend of form and content.  The relatively new magazine out of London, England uses a symbiotic relationship of original art and international affairs that reflect one another.  In using strong emblematic graphic illustrations and photography, political issues are represented in both a creative and clever way.

Editor-in-Chief Charles Barker went into creating the magazine with the simple philosophy to “present politics in a new way by using graphic design to present very provocative and creative images about global affairs.”

The diplo style uses elemental but smart simplicity to translate international affairs through design methods usually found in style magazines, for the purpose of doing what The Economist does not: present world issues to a new audience.

Today’s magazine scene is a more demanding, challenging and visually oriented reader. The format of diplo attracts readers who are interested in politics and who read the Wall Street Journal, but also appreciate the avante garde presentation. 

This presentation usually revolves around traditional images with a spin; flags, emblems and other uncomplicated images that represent much more than they simply look.  The images are manipulated into something new but symbolically loaded, always set against primal colours of reds, yellows and blacks that dominate the page with stark contrasts.  

A blend of worldly views makes up the written pieces and opinions contributed to diplo.   The magazine counts among its writers government ministers, established authors, young journalists and college students, emphasizing the quality and diversity of the articles. 

Past issues have centered around themes, covering international involvement in the domestic affairs of other countries, nuclear war, gay marriage, and a specific issue that portrays the superpowers in the roles of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, with a cover design that looks like a movie poster.

Barker founded diplo two years ago, and now works as editor-in-chief and art director of the magazine.  On a monthly basis he and a team of 24,  all of whom are from either London’s St. Martin’s School of Fashion and Design or political science graduates, develop the contemporary magazine. 

Barker’s ambition for the magazine, to reach an international level of influence, happened last year with diplo now available in Canada and in 20 countries, printing thousands of copies and increasing each month. 

Diplo is entirely independent, or as they say,  “bank rolled by no one”. 

While they can say it is the only magazine in the field to be so independent, the magazine does not intend to stay away from publishing houses entirely in the future.  While diplo might seem anti-advertising, that also is about to change.  A new association with a firm outside the magazine crew will oversee advertising while the team focuses production. diplo has evolved to better appeal to their reader, says Barker.

Barker shares with MAGworld the principles of success for his independent and original magazine and why he thinks it is important to get people into the ideas behind politics and international affairs.

Andrea Damiani: What’s the story behind the creation of the magazine?
Charles Barker: diplo  magazine started in July 2004, and we started printing just 70 copies of the magazine because we weren’t sure how people were going to react to our idea, which was very simple.  It was really to present politics in a way that hadn’t been done before, and our way of doing this was going to be using graphic design to present very provocative and creative images about global affairs so people could learn about the subject and read about it in a more interesting way. 

AD: How long did it take for it to become real?
CB: The magazine was born by a lot of coincidences and perhaps even accidents.  I had worked in politics before.  I studied in Canada and Wales and then I went to work for a few different politicians.  After my three years of working for politicians I left a bit frustrated, so I thought maybe we can present this in another way and I wasn’t quite sure how.  But then I met someone who introduced me to the design world and I thought well maybe we can mix design and politics together and the magazine happened very quickly, just a few weeks later we printed our first issue.

AD:  How does the magazine market in Britain and abroad recognize you?
CB:  I have always thought the magazine industry is the most peculiar, and the most difficult industry that there is.  It’s a very aggressive, a very competitive and a very unforgiving industry to work in.  I think someone told me when I first started that opening a magazine is as dangerous as opening a restaurant: it will fail very quickly and it will cost a lot of money.  The magazine world is always very hostile to any new entrance that comes onto the market.  I have an interesting statistic from when I first started the magazine, that 30,000 titles are proposed each year and just 3,000 make their first issue, just 300 make the first year and about 30 are surviving after the first five years.  Nothing’s ever sure, but we’re still going after two years.

