Photo: AP Creative Director Christopher Benton with twenty one pilots
Would you believe it if we told you that Alternative Press Creative Director, Christopher Benton, had never done design on a computer before his first day on the job? It’s true, but back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, that wasn’t an uncommon story. He obviously learned quickly though, because he’s guided the design of the magazine throughout nearly three decades of stylistic and technological changes with exceptional mastery (and more than a few last-minute, late-night trips to FedEx to beat production deadlines). If you’re reading this now, odds are you’ve never known a time without Benton’s expert direction on the magazine’s overall aesthetic, which is something he still unequivocally refers to as a “dream job” nearly 25 years into his career.
AP is now 30 years old.
How did you get started with Alternative Press?
CHRISTOPHER BENTON: Alternative Press started when I was in college. I was going to college in D.C., and before I went to college I had a friend of mine named Norman Wonderly. At the time, Norman was a photographer at AP, so this was about ... it would have been the late '80s, so this is '88 or so. Then, he started taking care of the photography: hiring photographers, doing all the photo editing and that type of thing.
Between my junior and senior years, which was the summer of '91, I needed a job. I would come home for the summer and work at pizza places or work retail or do whatever. But, he mentioned, "Hey, there's an Artist Assistant position open at AP." They had just ... split ways with their Art Director, Bobby Christ, at the time, who was an early partner of [founder] Mike Shea's. When that happened, Marty Shure, the assistant at the time, moved into the Art Director role, doing all the design and stuff like that.
On my spring break, I came and applied for the Art Assistant job just for the summer because I only had one more year of school. For my actual interview, I redesigned the Alternative Press logo type, which was all written out as "Alternative Press." So, Mike assigned me to redesign the cover, like, "How would you redesign the cover if you were redoing it?" What I did was I recreated the "A" and the "P" and I put it up in the corner, and he really liked my redesign for that. I actually ended up getting hired that summer, and he kept it.
By the end of the summer, Mike wanted me to stay on as an art assistant, but at that point I really wasn’t getting along with the other art guy that much.. We were getting a little bit at odds. And, I only had one more year of school, so basically Mike didn’t want me to leave because he thought I’d get a job somewhere else. He said, “What would you want to stay?” and I made this crazy offer, and he accepted my offer.
I really had no experience other than just schoolwork and I had never actually touched a computer. I never had any computer classes or design; it didn’t exist back then. I learned how to design with a computer at APthat summer. It was a good computer class.
What kind of computer, software and tools were you using when you started?
Oh God, a hammer and a chisel. [Laughs.] Calligraphy pens. Pretty close, actually. We had computers. We were always Mac, so the editors would have a Mac II SE; they’re like little box Macs. At the time, they were like the first Macs. Then, in the art department, we had a little bit stronger computers, like Mac IIcis. Sometimes they’d call it a “pizza box computer” because it was a flattened kind of computer and then it’d have a monitor on top of that. It was a browny, creme box. Kind of a dirty yellow.
We would print out laser prints on glossy paper. Software-wise, there was a program called QuarkXPress. The only page layout tools that handled type and photo boxes were Adobe Pagemaker and QuarkXPress, but we were diehard QuarkXPress. We would design in QuarkXPress and output the pages into an 8.5 x 11 laser printer, but we were 10 x 12; we were tabloid-size.
So, we would have to tile them. I don’t know if you know what that means, but we’d have to print an extra quarter-inch or a half-inch and put the crop marks on it, and we still pasted up pages. We would have production parties where anyone who was skilled with an X-Acto blade would be cutting off the extra, make it into a tile onto the blueprint pages, and we would wax them down with a wax gun which used little wax tips that would melt down, and a wax roller. You used wax so if you missed, you could move stuff and pull stuff off and it wouldn’t be ruined.
Christopher Benton (far right) with twenty one pilots and Douglas Sonders
Looking back, is there anything about that old-school approach to magazine production that is superior to modern methods, or is there anything you feel may have been lost as that technology has progressed?
When I started, when I was hiring assistants and I was going further and further along, I was starting to realize there were people who had never not done art on a computer. Very few of them had actually done hand-lettering or drawn their own fonts. That’s way oldschool. I’m not saying that was essential and I’m not a purist when it comes to that, but I feel like the tactile quality is what I miss. Even though computers are unlimited, it’s like there’s something missing when you’re not able to take a photocopy and crush it up your hands, and photocopy it so it’d be more and more distorted. And sometimes we’d spray it with a clear-coat and make a quick transfer out of it.
I’ve seen a trend right now where artists and designers are going back to having a tactile step… they’ll go back and do some hand artwork. You can always do that. We do still do that.
