The ladies of Em Dash Custom Publishers, Creative Directors Erin Mayes and Kate Iltis, do everything from magazine design, art buying, and art direction. ILTP chatted with this award-winning duo in their East Austin office over sandwiches from Gourmands.
How did Em Dash get started?
Erin: The honest story – I worked at Pentagram with DJ Stout for 5 years, and there was a period where he thought about moving to join the San Francisco office. It was the wake up call of “ok, what are you going to do next.” When I was in NY, and decided to move to Austin, I knew I would have limited work options here unless I decided to do something really different.
Kate and I met at Pentagram. We knew we had a similar design sensibility, and spoke the same language, but she had moved to NY.
Kate: I got to work with Erin for about a split second before I was transferred to another team within the office. We hit it off immediately and so we found an excuse to work together designing posters for poets for free in our spare time. Huge money maker! Anyway my passion was magazine design so I knew I had to move to New York to do it. She acted as a mentor during that time and we stayed in touch. When she told me she was going to go out on her own I definitely had in the back of mind that I would want to join her some day. I remembered how fun it was to create work with her and admired what a great designer she is. About 2 years into it, she was doing really well, and I asked her if she needed help. So, I quit my responsible job at Outside magazine, and took a chance on the idea that you could still do good magazine design and not have to work for a large magazine. Plus it was a great excuse to come back to Austin. We partnered two years ago and now are just trying to make good work on our own terms. Somehow in the land where print is dying, we have been able to survive a recession, stay in business and still make work we are really proud of.
[We] believe you hire talented people and let them do the work you’ve hired them to do.
Since you guys kind of do everything from art buying, to photo editing, you’re designers, sometimes stylists – related to photography, how does that whole creative process work?
Erin: It all starts with a story. We try to figure out how to tell the visual part of the story in a way that’s a little bit compelling and unusual. If we think it’s best to be told with photography, then next we decide if it’s conceptual or a portrait or something documentary. The style is developed by the tone of the story. Then we try to match up photographers with the story and pitch it to our clients. For example, if there’s some serious photojournalism element to it, we try to find a documentary photographer, who would be interested or who would have a unique take on the subject…see the story in some special way.
Kate: Creative process wise, we either have an idea, or we’re going to a photographer that’s known for a certain thing, and let them do their thing. Budget sometimes plays a role in that. We try to be helpful when it’s not in the budget – we take on role of producer, stylist, prop-getter – only because we can’t afford it. With a small team, you have to divide and conquer. We’re really only on set when there’s a lot of heavy lifting; we art direct when we there’s a specific concept. We have a mixture of photographers who both like and hate having an art-director on set. It’s a relationship; so you work to make sure the photographer is excited about their day’s work so they can focus on shooting.
Erin and I both believe that you hire talented people and let them do the work you’ve hired them to do.
Erin: We are very aware of trying to make sure there’s a well-rounded mix of art throughout the magazine, so it’s not just documentary or conceptual photos or illustration. We really love working with alumni magazines because they aren’t ultimately selling ads. Often with alumni magazines, they tell stories through one (usually) professor’s or VIP’s news…it ends with how they gave money to some department, and there’s a portrait of a professor holding their research or a donor holding a big check. But when the stories are good and there’s an actual story there, there’s a huge opportunity to do something a bit more challenging.
Their readership – by the time they open their alumni magazine – is already in the collegiate mindset. Academia made these readers conditioned to ask questions and to be challenged by ideas (hopefully). So that’s the mindset that we try to appeal to graphically. They’re already open to being challenged, so we need to take advantage of that.
I know you talked a little bit about working with photographers, but how do you find them? Do you find them through email promos or print promos?
Kate: It’s rare that a promo gets me to hire a photographer. I don’t know if that means that I’m on the wrong lists and I don’t get the good stuff, but even when I worked in national magazines we received so much mail that it was hard to go thru and see the good stuff. I do definitely, however, pay attention to what other magazines are doing If I see a shot that I like, I always look at the credit and check out that person’s work. We also pay attention to the community here in Austin. I think we’ve had local clients that have opened us up to photographers that we wouldn’t have known about on our own. We’ve gotten access to some up and coming photographers because, although the budgets can be tiny, people are excited about the stories and will do work for their portfolio work. And that’s led us down a rabbit hole of different people. And definitely for documentary work, we attend things like Slideluck Potshow and it helps us see who’s out there.
A personal email gets my attention a lot quicker…sometimes great people fall off our radar only because we are really busy.
Erin: I actually do look at the email promos. But there are so many from NY and LA, that I’ll just bookmark the interesting ones from the rest of the country.
Kate: I glance at them but I haven’t hired from them very often. A personal email gets my attention a lot quicker mainly when its showing something cool you have just done. I ask a lot of photographers to keep me in the loop on new stuff so they stay in my head when I am looking for something specific. Since its just Erin and I, sometimes great people fall off our radar only because we are really busy.
Erin: We also use PDN a lot, especially if we’re looking for someone outside of Austin. Or we ask other photo editors or other art directors. If we have the budget, we’ll go through a photo reps, but that doesn’t happen very often.
Kate: We also call up on people we know in national magazine land to help us when we are hiring outside of Austin. The community is not very large so its easy to pick up the phone and see who other people have been using.
How much of the design is based on the art? Or is it vice-versa? Do you guys have a design in mind and hire based on that, or do you do it the other way around? Is it a little bit of both?
