John Korpics Interview

by Heidi Volpe

FORT_20101101_C1_487267_C1_39bbc71632133c14e2f73e1dcd0a2d309b4b4cd4John Korpics, Creative Director of Fortune Magazine is a Renaissance Man. For any designer, photographer, illustrator, typographer or editor working with John should be part of the 100 Things To Do before you Die list. You need to work with him at least one in your life and here’s why:

Heidi: On your personal website you claim to be an arbiter of style at a very young age. Who picked out the tie, you or your Mom?

John: I choose all my ties, most of which are leftover freebies I got when I worked at Esquire. My mom picked the silk shirt I’m wearing in my middle school picture.

Are you wearing a tie to work today?

Indeed I am. I wear a suit and tie 3 or 4 times a week even though I don’t really have to. I could wear jeans and golf shirts every day if I wanted, but I have a theory that good things happen to those who dress well. Walk into a restaurant in a suit and ask to use the restroom. Most of the time they will say sure. Do the same thing in cargo shorts, sneakers and a bandana, and they will tell you the restrooms are for customers only. Believe it or not, this applies to life in general, not just bathrooms. Plus, I’m going to the ICP Infinity awards tonight, so I’m dressed up.

What prompted you to write the blog, My Effing Commute?

I love to write, especially about myself. I spend two hours a day on the train, so I decided to write about all the crazy, annoying, depressing, funny things you see when you spend 2 hours a day commuting. I’ve also gotten really good at taking pictures of people with my iPhone without them knowing about it, although I have accidentally left the flash on once or twice, which kind of gives me away.

I see you have an image gallery and know you have some images with Getty. Do you have aspirations of switching careers or are you doing this so you can increase your skills as an Art Director on set?

I’m not good enough or committed enough to try and make a living at it, but I like it enough to constantly try and get better at it and learn from it. By going through all the different aspects of photography: buying lenses and bodies, shooting different subjects in different situations, interacting with people, getting model releases, lighting, editing, retouching, posting images online and getting feedback, selling images as stock, creating personal books, and more, I understand a lot of what a photographer goes through to make a picture, and ultimately it makes me a better creative director because I can assign smarter, edit smarter, and direct smarter. I think if I could get a picture printed in National Geographic one day before I die, it will have all been worth it.

Why do you upload your images to Flickr? is that more of an idea cloud for you?

I load a lot of things onto Flickr, including personal photos and magazine pages. It’s a great place to gather groups of things that happen to be visual and share them. It also helps me to see my pictures in a context and organize them as stories or collections of ideas. I love the analytics aspect of it too. I can see which images resonate with viewers and which images don’t. It teaches me how to think about my images socially, and how to promote myself through them. There’s an image on my Flickr site of my daughter jumping on a trampoline. After I posted it to a group about teenagers in Converse sneakers, it got over 1000 views in a week, which was pretty remarkable for my site. I’ve given images to hospitals, non profit organizations, the Highline, the Empire State building, all because they found them through tagging and group posting. I also used to post images to Facebook for fun. Now, whenever I have new images to put up, I put them on Flickr, and then post links to my Flickr site on facebook, which gives all my pictures more exposure. I’m really just learning how to use it all, and the images are a way for me to experiment.

downloadI like your burning Xmas tree, is that indeed a family tradition once you moved out of the city?

It will be from now on! I’ve had the idea for that picture for a few years, but we didn’t have the beautiful snow covered yard and bright sunny day until this year. When I took the picture, I was so worried about the dogs getting hurt, or the fire getting out of control, that I shot the whole thing with the auto focus off and it was all soft. I had to get my friend Don Penny to sharpen them up for me. I make a lot of mistakes like that, and I learn as I go. I once shot a weekend of beach pictures with flawless blue skies and when I opened them in Lightroom I had about 1000 images that all had dirt and hair on the lens. I spent 3 days retouching them. Now I carry a cloth with me all the time and wipe as I go…

During the 1950s by Art Director and illustrator Leo Lionni illustrated some fantastic covers. (Granted they were more poster like and lacked cover lines) In your cover portfolio do you anticipate any genre/look potentially being developed?

