I was recently very fortunate – and very, very honored – to be interviewed by none other than Mr. Magazine himself, Dr. Samir Husni. Widely regarded as the leading expert in magazines both in the US and internationally, Dr. Husni is the last word when it comes to connecting content to people. The common thread running through the different topics we discussed was my approach to UX for both print and digital design. Our discussion exposed a critical truth that I think every person practicing UX, UI or Print Design needs to know:

The principles of effective design are the same in both the print and digital worlds.

I hope you enjoy the interview. As a side note, I should mention that I am no longer working with Dinosaur; it was a wonderful opportunity and I truly enjoyed every minute. But like I say at the end of the interview, you have to choose where your time and effort is best spent 🙂

Here’s the audio:

A Self-Proclaimed User Experience Evangelist Whose Passionate Belief In The Power Of Interactive Design And Engagement Returns Him To Print – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Joe Natoli

“Design is a part of communication and media; it’s a part of everything. It’s all very much interconnected.”
— Joe Natoli

What can you say about a man who has been designing creatively and passionately for over 25 years and is still filled with the excitement of a child when he talks about his work and once again designing for print as the Executive Art Director of Dinosaur Magazine? The word amazing comes to mind.

Joe Natoli is a consultant, teacher and master of design and brings more to the table of interactive connection and engagement with the audience than any designer out there. He can visualize print pages as alive with movement as pixels on a screen and the best thing about his perception? He knows how to make that mobility happen.

I spoke with Joe recently about his theories and ideals on design, working with Dinosaur and the “Imposter Syndrome,” something he is definitely not when it comes to the creativity of his designs.

So grab the latest issue of Dinosaur and follow along as you enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ Interview with Joe Natoli…

But first the sound-bites…

On going up onto the mountain of design and bringing down three commandments: “I believe there are three components that are incredibly important and I think one of those is you have to have a mission and a focus if you’re going to put anything out onto the marketplace, magazines especially.”

On the biggest challenge he’s faced in his career and how he overcame it: “I think the biggest challenge that I ever faced was self-confidence, really believing enough in my ability, in my talent, in the gifts that I’m fortunate enough to have, and to sort of go out there and just do it.”

On the most pleasant surprise of his career so far: “I look at this from a very human perspective. When something I do helps someone in some way, I feel very good about what I do.”

On what keeps him up at night: “I think honestly, I’m still trying to decide what I want to do when I grow up.”

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Joe Natoli, Creative Director, Dinosaur Magazine…

Samir Husni: There are hundreds of magazines out there, thousands of apps; what would be the three most important differentiation points that would say: OK, this is what needs to be done so that this picture, this article and this design is solely for Dinosaur? I mean, is this a scenario where Joe Natoli goes up onto the mountain and comes back down with these three commandments?

Joe Natoli: I think so. I believe there are three components that are incredibly important and I think one of those is you have to have a mission and a focus if you’re going to put anything out onto the marketplace, magazines especially. You have to have a mission and a focus that is not presently being served. You cannot go out there with more of the same content-wise and just package it differently.

And whatever that is, it has to strike an emotional chord. From a psychological standpoint, one of the things that I tell designers all the time and marketing people as well is that if a call to action is related to money, it’ll only work if you’re not appealing directly to the act of subscribing or the act of making money. The call to action has to be in some sense, a personal connection. We’re wired for personal stuff first — that’s what we respond to.

So if I get the idea that you’re going to make really good use of my time; you’re going to entertain and inspire me, you got me, you have my attention. I will at least take ten seconds to check this out. That’s the first part. You have to have that and it has to be something that’s not out there currently. I am a big believer in zigging when everyone else is zagging. I think that’s the first thing.

The second thing is the visual design part. The presentation has to be far beyond adequate. There are any number of templates out there for print design and web or UI design, and visually, they look nice. They’re clean, everything is aligned, and the colors are nice, it’s pleasant to look at. But design has to go beyond that.

Every visual design decision that you make has to support and exclusively communicate your specific vision, your mission; the design has to come to life and push all that. So it has to be extraordinary; it can’t just be good. There’s just too much out there that you’re competing with for it not to be extraordinary. You have to find a way, which means you have to spend money, to hire, not a “good” designer but a “great” designer. That’s the second thing.

The third thing is material. It’s format, size and it’s paper. One of the other things that I see a lot of is magazines have sort of been forced to cut cost and downsize, and I understand the pressure, I really do.

