Let's start this profile with the most important fact firsts. Luke Tonge is a stand-up dude! He is an enthusiastic supporter of good people and good work in our community. He also happens to be an insanely talented editorial designer who is the visual genius behind Monotypes re-launched Recorder Magazine. He contributes to Form Fifty Five and currently works at Life Agency.
I first started chatting to Luke via twitter where he is really active. Luke has spent the last nine years working in some of the best studios in the UK. And is 'never happier than when working on a magazine'... In his web bio, he also points out that he loves ice-cream floats, Bill & Ted, his wife Tash, being barefoot and wearing shorts! So I am hopeful he and Tash come get some sunshine, eat ice cream and roll around barefoot down under sometime! (Sounds good right?!) But until we can lure him down to Australia with year round 'shorts weather' I sent him a few questions so the TypographCommunity can get to know him (and his work) better!
Hi Luke, Thanks so much for taking the time out of your manic schedule to chat! As you know, I think everything you're doing is Brilliant! Can you share with us what you're working on right now?
Firstly, I’m totally bowled over by your words and kindness! I’m stoked to be invited and humbled to be speaking with you about this silly thing we get to do called Graphic Design, and for the opportunity to make some new friends down under! Thank-you.
Right now I’m actually in one of those rare gaps between large freelance projects, I still have a few smaller branding jobs on the go and in a week or two I’ll be embarking furiously on the next issue of The Recorder, a type mag that is my pride and joy, so I’m looking forward to that (I suppose technically i’ve already started as we’re commissioning illustration and researching articles at the minute). At ‘proper’ work we’ve got stacks of big projects going through the studio this Summer including some really fun packaging projects, and I’m just coming out of a season of directing shoots for one of our restaurant clients – so thats all quite varied and interesting stuff. Oh and my wife Tash and I are also trying to buy our first house!
What about Magazines and Editorial design Turns you on? And how did you come to specialise in it?
I LOVE what is sometimes referred to as ’pure’ design. Working in a largely promotional, advertising and marketing role by day I don’t always get the opportunity to produce the sort of ‘pure’ design work I enjoy most. Editorial design to me is the ultimate discipline – it incorporates so many of the fundamentals of graphic design: layout, type, image, story, illustration, pace, flow, hierarchy, contrast, etc. It’s also (along with music packaging & film posters) probably what helped me fall in love with graphic design. As a teenager I used to travel a long way to a big shopping centre just to pick up a mag called Adrenalin – I collected it for months until it eventually folded – and it blew my mind on a monthly basis. Before that it was BMX mags like RIDE, and skating mags like Daily Bread. Magazines were always around the house growing up, and are just so darn satisfying – affordable, impactful, portable, tactile.
I’m undeniably a magpie, I’ve always collected things, and I’m a sucker for the sensory nature of print, so when I went to Falmouth University it felt very natural to focus on projects that explored the possibilities of print. Once graduated and my first real job wangled, in a large studio, I quickly had an opportunity of the editorial variety land at my feet… a great friend (and wonderful photographer) Jonathan Cherry asked me if I’d help him produce a book/zine for his ’Bluewatch’ project documenting firefighters in Cornwall (where we’d met while both at Uni). I felt very unqualified, but thankfully had just enough self-belief to take on the task, happily working on it in my own time and getting a few valuable pointers along the way from my vastly more experienced colleagues!
Little did I know then that first unpaid favour-for-a-friend would be the launch-pad to all my magazine work since.
Designing The Recorder gives you the opportunity to play with some beautiful typographic visual matter! How did this project come about for you?
I make it known as often as possible – because I’m so grateful – that art-directing and designing The Recorder is my DREAM job. The opportunity to work on such a prestigious title, for such a respected brand, on a subject I’ve always adored, with such a relaxed schedule and with such a generous amount of freedom to steer it as I see fit – is not the sort of project you usually get!
The short answer to how come that door opened to me is simply ‘hard work’ or ‘one things leads to another’. Of course most graphics designers I know who identify their work as their vocation work incredibly hard, so I’ll explain a little more… The fuller answer is to remain keen when opportunity presents itself… ‘Chance favours prepared minds’ and all that. Bluewatch (which I mentioned earlier) had several contributors, including a talented and handsome writer called Davey Spens. Davey and his wonderful wife Erin were on the cusp of launching a magazine of their own, to help promote Boat Studio, their design business. They had a unique vision for Boat Magazine, to tell authentic and largely positive stories from forgotten cities, places the media might have stigmatised or misrepresented. I loved this vision for a meaningful independent travel publication, so gladly jumped on board the boat (pro-bono, possible because I was still gainfully employed full-time). My work on Boat Mag eventually brought me to the attention of Monotype, qualifying me to be on the pitch list for the exciting task of relaunching and redesigning the Recorder.