Not really. Covers are so much about sales and branding that it’s very hard, at least for me, to develop a style that’s consistent from title to title. I will say that a lot of what Im able to do on covers, and with magazine design, is more a reflection of my personality, rather than any talent or skill I might posses. Whether I can sell my ideas internally to the people around me is a big part of what gets printed. Magazines are collaborative worlds and you need to have people skills in order to get your best work published. The work people see is better if you are equal parts designer and salesman.

Photography and design are very similar this way. When I look at pictures, I always see them as a reflection of the personality of the photographer. If it wasn’t Jim Marshall holding the camera, Johnny Cash wouldn’t be flipping him off. He’d just be looking at him wondering who the fuck this photographer was on stage. That picture doesn’t exist unless, on some level, Jim Marshall isn’t Jim Marshall, the kind of guy you just wanted flip off once in a while. If you’re shy, reserved, loud, confident, insecure, insightful, sloppy, kind, mean, shallow, subversive, detail oriented, funny, serious, whatever. Your pictures and you design reflect that. I struggle sometimes to shoot people, to get them to be the picture I want them to be. I’m getting better at it, but it takes a lot of energy. When I don’t have the energy to make people pictures, I shoot bugs.

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Fortune is an 80 yr old title, how are you moving it forward but still respecting it’s legacy?

Most importantly, you have to realize that you can’t compete with the legacy, you just need to learn from it, and embrace it when it makes sense. I ran into this at Esquire also. I’m not going to do better covers than George Lois or Walter Allner or Leo Lionni. I have those covers framed and hanging on my wall in my office. They are works of art. My covers are mostly about selling on a newsstand, and I’m happy if you keep them on your coffee table for a few weeks before you toss them.

I think about the legacy when it comes to the magazine’s visual elements. Fortune has a rich history of information graphics, CEO portraits, industrial photography, photojournalism, things like that. I look for any excuse to get these kinds of images in, because I think they help brand us as a place for excellence, and they connect us with our past while still feeling modern. I like to celebrate business as much as to show the reality of it. I love using people like Ben Baker, Greg Miller and Gregg Segal because their portraits do just that, they celebrate the individual, elevate them to almost heroic proportions. Sometimes, I need that. I love using industrial photographers like Floto & Warner and Spencer Lowell, because their work finds beauty and magnificence in industry and manufacturing. I also love getting great reportage photographers like Ben Lowy into the magazine, because as much as business can be inspirational, we all know it can be downright despicable too, and photographers like Ben help keep us grounded in reality. The one thing we still struggle with is how to be funny. Fortune was never really a funny magazine, and my readers don’t expect sarcasm or humor, so when Phil Toledano shoots a story on investing using a guy in a bear costume wandering around an office hitting on secretaries, as funny as I think it is, the readers tend to not get it. In cases like that, I tend to say screw the reader. I like bear costumes.

Business isn’t a one dimensional world. It is good and bad and impressive and ridiculous and obscene and amazing (and occasionally funny), all in one day, and my goal is to show that complex personality in each issue, all through the lens of the artists we use, and through the veneer of a design layer that fits the brand and makes sense to the reader.

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Why did you choose those particular display faces for the book?

Typography is always a work in progress for me. My approach is to start with a core set of Fonts that fit my perception of the brand, and then build on them. I think we are up to 7 core fonts now. When we started, I used 3, Solano, Geogrotesque and Brunel. Each one has a job to do. Solano, is a narrow, very rigid sans serif that helps us to look serious and also fits well into tight spaces. Geo is really a utility font that we use for captions and details, and Brunel is the peacock serif of the group, that we strut out when we want to be a little flashy. Brunel was actually developed by Robert Priest with Christian Schwartz at Portfolio. It’s an amazing font and you can tell that a lot of time and love when into making it, so when Portfolio shut down I just figured I’d grab it. Seemed like a shame to let it go to waste. I’ve never been that picky about who used the fonts before me or making them exclusive to my brand. I don’t think a font in and of itself can define your brand. Its how you use typography along with all the other elements that defines you.

