Independent woman

Climbing the ladder from graduate to art director in the world of fashion magazines takes determination, self-confidence and a certain amount of
brio – something that art director Becky Smith has in spades

Cover of Vogue
Becky Smith

Being headhunted by Vogue is an auspicious start for any graphic design graduate. This happened to Becky Smith in 1998 and she has since worked her way up the career ladder via Wallpaper, Harper’s Bazaar and ID, among others.

Smith still does regular freelance work at some of fashion’s magazine big guns, but over the past six years she’s been involved in the launch of two independent magazines, Lula and, most recently, Twin.

’I’ve always been a big magazine fan and obsessively collect them, but they’ve become quite disposable. So when I started Lula in 2004, I stopped to ask myself, “What do I want to do that’s different?”,’ explains Smith. In the case of Lula it was a reaction against the old order. ’I was sick of cover lines and everything being forced down your throat. I wanted calm and tranquility – a big white border and just one plain, amazing image on the cover every time.’

When Twin was conceived last year, Smith again asked, ’What next?’. She decided to avoid sticking people on covers, and the result was a big, hardback, biannual magazine with a simple black cover, featuring just Smith’s hand-drawn logo. ’It’s almost anti-design,’ she says. ’There are no words and you don’t know what the hell you’re buying, so it was a big risk. But I wanted to go back to the book-making process and produce something that’s not disposable and that raises the tone – something that’s beautifully handcrafted and feels special. I like the word “bespoke” – that’s where Twin is.’

Such a venture goes against various rules of magazine design and market research, but Smith is in a good position to break those. ’I do take them into account before I do things, but I’ve got to the stage where I just don’t care what everybody else thinks. When you do something like this you have to be really headstrong. I have the confidence from working at lots of other magazines, so there’s nothing that daunts me,’ she says.

Even though Twin is a covetable publication with high production values, Smith is keenly aware of the potential other platforms and media offer. ’Everybody’s got iPhones or iPods now and people are watching films on their way to work,’ she explains, and Twin is accompanied by a website which is updated daily, ’because magazines can’t continue on this weekly, monthly basis’.

As editorial director, Smith steers Twin’s content as well as executing its design. She stresses that being a good art director means being ’very adaptable, depending on who you’re working for’, but Twin is more personal – and to date it’s the most accurate reflection of her aesthetics and sensibilities. ’Lula was a bit too whimsical for me and the photography was very much of the same ilk,’ says Smith. ’Whereas Twin is more-edgy and feels like -a strong, independent woman.’ But that’s not to say that she won’t do another magazine that will be created to somebody else’s aesthetic, she adds.

Contrary to some fellow editorial designers, Smith doesn’t idolise the superstars of her profession. ’I don’t see myself as looking up to art directors. I look more at photographers – I’m a big fan of Nan Golding and Diane Arbus.’

However, she does admire Peter Saville, but not just for his work. ’He’s been clever in how he’s marketed himself as an art director,’ explains Smith. ’He’s created this character and has got real personality. He’s suave and he’s built an aura around him – I respect that.’

As well as freelance editorial design, Smith’s portfolio includes advertising campaigns and graphics for a number of fashion labels. ’I’d like to consider myself as independent, and all those campaigns and other bits and pieces tend to interweave,’ says Smith, who also likes to think she straddles the gap between the design and fashion industries. ’The fashion world is difficult, and the design world is very male-dominated, but I’m quite comfortable in weaving in and out of those two areas.’

Acknowledging male domination in passing, Smith doesn’t give the impression that it has held her back, but she does hope to encourage women to enter the industry. As lecturer at Chelsea College of Art and Design and Shillington College, Smith has noted more women applying for courses – ’Hopefully, we’re encouraging a whole new generation of women,’ she says.

She doesn’t consider herself a campaigner as such, but there are ’undertones’ of these notions within Twin. ’There will never be something like the feminist magazine Spare Rib again. That was very much about society at the time – and nowadays we’ve all got a bit of an easy ride,’ explains Smith. ’Twin is people writing about what it’s like to be a woman at this time.’

The first issue included Carol Ann Duffy, the first female Poet Laureate, presenting young female poets, for example. ’That’s the kind of thing I’m trying to endorse,’ says Smith. ’It’s the perfect example of a Twin piece and I want to continue in that vein.’

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