The Changing World of Design Publications

HAY and GRAY event July 2019. Photo by Erik Ursin.

An Interview with Tiffany Jow, Editorial Director at GRAY Media

*Note Tiffany Jow is no longer with GRAY Media, she was at the time of this interview.

Lauren Gallow: Tiffany, you have been working as a writer and editor for over a decade. In that time, the publishing world has changed dramatically—a shift particularly evident in design publications, with many shelter magazine mainstays shuttering just as new publications like GRAY take off. How have you seen the design publication industry change over the last decade? What are the key challenges and opportunities in our industry today, and how are people working to address them?

Tiffany Jow: I started as an editorial assistant at Surface in 2007. In the time between then and now, design publications have changed in the sense that they’re no longer just m­agazines—they’re media companies that need to be well-versed in multiple platforms in order to survive. From a journalistic perspective, it is no longer enough to be a good writer, or even a great one. If you don’t know how to produce a video, spot the perfect digital-only story, or build an article on a custom content management system, you’re toast. Even press trips are changing: I recently had a friend tell me that out of a group of 12 on a recent trip to Europe, only two were design journalists; the rest were influencers.

On one hand, the prospect of trying to keep up with it all can feel overwhelming, particularly if you’re a publication located outside a major publishing hub like New York. It’s that much harder to know what people at the forefront of the industry are doing, and that much harder to locate and hire talent that really understands the task at hand. Finding revenue sources beyond ad sales is obviously a key challenge, too, and I find it interesting to see how media companies are trying to overcome it. You see them creating custom content studios, subscribers-only access to articles, shops within their digital publications, more live events. Everyone’s trying to figure it out.

LG: You recently made a big change yourself, leaving your post as design editor for Surface in New York and joining GRAY Media in Seattle as their new editorial director. Why did you make the move to Seattle, and what are your goals as the new editorial director?

TJ: I made the decision to move to Seattle before taking on my current role in February. I grew up just south of Seattle, where my family still resides, and having not lived near them since 2002, I felt it was time to come back.

The opportunity at GRAY was compelling to me because it was one I would never have encountered in New York, where collectible design is a common practice and blue-chip architecture firms abound. My job entails pivoting GRAY from a regional publication to an international publication and evolving its content to a caliber that is able to stand alongside the usual suspects. I plan to do that, while making the same transition in its signature events, digital content, custom content and other platforms.

LG: GRAY has plans to expand into a global multimedia design brand by early 2020. Can you explain what this means and why GRAY finds it important to make this shift? What challenges are you facing in this transition, both regionally and internationally?

TJ: GRAY sees an opportunity it can fill in design publications, in that most of them cover the same subjects—which are largely based in New York, London, Paris, or Milan—in the same ways. There’s an entire world of creative practitioners outside major cities who are making work that’s just as relevant as the woodworker in Brooklyn or the textile designer in Hackney. GRAY wants to tell those stories and put those designers on the same platform as the ones you’ll read about elsewhere.

As with any change, it comes with challenges. GRAY is nearing its ninth year of existence, and during those nearly nine years, has become a beloved title in the region. As one of the few design publications in the area, it has had the privilege of covering many firms and artists in Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver BC, and forging deep, meaningful relationships with the creative community here. GRAY has helped put these Pacific Northwest cities on the map and launch careers. Shifting its focus from the Pacific Northwest to the rest of the world needs to be done in a way that doesn’t leave behind the people who helped GRAY come this far. At the same time, GRAY needs to be honest with itself about what it’s doing and its competitors—publications that are household names, employ seasoned editors, and have decades of history behind them—and invest in people and content that will enable GRAY to stand beside those competitors and offer something different while still being true to itself.

HAY and GRAY magazine “In Bloom” event, July 2019. Photo by Erik Ursin.

LG: Many publications (not just in the realm of design) are toying with the idea of “brand extension” as a means of building resilient businesses. The idea of diversifying brands like Dwell, Wallpaper*, or GRAY with associated products and services in some ways seems like a natural evolution. From your perspective, what is the impact of this “brand extension” on the actual print publications? Are you seeing any changes in the quality or type of written content, or shifts in the ways readers engage?

TJ: I’m not sure if shifting from a magazine to a media company impacts print publications in terms of the quality of its content. It’s likely that a media company will decrease the number of annual issues it publishes as a result of diversifying its offerings, but that just means the magazine will become more of a collectable design object that can be consumed over a longer period of time. Today, if you put an article in a magazine, you need to have a very good reason for putting it there, in that form—otherwise you might as well just put it online. It’s expensive to make a print publication, so that article needs to offer something the reader couldn’t get any other way except by reading it in a magazine. That could mean more long-form reporting, evolving the magazine further into an art object through the way it’s designed, or any other number of strategies. 

LG: In a recent issue of GRAY, columnist Glenn Adamson wrote a piece called “Chattering Class” which posits: “A new generation of design critics is talking—are you listening?” Adamson claims that after years of relative radio silence in design criticism, we’re now entering a “golden age of writing about architecture and design.” What are your thoughts on what it means to be a writer today in the world of architecture and design? If it is indeed a “golden age” for writers, is there anything in particular you can attribute this shift to?

TJ: It’s a privilege to make a living as a writer today, and as a design writer, that is much more so. It’s a niche; the design world is global, yet small. People always say they see more friends during Salone del Mobile, the annual design and furniture fair in Milan, than they do in an entire year in New York, and it’s true. Everyone knows everyone, and we’re constantly trading stories about who’s doing what next. Is a publication folding? Is that writer leaving her post to go in-house for a brand? Did that editor start his own design media company? It’s important to know these things to understand what’s on the horizon.

I should note that Glenn Adamson is one of the primary reasons I do what I do today. He hired me in the research department at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, where I worked as an intern on an exhibition he was curating. He was my boss again a few years later, when he took on the role of director at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, where I was working in the development office. He’s a leading authority on contemporary craft and speaks about making in a way I find totally captivating, and urgent too. His essay wasn’t about this being a golden age of design writing, but of design criticism, and I agree with him. There are more platforms for writers’ voices to be heard now, and more people know about architecture and design than even a decade ago—collectible design is officially a thing.  

LG: What excites you most about the future of design publications?

TJ: What excites me most in writing about design is learning about a practitioner’s process and approach. Sometimes actually seeing, or listening to, a person demonstrate that tells more than words ever could. So, I welcome publications’ expansion into video, podcasts, Instagram, and the like. These are storytelling tools, and when used wisely, they are powerful.

These tools can also help us educate people about design and take it farther away from the exclusive thing it once was (and still is). The industry has blown up in recent years. Who knows what will happen next? That’s part of the thrill of being a design writer: you have to stay on your toes and be genuinely creative about how you’ll stay in the game.

Tiffany Jow is a writer, editor, and content strategist specializing in art, design, and culture. She has contributed to a variety of print and digital publications including Architectural Digest, Art Review, Artsy, Cultured, Dwell, New York Magazine, Opening Ceremony’s blog, Surface, Wallpaper*, and Wallpaper* City Guides.

Lauren Gallow has been writing about art, design, and architecture for over ten years. Her work has been featured in New American Paintings, Seattle Met, and Ledger Magazine, among others. She has also helped creative practitioners, including design firms Olson Kundig and Studio Diaa, articulate their work and vision across platforms.