ZYZZYVA brand identity, website, and publication design

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Identity Design

In late 2010, Three Steps Ahead was commissioned by ZYZZYVA, the premiere West Coast art and literature journal, to create an entirely new brand identity, including a redesign of their print collateral, their website, and the magazine itself. “Magazine” is a term I would use loosely with ZYZZYVA; it’s far more book-like in its content and appearance. ZYZZYVA has existed in that format since 1985, when Howard Junker founded it, and only in 2010 did Howard retire from ZYZZYVA and pass the torch to Laura Cogan, ZYZZYVA’s current editor in chief. In 1985, ZYZZYVA’s original design was very classy. It had an understated, uncoated cover, and old-style, humanist typography, with a customized version of Bembo for the body text. Over the decades, the design transitioned from mechanical processes over to the digital world, and then from Quark to InDesign, and certain elements degraded over time. By the time we became involved, it was clear to Laura that the design needed rehabilitation. And although the website had not been around nearly as long as the periodical, it, too, was in dire need of change.

ZYZZYVA logo design

ZYZZYVA logo design.

We began designing the new identity by designing the most important elements, the logo and wordmark. ZYZZYVA #1 had featured an illustration of a zyzzyva—an insect in the weevil family—on the cover. One of the first questions I posed to Laura was whether or not the weevil was relevant as an identity element; after all, the name was pretty distinct, but it was selected primarily for being the last word in most dictionaries. We decided that we should celebrate the weevil as a sort of mascot, without pushing it too far in the kitschy or playful direction.

ZYZZYVA print identity collateral

ZYZZYVA print identity collateral

Once that was settled, I began sketching ideas based around the weevil, and came up with the idea of making the weevil typographic. After all, ZYZZYVA is primarily devoted to the art of writing, and so this was the best way to make the weevil relevant. During our early discussions, we decided to move away from the Renaissance, humanist feel of ZYZZYVA’s previous incarnation, and towards a modern (in the 19th-century sense), rationalist direction, with Didone / Bodoni types taking center stage. And so the Didone weevil took shape, and matched quite well with the new, non-italicized wordmark.

ZYZZYVA endmark

ZYZZYVA endmark.

We created a few variations that work in different contexts. The weevil may be placed to the left of the wordmark for usage such as letterhead, and the periodical’s masthead. But for more a more commanding presence, and where a bleed-off-the-edge design is possible, we created the cartouche version of the ZYZZYVA logo, where the weevil appears centered above the wordmark, knocked out of a banner-like shape. An alternative, solid-black incarnation of the weevil, which had been tossed out during the early sketching process, survives—albeit decapitated—as the endmark that we place at the end of a prose piece in the journal.

Website Design

ZYZZYVA Website Design

ZYZZYVA Website Design

With the identity elements in place, we began the process of creating the website, which was to function not only as a place to find information about the publication, but also as a place where content would be published on a regular basis. We wanted the site to have a print-ish feel, website functionality with the sensibilities of a print journal. We decided to base the site on a WordPress platform for ease of use with multiple contributors. The design of the site reflects the new identity, and the site’s colors change frequently to match the palette of the most recent issue. As a further nod towards the heritage of print, the site also features paper marbling backgrounds created by Karen Haack, an incredibly talented marbling artist (and fellow docent at the International Printing Museum).

Layout & Typography

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With the new site launched, we undertook the redesign of the publication itself, which had to some extent been started during the earlier phases of the project. Typographically, we started out by exploring inspirational pieces that felt relevant to ZYZZYVA. I had, a little over a year earlier, come across The Heritage Club books, and I was permanently impressed by the gorgeous design and typography of The Heritage Club’s version of Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson. Its use of Bulmer feels incredibly modern, and yet was rooted in centuries of typographic tradition. It resonated with our goals; we wished to give ZYZZYVA a more current feel, and to make a hopefully-timeless statement while still allowing the works of the individual authors/artists to retain their own voice. With that delicate balance in mind, we paired serif with sans in a way that feels contemporary, and has character, but is still quiet enough not to dominate the content. The voice of ZYZZYVA—that is, all of the functional elements, like headings, subheads, footers, the table of contents, etc.—are set in Benton Sans, Tobias Frere-Jones‘s tribute to Morris Fuller Benton‘s News Gothic.

The voice of the authors—the content of ZYZZYVA—is set in a custom typeface designed specially for ZYZZYVA by the talented and generous Matthew Butterick. Originally I had planned to use Butterick’s Wessex for the body text; it’s a modernized Bulmer revival (with some other ingredients mixed in), and that seemed like a perfect fit. But after speaking with him about my plans, he decided very graciously to work with us to tailor the face to our needs.

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ZYZZYVA is a nonprofit, and budgetary issues prevented us from being overly decadent with our production methods. So instead of lamenting what could have been, we focused on creating a design that maximized the book’s look and feel even on a tight budget. We were able to implement French flaps, giving more weight and color to ZYZZYVA’s cover. We added faux endpapers by printing a full-bleed pattern on the first and last few pages of the book. We changed to a more natural toned paper than the bright white that had been used more recently; this was actually a nod to issue #1, more in keeping with ZYZZYVA’s original look and feel. We added a matte coating to the cover to improve its look and feel. We were also able to add, for the first time, a color signature, allowing for color artwork to be run in addition to the black and white artwork that had always been published.

