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  • Issue 1 and Issue 2 of Sydney-based independent quarterly, Future Perfect
  • "Journey through Ethiopia's salt lakes and underground churches" from Issue 2
  • From Issue 2
  • From Issue 2
  • "Unpacking the insane rhetoric behind our government's immigration policies" from Issue 2
  • The "Pink Pages," with articles aggregated from other magazines
  • A craft beer lineup from Issue 1
  • "Dostoevsky, epilepsy and ecstasy" from Issue 1
  • "Sydney sightseeing with Client Liaison" from Issue 1

12/03/14 Crossing a New Frontier in Print Publishing with Future Perfect Magazine

These days, it’s impossible to just cruise on the information highway. As limitlessly as content flows on the web, we’ve simply reached our capacity for it. Surveying the apocalyptic surge of news, social media, and blog posts, a bunch of university buddies based out of Sydney sought to create content they actually care about.

Through articles that parse immigration laws or explore a dynasty of squash champs, Kevin Loo, Nicholas Underhill, and Ryan Frazer sparked a return to the actual read—lengthy yet substantial, and designed well enough to be digestible.

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Future Perfect is this publication: a printed quarterly where a clean, clever aesthetic not only reintroduces long-form journalism, but recommends articles from other magazines. From its balance of informative and entertaining writing to the scent of its paper, this is publishing rethought not for virality but for the pure pleasure of reading.

Though noble, a return to the page has been a far from perfect experience. Amid the release of Issue 2, editor and creative director Nicholas Watts talks to NOUS about the pains of print publishing and why all the costs and compromise have been worth it.

Issue 2

We’ve seen some great niche publications come out of Australia lately, from Smith Journal to Hello Mr. What’s in the water over there that’s led to such a rich independent magazine publishing sphere? 

This is tricky to explain. Sometimes I think it more has to do with Melbourne’s cultural power: it’s a city that fosters independent creative production really well. Here in Sydney, it’s a bit harder to find an audience. The community of small publishers is fantastic, though, and we share so much information and resources. For example, we were given the details of an excellent Berlin-based printer—printing and postage here in Australia is horrifically expensive—by Kai, who produces Offscreen magazine, and we used them to print Issue 2. This company also prints MADE, Hello Mr. and Process Journal. As a bunch of novices, this was a huge windfall for us. I think, too, when we have examples of internationally successful small publications all around us, it gives us the necessary idealism to start and continue a project like this.

With stories on immigration policies and Instagram posts alluding to climate change, your magazine has taken a seemingly political stance. Is there a particular cultural and social engagement you’re targeting through your tagline “For the culturally and socially engaged”—certainly not the sort that Buzzfeed caters to, I suppose? 

The magazine very much has a political stance. In Australia, the media is dominated by one powerful company that relies on a crude if effective kind of manipulation to shift public opinion in various destructive ways. This is no secret! It has disillusioned a lot of people against news publishing in general and has turned public conversations into coded, acrimonious wars. Two new, strong left-wing publications have tried to respond to this with more thoughtful, detailed reporting and analysis: UK newspaper The Guardian launched Guardian Australia and the publisher of The Monthly, roughly an Australian version of The Atlantic, launched The Saturday Paper, both filling a much-needed gap.

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Where does Future Perfect fit into this? These two new publications have helped balance the media out a bit but they don’t really affect people who just don’t interact with the news. There are lots of people who are interested in what’s going on around the world but have the good sense to stay away from the news. There are people who would never buy a subscription to The New Yorker but who would read a 3,000-word article on a topic that interests them, given the right context. These are the people we’re trying to reach. If we use a different set of marketing and identity-related branding to find people who like magazines but steer away from politics, and then give them bits and pieces of politics-related writing, done in an entertaining and easy way, they pay attention. Some of these people will also share Buzzfeed lists of cats in tuxedos—that’s not a problem for me.

What were each of you doing before you banded together? What were a few immediate challenges to getting this magazine off the ground?

We have varied skills. I was editing freelance, Nick [Underhill] was a full-time barista, Ryan [Frazer] was teaching at university and working as a research assistant, Kevin [Loo] is a medical radiation researcher. The three of them had founded the idea and pulled together enough money themselves to print Issue 1. We were all undergraduate students at the University of Wollongong and I’d also gone to high school with Nick and Kevin, so we’d known each other for some time.

We all have always had a passion for non-fiction writing. We have a different set of attitudes. I am notoriously demanding and pessimistic, while Nick and Ryan are basically the opposite of me. That was a challenge at first. I can get easily frustrated with unrealistic or hopeful expectations. I have also learned that these expectations are sometimes necessary, that they are motivating. Making a magazine demands a wide set of skills—editorial, design, logistics, finance, time management, interpersonal skills. Some of these I had to learn from scratch. In the beginning, it became clear that if we wanted to make something we’re proud of, it would mean we would have to let some of our friends down. The first time I flat out rejected a piece of writing, I was tough—it was by a friend of Nick, Ryan, and Kevin’s.

How did you convince people, especially investors, that Future Perfect needed to exist this as a print publication?  

