In the mid-1950s, my father, Dick Coyne, and his business partner, Bob Blanchard, were running a successful design firm on the San Francisco Peninsula that included their own in-house typesetting shop. They also wanted to build a color separation and litho stripping facility to provide better service to their growing list of clients, and to satisfy their interest in improving reproduction techniques, but there simply wasn't enough work from the design business to keep such a facility profitable. After numerous discussions, their best idea was to launch a commercial art magazine to pick up the slack.
“If my background could be interpreted to mean credentials in publishing, they were zip,” Dick said in a self-conducted interview in 1969. “Like many of my colleagues in this field, I felt there was a need for a design magazine. But it never occurred to me that I would be the one who did it. One thing was certain: We couldn’t do the kind of magazine we wanted without the litho-prep facility. And since no other ideas had emerged, it looked like we couldn’t have the prep facility without the magazine.
“We also knew that some real changes, some excitement was going to happen in the design field. In our own case, we were working on total corporate design accounts—graphics, packaging, signing, films—corporate image programs, although we hadn’t heard the term yet. Thinking back, it’s hard to believe how fast things have happened, how much this business has changed since 1958 when we were planning the magazine. Only ten commercials were accepted for the New York Art Director’s show that year. Videotape had just been introduced. The Volkswagen campaign hadn’t happened yet. Most of the graphic design you saw was panels, shapes and Mondrian patterns. Clean design really stood out.”
Once on the table, the magazine idea proved difficult to forget. Dick and Bob discussed the concept with colleagues and received a generally favorable response. There was some doubt, however, about getting the numbers it would take to make a magazine viable.
“Starting a new magazine is both an exhilarating and a frightening experience,” Dick said. “For every Playboy, there were a dozen magazines that never published a second issue. With a concept for a different kind of trade magazine—printing by lithography, 4-color editorial reproduction, more dependence on circulation than on advertising—it was essential that we build a broad subscription base in a hurry.”
Their solution was to enlist the help of art material stores in selling subscriptions and single copies. In the spring of 1959, armed with tight comps and high-quality promotional materials, the future magazine staff attended the National Art Material Trade Association convention and managed to sign up over 100 dealers to act as subscription agents.
Volume 1, Number 1
The first issue was published in August 1959. CA was the first U.S. magazine printed by offset litho. It was also perfect-bound. Since there were no commercial perfect binders available in the area, the binding tape and cover were applied by hand at Stanford University Press. “Most of the issues were fine, but I wouldn’t have recommended that anyone pull too hard on the pages," Dick said.
Art material dealers came through with 5,000 subscriptions and a lot of single copy sales. Within six months, paid circulation grew to 10,000. Advertising, however, was a disappointment. The first issue carried only ten pages. The December 1959 issue carried less than two. Advertising sales costs exceeded revenue, forcing the pair to eventually close a New York sales office and assume that role along with their other responsibilities.
Besides needing to find other forms of revenue, the magazine also needed a strong source of information on work being done around the country. The solution was to launch an annual competition beginning in 1960.
“We were in trouble, and needed to do something with impact, something that would get attention,” Dick said. “Frankly, at that time we asked ourselves if another show was really necessary. But there was only one comprehensive national show and we figured the field could stand another.”
That first Annual received over 5,000 entries and was selected by a jury of 7 creative professionals. As an added feature, four parallel juries selected their first, second and third choices in each of the categories of work selected by the jury. One parallel jury had three consumers, another had two corporate presidents and an executive vice president representing management, the third had three advertising account managers and the last had an artist, a designer and an art director. The result was very little consensus and the experiment was never repeated.
“When we launched the first annual, we weren’t totally aware of what a wonderful door we had opened,” Dick said. “Our initial motivation was to achieve an impact that was necessary for our survival and to cracking the undeserved label of ‘West Coast Magazine,’ as well as providing our readers with an overview of the best work being done. What we also got was a remarkable source of information. No research effort could duplicate the awareness this gives us of what is going on everywhere.”
Just as prospects began looking up, the economy fell into a recession. Ad pages dropped off as did new subscriptions.
“I don't remember how many times we debated giving up...or wondered if tomorrow was the day that somebody else would make that decision for us,” Dick said. “But we hung on stubbornly...cut the staff, cut our salaries, worked longer hours...about a hundred a week it seemed. Blanchard and I not only wrote and did the layouts, we did most of the litho stripping too. We didn’t bother with paste-ups, we put the magazine together in negative film, in flats, ready to burn plates. Anything to save time and a buck.”
To address the increasing debt, the design studio was sold to the employees, the type shop was spun out as a separate company and the color separation division was eventually sold to the printer. As the economic and physical punishment dragged on, Blanchard left to go into business for himself, but Dick stuck it out, finally managing to get out of debt in the early ’70s, by sheer force of will. By then paid circulation was close to 20,000. To keep costs down, Dick continued to do all the layout and most of the writing and production. The entire staff consisted of only seven people.
