Cosimo Bizzarri is the executive editor of COLORS, a quarterly magazine published in six bilingual editions (English + Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean and Chinese) and distributed in more than 20 countries. Created by Oliviero Toscani and Tibor Kalman in 1991, COLORS is made today in Treviso, Italy, by an in-house team of a dozen people from different countries, including researchers, designers, illustrators, photographers and writers. The printed magazine is still at the core, but video, digital, installations and traveling exhibitions add to the content offerings. I asked Bizzarri to tell me about the latest focus of the magazine, COLORS’ Survival Guides, which ambitiously tackle themes like transportation, sanitation, happiness, climate change, global markets, apocalypse, migration and protest. These Survival Guides are a series of COLORS issues that, since Spring 2011, mix photography, illustration, design and survival tips “for the big issues of our time.”
How does today’s COLORS differ from earlier incarnations?
Back in the ’90s, when the first issue of COLORS was published, the world had just come out of the cold war and was making its first, enthusiastic steps into globalization. Speaking about the rest of the world meant celebrating diversity in a way that differed from what mainstream publications were doing: showing Queen Elisabeth with dark skin, a nun in her underpants, a full-page picture of a penis accompanying an article about AIDS. Twenty years on, we are plugged into our devices 24/7, Photoshop has become boring as hell, ISIS is using branding manuals to recruit its cutthroats and no one really talks about globalization anymore—and yet its side effects make the headlines every day. We figured that COLORS could no longer just celebrate “the rest of the world,” but rather make an effort to understand it. We created a new series of issues, the Survival Guides, where traditional stories told in pictures and text are followed by DIY diagrams that explain to readers how to deal with complex issues like peak oil, the financial crisis, climate change, the end of journalism, the global spread of depression, from different points of view.
Your covers have a distinctive data viz quality. What is the rationale?
Patrick Waterhouse [editor-in-chief] is an illustrator, so he made a strategic choice to use drawings instead of pictures on the covers. When it came to sketching one for COLORS 81 – Transport, he came up with this proposal in which icons of several means of transportation were moving on a red background. It worked and it gave a distinctive language to the issue, compared to the previous ones. We kept this style also for the following covers, although each of them was conceived and produced in a different way, considering the topic of the issue. The visual consistency contributes to the feeling of a body of work, a family of issues. Plus, they look good on a bookshelf.
I heard that the magazine once printed one million copies. Is this true?
The legend goes that the first issue of COLORS was distributed in one million copies. The last issue was distributed in around 20,000 copies, with a separate print run in Asia through our partner Idn Magazine, but the number varies according to the topic of each issue and to the number of languages in which it gets translated (currently we have six bilingual editions: English + Italian, Spanish, French, Korean and Chinese). It’s a transition that began a few years ago. It’s necessary because it’s neither environmentally nor financially sustainable to print tens of thousands of copies that then may remain unsold and get destroyed. In the past years, we have tried to fine tune our distribution by choosing only a few art and design bookstores, encouraging our readers to buy online and increasing our digital editorial activity.
Does Luciano Benetton still fund and support the magazine?
COLORS is published by Fabrica, Benetton Group’s research center on arts and communication. So yes, the funding and support still come from there.
At one time COLORS was filled with Benetton ads, but now its wonderfully ad-free. What is the rationale for the magazine in the corporate sense?
In the history of the magazine there have been different policies toward advertising, and it’s true that we’ve had the luxury to enjoy an ad-free era. Overall, though, COLORS has always been a research project rather than a corporate one and I believe most of the editors enjoyed complete freedom in creating their content. It’s an act of patronage rather than a branding tool. I guess this is the reason why it’s still somehow an anomaly, hopefully a beautiful one, in the world of magazines.
Which are your favorite issues?
COLORS 7: Aids [edited by Tibor Kalman] is still used in schools today. 47: Madness, shot entirely in mental institutions around the world, is funny, beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. Among the ones I worked on, 85: Going to Market, was the most challenging: We tried to create links between the stories, so that the issue would not just be a list of independent articles, but one big story connecting the traders at the Chicago Mercantile Stock Exchange with the people protesting austerity in the street of Athens, the fishermen selling tuna in the markets of Tokyo with the traders bartering goods on the border between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir. A more or less unconscious attempt to translate our daily navigation on the web on paper.
What are your most challenging stories?
I guess the most challenging aspect of our work has been bringing together journalism and design in a piece of work that has to be perceived as a whole. Often design publications feature shallow or inaccurate content, while a lot of journalistic content gets sunk by poor design. We try to bring together designers and journalists and have them collaborate from the onset of an idea to its final realization.
Does COLORS still provoke as much controversy as it did in the Tibor Kalman days?
Let’s put it this way. When you see a teenager who lives off odd jobs, parties every night and has several sex partners at once, you think he’s cool. When you see a 40-year-old man who does the same, you are likely to feel sorry for him. I think it’s the same with magazines. In another era, COLORS sought controversy at every opportunity. Today, many other publications try to do that, so COLORS has had to change. The magazine may not be as sensationalistic as it used to be but hopefully has become subtler in the way it presents contents, unveils topics and challenges its readers to think and discuss.