A couple of weeks ago, I watched The September Issue. It’s a fly on the wall documentary covering the eight months leading up to the September 2007 edition of US Vogue, apparently, though this wasn’t at all obvious from the film, the largest edition of any magazine ever, weighing in at over 800 pages.  It’s not something which would have crossed my mind to watch of my own volition, but it turned out to be surprisingly gripping and unexpectedly relevant to public service reform.

There were two things which made it interesting – to me at least.  The first was the naked power politics.  It looked to be a world where only those fleetest of foot and with sharpest daggers stood any chance of survival.  The second was the production process – pages being obsessively ordered and reordered on light boxes, the dawning realisation that the press deadline was immutable and getting ever closer, decisions held up while photographs were or were not sent from Rome to New York.  Behind those details – though clearly of no real interest to the film maker – there is clearly much greater structure:  pulling together something with the scale and complexity of Vogue is not a job for dilettantes.

The glamour of New York high fashion is a long way from the grit of government service delivery.  But if you half close your eyes, imagine away the fur coats and unwearable frocks, and photoshop human variety and frailty in rather than out, some surprising similarities emerge.

Those similarities – and the challenge which they present for magazines and governments – were focused in my mind by a fascinating blog post by Ben Hammersley, which is also ostensibly about magazines and not about government at all.  Ben was describing some recent concept work about what magazines might look like in a rich online world, summarised in the video below.

The eye candy is good entertaining stuff – and the video is well worth watching for that and for what was clearly some hard thinking about what user interface design really means once the grammar of the magazine replaces the grammar of a conventional website.  But Ben picks up on a more subtle point:

With e-books, and especially with e-book concepts, the stories are published with the implication that the system knows a whole load of stuff that a print magazine doesn’t. The articles are written in hypertext, they have location data and subject cataloging, there is associated video and audio and additional photography, and so on. For a magazine title that is made entirely and exclusively for the e-book format, that’s not a problem. For an existing title trying to make the transition from paper through web to specialised digital device, it’s a show-stopper: the workflow at British Vogue, say, can’t handle it today. Neither could WIRED.

So a real design challenge for e-books isn’t to design the user experience (which is dependent at the end of the day on the device capabilities anyway, which are pretty much unknown) but rather on designing a system that would allow existing publishers to transition their operations from ramshackle print to All Knowing Digital.

The point Ben is making – beautifully if accidentally illustrated by The September Issue – is that the front end, the product, the magazine is not a thing in isolation, it is the product of workflow.

The range and nature of possible products is determined by the nature of the workflow which produces them

That is a powerful and radical thought.  It encapsulates one of my worries about concentration on the thin front end at the expense of thinking about the complexities of back end processes which I have written about several times from different angles.

Magazine production may not be the perfect metaphor for public services, but we all know about the equivalents of “ramshackle print”.  There are still elements of large scale public services I am familiar with which would be instantly familiar to the people who operated them decades ago.  Those elements have been overlaid with more modern components – the equivalents of Word and Photoshop to pursue the magazine analogy – but as long as we also have the equivalent of mocking up layouts on a light box, we will never break the limits of the current trade off between cost and quality.

And I would really like one of those magazine tablet devices for Christmas.  Maybe some year soon.


  1. So, would it be possible to find one or two public agencies willing to offer themselves as ‘sand pits’ in which a full workflow redesign process could actually be done? I really like the insight that emerges from the magazine/public sector reform analogy, but the problem is that it arrives where we always arrive – at the apparently impregnable stubbornness of the underlying ‘geology’ of public sector processes and workflows. How do we push past that and have a go at following the logic of the implication articulated in this piece?

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