How long did your re-design take? and what was your mission statement to the staff?

It took about a year, mostly because we did a lot of editorial research and testing with focus groups before we rolled anything out. If a redesign was simply a new coat of paint, it would take about two or three months, but when we remade Fortune, we spent a lot of time rethinking the editorial product as well as the look.

Aside having Cyrus Highsmith draw your logo what did you have custom made?

I had the section headers drawn by Tal Lemming. Beyond that, everything is off the rack.

You’ve said that once you come in to direct a magazine you first watch and then make changes you feel appropriate. What were those changes at Fortune?

It takes a while to learn the DNA of a magazine, and it doesn’t make sense to me to make sweeping changes until you get to that point. I always come in humble, willing to admit that of everyone on staff, I know the least about how the place works. I can make some cosmetic changes quickly, but mostly I watch and I learn, and over time I look for ways to improve it while still hanging on to what works.

I also spend a lot of time in the beginning going to focus groups and understanding the readership. I imagine a typical reader, and I make a lot decisions based on what I think that reader will want or what they will tolerate. Everything from type size, where the credits run, page organization, photo and illustration use, headline and subhead treatments. It all begins with who I think my reader is, and then I work in the visual elements that I think fit.

At Instyle you mentioned you were an information architecture: what is your main task at Fortune?

InStyle is a magazine that people browse. Nobody sits and “reads” InStyle, so I designed it as a browsing experience. All the type was in small chunks, no type ran from one column to the next, it all fit into clearly defined shapes. There really weren’t any “columns” of words. Just lots and lots of color and shapes and pictures and fun. Each page was its own story and was instantly “inhalable” as we like to say here at Time Inc. I imagined the reader as kind of a Doris Day movie character, because there was never any bad news in InStyle. It was always about who looked good wearing what, who was happy in their relationship, whose hair worked and how they got it, how you could make your body type work. It’s all very positive and life affirming, and a little escapist, but in a good way, like Disney World is escapist, so I just imagined a magazine made for a world that always had a happy ending. A world where nobody was ever fat and everyone’s hair looked AMAZING!!! People smiled a lot, type was bright and colorful, crisp serifs, lots of exclamation points and asterisks, lots of energy. I like immersing myself in a world that has a defined identity, no matter how real or imagined. Usually the fantasy worlds are more fun to design than the real ones.

Fortune is the complete opposite. Our words are our strength. People get Fortune specifically because they want a longer, more reported and more insightful take on the information. So my goal is to invite the reader in, and then keep them in by making the reading experince enjoyable and unobtrusive. It’s a magazine where design really needs to live below the surface. If Fortune was known first and foremost for its design, I’d think there was something wrong.

You’ve worked many places in your career, what has changed the most dramatically for you since you started working and been the most challenging?

When I started college in 1981, there was no such thing as a personal computer. No email, no internet. When I started in magazines in 1986, I was specing type, cutting repro, waxing it onto boards, shooting photostats, all very analog. Without a doubt, the biggest challenge has always been staying on top of the technological changes. I’ve gone from pasting layouts to boards, to learning Quark, to learning Indesign, Photoshop, Lightroom, and Illustrator, to now learning how to create content for tablets, websites and social media. Technology never sleeps, and sometimes I feel like I don’t either…

What do you think the future of print magazines looks like?

I think print will be archival. You’ll buy something printed when you have a sense of wanting permanence. Magazines like National Geographic, and Architectural Digest will always exist in print because they are timeless and collectable. They aren’t doing stories that get old in a month or two. They are creating a permanent record of something and they represent a level of excellence that seems appropriate to print. Magazines like Vogue and W will also always exist in print, because they are so visual and luxurious that you wont be able to replicate it on a tablet. Whenever the Prince marries his Princess, you’ll want it in print. Whenever Liz Taylor dies, or a shuttle explodes or a president is assassinated or a terrorist attack brings down the towers, you’ll want a printed record of that moment in time. Magazines that start creating issues that are themed or seem collectable will resonate with readers. The Body Issue, The Photo Issue, The Oscars, The Baseball Issue. All of that kind of stuff will continue to exist in print. Everything else will go to digital. I already don’t read my magazine in print. I read it on the iPad because its easier and I like the experience.

