Creative director Simon Esterson makes storied design mag “Eye” in his spare time—how on earth does he do it?

“I’ve been going quite a long time,” says Simon Esterson with a hint of exhaustion. This isn’t a preamble to announcing any sort of retirement—on the contrary, he seems to be ramping up, hunting for new London offices to house his eponymous design practice and the graphic design quarterly Eye, which he’s co-owned and designed since 2008.

Then again Esterson has been a going concern since the early ’80s, when he helped launch the design and architecture bible Blueprint. By the end of that decade he’d participated in the launch of Eye, before taking a step back to redesign the Guardian and take on other clients. “Then Eye’s art director left and I said to [editor] John Walters, ‘You need a guest art editor.’ We started producing Eye 67 the next day, and I’m still doing it. We’ve just published Eye 90.” Then in 2008, when Walters was negotiating to buy the magazine from its publisher, Esterson, along with business director Hannah Tyson, dug into his pockets to support him.

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The change of hands seems to be exactly what Eye needed. Esterson and Walters added pages and improved the paper quality. Independent of an executive eye, as it were, they’ve also enhanced the caliber of reportage and anchored content in the historical context of the medium. “At least we try not to pretend there’s not been a graphic design history before last week,” says Esterson. As a result, he says, sales and subscriptions are steady.

Three years ago, Eye ran 40 pages of typeface drawings and vintage photographs after gaining access to the Monotype archives in Salfords, Surrey. Another feature documented the process of hot metal typesetting from one of the last remaining machines in the UK, “the equivalent of the digital revolution when it was invented in the 19th century.” Recently writer Kat Phan interviewed City ID and A2-Type about the new typeface of Moscow’s metro. “There’s so much available online instantly now,” says Esterson, “we’ve got to go that bit further. We have to offer more.”

Phan is, of course, a freelance writer. With resources for only a few paying staff, Walters keeps a roster of writers and subs on the side; Esterson borrows designer Jay Prynne from his own staff to help. Editorial is always going on in the background at the office: talking about stories, collecting imagery, then “when there’s a critical mass of material, that’s when we do our layouts and talk about how many pages each deserves,” says Esterson. “That’s an intensive month of taking these things and shaping them... And obviously we use a different typeface system for each issue.” Oh right, obviously.

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As a quarterly, there’s some freedom in the production schedule to go with the flow. Still, “flow” has little to do with it. “Work flow is a great phrase, but at Eye it makes us sound a little too efficient,” says Esterson. “We’re doing it alongside other things and we want to make it a good magazine, so we’re not great about always being out exactly on time.”

A great strain to the bottom line has been the investment in photography and printing. “If you photograph people’s work properly, as opposed to collecting high-res files,” says Esterson, “you’re not settling for covering ‘the things people sent decent images of.’”

He enlists John Bodkin at Dawkins Colour in London to take “pin-sharp” photographs of edited content with a high-res camera. “The type is completely readable and that makes a lot of difference when you’re reproducing graphic design.” Esterson pores over proofs at the repro stage and travels to the printing facility to oversee the presses.

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Overall, though, there’s a subtle dance in designing for designers—or at least the highly visual demographic of Eye. “We don’t want to make a graphic design form that overwhelms the content,” says Esterson. “I think we try to make the things we’re showing do the work.”

That speaks volumes about the quality of graphic design infiltrating the editorial scrim. In an era when newsstands and bookstores are forsaking magazine racks for sandwich counters, Eye is still dead center on the design aficionados’ radar, and they’ve picked up the slack by subscribing. “We like subscribers,” says Esterson. “We like anybody that buys the magazine.”

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