Three recent issues of Works that Work laid out on a table

Reaction: Works That Work

The first time I heard about Works That Work, I read a couple of articles and knew I had found something special. I was in San Francisco for a week in November 2013, so I went out in the rain to seek out one of the few independent distributors in the U.S., at Makeshift Society, a small creative space. Not long after, I subscribed.

With so much of my time spent reading on the web, it is rare that I can appreciate a print artifact. For me, WTW is that rare object. This twice-yearly international publication about design is different from many other publications that cover technology, design and innovation, in that it does not usually deal with the narrower contexts of mainstream consumer electronics, startups, advertising or web development. It focuses on less-often-covered issues such as industrial design, urban landscapes, the aftermath of war, the challenges of poverty, extreme environments, the distant future. WTW deals with forward thinking; with lasting and meaningful innovation; with ideas and designs that have significant and surprising effects.

A highlight from last year that hooked me was “The Box That Shrank the World”, a piece on the “lowly, inelegant container”. This story explains the quite recent history of how standardization and efficiency (in the form of international shipping containers) led to globalization. A single modular design had an immense and lasting impact on international economics and culture.

Nearly as important as the writing and photography, Works That Work gets typography, layout and physical feel of the magazine right. Like Nautilus, another multidisciplinary publication I subscribe to, their print issues are carefully put together. Great care is put into the reproduction of photos and use of color. The paper is thick, rough, and substantial. I really look forward to receiving these issues in the mail, and I enjoy coming back to them months later like a good book.

At its best, a print magazine can be as valuable as a book.

Issue 4 was released in November 2014, and I am still in the middle of reading it. My favorite article so far is “From Earth to Mars”, which (in part) tells the story of a group of aspiring amateur space explorers, Copenhagen Suborbitals. A sample:

The rocket itself is an amalgam of reverse engineering and declassified technology from the American and Soviet space programmes, some of it from the 1950s and 60s, some of it essentially the same propulsion mechanisms used by German rocketeers during the Second World War. The liquid helium canisters used to cool the rocket are labelled ‘balloon gas’. It’s far from pretty, but Wilson insists it will work. ‘Our goal is always to find the simplest solution …’

I also enjoyed the photos in “Living Underground”, a short story about an otherworldly, half-underground mining town in south Australia. Both the website and the print publication are laid out to give proper space for sweeping landscapes and small objects – the form became a creative influence for my own site.

The latest issue has an more finished feel than the previous ones – each one is better than the last. It is particularly impressive how much this small magazine accomplishes, considering that the effort is very much an independent one. It is published by the small Typotheque foundry, run by a lean team of editors and contributors. The project is additionally supported by very minimal advertising.

Magazine cover
Inner page – From Earth to Mars

They are also engaging with readers through interesting social distribution experiment. The idea is to encourage readers to become distributors to help the publisher bypass conventional distribution networks, which account for a large part of the cover price of a magazine. The reader helps to distribute the magazine, and gets a discount in the process. None of this adds to the base cover price of the magazine, and more people get local access to the magazine without the overhead of a traditional distribution.

The one compromise in their approach is partial pay-walling on the website, which is common to a lot of the best publications today. I do not like pay walls, but at the same time, I happily pay for writing and creative work that is worth it, whether pay-walled or not. In some ways it feels like it is against the open spirit of the web to lock content away from potential readers. At the same time, I have a lot of sympathy for creators who want to selectively release their work, especially when it would otherwise go uncompensated.

Fortunately, WTW’s approach to protecting content is liberal, encouraging and enabling readers to share articles and the magazine itself with friends. In this case it seems to be a fair balance, with multiple reasonable options for paying or donating. Additionally, sharing is encouraged and a good portion of the writing is available freely. When sharing articles by them or recommending that others read it, I do not feel that the pay-wall is a significant limitation, like it is with the New York Times, The Economist, or the The New Yorker (although the latter has since reformed).

WTW is taking a truly innovative approach to publishing, both in philosophy and form. I hope they stick around for a while.