Also you see a lot of size changes; big magazines, oversized magazines are now getting smaller and the paper is a lot thinner. The problem with that is that you’re sacrificing the emotional components of numbers one and two that we’ve talked about. And again, the emotional component is what makes the connection with the reader. The emotional component is what makes people feel like they have a relationship with you. And the touch of that paper, the feel of it in your hand as you pick this thing up and it feels substantial, that has an impact. There’s an intangible, unconscious impact that happens because of that. Now, Dinosaur is 10×14 in size. When we originally conceived this, we thought about 11×17; we wanted to go even bigger. We wanted it to be a coffee table piece and we kind of wanted to make it where people would have no choice but to pay attention to it.

But here’s the reality; paper costs money. So you hear from the printers and you say, wow, that’s a lot of money. So we had to rethink the size issue. So the way that we compensated for it, in our case, is we said we’re not sacrificing paper weight, so we moved to a different type of press and went to 10×14. It’s a compromise, but we didn’t go to 9×12 or 8½x11.

And for the first issue, we went to two colors. That saved us money, but also the real reason that we did it is at the end of the day the big deciding factor was that this was going to differentiate us because no one does this — Every other magazine is full color.

So the material form, the paper, the weight, the size, the message you use to produce it absolutely matters. People can see and feel the difference. You can pick up two products in the store and if one feels heavier in your hand, there’s an immediate assumption that the heavier article is of higher quality. And that’s cognitive wiring, nothing more.

Samir Husni: What has been the biggest challenge that you’ve faced in your career as a designer and how did you overcome it?

Joe Natoli: Quite honestly, I think that the biggest challenge, and you may find this funny — a lot of people do after they talk to me awhile; — I think the biggest challenge that I ever faced was self-confidence, really believing enough in my ability, in my talent, in the gifts that I’m fortunate enough to have, and to go out there and just do it.

I don’t know if you ever completely overcome that, but what you do come to realize is that the only way to get that — and I think this holds true for my students as well — the only thing that you can really do is go out there and get your nose broken. The first thing that happens when you fall hard that first time is you realize that it didn’t kill you. I think that gives you a sense of what you’re made of and you start to understand just what you’re capable of. And if you keep at it, what eventually happens is you start having some successes. And that hopefully gives you more confidence about what you can do and it feeds itself.

But I think it’s hard. I read something somewhere, and I don’t know if it’s just creative people or maybe smart people, but a lot of successful people in particular have something called “The Imposter Syndrome.” There’s a converse proportion where the more talented and successful and capable that you are, the more likely you are to have these moments where you say, “I’m an imposter. Everyone is going to find out that I really don’t know what I’m talking about. I really don’t know how to do any of this stuff.” It’s a weird correlation between ability and fear.

The fact is, and here’s the funny thing, you do have something that the people you help, for whatever reason, are not able to get to themselves. And that’s not a decision on anybody’s part, if you think about it it’s probably just a testament to the fact that we’re all very different. We all think about things in very different ways. I wrestle with that a lot.

Samir Husni: What has been the most pleasant surprise of your career so far?

Joe Natoli: I don’t know if it’s been the most pleasant surprise, but I’ll tell you this thing that happens that makes me feel like this is absolutely what I should be doing.

When I’m in a room with people or in a room with a client’s team or with students or a one-on-one situation, coaching someone through something; when the light bulb moment happens and when everybody’s attention sort of perks up and everyone has that YES moment at the same time and they get it and when whatever it is gets implemented and the team comes back to me and says, “I cannot possibly explain to you how much this helped us.” That’s what matters to me. It may be cliché to say it, but my client’s successes are my successes. And it’s the truth.

I look at this from a very human perspective. When something I do helps someone in some way, I feel very good about what I do. It’s time well spent. It’s proof that you’re in the right place and I love that.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Joe Natoli: I think honestly, I’m still trying to decide what I want to do when I grow up (laughs). It seems to be getting clearer in that the more consulting and speaking that I do and the teaching moments, because consulting is teaching in many ways; I think I’m figuring out that’s what makes me the happiest, but I’m interested in so many things.

Like I hadn’t done print design in probably ten years before Steven from Dinosaur called me about this. And who knew I’d be doing it again? I certainly didn’t.

So I don’t know; the problem is so many things get my attention and I’m like the proverbial dog, when they’re constantly distracted. Some part of me feels like I’m still trying to figure it out, but you have kids and you’re supporting them and trying to be there for them and you know that you can’t go diving off into every adventure you find because you have a wife and kids; a family. And, in all honesty, you can’t give every venture all your effort; some will suffer. So you find what matters most — like family, like that one thing that means the most to you professionally — and you follow those paths.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

© Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni, Ph.D., All Rights Reserved.