Profile: Mark Porter

When you’ve spent more than a decade as top creative at one of the most high-profile newspapers in the world, maybe it’s time to reinvent yourself. Jim Davies talks to The Guardian’s former head of design about rediscovering life as a freelance

Mark Porter has sliced off the top of one of his fingers in an ugly incident with a bread knife. He’s wondering whether being a digit short will temporarily dampen his screen-based virtuosity, but so far he’s coping admirably.

And that’s pretty much been the story since the ’art director’s art director’ cut loose from The Guardian some three months ago. After 14 years, Porter had become part of the furniture at the newspaper, starting on the Weekend section, heading up the design department in 1998, and overseeing the transition to the multiaward-winning Berliner format in 2005. During his tenure, The Guardian had established itself in the vanguard of editorial design, embracing new technologies, realising its visual potential, and forging a distinctive, widely admired aesthetic.

But after five redesigns of Weekend and three of the G2 features section, it was beginning to feel like Groundhog Day for Porter. Latterly, he’d secured a four-day week at The Guardian, using the fifth day and weekends to shoehorn in high-profile commissions and consultancy work across Europe.

’For the first time in my life, I was really tired,’ he says. ’Usually, I’m really energised by my work, so something was wrong. And I was taking on so many outside commissions that it was like having two full-time jobs, which was unsustainable.’

Porter admits that not being part of The Guardian anymore feels peculiar, but it was high time to sever the umbilical cord. Not that he’s had much time for navel-gazing as he beavers away on two Swiss newspaper redesigns, plus revamps for a Dutch business paper and a Parisian weekly.

For the moment at least, he has set up camp in fellow art director Simon Esterson’s studio in London’s Hoxton, just a few desks down from Stephen Coates, yet another highly accomplished practitioner. Which brings that old joke to mind, ’How many art directors does it take to change a light bulb? – Change? I’m not changing anything!’

That’s not an entirely gratuitous gag. For Porter, half the battle at The Guardian was making sure that design was consistently high on the editorial agenda, which meant taking a firm stand. Full-colour printing and desktop make-up may have spawned a more magazinelike publication, but for hard-bitten news editors, nothing gets in the way of a good story, well told.

’The way they think hasn’t changed much in 50-odd years,’ laughs Porter. ’In practice, a lot of newspaper design is horse trading over space, as much as style and presentation. It’s really important to build strong relationships with editors.

Fortunately, a lot of the groundwork had already been laid by his predecessor Esterson and David Hillman before that, but you’ve still got to stand your ground.’ With a degree in modern languages from Oxford University and a highly analytical mind, Porter is a skilled apologist for his craft.

Having worked alongside him many moons ago, on a long-forgotten design and advertising magazine, I can confirm he talks a great layout, and is difficult to get the better of in an argument. What’s more, he’s learned from some of the past masters.

Like Mike Lackersteen, who gave him one of his very first breaks at Redwood’s Expression magazine. And the Swiss maverick Roland Schenk, who made business magazines impossibly sexy during the 1970s and 1980s.

But, most significantly, the late, great Tibor Kalman, who Porter assisted on the infamous, but truly astonishing, Colors magazine in the early 1990s. ’Tibor used to drive me insane,’ says Porter. ’But he taught me so much.

Like I should try to think like a reader, not a designer. I’d present him with a typographic flourish I was quite pleased with, and he’d tell me I was having another “art director orgasm”. He was absolutely right, of course.’

It’s a grounding that should help Porter steer his own ship through choppy editorial waters as paper, Web and mobile tablet find their natural equilibrium. Particularly when he has all his fingers back in working order.

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