Despite the long hours, Dick found the work exhilarating. In 1969, CA’s tenth anniversary, he wrote, “What a decade it was. One could find little argument that this was probably the most important decade in the history of visual communication. Design, advertising, film, all were buffeted by extreme change.”
During the 1970s, circulation grew substantially as did entries to the annual, which was split into two and then four separate issues. Profits were plowed back into the magazine with better paper, more color and bigger issues. By 1984, circulation had grown to 50,000 and the staff to 10.
At the end of 1989, Dick arranged for the sale of the magazine to me, my brother Eric and my sister Marti. In 1990, Dick was diagnosed with lung cancer and succumbed to the disease less than three months later. While his death was a terrible personal blow to all of us, we continue to have a lot of pride in keeping his legacy alive. We’ve also been fortunate that our mother, Jean, who was involved with the business from the beginning, remains an active member of our staff. The fact that CA is really a small family business has been one of the keys to its success, as economic decisions are not based on increasing short-term shareholder value.
Like the rest of the industry, the next big evolution for CA began with the development of interactive media and the commercialization of the World Wide Web.
At the 1994 Design Annual judging, all 9 judges spent 30 minutes huddled around 1 computer viewing the 3 interactive entries we received. We still had 14,000 print entries to judge in less than 3 days and realized the whole system would collapse if we got more interactive entries in the future.
Our solution was to launch a fifth competition for interactive design in 1995. At the same time, we also launched our first Web site. Our goals were to publish more timely editorial content; increase interactivity between readers and the magazine; and use the Web as a marketing tool to increase subscriptions and competition entries.
Since viewer feedback is instantaneous, we found it fascinating to see what features attracted the most interest. While originally reluctant to include creative examples on the site because of the poor screen resolution, we found that “Exhibit Online” and “Web Site of the Week” were the most popular features. The biggest surprise was that the “Job Listings” became the most popular of all. Our assumption was that most people would promote themselves in the hopes of finding a job rather than post an opening. Instead we saw new job postings increase each month, with the number of jobs wanted running consistently behind that. Eventually, we spun off the job listings into a new site, Creative Hotlist, which now contains portfolio listings as well.
The Web has become an integral part of our business. In addition to promoting our competitions and fulfilling subscription and single-copy orders, we also use an information server to communicate with profilees and competition winners, gather editorial content and generate formatted text for production.
Like every other media company, we’re trying to find the right mix of print and digital media properties that appeals to a broad audience and keeps us profitable. This year, we’re revamping everything. After this issue, every issue of CA will contain award-winning work from one of our annual juried competitions, feature articles and columns. The net result will be more feature articles and more award-winning work delivered each year in six larger issues instead of eight smaller ones.
Commarts.com has undergone five iterations since its inception, but the biggest change begins now with the introduction of our premium subscriber content: access to all our feature articles and competition winners from 2004 forward, searchable by media, individual creators and firms. Access is free to all current subscribers.
While the future is never certain, we’re excited about these enhancements and hope you will continue to find CA a valuable resource in your career.
We’ve been fortunate to have such a talented staff over the years and I’d like to publicly thank them for all they’ve done to help us grow. I’d also like to thank our numerous contributors who have written articles and columns for us. A special thanks to our initial contributing editors, who were our eyes and ears until the annuals helped bring work to us: William Condit, Wendell Davenport, Ira Goldblatt, Susan Karstrom Keig, Tobias Moss, James Peck, Emile Pirro, Ted Poyser, Harold Quiram and Robert S. Robison.
Thanks also to Art Inman, our original printer, whose faith in the magazine, generous credit and financial aid carried the magazine through some difficult years and, up until his death in 2007, served as a member of our board of directors. Also, thanks to our current printer, Anderson Litho, and our prepress suppliers who share our vision of quality. Thank you also to our advertisers who believed in us.
Many thanks to our distinguished jurors, all 908 of them to date. Not only did these fine people contribute their time and energy for the judging, they represent the people who have set the standards for excellence in this field over the last 50 years, and have been a tremendous help in setting our editorial direction.
Personal thanks have to go to my father, Dick Coyne, whose extreme dedication and belief that the magazine was worth doing made it the success it is today. I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to work closely with Dick for four years before his death and that I can continue his personal vision of quality. “This is a good field, I’ve never regretted being a part of it,” Dick said. “It offers a unique amount of challenge, excitement and personal satisfaction. Also the opportunity for anyone with adequate talent, who is willing to work hard and always give it their best shot, to achieve a good monetary reward.”
Most importantly, thanks to all of you, our readers, for supporting us with your subscription dollars so we can bring you the quality publication you deserve. As Dick said 25 years ago, “I believe that the best is still ahead of us. The magazine will be around as long as it can perform enough service to this field that you believe it's worthwhile keeping CA alive.” ca