Fellow Awards 2012 Interview: Patrick Coyne
Interviewed by Sam McMillan

Trained as a designer, Patrick Coyne has spent the last 25 years editing and designing Communication Arts, the largest international trade journal of visual communications. While his lack of publishing experience may have actually contributed to the publication’s longevity, he admits he would have paid more attention in his high school English classes if he’d known how important writing would be to his career. In this brief interview, we discuss the magazine’s humble beginnings, the impact of technology on publishing and business, how his family’s foundation is trying to make visual communications more accurately reflect society and what he thinks might be happening in the future.

SM: Communication Arts is currently in its fifth decade of publication. Tell me about the background of the magazine.

PC: The magazine was set-up by my father and his business partner back in the ’50s as a sideline business so they could play with the new technology of the time. They wanted to have their own litho film prep facility and they couldn’t justify buying a big copy camera and darkroom for their design/ad business. So they came up with the idea of a commercial art magazine to justify the expense. After a few issues, my dad realized publishing a magazine was a lot more interesting than running a commercial art studio. It was not a profitable venture for the first seventeen years. Fortunately, people give you their subscription dollars in advance with the understanding that you’ll deliver issues over the subscription term.

It’s still a family-owned business. I was involved as a kid in the summers helping with the competitions, opening packages, gluing gold seals on award certificates, working as the janitor, whatever it took. I really wasn’t that interested in getting involved in the business. I wanted to do my own thing because I was looking at my parents doing their own thing. That was my role model. “Be your own boss.” That changed in 1986 when my dad decided he wanted to retire. It was “I’m going to sell the magazine unless you want to get involved.” At that point I realized that if I didn’t, somebody else was going to be running my family’s legacy.

SM: So, to put 1986 in context, Steve Jobs was running a little computer company called Next at that time. Tell us what it was like stepping into the role at the magazine.

PC: Well my father already understood that computers we’re going to become a significant part of the field. He was actually an early investor in the Lightspeed computer, which was essentially a desktop publishing system that predated the Macintosh. Of course that didn’t work out. It wasn’t until 1989 when we actually bought Macs and started doing in-house desktop publishing.

SM: In the late ’80s and early ’90s technology was seen as a tool that would revolutionize publishing for the better, making it much more streamlined, more productive. What were the changes you’ve seen as a publisher, actually manufacturing a magazine?

PC: You could argue that technology is still doing that. Technology in almost every creative endeavor is making the price of entry less, making it easier to get your content out for the world to see. The shocker for publishers has been watching their advertising revenue decline. Their whole business model is undergoing a revolution. Suddenly the Craigslists, Googles and Facebooks of the world are capturing that income. Fortunately for us, we never had that much advertising in the first place and we had to rely on subscription revenue in order to survive. That’s the reason why I think we’re still here.

SM: Well that was my next question. How does a magazine like Communication Arts, survive? There such a high level of quality and craft and the standards are so high. So how do you guys exist in an arena where magazines are failing everyday?

PC: Because we’ve put out a product that our readers are willing to support with their subscription dollars. That’s what you’re hearing now from all the publishers adding paywalls, “We have to start charging for our content.”

SM: So how will Communication Arts play in the digital, online arena? Is there advertising support for it?

PC: What we’re doing is making a certain portion of the content on the website available for free—and that’s partially supported by advertising. Then we’ve been archiving the Annuals and feature articles behind a paywall. That’s what we’re calling our Online Premium Content, which is free to print subscribers. The part I’m most excited about is the way it’s structured. It’s not “here’s issue 355, 356…” If you want to search for work from a firm or individual, you can search everything we’ve put up, taking advantage of what the web does best. It’s like a Google image search but only within the award-winning work and profiles that we’ve included. Whenever I’m looking through the magazine for inspiration, I’m either looking for a certain type of media or a person or a firm and I’ve always wanted to be able to search across issues quickly. For us the future is the combination of the two—print and digital. We really like the idea of people paying one price and having access to everything. And at some point when we add tablet or mobile apps or whatever comes after that, again we want to include that as part of the subscription. I just don’t think it makes sense to pay twice for the same content.

SM: You mentioned the iPad or a tablet version. Is that in the works? A year ago the iPad was hailed as a savior for magazines. It’s a new medium. It’s a new platform…

PC: Until Apple announced they were going to take 30% off the top and not release any buyer information to the publisher. So as far as the publisher is concerned, it’s like a single copy sale. I’d have no idea who bought it and I can’t reach out and get them involved in entering the competitions or anything like that.

SM: So it wasn’t a panacea?

PC: No. And we haven’t released an iPad version because of the terms, the production process and the cost. Some of the biggest consumer titles are bragging that they’ve sold 30,000 copies of a particular issue when they have a circulation of over a million. So we do the math and realize we’d sell maybe 250-300 copies—it’s just not worth the effort at this time. But I think it’s inevitable.

SM: You’ve been publishing now for over 50 years with the Annuals functioning as a way of taking the pulse of the industry. I’m not sure when they started as a regular kind of competition, but I would imagine that they came out over time. There was first an Advertising Annual, maybe a few years later a Photography Annual or…

PC: It all started in 1960 as one Annual. And that one Annual included design, advertising, illustration and photography. So it was everything. It was a decision based on survival. When the magazine had about 5,000 subscribers and little advertising revenue to speak of, my father realized he had to come up with something to make the magazine viable and that’s when they launched the competition. What happened over the years is the competition just got bigger and bigger. We had to separate the Illustration and Photography from Design and Advertising. Then Design and Advertising split. Then Illustration and Photography split. It was in 1995 we added the Interactive Annual because the entries just needed to be judged differently. We actually had three interactive entries entered in the 1994 Design Annual and it took the nine judges half-an-hour to look at them and I still had like 10,000 print entries for them to judge. That’s when we said “We’ve got to do something different.”

