It wasn’t a chance encounter. I have been pursuing ‘Makeshift’ for some time. Keenly following the release of its new issues, each with a stunning cover photograph and a theme that suggests a deliberate attempt to seek out creativity in the banalities of life. Then when I got the opportunity to finally read the print copies of the magazine, I was captivated with the stories. Getting to know the originators became paramount. Thanks to Payal Khandelwal, my colleague at Paper Planes who has also contributed to the magazine in the past, we reached out to the team to understand the magazine and its makers better.
Meet Myles Estey, the Editor-in-Chief of ‘Makeshift’, a quarterly magazine finding and reporting on hidden creativity from across the world.
NJT: How did the idea of putting together a ‘field guide to hidden creativity’ come about?
Myles: In our first few years, we wanted to document all of the creativity happening off the radar — in the informal economy, black market, DIY world and other less-seen corners of the world. When we decided to redesign the magazine to a smaller format [spring 2014], we wanted to do more than just tell the stories. Instead of a larger journal format for the proverbial coffee table, we wanted to show readers what went into some of this creativity — tools, materials, steps and the like — in a size that was more likely to be brought along with them. Our goal became not just document, but to show through writing and visuals how and where creativity has sprung up, in the hopes of inspiring people to apply some of this ingenuity to their lives.
NJT: “We don’t rehash the news; we share stories that test the limits of our far-flung contributors.” – this is part of the magazine’s introduction on it's website. Your network of over 300 contributors is indeed large and spread out across the globe. Could you tell us a bit about the process of managing such a large network of contributors and getting everyone to work systematically towards the release of the issue?
Myles: Overall, it’s really fun. Sometimes it’s a lot of time spent on web-based communication, which can get old, but it is rewarding to have daily contact with such a diverse, global, and genuinely curious and engaging crowd that makes up our contributor base. That we have such a niche focus requires contributors to bring a different kind of eye to the story: largely, “where is the innovation around me?” This often pushes them towards people and places they might not often think to track down, and — as a journalist myself — this can be great.
Internally, we have developed a pretty dialed-in system. Most macro decisions of the company are made between as a group on the leadership team, which is Justin, Matt P, Melanie and I. They and each member of our editorial team have my 100% trust: they have their own system of dealing with contributors and partners scattered across the time zones and managing their workflow. As editor-in-chief, I see my main jobs as trying to make sure people on all levels of the team communicate regularly with each other and are up to speed on the creative decisions that go into each article and photo and ensure that dates and deliverables are on target — though I owe a ton of that to my fellow editors Alexia and Maria who keep me in check! Much of this communication is done through email and Google Hangouts. But the workflow of each issue flows through the project management software Podio and Google Docs: simple, affordable technologies that are perfect for a geographically displaced team like us, and help us work in a way perhaps unthinkable even 10 years ago.
NJT: What part of the magazine making process do you enjoy the most?
Myles: Without a doubt, shaping the creative direction of each issue. Our quarterly runs off themes, so each round we get a ton of disperse story ideas related to that theme. The team puts a lot of effort into figuring out how to get the right spread of geographical location, type of creativity it features, and the style and length of the article. All of this helps ensure that each issue feels unique and flows from start to finish, and feels really good when you the hard work of the team coming together.
NJT: And what would you say is the toughest part of putting together a print magazine?
Myles: Funding, and overall financial logistics. The model for traditional print media has been struggling, and the digital platform is just not there yet in terms of revenue creation in exchange for the money needed to produce the level of stories readers demand — at least not for indie publications like ours. We are always looking for innovative ways to bring hidden creativity to our readers and fans, whether through traditional print or through other lenses such as our video channel, which we launched earlier this year.
NJT: Any particular issue that you enjoyed putting together? Any story in particular that left an indelible mark, something that convinced you to keep searching for such marvels of creativity?
Myles: Too many to count to be honest. So many times I’ve had to sit back and just say “wow” at some of the stuff we’ve come across. A student who learned how to make hearing aids from old cell phones in India, mesh communication networks in Afghanistan, DIY prosthetics in Thailand. It’s routinely amazing and impressive to me how many people risk so much and work so hard towards creative goals that — if they attain them — may improve their life, or that of those around them, but will likely never make them any money. I have a lot of admiration for that, and fully cop to taking a lot of inspiration from some of these stories to push me to work harder and think differently.
NJT: Why print? Why not just publish the magazine online?
Myles: In spite of all the benefits of the digital age (including how much our organization relies on it) it’s still a totally different experience to nice to hold a physical product — no ads popping up, no Facebook or Gmail “ping!” in the background, no other tabs open. No, you can just sit there. And our team puts a lot of work into designing a something that you can actually spend sitting there. Despite dismal cries about the decline of print, a sizeable chunk of people still really enjoy print magazines — especially if they are unique or different in their content or design. Lastly, since we cover largely analog topics, we have also been committed to creating one ourself.
NJT: Makeshift launched its new YouTube channel ‘Makeshift On Air’ not too long ago – what was the thought behind that?
Myles: A lot of the stories in the Makeshift Quarterly translate well to video, and deserve a deeper look, in a different medium. Many of the people behind the stories are amazing characters in and of themselves, and short, documentary-styled videos give them a new voice. This simultaneously allows us to continue a central goal of our organization — to tell stories of people in their own voices — while embarking on a new one: to always look for ways to innovate or improve.
NJT: Any magazine titles that you enjoy reading, mainstream or indie?
Myles: I buy either New Yorker or Harper’s every time I pass through an airport - the best reads of the easily accessible - and Surfer’s Journal whenever I can find it, which seems to be rare. Of the smaller circulation world, Colors, Delayed Gratification, Juxtapose. In Mexico, I’ve been reading Emeequis quite a bit.
NJT: Is it safe to presume that you enjoy movies given your recent movie project Cartel Land (themed around Mexican drug cartels) which you co-produced? Any more movies on their way or similar exciting projects?
Myles: A few years ago, I went through a phase of no movie-watching, largely as a factor of limited free time drawing me to books. But the past few years, I am back into the Silver Screen, and a bit off books. Films I engage most with tend to lean towards off-beat or darker themes in the indie or documentary world. Mexico City has a growing number of venues to catch a lot of great stuff from around Latin America and the world, so I have been trying to take advantage.
I always have a ton of ideas bouncing around, but in recent months, none have made too far past the napkin-diagram stages. Hopefully some of those will turn into exciting projects one day though...
NJT: Lastly, have you travelled to India? If so, what did you enjoy most about your trip/what was your lasting impression, if any?
Myles: Never been to India, but I accept all flight offers!