Twitter Logo
Rex Sorgatz

The Grey Album is less great in retrospect

feb 11
2008

Louis Responds

When I revisited the first issue of Wired last week, it was obvious that I had unfortunately glossed over several areas (the design, in particular, got an unfair treatment). But as Valleywag ruefully noted, it was already 1,600 words long.

So I was thrilled when the founding editor, Louis Rossetto, emailed me a lengthy response, which serves as a great Round 2 of the first issue. With his approval, the email is printed below.

Rex,

Liked your piece on Wired 1.1.

A few things:

1. There was a beta. Actually two. Back in April 1992, John, Barb, Jane, and I created a "Manifesto" in a three day-and-night charette in the studio of photographer Neil Selkirk in Chelsea that stated what Wired was about, and set out the design philosophy. Barlow was on the cover, swiped from the New York Times Magazine, if I remember correctly. It had a proposed table of contents, proposed masthead (we still hadn't contacted any writers except for Markoff and Michael Schrage), an ad or two, the opening spread of a story. Six months later, I created a second prototype on my own. Learned how to use Quark, Photoshop, and Illustrator in the same month -- and juggle too. Eugene Mosier, who was later to join us as head of production, called in sick to his day job and helped put it together (making him employee number zero since we couldn't pay him anything but cookies). Jane sweet-talked equipment out of Radius (a name from the past) and others, since we not only didn't have money to pay people like Eugene but to buy equipment either. This beta was a full-on 120 page prototype, with actual stories re-purposed from other places, actual art, actual ads (someone quipped that it was the ultimate editor's wet dream to be able to pick their own ads), and then all the sections and pacing that was to go into the actual magazine. The cover was lifted from McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage; it was the startling black and white image of a guy's head with a big ear where his eyes should have been. The whole thing got printed and laminated in a copy shop in Berkeley that had just got a new Kodak color copier and rip. Jane, Eugene, and I went in when the shop closed on Friday evening and worked round the clock through the weekend. Took 45 minutes to print out one color page! We emerged Monday morning with the prototype, which we had spiral-bound in a shop in South San Francisco, before we boarded a plane for Amsterdam to present it to Origin's founder and CEO Eckart Wintzen, to see if he would approve the concept, agree to advertise in the magazine, and then give us the advance we crucially needed to keep the project alive. He did, hence Origin's ads in our early issues.

2. Nicholas's statement about HD was not inaccurate. Resolution is not the big deal -- delivery and access is. YouTube is a bigger revolution than HD by a mile, regardless of how many big flat panels are in people's homes.

3. True, Nicholas's email address was laughably wrong, but I'm not sure even now I know why. It's certainly not because we were shy about printing email addresses. Addresses of writers appear throughout the issue -- a first for any magazine, as far as I know. My email address appeared under my editorial -- got hundreds of replies, each of which I answered. I think there was some kind of screw up in the handling of the text, perhaps someone slugged something in waiting for his real address, and then, in the insane rush to get out the first issue, it ended up being published as is. Nicholas himself was perhaps the most chagrined. It was corrected by the second issue, and yes, that address reached him.

4. I think you radically underestimate John and Barb's design work. As they often said, their job was to imagine what the future looked like, and do it on a medium out of the past. They brought amazing design smarts to the process of putting out the magazine, as well as incredible production chops, which were reflected in Wired from the first issue. That opening multi-page spread illuminating the McLuhan quote which launched the issue, that incredible graphic indulgence which continued for the entire time I was editor, and which is conspicuously absent from the current, was true modern graphic art -- in the case of the first one, a collaboration between John and Erik Adigard (Erik's work would appear regularly in the mag, and, for a while, he worked at HotWired/Wired Digital helping Barb create it's graphic sensibility). John and Barb were the ones who landed us our printer, a company back East in Connecticut John had worked with on slick annual reports. They had just taken delivery of a brand spanking new Heidelberg six color (CMYK plus two spot colors -- ah, that's how it was done!) press as big as a couple of box cars. We were the first clients on the press. The first issue was on press over Xmas 1992, and John, Barb, Eugene, and I were on press check. The pressmen were grizzled 30-year pros. They set up the press, they put on the VW size rolls of our special matte paper, they poured in the gallons and gallons of our eye-burning fluorescent ink, they started the press, they adjusted the print flow, they ripped off the first pages and put it under the calibrated lights to check color, they looked at it through a loop to check the dot gain, they did this half a dozen time, then they pronounced it perfect -- calibration was absolutely nominal. I can still remember how John took one look and said: put more ink on the page. The pressmen were aghast. It was perfect as is, just the way it was supposed to be. John insisted. They ultimately relented. He looked at the new sample. He told them he wanted still more ink. They protested again. They finally relented again. John looked at the new sheet. This time he told them: I want you to turn the ink up until it smears, and then dial back to where it's only just not smearing; and that's how I want the entire job done. The pressmen were appalled, outraged, embarrassed. But ultimately, they did what John told them. That's why the magazine looked and felt the way it did, because it literally carried more and brighter inks than a normal magazine -- they leaped off the matte paper. Later, as the magazine started to get recognition, the Wired job became the one the pressmen all wanted to work on. Under John's direction.