It’s been interesting to see how quickly the industry has changed. In the early days of the Interactive Annual, it was all disk based. Then it was all web. Now we’re seeing more and more mobile and tablet apps come in and interactive installations, which I think have real growth potential for the future. We’re just starting to see the impact of touchscreen technology. It won’t be long before every surface has some potential for interactivity.

SM: You recently published your second Typography Annual. As a writer, one of the things I got into twenty or thirty years ago was book arts and letterpress printing. So it’s been gratifying to see this interest in type. But it’s just the geekiest thing.

PC: For years typography was always the top topic of interest in our reader surveys. When we decided to merge all our content into six issues and had room for one more competition, the answer was obvious. We had to do typography. It’s amazing to me the number of people who love type! We get letters from people who say “I don’t know anything about design, but I just love looking at type.”

SM: There’s been a real renaissance in typography. The same trend that is driving the artisanal bakers of the world. The same kind of people are doing artisanal letterpress. They’re rediscovering wood type…

PC: Which I think is a natural reaction to the technology that permeates our lives.

SM: Like bands releasing vinyl records…

PC: I think there’s still that need for a physical connection. One of our recent Typography judges, who runs a book arts center in Buffalo, told me it’s a shame this resurgence didn’t happen sooner because so much of the equipment has been destroyed. It just isn’t going to be able to grow much larger unless somebody decides to start producing new equipment, which, unfortunately, I don’t think anybody will.

SM: Fortunately that stuff was made to last. Franklin presses are gonna last for thousands of years. Mimeograph machines I’m not so sure. So let’s talk about people trying to get in the industry, where students might position themselves. What do you think might be happening in the future?

PC: I sure wish I knew.

SM: What would you tell your daughter who’s studying photography at San Jose State?

PC: To get more involved in social media. I think there is a lot of growth potential there in a way that my generation just isn’t going to understand—the way we’re going to connect people to companies, products and services. Another growth area is service design, where instead of designing objects, it’s improving the experiences people have with a company’s product or service—choreographing the experience.

SM: I know there’s some new thinking happening around the retail experience. Apple’s a great example of that. I think IDEO may have done some work on hospitals.

PC: There needs to be work done there, the interaction with doctors, the communicating of information. Any experience with the government needs improvement. I think that’s going to be a big area of growth in the future.

I also think a lot more designers are going to be creating their own products and services rather than waiting for a client. There’ve been a few examples of that over the years.

SM: Sites like Etsy and Kickstarter have made it easier to get access to the public, access to the marketplace where an individual designer could make and sell a product or service.

PC: Exactly. I think we’re just at the beginning of that. There’s going to be more entrepreneurial people coming up with ideas. That’s where innovation happens anyway. It happens in the garage.

SM: I’ve been reading about Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. She started about 40 years ago and I don’t think she intended to become an industry or an entrepreneurial giant. And yet her organization has spun out chef after chef after chef and all these people are going out into the world and starting up their own kind of mini Chez Panisse-style restaurants or they’re making goat cheese in Point Reyes…Do you see studios or companies like Apple acting like engines of that kind of activity?

PC: Absolutely. We’re in Silicon Valley. We’re even seeing this with Google and Facebook. I mean people are spinning off right and left from those organizations, creating their own start-ups. That’s what I think the whole San Francisco Bay Area has been about: The spin-off, the spin-off, the spin-off. In our anniversary issue we did a family tree showing design and advertising firms and how people spun off from existing firms, started their own businesses and then other firms that started from people who worked there. It’s just a continual evolution.

SM: This is an area that rewards that, that almost looks forward to it.

PC: It sure makes this an exciting place to live. But we go through the boom and bust cycles and it hits us harder than most parts of the country. Things get hot, get overheated and then poof!

SM: Yeah then everyone is off to Singapore or wherever the next hot place is.

PC: Now, and I wouldn’t necessarily call it a bubble, there are all these micro start-ups happening, which I think from a business model is a little more responsible to have just a few people with an idea. Again technology has enabled this. They don’t have to have a big server room anymore. They can keep all their content on a cloud-based service. And I think the VCs have come to realize that it’s better to fund thousands of little ideas instead of a few big ones. Some of these are going to pay off.

SM: Let’s shift gears again and talk about the family foundation.

PC: It’s the Richard and Jean Coyne Family Foundation. The idea for this started back in 1968. Bill Tara, a good friend of my dad’s who wrote quite a few articles for the magazine, started the Tutor Art program in Los Angeles helping inner-city kids get a portfolio together so they could apply to art school. My dad was really impressed with the whole idea. Now the foundation is funding seventeen programs that are run by schools, non-profits and local AIGA chapters that do mentoring programs—showing kids that visual communications is a viable career, getting them some training, helping them put a portfolio together and also providing scholarships.

This has always been a problem in visual communications: It’s just nowhere near representative of the diversity of the general public. I think the last time the AIGA did a poll, the membership was like 80% white. Consequently the work being produced is being created from a limited viewpoint. We want to help talented kids go out there and change things. Let’s make visual communications a more accurate reflection of society.

SM: So what’s next?

PC: That’s the part that keeps me going. I don’t know, but it’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be different. My job is to make sure that we’re still relevant to what’s happening. I just want to make the most beautiful, useful, informative, well-produced, archival product that we can—that people are going to want to pick up and to keep. That’s not to say that digital is not an important component of our business. But for people who love print, there’s still going to be a need for a print publication.


Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at sam[at]wordstrong.com.