Redesigning Dwell
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Redesigning Dwell


On a recent weekend afternoon Kyle Blue (former Walker Design Fellow) and I had a nice little iChat conversation about Dwell‘s (somewhat) recent redesign. Here are the highlights:

Chad: How many people are on the design team, and how did you become design director?

Kyle: There are four designers including myself. I worked at Dwell for two years as a senior designer under the founding creative director Jeanette Hodge Abbink and then at Apple for a stint before returning to Dwell in this position. I was hired back by Sam Grawe, Dwell‘s editor-in-chief. Sam has been here from the beginning and we worked together before I went to Apple. He was a Senior Editor at the time. (Side note: Kyle recently hired Ryan Nelson, a current Walker Fellow, as a senior designer at Dwell.)

Was redesigning the magazine part of what enticed you back to Dwell?

We discussed the prospect of a redesign, but it wasn’t stipulated in a contract or anything formal like that. It was something the company was considering. Sam and I were happy to take on the challenge and to bring our experiences to the table in a fresh way.

It appears to be an editorial as well as visual redesign. How long did the entire process take and how closely did you work with the editorial department?

We began brainstorming the project in March 2007 at a creative retreat in Sea Ranch. We spent a lot of time looking at how we tell stories and what we do best and what we don’t do well at all. The whole team–edit, photo, and design–considered everything from the voice to the image to the whole structure of the page. We wanted to enrich the reader experience with things like more residences, more resources, and information graphics. Both My House and Off The Grid are good examples of these changes.


So that was March of 07 and the launch of the redesign was with the February 08 issue. Not quite a year?

The redesign took about 8 months. A lot of long days and late nights, completely fueled by pizza. Thankfully the logo mark is solid and we didn’t have to start completely from scratch. This was a particularly difficult project to accomplish while adhering to producing the normal 10 issues a year. It was a very busy schedule.

What were some of the guiding principles, design wise, that were set out for the magazine with the redesign?

One thing to note here is that Dwell has always had a structure that has worked well with a variety of content. Going forward we really wanted to create a system that allowed us the same flexibility, but with richer organization. Our goal was to evolve the design and to restructure sections of the magazine that needed to change due to how the magazine has evolved over the years. By this I mean, sections have come and gone, stories have gotten longer, and some things needed refocusing. This was an opportunity to bring a fresh design perspective to the magazine that has changed considerably over its 7 year lifetime.

One section that was problematic in the past was “In The Modern World.” It started as a perforated tear out, grew to a 5 page back of the book story, then as much as a 20 page front of book section. The feeling was that the old design had ceased to do a good job of presenting the products and content to our readers in a way that indicated what the purpose of the section was–to highlight new and noteworthy events, products, and furniture for that particular month. The section relies heavily on a range of disparate art, supplied photography of products, books, and exhibitions. With the new design we’ve approached this section as an insert within the magazine. We’ve deployed a unique grid and typographic styling that doesn’t appear elsewhere in the magazine as a way to differentiate it. The pages are subdivided into quadrants and each page can now hold anywhere from 1 to 4 items. The design is very flexible and capable of handling varying content in an organized and clear fashion.


I would say for the novice it might be considered a rather subtle shift overall. Since the bones stayed the same, it must have been more about the surface elements. What were some of the things that evolved, beside “In The Modern World?” Like typefaces, etc…

We’ve also changed the size of the magazine. We’ve trimmed a inch of the width, which meant all of the grids would need to change as well. The height remained the same which is especially nice–if you hang on to your past issues of Dwell, they will continue to look handsome on the shelf. The spine is now a color and all of the typographic details still align with the past issues. We’ve picked two new fonts: Greta and Avenir. We wanted fonts that had a bit more range to bring more variety to the pages, while maintaining a strong typographic foundation. Another shift worth mentioning is the treatment of both the Front of Book and Back of Book. In these sections the captions now fall along the bottom of the page and the primary font is Avenir. This helps to create a distinction from the Feature Well, which has unique typographic treatments (captions, fonts, etc).


I have always found Avenir to be a very “friendly” font. What kind of voice do you think it has brought to the magazine, and how did you come about using Greta?

We looked at a lot of fonts. This was really where the redesign began for the design team. Everyone pulled a number of fonts that they felt could work for the magazine. This was a fun process and a good opportunity for me to learn about my team. The team got behind Avenir because of the variety of weights and because the letterforms are clean and modern. Greta also allowed us a flexible typographic family. We were the first publication in the United States to adopt it. We worked with Peter Bil’ak to create a mono-spaced version for Dwell. It’s a nice complement to the other fonts and we use it primarily for captions and labeling in infographics.

I assume that your font choices helped to inform more decisions about the magazine? If the clean forms of Avenir felt sympathetic to the architecture was that the overall goal, clean and modern?

We always aim for clean and clear presentation. That sentiment has always been very authentic to Dwell. We strive to present the stories we are telling in the most compelling way. Avenir definitely speaks to that mission of the brand.

