INTERVIEW: DOMINIC BLISS
Their striking design spreads have been doing the rounds on Twitter since they launched issue one last year, and shortly after the launch of issue two, Eight by Eight magazine are beginning to make a name for themselves around the world. I caught up with the team behind America’s latest football publication
There is a new football magazine catching everyone’s eye at the moment and it comes, perhaps surprisingly, from across the pond.
Nominally a North American publication, Eight by Eight looks at football around the world, commissioning top writers from several nations and presenting their work alongside some stunning illustrations and design spreads, which are already beginning to make waves thanks to the aid of social media sharing and a general sense of awe among those who have got their hands on a copy.
Fascinated by the growth of independent football publications and the appetite for this kind of original sports writing and design, I decided to find out more. So, last week I ended up in a conference call across the Atlantic Ocean to the brains behind Eight by Eight – Robert Priest, Grace Lee and Cooper Lemon…
At a time when independent football publications seem to be enjoying a mini-revival, Eight by Eight really stands out. How did this magazine come about?
Robert Priest [RP]: When Grace and I first started our design company, Priest + Grace, five years ago, we were looking for some projects that wouldn’t rely on other clients. We had spent a lot of time working on fairly major magazines in the US and we wanted to try something where we would have complete freedom – a football magazine.
We looked in England and around the rest of the world to see if we could find an editor, as we work primarily on the design side of things, but in the end we came across two American guys, who had a similar idea for starting a magazine.
They were a little more American-focused than we were hoping to be, but we decided to combine forces and we created Howler magazine, as a group of four equal co-founders.
We did two issues with them, creating their logo and their whole visual identity, but we then realised that we had creative differences, so we decided that we didn’t really share their point of view on many things. That’s when we went back to our original plan to start our own magazine, which is how Eight By Eight came into being.
To begin with, we re-examined what we were doing and what we wanted to bring to the new magazine and we went about producing the first issue with even more energy.
In a way, it was design-led, but we always wanted to have a voice in the “global football community” and part of our mission in the first two issues of Eight By Eight was to find that voice. We feel we have something to say – we are not just a design magazine – but it is highly designed.
Many magazines are folding and the publishing world is struggling to deal with the growth of online media outlets. Does your design background enable you to offer a tangible product that is also original?
Grace Lee [GL]: Our background is in graphic design, primarily on magazines, and we have many years of experience between us in that respect. Robert is renowned in the US as a top design director on many media publications, so I think it was an innate thing for us rather than a desire to create something different that would beat online.
More than anything, we wanted to create something that was exciting to us, exciting for football fans and completely different from anything that is out there.
RP: We also said that we didn’t want to produce a conventional sports magazine, like Sports Illustrated, ESPN or Four Four Two. We wanted to have something with longform journalism on occasion, but also to treat the game visually in a way that it has never been treated. I think we have come to realise that people are shocked by the magazine because they have never seen one like this.
The design jumps out at you, doesn’t it?
RP: That’s the idea – it really is in your face. We also wanted to abandon a lot of the aspects that people have come to expect from a magazine, where you would have columns at the front of the book, then features, then “stuff” at the back. We have abandoned all that so that every story has almost equal importance – they may not all be equal length, but we rely on the energy of the pacing.
What challenges did you address when facing up to the idea that the magazine market is struggling at the moment?
In general, magazines are struggling, yes, but what we found is that this is the sort of product that you most appreciate when you can touch it. Our challenge is to get it into people’s hands because once we have done that, they realise that this is a coffee table thing, not a throwaway magazine.
Has your decision to cover football around the globe, as opposed to focusing heavily on the US soccer scene, allowed you to pick up an international readership?
RP: Our readership is majority American, which is great for us, but we have had enquiries from all over.
Cooper Lemon [CL]: We have had visitors to our website from over 200 countries and many places in Europe are much more design-oriented, so we have had a lot of interest from the Netherlands, for instance, as well as Germany and Spain.