I love how you use Type so dynamically in all your layouts and covers. Do you have a particular genre of type, you like to work with?
Thank-you! This is a question I’ve never been asked, and it’s nice to stop and actually think about what type I most enjoy. I’m still very much a student of design – the history of type particularly fascinates me – especially the last 50 or 60 years. I’ve always tried not to fall into the trap of chasing trends or being too referential in my work, unless its an obvious and intentional homage, and I love that there’s so many layers and avenues within type to explore.
Type is an area that a non-designer might think could be quickly exhausted but is actually a near endless avenue of visual communication. In terms of what floats my boat typographically? The work of the great American mid-century legends has always been my thing – Lubalin, Dorfsman, Bass, Carnase, Golden, Brownjohn, Wyman. I’m a sucker for extremes of weights, ultra condensed sans, fancy ligatures and swashes etc… The original ITC library is a great place to start.
Of course there’s HEAPS of amazing designers still working today who’s output and ability with type I aspire to come close to. I’m thinking specifically of modern masters like the wizard Matt Willey and Gail Bichler's team at the New York Times Magazine, Craig Oldham and his recent fantastic book designs, Michael C Place’s playful use of type for brands, Simon Esterton & teams timeless editorial work, HORT’s brilliantly bonkers and effortlessly fresh campaigns etc.
Your work on the Boat magazine series is also fantastic - each edition focuses on a place... and each has its own visual language. (The style and approach to the design are so varied, but the outcomes are always great!) How much do you let the documents aesthetics be guided by the content you're supplied vs how much are you informed by the place and overall theme of the document?
I’m so pleased you noticed that! Boat really was a unique experience as each issue saw the whole team decamp to the city in question and live there together, making discoveries and soaking in the atmosphere. My mandate was to make each issue visually represent the city, in tone, and stylistically where possible. I was insistent that we should find type designers from the city itself, and hero a font of theirs within its pages, if we could find an appropriate one.
This worked to great effect in places like Detroit, where I tracked down local designer Alex Sheldon (who also happened to drum in Search The City, a band I loved) and after spending some time together he agreed to gift us his typographic homage to the motor city, a multi-layered font (before they were everywhere) co-incidentally called ’Detroit’. It was a similar story again in Athens, I sought out Panos Vassiliou, owner of Parachute Fonts, who had cut a stencil version of Din. Athens in 2014 was really volatile with riots in the streets, so the anti-establishment aesthetic of a stencil felt right to represent the political climate. For me Boat was an exercise in visually representing place, more so than content, whereas with the Recorder I try to visually represent & respond to the content itself rather than creating a formulaic house style.
Designing documents with such varied content must be challenging. Can you share with us a little about your process? (i.e., how you design for such varied articles and still get a consistent thread through out the magazine?)
Great questions. I have to say though, designing for really varied content is just a huge joy! Challenging? I guess, in terms of making sure a magazine doesn’t feel like a series of unconnected articles, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My process is nothing remarkable – I spend time with the content, get my head around the gist of the piece – and then try to bring it to life with a bit of sensitivity and surprise. If there’s budget I’ll consider how illustration or photography can be utilised to enhance the piece, and what sort of type treatment would be most appropriate or interesting. Depending on who the editor is this is often a collaborative part of the process, discussing where best to invest any budget and what combination of contributors would work best. The threads that pull together a series of varied articles into a cohesive whole are often unseen – consistencies like the grid everything hangs from, body copy size, page ‘furniture’ – folios, page numbers etc.
I love the foil cover of your London boat mag issue! Many of your documents attract attention with spot finishes, metallics and neons! How much control do you have over the production and print finishing of the documents you design?
Thanks! We were stoked to feature a simplified London ’mappa mundi’ by artist Ewan David Eason in gold foil ahead of the Olympics that were coming to the capital that same year.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have a significant say on the format and finish of every mag I’ve directed during my freelance career (and I’m also very used to that not being the case in my day job). As tactile objects it seems odd to me not to consider their sensory nature – of course there’s no point polishing a turd – but it also feels a shame to ignore the possibilities of the medium. I know not everyone is always so blessed with budget for such visual treats, but its a conversation worth having early on to see what you can wangle out of the decision makers – you don’t get if you don’t ask.
