Spring Magazines: Design Team of the Year – Outside

Outdoor sports and adventure magazine Outside celebrated its 25th anniversary in October with a mammoth, 220-page special issue. Full of eye-popping photos and clever illustrations, colorful headlines and dynamic fonts, the issue was a vivid example of the award-winning magazine’s renewed visual energy.

Since creative director Hannah McCaughey joined the publication from Esquire in November 2001, the magazine has climbed to the top of Mount Design. Teaming up with outdoor enthusiast–cum–photo editor Rob Haggart, who was hired by editor Hal Espen in 1999, McCaughey has created a new, sophisticated identity for the Santa Fe, N.M.–based magazine.

McCaughey gave the magazine’s departments a shot of adrenaline with an assertive black, white and red color palette and a streamlined, multisized sans serif typeface. In the feature well, McCaughey’s artful graphic treatment employs overlapping letters, multiple fonts and colors, and even upside-down type. She’s not afraid to be aggressive. Turn to the contents page of Outside’s April 2002 issue, and you see a huge head staring back at you, courtesy of celebrity portrait photographer Martin Schoeller. Snowboarding innovator Jake Burton is given the same up close treatment that Tom Cruise might get in Rolling Stone or Esquire. It’s no coincidence that those are the magazines where McCaughey learned her craft.

Haggart, for his part, asks his shooters to get the story behind the story. In an October article about 12-year-old champion snowboarder Roger Carver, photographer James Smolka went beyond images of Carver flying through the air in his snowboarding gear. Smolka caught Carver flipping on a trampoline, parading his medals in front of the refrigerator and relaxing on the family sofa sandwiched between his parents and four terriers. In addition to the typical champion photos, he took shots that show readers the kid Carver is.

Of course, the dilemma for any designer is getting enough space to display all these evocative photos. McCaughey solved the problem by eliminating the small, postage stamp–size shots that used to accompany front-of-the-book stories, leaving more room for lush photographic spreads in the feature well. McCaughey likens the subtle yet noticeable transformation to a friend getting a haircut. “It feels different, it feels better, but it’s not so dramatic that it has scared anybody,” she says.

Outside’s vp and publisher Scott Parmelee says McCaughey was hired to upgrade an already strong product. “The literary side of the magazine has always been unparalleled,” Parmelee says. “We wanted to make sure the photography and design matched the editorial stride for stride. Getting Hannah on board has really given the magazine a great infusion.”

Editor Hal Espen says there was a time in the late ’90s when the magazine hit a creative wall with its presentation. What he calls the “classic” Outside look for photography—snowboarders flying through the air, rock climbers reaching for the summit—had become standard in advertising. With ad agencies co-opting the freewheeling, winner-take-all style to sell everything from SUVs to soft drinks, Espen knew the magazine needed a change.

“The really important challenge for us is to stay ahead of the look that’s become so common and in some cases cliché,” Espen says. “So I think we take a lot more risks than any of our competitors. We love surprises.”

While McCaughey and Haggart have a similar vision for the magazine, their backgrounds couldn’t be more different. McCaughey, 36, came to the magazine with big-city experience; Haggart, 33, hails from Jackson Hole, Wyo. McCaughey started in advertising sales at Rolling Stone, worked her way through the fashion department, took design classes and eventually got a job in the magazine’s art department under legendary creative director Fred Woodward. Haggart got his start in photography posing as a model in action-sports ads and eventually helped establish and run a management and PR company for photographers.

“Rob has really great roots in the whole adventure sports world, as well as having a great eye for the whole range of photographic talent out there,” Espen says. “Hannah has a background in very hip, sophisticated literary journalism. The two have a chemistry that complements each other really well.”

McCaughey says she has learned to use Haggart’s expertise in the industry as a barometer for what she can and can’t get away with. “Rob is closer to our audience than I am, and he can be the measure of what’s cool and what’s not,” McCaughey says. “My approach is so nontraditional for what Outside has usually done that he has to rein me in a little bit.”

Still, certain articles lend themselves to the type of witty, edgy illustrations that appeal to Outside’s younger readers. To illustrate a package of stories on phobias that ran last September, McCaughey and Haggart commissioned photographer Chris Buck. His solution: pose six-inch figurines in precarious situations and photograph them. Buck’s photos show the Ken-type doll facedown on a putting green (electrophobia), frozen alongside packages of corn and spinach (cryophobia) and buried up to its face in dirt (vivisepulturophobia). Credit McCaughey and Haggart with convincing the editors to go along with Buck’s offbeat humor.

Last year provided McCaughey and her team with plenty of opportunities to show off the design upgrades. Outside celebrated its 25th anniversary with six special sections leading up to the big event in October. The June “Photography Special” featured 24 pages of uninterrupted adventure photography and photojournalism by Sebastião Salgado, Steve McCurry and Peggy Sirota, among others. Notable contributors to the 25th anniversary edition included photographers Keith Carter and Anton Corbijn, illustrators Barry Blitt and Ralph Stedman and famed comic book artist R. Crumb.

The new design has helped the magazine’s growth. The rate base increased to 650,000 from 625,000 in January. Outside’s newsstand sales increased 11 percent in 2002 over the previous year, while ad pages climbed 9 percent—not bad considering the overall slow recovery in the magazine industry. Some of Outside’s newsstand gains are due to the design team’s fresh cover treatments. Although the magazine often features picturesque mountain getaways and sunny beaches on its covers, some of the best-selling issues are those with personalities on the front. McCaughey and Haggart frequently turn to photographer Andy Anderson to execute a cover that jumps off the sales rack.

“Andy has this wonderful way of somehow meeting all the needs of the newsstand and all the people involved with trying to sell issues, while still pulling off a picture that’s nice enough to frame and put on your wall,” McCaughey says. “Somehow he’s made that magical transition to newsstand viability, while still maintaining an art about it.”

Anderson’s cover shot of “Climber of the Year” Dean Potter for the December 2002 issue shows the shirtless athlete’s buff body in arty sepia tones. His unkempt hair epitomizes the magazine’s wild and woolly spirit. Another Anderson cover, from the July issue, focuses on the willful determination in the eyes of big-water kayaker Scott Lindgren.

Parmelee says Outside takes a similarly aggressive approach to staying on top of its game. The design tweaks that McCaughey and Haggart have instituted, he says, prove Outside is willing to adapt and evolve.

“Instead of resting on our laurels with the 25th anniversary, we’ve taken the exact opposite approach, which is to keep improving our product,” Parmelee says. “The magazines that get in trouble are the ones that stagnate.”

Jay DeFoore is news editor at Photo District News.