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RISD XYZ Magazine

Metropolis Creative Director and RISD alum Criswell Lappin on redesigning his alma mater's new magazine

by Josh Rubin in Design on 13 August 2010

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When RISD President John Maeda, Liisa Silander and the Media + Partners department decided to reinvent their alumni magazine, they decided to do it from the ground up. Renaming it RISD XYZ and shifting from a more traditional focus on the school to instead celebrate the accomplishments of its graduates, they knew they had to do something about the design too. While previous versions typically tasked three alumni with a section each, the resulting layout felt disjointed and made it tough to read.

Handpicking a few alums to pitch, they chose RISD alum Criswell Lappin to realize the new vision of the concept. Lappin—who in addition to running his own design consultancy Wellnow, has art directed the award-winning magazine Metropolis for the past decade—recently answered a few of our questions on how he and his crack team of fellow alums pulled off the fresh new design in just 10 weeks. Read on to learn more about some of his favorite designers, the project's reality TV potential, and the beers it took to unwind when he was done.

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How did your experience attending RISD influence your work on the magazine?

I learned just as much, if not more, from my fellow classmates while in Providence. We knew that the school's talents that were not being utilized well in the previous incarnation could provide invaluable assets to this project.

What other alumni were involved with the project?

Dungjai Pungauthaikan, also Metropolis' Art Director was on the Wellnow design team (with non-alum but nevertheless important Nancy Nowacek). One of the big ideas for the new publication was to turn to the alumni to help shape it. We asked Kate Johnson of Dresser Johnson to help with the headers and the logo. We used typefaces by Cyrus Highsmith and Tobias Frere-Jones.

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We asked Nicholas Felton to distill all of the information in the "Class Notes" section into an infographic. We also crafted areas for commissioned illustration on the Editor's Letter and Opinion page. So Jessica Walsh and Lauren Nassef helped out with those. Lisa Maione helped style the contributors page. We laid the framework and directed these other contributors, but this magazine is meant to be a voice for the artist and designers who went to RISD. We hope it fosters more interest in alumni to contribute their visual ideas to subsequent issues.

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Was it difficult working with a team of alums, or did you all have similar ideas on how you envisioned the redesign?

It would have not made good reality television because there was very little drama. Everyone we engaged was enthusiastic and collaborated well, each adding their expertise to the magazine and making it stronger.

Who was the client for the project?

The initial invitation came from John Maeda, but the client was RISD's Media + Partners department. Editor Liisa Silander was our primary point person.

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How long did it take you to complete the redesign? What was the feedback and edit process like?

From start to finish it was a ten-week project. Fortunately we were on the same page as RISD in wanting to turn this from a magazine that seemed to come from the administration into one centered on the alumni. Four weeks after being awarded the job, we showed RISD two design directions and they essentially signed off on one. Over the course of the next five weeks we designed and produced each section, which would circulate back to RISD for design approval. The last week or two was spent fine-tuning the cover and finishing up production. Then I think I had a beer...or six.

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Were there any major obstacles?

The timing was tight—especially given that we were designing Metropolis at the same time—but not insurmountable. There were two or three breakdowns in communication but we were able to resolve them because Liisa and I were in constant dialogue. A critical moment came about two weeks prior to printing where thought we almost had final sign-off on the cover, but it completely fell apart. So we basically had to rethink that from scratch over a weekend. Fortunately, overcoming all of those obstacles made the magazine stronger. Did I just become a politician?

Who did you have in mind as the reader and what do you hope they take away from it?

All alumni and possibly potential students. We hope it creates a culture of creative contribution where alumni want to be a part of it—either as an editorial subject or generating visual content.

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Are there any RISD alums or up-and-coming designers that you think our readers should know about?

Start with the list of contributors to the first issue. Seriously, look at Nick Felton's work. He does sexy things with information. Paul Loebach's furniture is getting noticed. She's pretty well established, but Katie Salen has to be mentioned because her "Institute of Play" is going to be a significant force in educational circles. Christopher Ro, Morgan Blair and Sloan Kulper are all certainly worth watching too.

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