Kate: The concept is what drives it. Design wise, we always react to the art that’s provided. We can’t make a call on design until we have a good idea of the art.
Erin: Half the design work is in choosing the photographer or illustrator. Most of the time, the art does the heavy lifting in terms of getting people to pay attention to the story.
Kate: It’s easier if we’ve done our homework on the front end in the hiring, then our design just supports the concept – and we’re not putting lipstick on a pig.
If someone takes one of our magazines into the toilet with them to read, then we’ve done our job.
You guys have had some insanely creative ideas, that can push the boundaries, like your cover for the Texas Observer that went viral; Do you have a favorite or memorable photo shoot?
Erin: I really love the ones where we were a big part of the production and have more pride in the ones where we got our hands dirty. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Barry Cooper/800-lb pig story we did for the Texas Observer, because it’s a good story and it was the first big dumb-ass idea that we pulled off nicely. I was behind-the-scenes on that one, but still feel incredibly proud of to have been a part of it.
Kate: The most fun photo shoots in general are the ones where the idea is crazier than the ability to accomplish it. One of our rules in brainstorming is we don’t get to ask “How are we gonna find this?” or “How are we gonna do this?” That photo idea was inspired by the George Lois’s Esquire Cover “Pigs Vs. Kids.”
It’s a long story, but basically Barry Cooper used to be a corrupt cop who reformed and decided to make it his mission to catch other corrupt cops, and to educate people through a DVD series on how to not get busted. Anyway, we wanted to take the nod to the George Louis cover, and the idea was to have our guy face-to-face fighting a pig. So first we had to track down this animal, which in Texas, you wouldn’t think would be so hard.
So we found an 800lb-er and with the help of a very patient photographer, Matt Wright Steel, we took the shoot into the pig pen. Mud, shit and all. It was about to rain and Matt, rightfully so, was worried about his equipment. We had to orchestrate this giant pig to walk around and stand in front of a backdrop for one second before he moved on. Then there were 10 other pigs roaming the pen, so the owners were helping us keep the other pigs away.Pigs are like 3 year olds and super curious, so we would turn our backs for a second and they would be getting into something else.
I was holding a light, our designer, Joanna Wojtkowiak was holding the backdrop because the other pigs kept knocking it over, and we were waiting for the owner to coax the pig, with a bottle of milk, into position just long enough for Barry to get into a fighting stance.
It was one of those things that, at the time, was so stressful, but when you look at the photo you go, “Hell yea! We nailed it!” It’s one of the things I love about photography. It’s amazing what’d you see if you could un-crop the cover and see everything that’s going on to capture that image.
It’s ultimately why I love this work—magazine design allows for some crazy collaborations. Whereas advertising doesn’t let you so much, where you have a bunch of other people in the room signing off on a photo.
Erin. The “Politics Gets Personal” cover for The Texas Observer is another favorite one. It is so fabulously creepy and wince-inducing.
Kate: It was so crazy that it went viral. It made a lot of people uncomfortable which for this story and what it was trying to communicate meant we were successful.
We have a joke in the office that if someone takes one of our magazines into the toilet with them to read, then we’ve done our job. We work in this little pocket of small circulation magazines, so to actually have it hit something close to 20,000 likes and to have that many people see the photo when the circulation of the Observer is only 8,000, was a big deal.
We’re always doing guerrilla type shoots and asking permission where we have to. It’s all low budget. Kind of like a school project.
Erin: I like that though— the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants ideas. There was something really great about starting your school projects where there are endless possibilities to do whatever and no real-world consequences…getting your friends dressed up to act for a photo or layout. And here we are as grown ups, still doing that.
Advice for photographers out there?
Erin: Sounds trite, but do what you love. You always make better images when you do what you love. You really have to be obsessive about making photos, and you definitely have to have have the personality, drive, and conviction to be in this profession.
Kate: As cliche as it might sound it would be don’t give up. Yes the economy sucks. Yes the business ain’t what it used to be. Yes you will never be rich. BUT you do get to tell stories and create beauty for a living.
…do what you love. You really have to be obsessive about making photos…
Kate: The Al Pastor at Curras
Erin: I lean toward the Trailer Trash (Trashy) at Torchy’s. But really, anything in a tortilla.
Kate: I just moved to Lockhart, so I’d have to say Smittys. Also the chopped beef sandwich at the Chisolm Trail. It’s $2 and so wrong and so good.
Erin: This isn’t original, but Franklin’s brisket is my favorite.
Kate: I’ve been really liking a Moscow Mules lately.
Erin: Lefthand Milk Stout. Secondarily, Russell’s Reserve Rye with Central Market Prickly Pear soda—it smells amazing.
Fav weekend getaway spot in Texas:
Erin: I haven’t been away in 10 years! In theory, this was my favorite spot: We went to Bastrop State Park with the kids— went swimming and hiking, and spent amazing afternoon. We saw these beautiful WPA-era cabins and we said, this is where we’re gonna go for a weekend at least once a month. Then as we were leaving the park, we saw a giant cloud of smoke rising in the rearview mirror. So, if I could go back a few years before the fire, I would totally go there. The reality answer is that we head to Blue Hole in Wimberly a few times each summer to spend the day. We cap it off with beer and pizza at Brewsters (where we are waited on by 3-year-olds) and a stop off at Callahans in Buda to look at all the taxidermy.
Kate: Right now, the Havannah Hotel in San Antonio. It’s a Liz Lambert creation, and it’s just an hour away.