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Cover Design

ZYZZYVA No. 93, Winter 2011 cover

ZYZZYVA No. 93, Winter 2011 cover

Interestingly, we approached the design of the cover last, but it was decided early on that we should feature art on the front and back cover of each issue. I thought it would make sense to hang the art in a virtual gallery, rather than to have the art bleed over the entire cover as it had been done in the past. This allows for art to be easily displayed in its entirety, without having to worry as much about length-width ratios or bleed. During a radio interview on Forum with Michael Krasny of ZYZZYVA’s Managing Editor Oscar Villalon, Michael Krasny called the cover design “terrific.” Oscar explains the story behind the cover design:

Michael: “This is the 92nd issue of ZYZZYVA, and this cover is … terrific. The art here … it’s almost like you’re building something like a museum here, or a gallery?”
Oscar: “That’s right. Going into this Fall issue, Laura Cogan decided that one of the things we needed to do was sort of spruce up the journal a bit. It was already elegant to begin with, but what we had in mind was trying to make it into something more of an object—a desirable object, along the lines of a book. And so toward that, we asked designer Josh Korwin from Los Angeles, (he works with this design studio, Three Steps Ahead) if he would collaborate with us and help us come up with something that would do two things: one, get across the legacy, if you will, of ZYZZYVA; and two, get across to people that we’re as much about art as we are about literature. So, for the redesign, we created a cover that basically mimics a gallery wall. And so, instead of just having a dominant picture up on the cover, we tweaked it so that it looks like canvases, or actual paintings hanging in a gallery. And that’s what you’re seeing there.”
Michael: “Of course, ZYZZYVA, the name, has always been a curiosity to many people, it’s sort of the end of the dictionary, isn’t it.”
Oscar: “It is the last word in most English dictionaries. It is a tropical weevil.”
Michael: “It’s a bug!”
Oscar: “Hence the bug that you now see on the cover.”
Michael: “And it’ an interesting imprint though, because it’s got a Z on it; it’s a bug with a Z.”
Oscar: “And it’s made from typographical elements, so it’s not ‘creepy bug,’ it’s ‘elegant bug.'”
* * *
Oscar: “Make sure that what you give them is as handsome and as desirable an object as possible. Hence the redesign.”

Results & Feedback

I’m really proud of the work that was done here, and it was a pleasure to work with Laura and Oscar of ZYZZYVA to create all of this. We’ve received some really fantastic feedback (the New York Times called the new look “sleek”), and best of all, ZYZZYVA’s editors are happy with the work:

October 24, 2011

To whom it may concern:

Thank you for considering the Fall 2011 (#92) issue of ZYZZYVA, designed by Josh Korwin, for the thirteenth Carl Hertzog Award for excellence in book design. Josh and I are honored to see ZYZZYVA considered for this prestigious award, and we’re excited to share the back-story of our new design with you.

Josh worked with the ZYZZYVA team on a complete redesign of the journal over the course of several months this spring—a redesign we launched with the Fall 2011 issue of the journal, enclosed here for your consideration.

ZYZZYVA’s original print design, created with care in 1985, was elegant and restrained. We kept in mind the clarity and the spare beauty of that original look as we sought to add elements speaking to the pleasures of print, to the craft of bookmaking, and to the stimulating quietude of reading. We considered paper weight and tone, typesetting and titles, mingled serifs with sans-serifs, discussed the old-fashioned whimsy of endpapers—always with a view toward presenting stories, poetry, and art in the best way possible.

“Josh listened carefully to our history, and our hopes for the future. He worked creatively with our limited budget, and honored our dedication to print.”

—Laura Cogan, ZYZZYVA


Josh listened carefully to our history, and our hopes for the future. He worked creatively with our limited budget, and honored our dedication to print. He worked with us to find cost-effective ways to evoke the traditional pleasures of a bound book (with French flaps and imitation-endpapers; creamier paper and elegant typesetting), while incorporating modern and playful flourishes. He paid careful attention to fonts, and worked with a type designer to create a custom designed typeface exclusively for ZYZZYVA. Perhaps the most dramatic shift is in our cover design. This new presentation of cover art evokes the thoughtful way a work is displayed in a gallery or museum; the shadowing effect playfully reproduces the quality of a piece of art hanging on a wall. Importantly, the design now honors the idea that each issue of the journal is in effect an anthology, a book in its own right, made of durable materials and built to last.

ZYZZYVA faces the challenges worrying our entire industry with a re-invigorated dedication to the craftsmanship of print—a dedication reflected in every aspect of this redesign. We understand that in this digitally driven age, it is incumbent on any publisher to consider all aspects of a print product, including the physicality of the object, and to answer fully a book reader’s implicit (sometimes explicit) query: why should we spend time with this journal? Our implicit (now explicit) answer to our readers is this: because it offers a feast of contemporary poetry, prose and art. Because each issue seeks to be unexpected, fresh and affecting. Because your time is rewarded with our vigorous attention to every detail of the reading experience.

And not least of all: because this journal is also a beautiful object—one that, we hope, is pleasing to the eye, pleasing to the touch, and takes a place of pride and enjoyment in the homes of our subscribers. We imagine ZYZZYVA on a coffee table, a bookshelf, a nightstand, there in a stack of other books by the bed or on the desk. And we hope that every time a reader’s gaze falls upon this Fall 2011 issue they are reminded anew of the sensory and cerebral pleasures of print.

—Laura Cogan, Editor

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