You actively champion lots of great publications and designers on twitter. Which design magazines are you reading and excited about?
I love the editorial design community I’ve discovered both online and offline over the last few years. Some aspects of our business can be a bit cut-throat or bitchy, but I’ve found ‘mag people’ to be nothing but encouraging, generous and supportive. There’s heaps of incredibly talented folk putting out work I’m blown away by on a regular basis.
In an effort to not become one of those hoarders you see on TV shows receiving an intervention I’ve tried to cut down a bit on how many mags I buy… but there’s several I am loyal to: Eye (my all time favourite), Baseline, Creative Review, Codex, Huck, Wired, Port, Avaunt, Grafik, Printed Pages, IdN, National Geo, Time, California Sunday, NYTmag etc. If you’re looking for great people to be inspired by here’s a few I can heartily recommend: Timba Smits (Little White Lies, Huck etc) Matt Willey & Gail Bichler (NYTmag) Astrid Stavro (Elephant), Angharad Lewis (Grafik), Holly Catford (Pulp, Eye) David Moratti (Wired US) Kai Brach (Offscreen) Alex Hunting (Avaunt, Rapha) Leo Jung (California Sunday) Danny Miller (Weapons of Reason) and Steven Gregor (Gym Class Mag), plus of course Mr Magazines himself Jeremy Leslie (MagCulture).
What does your dream publication look and feel like? And do you have any plans to produce your own designer-as-author magazine in the future?
You’re reading my mind! Maybe its every editorial designers dream, but i’ve been increasingly thinking about self publishing – but its actually a book I have in mind first. I’m just trying to get my head around the idea and I’ve been getting advice from people who’ve been there and done it already, hopefully one of these days I’ll get a bit of a quieter period and have some time to devote to it.
I have no plans to produce my own designer-as-author mag any time soon as I have neither the budget nor the inclination to take on the whole caboodle myself – its enough responsibility to just be in charge of how it looks – for now I’m quite happy to leave how it reads to someone else far more talented than me!
You have a demanding career, holding down an agency role and still having a very busy freelance practice. How do you juggle the pressures of your creative practice?
I don’t sleep much – and I do occasionally drop one of the things I’m trying to keep in the air! Probably not the answer anyone wants to hear… I’m not ridiculously fast, or incredibly organised, or even very disciplined – but I am dedicated. I put in the hours to make passion projects viable around my day job, as these bring me the most joy – and a bit of extra pocket money!
The older I get the less able I am to work late into the night (well, morning usually), so I have to pace myself a bit more and make sure I have breaks between busy periods, otherwise it catches up with me and negatively affects my day job. I am also increasingly selective about what freelance jobs I’ll take on – they need to either pay well, financially or creatively, and they have to be something I believe in and think is worth my time. Having this filtering process means I don’t end up spending my precious ‘free’ time on things I don’t really care about, meaning they’re more a pleasure to work on than a pressure. Tash my wife is incredibly supportive (and creative) so I run things by her and value her opinions and involvement.
What advice do you have for people starting out in editorial design on how to get ahead and further their career (and or get experience)?
Again, maybe not the most politically correct answer, but my own journey has taught me about the importance of saying YES when opportunity appears, even if its unpaid or poorly paid. The first two editorial projects I worked on weren’t paid, but they positioned me to take on the two mags I currently work on, both of which are paid. I don’t know if this is ‘paying your dues’ or ‘earning stripes’ or whatever, but thats my experience.
I also have 3 simple pointers:
- Network – never has this been easier or more important. Twitter is an obvious place to start, make yourself known and useful and you’ll soon start to build up your own network of influencers and collaborators.
- Invest – in yourself. Spend time learning new skills, tips, shortcuts, programs, design history, current affairs. Buy some mags and figure them out, understand their tone of voice, what makes them unique, where they fit in the magazine world.
- Buddy up – lastly, make connections outside of your own discipline. Befriend photographers, illustrators, writers, editors etc. It takes a team to make a magazine (usually).
Oh, and don’t stress if you don’t land your dream job designing covers for National Geographic or infographics for WIRED right away! Get stuck in to a job in the industry somewhere, and work on your magazine passion in your own time until it pays bills.
Finally (and importantly!) what is your favourite ice-cream?!
You saved the toughest till last! I’m going to say the incredible Joe Delucci's Coconut Gelato Ice Cream, but Häagen-Dazs Chocolate Pralines & Caramel is a close second and equally hard to find in the UK (which thinking about it, is probably a good thing).