Gra Murdoch White Horses

FROM COLLECTIVE 7 –

As a young graphic designer Gra Murdoch secured his first job with Surfing Life and spent the next couple of decades with Australia’s leading surf publication, going on to become its creative director and editor. Most recently his professional energy has been devoted to White Horses, a beautifully crafted quarterly publication, which examines the intrepid culture of surfing. White Horses covers everything from investigations into dune management to indigenous surfing and showcases some of the best photographers in the world. Murdoch takes collective through some personal highlights from the project, giving a snapshot of his creative process and sharing his knowledge with emerging designers.

You’ve been working across surfing titles on the Gold Coast for over a quarter-of–a-century, how have you seen this niche industry evolve?

I think the biggest change to the publishing industry, niche or otherwise, can be seen starkly in the newsagents. They’re quiet places these days. Connor Street in Burleigh Heads has a big newsagency and it used to be the busiest shop on the street. Now the cafés and eateries and even the chemist next door are all packed, but it’s deathly quiet in the newsagent. It’s like when you’re driving on a highway in the rain, and when you go under an overpass, the rain stops and you get that silence, and then it starts again? That’s how it is when I walk past the newsagents. That silence. It’s a silence that suggests publishing increasingly needs to sell direct to its customers.

Was White Horses a reaction to this change in the publishing industry? Why did you choose to do something a bit more high-end and in-depth? It would be great to hear about the concept behind the magazine?

I felt that there was a void in the existing offerings of the surf mags. I was sick of the idea of celebrity and I felt that there was no real correlation between what you’d get in the magazines and the reality of conversations and catch-ups when you’re down at the back-beach car park. So the idea was to try to do something authentic, something that mirrored the warmth and friendliness of humans catching up with each other. Something else that struck me was that surf mags always seemed to be selling how amazing surfing is. White Horses takes that as read, no need to hammer that nail any more, and so it allows the magazine to look around at the things that are on the periphery of the surfing experience: the nature, the adventure, the creativity. But to answer the part of your question about the high-end product, I guess it’s partly out of guilt, or a growing sense of accountability. Without sounding like an awful hippie, these magazine’s cost the planet’s resources to make. We use responsible paper sources and inks, but still there’s energy and waste. I have to admit here that we don’t print locally. So there’s dirty great big ships involved in the process too. I hate mentioning this but I have to declare it. We’re looking for ways to afford to print locally and on even greener stock but it won’t happen for another year. All of which is to say if I’m part of the machine that diminishes the planet, I’ve got a massive obligation to make the product as beautiful, worthwhile and hard to throw away as possible.

Your publication showcases some stunning imagery, and also brilliant writing, how do you, as a designer and an editor, maximise this content?

Three factors. The first one I’ll put in terms of advice: Give every contributor your time, your attention, and your respect. The White Horses contributor budget is very modest, and so I know there has to be more to the equation. In this case: honest, human communication and genuine gratitude. I’m blown away by how helpful and generous, passionate and talented the contributors are. And the better your brief, the better the response.

Secondly, there’s very, very little “editorial voice” in the mag. There’s no editor’s introduction up the front, and only minimal intros, if any, to the features. So basically the mag doesn’t “belong” to me, I’m more an arranger, if anything. White Horses belongs to the family of contributors and the readers and the stories themselves. I think that lets the material shine. Being editor and designer at the same time makes this easy, there’s only one person’s ego to kill.

Thirdly, and finally, I’m still learning this one, but you have to edit. You have to make hard calls. Strip everything away that isn’t great. And you have to invest in good stock, and be a fussy bastard with pictures and digital work.

In a previous interview you said that “great design is almost unnoticeable”, could you elaborate on this, and share with us how you have built this philosophy into your own work?

Yeah this is really personal, and I don’t want anyone to take offence as it really only applies to my approach, but for design (particularly publishing) I think that if anyone “notices” the design then I’ve failed. For me design is not about what I’ve done with the content, it’s about the viewer’s engagement with that content. For me, I try to design blandly, but to make it beautiful somehow anyway. Neutral design really throws all the responsibility onto the content’s shoulders. You’ll get away with shit content for a while if the design-ometer is turned up to 11, but as soon as the design isn’t tap-dancing away madly all over it, the game’s up. Restrained design forces you to ensure the actual material HAS to be worthwhile. It’s like singing acapella, there’s no instruments to help your voice along. But what do I know, David Carson – the heavyweight champion of “look-at-me” design – lives in a waterfront house in the Bahamas, and my office is a card table in a laundry on the North Coast, so, there is that. Plus, if we’re to be honest, it took me 15 years to get all the “look-at-me-ness” out of my system, so I can’t criticise anyone for letting a little ego into their work.

For emerging designers, wanting to enter the world of publishing, what advice would you give them? It would be interesting to hear the skills that you believe are always going to be relevant in publishing, despite the industry changing so dramatically?

I don’t have much advice on skills, but here’s a few bits and pieces: View publishing as an ever-changing platform. Read lots of books, the more you read the better you understand the power of words. Find a reason to write regularly. Beware listening to music through headphones on 14-hou r work days at the Mac, or at least go easy on the volume – tinnitus sucks (but you get used to it). It takes work and time to get on a wavelength with an editor, but work at it. It can be such a great partnership, they’ll come up with good aesthetic ideas and you’ll come up with great words, the distinctions will blur and it can be joy. Don’t look at page layouts in isolation, think of them as part of the whole, think of them in terms of their sequence, magazines can be musical: fast and slow, quiet and loud. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t be too precious.

What is on the horizon for Gra Murdoch in 2015?

More of the same, happy to say, four editions of the horse, plus an extra brand extension project, designing a few other Morrison Media titles, and a few freelance book projects as the Hyundai’s definitely on its last legs. My wife’s got the tough gig. She’s knitting 75 beanies for a White Horses subscriptions drive next winter. What a champion.