When you hire a designer what are 3 key things you want to see in their work?

Originality, craftsmanship, and intelligence

I see you post about the magazine and your work on Facebook. How has Facebook allowed you be a better art director and interact with your staff?

I created an internal private facebook group for our creative staff to post and share ideas. We post links, stories, artists, fonts, other magazines work. Anything that’s interesting. Nothing gets kept out and everyone is encouraged to post. Cuts way back on the group emailing, and we have a nice record of everything we’ve posted so we can go back and reference it.

For your digital editions, did you hire a new team or did that task fall on your current art department?

We handle it all internally, with some freelancers here and there. Basically, if you design a story, you design it for Print, iPad, Galaxy and Playbook (the Blackberry tablet). We’ve tried very hard to keep the formats simple enough that we get it all done in about 3-4 days after we close the print magazine. That said, it’s an enormous amount of additional work, but until the digital content starts generating revenue, I don’t think we’ll have the luxury of adding staff.

How often do you use your ipad?

Not very often, but that’s mostly because I carry a laptop, an iPhone and a blackberry with me everywhere I go. When I do use it, it’s for two things. Looking at Fortune magazine and playing angry birds.

There Are 11 Comments On This Article.

  1. Very enjoyable read! I like what he says about how a photog’s personality comes out in photos no matter what – and that making photos for him helps him also be smarter when assigning.

    So true that Jim Marshall would put himself in the place to surely get flipped off!

  2. Heidi and John (and of course Rob),

    Thank you for this interview. It was insightful… especially that thing about the suit, gotta get me one of those!

    Now here’s the thing, Fortune Magazine shouldn’t really exist. It launched with great photography and (probably) the highest possible printing quality of the time. I mean, how stupid is that? Can you imagine a bigger waste of money? Used to attract, of all people, a bunch of fricken BUSINESS MEN?

    I mean, talk about throwing your pearls before swine!

    Why hire people like Margaret Bourke-White or Walker Evans? Totally impractical, not smart business and when you think about it both were completely overrated.

    You’re totally smart to not compete with that… cause it was just too stupid and wasteful. Furthermore, I think it’s brilliant to survey the readers and give them exactly what they say they want. That post about Walmart Rob did a few days back… CRAZY!

    Those old poster-like covers… CRAP! Yes, I said it. These new and improved ones, that the committees design, dude they ARE a billboard… AWESOME! I wanna buy me some of that!

    Having your images with Getty? Dude, you’re batting a 1000, Getty is the future. They’re the place to be, no doubt about that, regardless of what ASMP or anyone of these other lumbering dinosaur have to say.

    The more I think about it, the more stoked I become! Because really, when your a photographer, a designer, a writer, a typographer, or even an arbiter of style, what you really want to do is work for editorial rates AND lower your standards so as not try and do something better than it was done fifty or sixty years ago.

    No, we don’t want any of that. We want to give everyone what they want. We don’t want to push ourselves, we don’t want to create the best possible body of work we can, because maybe the reader, or the guy that signs the checks might not TOLERATE it.

    That’d be bad. That wouldn’t be good for business at all. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s what I say! And we all know there’s nothing wrong with the publishing industry these days.

    Kenneth Jarecke

    • Patrick Downs

      @Kenneth Jarecke,
      I read a quote by Robert Altman many years back that stuck. He was talking about why he left Hollywood and went to Europe to work and live, and about the impoverished imaginations of the people running the studios in LA, with their hackneyed ideas including botched remakes of good films and good books. He said, in essence, “People don’t know what they want, because they haven’t seen it yet. It’s my job to show them something they haven’t seen…not just another version of something already done.”

  3. Yunghi Kim

    Its amazing how many redesign Fortune has gone under. It used to have great visual illustration of content by wide spectrum of unique photographers. As magazines scramble to survive, are they doing disservice by all looking alike?

    Yunghi Kim