P.S. We collected the opening spreads of the first few years of Wired when we started our book company Hardwired. Called it Mind Grenades. Each of those introductions reflected my trolling through an issue and finding a quote somewhere that seemed portentous enough to be chiseled onto the side of a public building. Funny thing was, taken all together and in sequence, those randomly picked quotes made a coherent argument. As well as a mindblowing visual statement. Eugene did the press check, in Singapore. That book reprinted the original colors used in the intro spreads, which meant, I believe, something like 26 spot colors. Not many printed objects with 26 spot colors.

5. The baby pissing ad got us some shit. We were glad.

6. Wired/Tired was an afterthought, John Plunkett's idea, I think. On the last day of production, we would shout stuff around the office as we were working, and I'd write it down. Utterly subjective. Except, for about the first two years, we made sure that Manhattan was always in the Tired column in some way, trying to stick to the know-it-alls in what they parochially thought was the center of the universe. It was either Clay Felker or Jann Wenner who said that it's not only important for a magazine to have heros, but also pick the right enemies. Course, NY got its revenge at the time of the IPO, but that's another story.

7. The dotcom stock market bubble occurred after I already left the magazine, so I will decline to comment on whether Wired abetted it or not. But while I was there, we frequently indulged our cynicism, as with Chip Bayers' story in our April 1996 issue, "The Great Web Wipeout."

8. The colophon was fun. I wanted to list the stuff we used to make the magazine, because I wanted people to see that it didn't require a huge operation to make a great magazine -- in other words, that you didn't need Hearst or TimeLife or IDG overhead to produce a magazine that looked better than theirs. I think it was Eugene who added the drugs, with some notable exceptions, given that we were figuratively and literally at the epicenter of the SF rave culture. For that first issue, I might have also added adrenaline and optimism.

Thanks for taking the time. Hope your archaeology didn't screw up your issue too much. If so, let me know, maybe I can scrounge up a replacement.

Best,

Louis Rossetto


Thanks Louis!

For anyone who is really into this history, I also recommend Gary Wolf's book, Wired: A Romance, which is basically a biography of the magazine.

7 comments

Your piece is really good, although I do agree with Negroponte -- HD is cool, but YouTube is more interesting and has more deep ramifications for the way we perceive and use media. HD doesn't change the form or the way we use it. It's just an incremental improvement in an entrenched form.

Also, Wired's design: yeah, it looks silly now. But it was pretty groundbreaking back then -- almost as groundbreaking as Mondo 2000's. (I'm biased, since I wrote for Mondo and not for Wired, but I think both of them were revolutionary in their way.) Of course, both Mondo and Wired really owe a huge debt to designers like Neville Brody and David Carson. But that's a whole other story.

Anyway, great piece. And I second the Gary Wolf recommendation.

posted by Joshua Ellis at 8:55 PM on February 11, 2008

I think the only part I actually disagree with Louis on is letting Negroponte off the hook. There's not much in his column that predicts YouTube. He suggests the future is on-demand, but that wasn't too hard to predict. He had a preoccupation with multi-camera viewing, which we're still a long way from.

posted by Rex at 9:10 PM on February 11, 2008

As a guy who is (slowly) working on building his own archive of old Wired magazines, I just thought I'd chime in here with a link to a post I did a few weeks ago about the sorry state of the online Wired archives (which is what eventually motivated me to start acquiring the hard copies).

Do Digital Libraries Get Electric Mildew?

The severity of the problem varies from mild annoyance to clusterf*ck unreadability depending on the age and format of the original text (interviews tend to suck particularly hard) but overall it's just frustrating to see random HTML tags and junk strewn all over the place, particularly after reading about the painstaking work that went into making the original so cool!

posted by Eric at 9:25 PM on February 11, 2008

The wired design is groundbreaking in the way I felt shivers seeing it again for the first time in years. That magazine was astounding at the time. Both your review and the response were excellent, despite the design quibble ;-D

posted by Marcus at 9:28 PM on February 11, 2008

This is AMAZING. Is the market for historical meta-media commentary too small to support stuff like this on a regular basis? Probably, right?

posted by Robin at 9:57 PM on February 11, 2008

I remember ( mid 90's ) taking the train from Winchester to London on a weekend, walking from Waterloo station up to Tottenham Court road where i had found a newsagent that stocked everything ( local and international ) .
If i could find one of; Wired; The Big Takeover; Maximum Rock and Roll or Dr Dobbs ; it was well worth the effort.

posted by Stuartmm at 12:16 AM on February 12, 2008

Hi, here's a talk by Louis Rossetto about Wired:

posted by tipo at 2:12 PM on February 12, 2008




NOTE: The commenting window has expired for this post.