What is interesting about the American market is that, while there are a lot of MLS fans, this country is full of football fans from all over the globe who bring their support for their club with them from South America, Europe or wherever. People are now packing bars to watch PSG on a Saturday or Sunday night and those fans are the market we are trying to reach in the States, as well as all the other people around the world who are interested in what we are doing.
Have Americans been packing out bars for European club games for a long time, or is that a sign of the game’s growing popularity over there?
CL: It’s growing, definitely. We are working on a piece about fan culture in the States at the moment because it is truly amazing to go to a bar that’s packed for a game. I brought up PSG because just last week I went to watch a game with two people we work with in a bar in the city called The Football Factory. There were 100 PSG fans there with drums and loudspeakers – it made no sense, but they were just losing their minds over the game and it was amazing to see that culture grow and that is something that we are trying to be a part of. We want to speak to those people as well.
RP: If you go to the Pacific Northwest – Seattle and Portland – it’s literally crazy out there. We went out to Seattle stadium and it really comes to life for matches – they sell out every game and it is just incredible how much interest in the game is growing here at the moment.
Is it too much of a cliché to say that interest in the game took off in the US following the 1994 World Cup?
RP: Vaguely. I think it has been growing exponentially over a number of years now, especially this year, with NBC taking over the broadcasting of the Premier League here. That has made an enormous difference and the coverage here is several times better than it was previously.
We are so used to having American commentators over here, and it just doesn’t sound right! Now, it is so well produced and that is driving interest as much as anything.
Going back to your point about the growing passion for European and South American club football in the US, do you think social media – in particular Twitter – has played a part in allowing people to immerse themselves in the fan culture of distant clubs?
CL: I think it absolutely has an effect, specifically in this country, where the sport doesn’t get the mainstream media attention. You have fans looking to blogs and social media and I think the game’s writers and TV personalities in this country have such followings because fans don’t know where else to look to get their content and information. So Twitter has been huge in that respect, just as it has been for us – we are only a few months old and it has been key to our growth because that is really how we are reaching people.
Through social media, Fox Soccer picked us up and they are running an article about us, so we are going to be working closely with them on some promotions and giveaways, which shows what a tremendous platform social media can be for a small business.
How much focus is there on the historical game within your pages?
RP: We have had a few historic pieces within the first two issues. We have a feature where we take a famous game from the past, which one of our contributors, Stan Hey, breaks down and we illustrate. That has been very successful and there is a terrific piece in the second issue on the Chile vs Italy game of 1962, which is very effective and really in your face and strong.
People are loving it – we did the Maradona “Hand of God” and “Goal of the Century” game against England in the first issue and we are going to continue that into our third issue.
Of course, in our club profile pieces, the timeline is essentially an historical feature as well, so it is something we are keen to do, while recognising that a lot of our readers would have been born from 1975 onwards and we have to be careful not to go too crazy with historical stuff.
It’s hard to escape the vibrancy of your illustrations, which initially drew me to Eight by Eight magazine. However, you do have a lot of competition in that respect. In fact, there seems to have been a boom in football art of late, doesn’t there?
RP: It’s interesting isn’t it? It’s really exploded. Our argument would be that we do it far better than anybody! If you do a cartoon or an illustration of a player, it has to look just like them and, so often in other cases, it looks kind of okay but not a great deal like them. We are relentless about getting the likeness right.
GL: With all our history of working in publications and design, we have very good relationships with the top illustrators in the industry and Robert also founded American Illustrations, so he has been rooted in the illustration community for many years.
Were you always set on having strong, illustrated cover concepts?
RP: I find it amazing because one thing that is very difficult to do in this industry is to get footballers to sit down and spend ages with you while you get good photographs done. One click and they are out the door, generally.
However, this way you can use an illustration to make a statement – for us, they are almost like political cartoons, like the ones in the New Yorker. It allows you tell a story, it’s not merely an illustration.
What story were you telling with your Andrea Pirlo cover art?
RP: His imperiousness. The guy is relentless in reinventing himself. Everyone thought it was all over for him at AC Milan, then suddenly he was completely dominating Italian football again for Juve. Also, we wanted to portray what a genius he is, so that concept was a no-brainer for us because he is quite simply ruling Serie A.