MIT Technology Review’s Creative Chief on a New Way of Covering Technology
September 14, 2018
For an article on the impact of self-driving cars on car culture, Brandon Sullivan photographed a highway in Arizona.
Sullivan took "a natural history approach" to showing modern car culture, says Eric Mongeon, Chief Creative Officer. "It comes across as a portfolio from the future of environments that will have disappeared."
"Beth Perkins…can go into someone’s home or to an event, and she’s a surrogate tour guide as she gains entrée into place," says creative director Eric Mongeon.
"When Dan Winters photographed Buzz Aldrin, there was an embarrassment of riches among the takes. The image we chose for a cover [in 2012] was the one that showed him revealing himself," says Mongeon. It appeared with the cover line, "You Promised Me Mars Colonies. Instead, I Got Facebook.”
In June, the MIT Technology Review unveiled a redesign of the 117-year-old magazine and a new mission statement. While its website covers a variety of emerging technologies, each issue of the bimonthly magazine covers a single theme or a single technology in depth. Editor Gideon Lichfield wrote in its first redesigned issue that MIT Technology Review’s reporting will “explicitly strive to make technology more of a force for good, by helping its makers, users, and framers reach better decisions.” Eric Mongeon, MIT Technology Review’s chief creative officer, talked to PDN about how the redesign, created in partnership with the design firm Pentagram, reflects the changing roles of print and digital publications, and how photography will be used to advance the magazine’s new mission. Mongeon became chief creative officer in January, after working as creative director at Boston, but he has worked for MIT Technology Review twice before: He joined the magazine as an art director in 2000, when Massachusetts Institute of Technology spun the magazine off as a newsstand publication. In 2003, he opened his own design firm, but kept MIT Technology Review as a client. In 2012, he returned to the publication’s staff and served as its creative director for three years. In his new job, he oversees the design of “everything bearing the MIT Technology Review logo,” he says.
Chief Creative Officer
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PDN: Who are the readers of MIT Technology Review?
EM: Generally speaking, they are “technology decision makers”: chief technology officers and CEOs, entrepreneurs, people in start-ups. Also policy makers: people working in government or NGOs. It’s anyone interested in keeping an eye on emerging technologies and thinking about and planning for the business, cultural and social impact of these emerging technologies.
PDN: The redesign really distinguishes the print publication’s content and style from the website.
EM: This organization is fully committed to publishing its journalism around a digital-first strategy. The web is where the vast majority of readers…are going for news analysis [and] context. What most editorial operations do is remediate: You lead with print and then repurpose for the web, or lead with digital and then publish a “best-of” print edition. We’re really approaching the platforms as companions or siblings. What we can do at a bimonthly frequency in print that we can’t do daily is we can take a single topic, and enlist a broad group of writers to look at the topic from a variety of perspectives. The print publication gives you a deep, well-rounded view on a single topic. The web gives you everything.
The redesign was also an opportunity for the art department to consider what print can do that digital can’t. In print, we have a deep level of control over the pacing of the sequence of stories and the scale of the images. It’s about approaching print as a deliberately crafted visual experience, while the web is about immediacy.
PDN: So how does the art direction or photography differ from web to print?
EM: One of the things I’ve been thinking about specifically is the role of photography in the digital environment. In print, you have this beautiful, full-page photo. If you’re reading a full page of text opposite it, you’re living with that image for a good 10, 15 minutes. If you’re looking at something on a desktop, you’re scrolling to read. You’re not referring back to the image. And on mobile, the image [gets] shrunk, and you swipe past it. In photo editing for digital, we prioritize images that are simpler, more iconic. In photo editing for the web, we won’t choose the photo that’s complicated in the background. Print allows a level of nuance that digital can’t always guarantee.
PDN: How does the opportunity to be deliberate influence the photography you choose for print?
EM: I feel that the best photos in MIT Technology Review give the reader the sense that they’re catching a glimpse of something that they’re not supposed to be seeing.
The current issue has a beautiful image by Rob Larson of a former steel mill outside Pittsburgh that’s being rehabbed into a robotics space. It’s a behemoth. You can’t just wander on the construction site to get a look. So one of the things we’re doing with photographs is taking you inside places you wouldn’t get to see.
Or a photographer can get a glimpse of who a person is. I’ll send a photographer into a lab or start-up. The framing and the lighting of that environment will be very deliberate, and then we’ll get the subject in there and through capturing a stolen moment, give the sense you are seeing who they really are when they drop their guard. In the next issue there’s a Q&A with Gary Reback, a Silicon Valley attorney [who spearheaded a lawsuit against Microsoft in the 1990s]. There’s a great photo of him
by Christie Hemm Klok. It’s at a low angle. It was supposed to be this heroic shot but he glanced over his shoulder and she shot it. You get a sense of someone who always has his eye out. It’s a portrait of vigilance. She’s also very good technically, so the photo has the craftsmanship of a formal portrait, but it’s an informal moment.
There are photographers like Beth Perkins, who was in PDN’s 30 in 2002, who can go into someone’s home or to an event, and she’s a surrogate tour guide as she gains entrée into place. There’s something whole-hearted in the way she approaches her subjects.
PDN: Are there particular genres or styles of photography that fit the magazine’s new mission?
EM: In the past few years, the magazine was primarily using illustration. It was practical when the subject was some microscopic process or an algorithm. But moving forward, the brand is about demystifying technology, how it works, who made it, how it’s funded and the impact it’ll have on the world. That last category is the territory we’ll mine for photography.
We have a story about self-driving cars. The author started thinking about what happens when there are more self-driving cars than passenger driven cars. What happens when we’re not going to the drive-through at a Starbucks? He started looking at a roughly 30-mile stretch of road in Arizona called Camelback Road. It’s an ecosystem built for passenger vehicles.
I sent Brandon Sullivan to photograph some of these sites, and he took a natural history approach. Remember when we went to a car wash? Here’s what one looked like. Remember the drive-through? Once upon a time, this is what it looked like. It comes across as a portfolio from the future of environments that will have disappeared.
PDN: It sounds like you want the photographer’s style to help communicate the story.
EM: There’s a trend right now where photos are deliberately unrefined, harsh, as if craftsmanship equates with inauthenticity. It’s a fake punk ethos. The photographers we work with have technical chops. These photographs need to look beautifully and technically executed.
I’m looking for photographers who are not afraid of deep, rich colors. We’re drawing a lot of inspiration from the issues of MIT Technology Review that were published in the 1950s and ’60s. So much of what they were doing was about big, bold color, so I’m looking for photographers who are not afraid to work in deep, rich tones.
I want this to be a magazine that admits a variety of voices in the photography. I don’t want to be rigid about any of the esthetic parameters, but the marching orders for photographers are that they don’t have to impose any drama on the subject, they should reveal the drama that’s inherent in the subject.
An interest in technology is helpful, but not required. I’m looking for photographers who are curious and open to revealing something about the subject.
When Dan Winters photographed Buzz Aldrin, there was an embarrassment of riches among the takes. The image we chose for a cover [in 2012] was the one that showed him revealing himself. I don’t know if his expression is a look of fatigue or disappointment. It appeared with the cover line, “You Promised Me Mars Colonies. Instead, I Got Facebook.”
PDN: Is there anything you wish photographers understood better about your needs?
EM: I worry that photographers might see the three letters “MIT” and feel like it’s not for them, that it’ll be too highbrow or dry. Will it read like a textbook? We’re working really hard to break that perception. You don’t need to have a degree from MIT to enjoy working for this publication.