It wasn’t difficult to convince people that there is a place for Future Perfect. Everyone is familiar with something like Frankie and we pitched it as a more self-aware, entertaining, political version of Frankie, even if that’s not quite where we ended up. Strictly, it is not necessary that it exists, but we want it to exist, and we’ve found a great audience of people who think the same. Finding investors or advertisers for Issues 1 and 2 was hard. Understandably, businesses are a little suspicious of something so new. Once more and more people throughout Sydney and Wollongong simply knew our name it became easier. We put a lot of effort into making sure we had a strong brand and this helped tremendously.

What were a few things you learned from putting your first issue together and were there any changes implemented through the 2nd issue?  

Ah, there are so many! In the beginning, we really had no clearly defined roles. We all knew each other’s strengths but because the various responsibilities weren’t neatly allocated to specific people, we weren’t working very efficiently. It’s easy to accidentally tread on someone’s toes when you have no idea where their toes might be. Once we finished issue 1, we all got together and had a crack at giving each other titles and roles, and as issue 2 came along, these were refined or adjusted to suit work in practice.

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Refining the design of the magazine took energy and effort. For Issue 1, we worked with a young designer, Leon, who helped us establish a visual style. We wanted a style that made us look closer to something like Kinfolk or The Smith Journal, with editorial content that those kinds of lifestyle publications don’t often touch.

For Issue 2, I listened to feedback from other designers who emphasized the importance of consistency and context. You want every page to look like it’s in Future Perfect and not from anywhere else. You don’t want a reader to flip through the magazine and feel like they’re lost, like they don’t know what the images or text they’re looking at are attached to. Some things could be fixed quite simply: running headers in the margins help orient readers, a clear hierarchy throughout the text lets you know exactly what’s a heading and what’s a caption. I tried to strip out anything that mightn’t be necessary. There are four different typefaces in Issue 1. In Issue 2, there are only two. In Issue 1, headings and descriptions are centered on the page; in Issue 2, they’re left aligned along a grid system. It’s definitely a work in progress still. All of us came to magazine making via the editorial side of things, whereas just about every other successful independent magazine out there was pitched and started by designers, so we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

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The New Yorker seems like a major influence what with the breadth of topics you decide to cover. Given this can be either overwhelming or liberating, how does your editorial team arrive at which stories to take on? 

We all have this vague intuition about what makes something a story or what makes something properly interesting—this is something that makes us a good team. For me, I want writing that is fact-heavy and entertaining. I want an article in Future Perfect to teach you something and I want that to be done in an amusing, lightly self-aware, direct way. I have very few limits on the actual subject matter I’m interested in. In Issue 2, we have articles on mathematics, refugee politics, installation art, political speechwriting, religious history, and typography, to quickly name a few. At the moment, I’m reading a memoir about falconry called H is for Hawk and a novel about secret societies of telekinetic time travellers, The Bone Clocks.

I can speak for all four of us when I say we will read anything. Add brevity, a personable tone, a warm but cutting sense of humor, and a clear narrative to a random topic and I’m there. The times we reject pitches or writing often have to do with style. I do not like a condescending, arrogant, or presumptive tone, especially about an issue that might be confusing or off the radar. I want to be carefully guided through an idea, not berated or intimidated for not already knowing all about it. There are still a few things I don’t often care for: inspirational personal stories and writing about styling or interiors.

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A pretty revolutionary element of this magazine is the Pink Pages, where the digital concept of aggregating content is cleverly utilized in print. How did you guys come about this idea? 

Before we made Future Perfect, the four of us contributed to a pretty ghetto little blog over the course of a few years. I had a recurring column called “Slow Reading” that would feature maybe four or five long-form articles of interest to me, with summaries or responses to them that I’d written. When Nick, Ryan and Kevin got me on board in the early stages of Future Perfect, one of their central ideas was to do a printed version of my column, expanded, in pink pages, and written by the four of us. I initially wasn’t sold on the idea. I didn’t think print was the right place for a digested read of an article you had to get up and read on a smartphone or computer anyway. But I relented, wrote a bunch of them up, and Leon put together the design for the pages. Still, I wasn’t a fan. I thought it was a bit kitsch and a misunderstanding of the relationship between printed and digital content.

When our printed and bound copies of the magazine arrived, I was amazed to find that I actually sat down and read through the whole pink section from start to finish; something I didn’t do with anything else in Issue 1—I had spent too much time laboring over it, I was sick of it. But because I really hadn’t invested much into the pink “Slow Reading” section, it still felt curious. And it became a huge success. Every day, you are bombarded with “content” while on the web, you can’t possibly follow up or retain even a quarter of it. The activity of filtering through Facebook or Twitter itself can be exhausting. Having this kind of aggregated content in print gives a literal and fixed context for your discovery of this material. If you read about an article on American racial politics in Future Perfect, you’ll know where you read about it and you know where to go when you feel like following up on it—because it’s over there in your bookshelf, not hidden somewhere in last week’s browser history.Magazine+0408+2014-11-06_6

What would the perfect future of this magazine be besides a sweet vine-covered office like Kinfolk’s? Any chance of quitting your part-time jobs soon? 

Perhaps not soon, but hopefully at some point! I think we’d love to get to a position where we are paying writers and artists at industry-wide rates, where we can fully commission pieces of writing and have a budget to see them through without compromise. Already we’re trying to foster a small group of people who know what we want and where we’re going. If we could turn this group of friends into a staff of writers and illustrators, that would be the dream. I know Nick wants to open a Future Perfect cafe here in Sydney too, and that takes a lot of startup money!