AD:  How do you see your role, your niche in the market?
CB: Well, we’re working in a very crowded and a very established market.  If you think of political and international magazines, people think of The Economist.  It would have been hard if we didn’t have such a strong unique selling point, and that is we use a lot of design rather than a lot of text.  We talk about global affairs and news, and we’ve been able to penetrate the market in a successful way.  But having said that, although we’ve got this special dimension to the magazine, it means we have to almost create an audience to read the magazine.  This audience has traditionally been fed this information in very traditional ways, using lengthy or academic text, and they’re not used to receiving this information in an alternative, lighter, more design led way, so we’ve almost had to create an audience as well.

AD:  Your magazine combines news and writers from all over the world. Is this the future for magazines?  Is this intentional?
CB:  I think this had happened by accident, but I think it is the future for publishing. We are very much drawing in all of these ideas and articles and people and pieces of work from around the world – we quickly change it into a magazine in our small studio in central London, and then we throw it back out to the world again in the form of magazines which they can then buy.   I think this is the way that magazines and publishing, presenting and feeding information has got to go; it’s got to go through this process, to be able to attract and present it to as wide an audience as possible.  Rather than this very heavy, cumbersome traditional way of news gathering that we have.

AD:  Who do you see as your audience?
CB:  I suppose our audience is really a younger, slightly more creative version of the people who read The Economist, people who find The Economist a little bit too academic, a little bit too intimidating, a little bit text heavy.  We’re trying to really reach that new audience, that new generation who live in this very visualized world, who want to receive bite size pieces of information very quickly, rather than have to spend a long time reading through an article before they see the answer to it.

AD:  What is the underlying value that you intend the magazine to provide?

CB: A lot of people say politics and international affairs is a switch off.  A lot of people aren’t interested in it.  This is quite worrying when more people are interested in certain television programs rather than, you know, the way that their country is governed and managed.  This is a great shame and I think this is the great shame of politicians that they’re wasting all of their energy and all of this space on an audience that doesn’t understand what they are trying to communicate.  So we’re trying to reverse that philosophy, trying to reverse that situation of communicating politics and international affairs in a more interesting way, if that makes sense.

AD: In diplo’s editorials and the comment section you try to present alternative points of view...
CB: Yeah, the editorial philosophy of the magazine is really to place emphasis on attracting people to the magazine because of its good articles.  We’re not trying to persuade anyone necessarily about any point of view, we’re just trying to attract them to the magazine and to these ideas. 
So in one issue, it’s quite feasible we might have one article for the war in Iraq, and one article against the war in Iraq, and the purpose is just to attract people to this subject, to get them thinking about it, rather than presenting them with a very narrow, one-sided argument, that they very immediately switch off from. 

AD: What is your view on the rest of the media, how perhaps the rest can seem quite biased.
CB: I’ve often thought about this question, I mean, at the end of the day, the media is actually controlled by a very tiny minority of people or organizations.  But I would question really how much influence or how much they interfere with the individual publications themselves, because it’s in no one’s interests that they try to take too much control over the publications.  Their basic agenda at the end of the day is that they sell lots of newspapers, or sell lots of advertising space on their news channels and I think that is the only agenda that they really have, rather than actually interfering with editorial policy. 
Selling lots of newspapers or making your news channel attractive is just meeting the demand of what people want to hear and what people want to listen to. 
So I think that’s where the real interference comes from, that’s where the real control comes from;  actually appeasing, actually realizing and you know, satisfying peoples taste for what they want to hear.  Rather than individuals like Rupert Murdoch or any of the other corporations interfering with what newspapers are reporting, I think it’s actually the consumers themselves actually dictating what’s reported.

AD: What is your view on Canada’s role in foreign politics, our perception on the larger world platform?
CB:  I think, for me certainly, Canada in a lot of ways is the conscience for Britain because it is a powerful strong state, and it offers this slightly different level of thinking for Britain.  Whereas our Prime Minister can sometimes go to war very quickly, I think it’s good that we have Canada that can act as our conscience and perhaps offer a slightly different perspective on the situation, so from that sense, yes, it is a very important player in international nations.  mw

diplo magazine is now available in Toronto, or look at