Mark Porter

Domus, or the frontiers of design since 1928. A talk with Mark Porter

Mark is the author of the new graphic formula for the Domus website. Born in 1960, a Scot and an Oxford graduate, he lives and works in London and he is of the world’s best-known news designers.

Mark Porter, portrait. © Alisa Connan

Mark is the author of the new graphic formula for the Domus website. He is of the world’s best-known news designers. Born in 1960, a Scot and an Oxford graduate, Mark Porter arrived in London in the late 1980s and started working for publishing groups, designing books and displaying an original vein, imaginative yet restrained. A surprising mix even for Carnaby Street. But his real debut on the international scene came in 1995, when he was summoned to The Guardian to redesign its weekly supplement. A few weeks later he was appointed artistic director responsible for the whole newspaper.

The new director, the legendary Alan Rusbridger, was then imagining a new model for both content and aesthetic, capable of conveying the changes on the left, anticipating British society and culminating in Tony Blair's Cool Britannia. To reflect this he sought to create a modern and original product that would break with traditional models and be capable of introducing what Joseph Nye at Harvard was beginning in those years to call “soft power.” So Porter redesigned the grids, and especially the masthead. While remaining faithful to the original font, it was transformed and began to “shift” on the page, according to the news. He then introduced T2, the cultural supplement that has been seminal worldwide. Lastly, before leaving the group in 2010 to found his own design firm, he reconsidered The Guardian website, declaring print forever non-transferable to the Web. Since then, Porter has been working widely, ranging from successes such as the Italian Internazionale to the revival of great classics such as the French L'Express, the TV station RTL Nederland, the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet, and the Nesta foundation in Britain.

Walter Mariotti: Domus is an institution. And in its nearly ninety years of history, it has been edited not only by great architects, but also great designers. I won’t even try to name them all, as I might overlook some. Did all this intimidate you?
Mark Porter:
Perhaps intimidate is not the right word. Let’s say this great past is a source of inspiration. Then the opportunity to engage with such an important history raises the level of the challenge, on the one hand, and the feeling of responsibility on the other. Both factors were decisive in the design.

Walter Mariotti: What conceptual path did you follow in redesigning the site?
Mark Porter:
First I tried to understand the personality of the publication and its readership. This is important in general, but in particular I think for Domus, because Domus is not just a benchmark but the benchmark in design. So whatever the new design was, it had to create a dialogue with its history but also be new, just as the instrument itself is new, born and devised for people living today in the 21st century after the social media revolution.

Walter Mariotti: How did you go about it?
Mark Porter:
We researched the history of the magazine. A lot of things struck us about it, but principally two: colour and the typeface. This was especially important in devising the new logo, which on the site moves to the left and changes its axis. So we worked on the competitive scenario, both with other distinguished intellectual reviews and the social media.

Walter Mariotti: What emerged from these analyses?
Mark Porter:
Something very important. That graphic design, associated with architecture, tends to be defined neutrally, monochromatic, precise and silent. Perhaps it’s a way to ensure the structures, buildings, and squares stand out sharply. Yet Domus’s history bucks this trend. it’s a more colourful history and I’d also say more energetic.

Walter Mariotti: But Domus’s is the history of a print magazine, while you were redesigning a website. What dialogue do you see between the two objects?
Mark Porter:
As you always say yourself, Walter, they’re different objects, they have be different and in some respects independent. But they also have to embody and express the same spirit. To readers, this spirit, which we might call a style, has to be both recognisable and different, because they are actually two very different things.

Walter Mariotti: What’s the biggest difference?
Mark Porter:

The time element, because the magazine comes out monthly, while the site is updated several times over 24 hours. Then there are other features: the review is a physical object, which occupies a space and produces immediate sensations on the skin. It is a perfect and beautiful object, but static, while the site is not an object, it lives through glass, and above all it has to be dynamic. So our whole thinking rested on these two poles, on choosing the two sides of Domus’s personality. On the one hand the perfection of a complete and slow object, on the other the speed of a medium that has to convey information.

Walter Mariotti: Then there’s the matter of the different readership. Mark Porter: I’d say the problem of the different readership. While it’s clear who is the readership and the public for the magazine, so that it can be carefully fine-tuned, it’s far less clear who are the users of the site, which simultaneously has different readers and scales in the same unit of time. This also happens with the print magazine, but much less and on a smaller scale. So designing the site means putting all these components together, while designing for print means keeping them separate.

Walter Mariotti: At first websites were conceived as the translation of print. How do you see it?
Mark Porter:
That’s an obsolete vision, comprehensible in the early days but quite wrong. They can’t simply be a translation, because translating print to digital would be a failure, as would the opposite. The point is to do different things while preserving the same spirit and DNA. Many choose to design the print magazine and then the digital one, some experiment in the opposite way. In both cases, they’re different products and configure different experiences.

Walter Mariotti: “Digital first” is the saying today. Is it true? Doesn’t paper have a future?
Mark Porter:
Paper will always have a place. I'm not one of those who think paper will die. Perhaps commodity print will disappear, with news being updated in real time today by websites. But there will always be a public that can appreciate a quality product, one offering an experience of luxury and wealth impossible with digital, because everything is viewed through glass and so there’s no difference between one product and another. Without forgetting that the paper product has a weight, a scent, a physical interaction with the reader. It’s an object, but it also has body.

Walter Mariotti: In this process do you see any differences between Italy and the rest of the world?
Mark Porter:
In the evolved world, the dynamics are the same, people increasingly behave the same way. So the issue of news design is reduced to a problem of news business, a sustainable model for the business of journalism, a role even more than a fashion. The difference is one of speed, which Italy and Sweden have in common, resting on the same methods of focusing and defining the audience. Only in a couple of countries in the world are things moving the other way with paper growing – India and China. But they’re special cases.

Walter Mariotti: If you were to point to a crucial aspect of the future, what would it be?
Mark Porter:
Content. Content remains the real core of journalism. How to make costs sustainable to produce quality content. After that comes the operating model: websites, newspapers and magazines are different and they work at different speeds. But above all they are interpreted by different people, different editors and art directors. How to retain continuity amid all these changes, such as making a site that is always different, while retaining the layout, use of spaces and management of news. This is the equation we’ll have to resolve in the future.

Interview by:
Walter Mariotti

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