Switching gears back to the process, did you have to make a lot of adjustments based on feedback from the other departments?

At various points throughout the redesign, we would sit down with the publisher and editor-in-chief to discuss our goals. Once we landed on our fonts and grid structure, we set out to make sure all of the sections evolved to best accommodate the complimentary editorial changes in the right way. The Cover was definitely the most difficult part of the design to land on. We must have worked on this for 6 straight months… it was always happening in the background.

Did you have to think about advertisements at all when you were redesigning? I feel that a lot of companies have tried to copy the aesthetic of Dwell photography and therefore differentiating between what is content and what is not could be tricky.

One of the moves we made to create a distinction was moving the captions to the bottom of the page in the Front and Back of Book. Since they are always accompanied by a rule, it helps to identify the page as editorial. Another consideration is the amount of Right hand pages versus Left hand pages. Some of these moves allowed us to make improvements to the overall pacing of the magazine.

Since the sections have certain looks that stay the same from issue-to-issue the feature well has always been somewhere that changes with every issue. Since it is always evolving how did you go about rethinking the well?

Each issue of Dwell has a theme–Prefab, Sustainability, Small Spaces, and Color to name a few. We design the feature well in a way which explores the particular theme graphically. At times the decisions can be really subtle. For instance, with the Feb 08 issue “ Color” we chose light background tints for all of the facing pages (pink, blue, green, orange, yellow, and purple). We made sure not to duplicate any of the color pairings and linked the color of the captions to the background color. The grid changes from the Front and Back of Book, captions no longer run along the bottom of the page and the primary fonts are Greta and Greta Mono. We’ve also opened up the paragraph column widths throughout to indicate a longer read.


Are there any other magazines that you like out there, or think does a good job with content and design?

At the moment I am really into Fantastic Man, Tate Etc., and Esquire (UK).

I can understand the first two, having never seen Esquire (UK) what about it do you like?

The UK Esquire was recently redesigned so that may have something to do with my current affinity. It doesn’t feel like what you might expect from a gents magazine, and that is really refreshing. They created a custom title font and it is really quirky and I quite like that.

I understand you had a recent opportunity to talk with Eric Spiekermann about the redesign. Any interesting points come up in that conversation?

It was a really unique opportunity to sit down with Erik and review the new Dwell. He has long been a fan of the magazine and is a friend of our founder. There were some things that he liked and there were also some moments that he didn’t like. He thought the design was pretty busy at times and really doesn’t like the use of the Condensed Avenir. I learned from Erik that Frutiger never drew a Condensed version of Avenir. He didn’t like that we had used it so much in that first issue.

Ahhh… I can see his point about the condensed.

We were really starved for a variety of weights in the past so Erik will have to forgive us for using it.

Was there anything you really wanted to do with the redesign that was rejected?

Several covers! I really wanted to do a cover with a series of 3 images, built around the idea that we always cover 3 houses in our feature well (which explore the theme of each issue). The 3 images could also provide an overview of each issue, pulling from all stories, not just the features. The idea being that we present the variety of content that is essential to Dwell (shelter, design figures, and products). But that got killed.


I noticed there is little interaction between text and image. Is that a conscious decision?

Absolutely. Keeping the type out of the images really speaks to our approach, as well as to our method of production. Dwell is printed on a web press so at times registration is an issue. The less type we knock out of an image the fewer problems will arise. But, more importantly the photography is quite beautiful–it doesn’t need to be cluttered with type to get your attention!

Were there any other production issues that informed design decisions? The speed at which you have to produce each issue? etc…

What we’ve learned from printing definitely informed the final weight of Greta Mono. Since we commissioned Peter to produce this for Dwell as a caption font, which normally knocks out of images, the weight was important. We did several rounds to get this just right. We kept asking Peter to thicken it up a bit each time.


About how long does a single issue take?

It takes about 5 weeks for an issue of Dwell to make it through design, this includes production and image pre-press.

That’s pretty efficient. How many months in advance do you work?

Well it is the beginning of July and we are finishing the design of October. On Monday, while closing the design of October, we will start thinking about November. These issues will overlap for about two weeks.

Do you guys have production meetings daily with the entire magazine staff?

We meet as a group every Tuesday, where we review the progress of 3 issues at a time. Our studio space allows us to freely collaborate with each other and the edit team pretty organically.

Being four issues into the new look how is it all working for you? Is there anything in the new look of the magazine you want to redesign yet?

We’ve actually got five issues back from the press at this point. So far so good. I really like where we are, but the nature of working for a publication is that your are continually working on the next issue and evolving the product. We’re still tweaking things and learning as we go. It’s a great project to be a part of.

Is there anything I haven’t hit upon that you would like to discuss?

Yeah, I have to thank my extremely dedicated art team. Each and every one of them were vital to the redesign, and to the work we do daily. Brendan Callahan, Geoff Halber, Kathryn Hansen, Suzanne LaGasa, Dakota Keck, Kate Stone and the photo team.

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