Do you have any good stories from those early days, with the very manual labor-intensive process that you had, when you had to do anything really crazy to hit a deadline?
Oh God, obviously the thing is I’ve had a very long career so there’s so many. Those paste-up parties were pretty crazy, and a lot of it had to do with the conditions, too. We had a part of a quad, and it really had no insulation in the floor and the radiators didn’t always work. One of the stories I would always tell is that if you kept your feet on the ground, it’d be like being outside. Your feet would get so cold your toes would start getting numb. [Laughs.]
So, as I was designing on the IIci and laying out these all black-and-white files––we could afford a one-color overlay, so it’d be either be cyan, magenta, or yellow––so anyway I’d be working on the design and my computer would be crashing if I was working on anything photo-intensive … anything real intensive, like layout, or a lot of dot or detail, your computer would just freeze. When you were trying to load a graphic into it, it would just freeze on you. I’d be sitting there waiting for my computer restarting––this was probably one in the morning––with my feet on my chair so they wouldn’t be on the ground. I would warm my hands on a lamp so I could keep typing and using the mouse with fingerless gloves like Bob Cratchit or something, like we couldn’t afford any coal or anything. [Laughs.]
And then the paste-up sessions were just crazy. It’d be the opposite in the summer. It’d be so hot everyone would be running around and we’re trying to get this done before the printer comes to pick it up. It’d be so hot we’d have our shirts off and we’d be dousing water on our heads. All the while we’d be waxing these pages down and cutting up stuff with X-Acto blades trying not to sweat on the pages. You were trying to move fast. It was like, “Oh my God, okay we went through the first section, now next are we going to start doing the features, and oh God is everything going to line up?” and we’d have to tile the pages so they line up and cut around them, so then half the page is crooked. It got a little out of hand.
Then, when it got to the point where we would mail them files––we’d always be rushing to FedEx––that was always one of the funniest things. There was a time when Jonah Bayer––he was Reviews Editor at the time––we would literally grab the CD (Norman would be burning the PDFs on a CD) [and] now we had to rush them to get to the last FedEx in town that was open at the airport like, right on the runway. We would literally run downstairs, run to the car, and then my car wouldn’t start.
We took my car, and when I went around a corner I clipped the curb and it flattened my tire. So, I left my car there because we had 15 minutes to get to FedEx. I ran back, grabbed Jonah, and said, “I need someone’s car. We gotta get there.” So, Jonah was like, “Just drive my car.” His car was a little white Geo Metro, like some terrible white sedan. Absolutely roach. And we drove that car as fast as it would go and I literally put my foot in the door when they were trying to close so I could get the files out. I was just like, “How do we do this every single issue?” We could never, ever get it done ahead of time. It was always burn CDs, hurry, and then run into FedEx to get it out on time. The downside to being in art and production is that you’re at the last of the line. The only one behind you is the printer. Everything unfinished does flow downhill. [Laughs.]
Are there any original designs or thematic elements you’ve developed from the early days that you still incorporate into the magazine today?
Wow, that’s a really tough one. It seems like its changed so much. My aesthetic grew out of industrial and just Cleveland itself. When we were brought up, that was the kind of music we were into at the time, and that was the influence. It was weird because there were a lot of influences at the time and a lot of things that we liked, but things were [trying to be] very pretty and very artful, very lush and very layered looking––that’s the kind of stuff we always tried to do––but realistically, things turned out more raw and distressed. Those were the two sort of components we were creating.
However, just because it was industrial, didn’t mean it had to use gears. I always liked an abstract way to create something that wasn’t “it” in a clichéd way. Just because it’s black, just because it’s punk rock, doesn’t mean it has to have random letters. Just because it’s industrial doesn’t mean it has to have gears and factory textures. We used those things at times, but a lot of times we’d like to use them out of context. It’s still very a pop thing, where everything has kind of a pop vibe. We were trying not to make it a parody of a band and just present information in a more professional way. It wasn’t like we were designing an album cover for every feature; we were trying to find a unified style throughout. But, any time we wanted to diverge from that, we would.
I still think that those are the roots. We like to do things very lush and very full and really activate a band, and there’s a lot of stuff we like to do very stark and more clean as well. All of that comes through, and of course, stuff constantly changes. The nice thing about the consistency of it and having such a small staff, whenever we would get bored with it, we instantly would change it.
Looking back over the span of your career at AP, is there any one particular issue or cover or piece of work you’ve done that you’re most proud of?
Oh, definitely. There’s so many, it’s kind of tough. You can’t separate the design without obsessing with the photography, you know? I took over photo editing in 2010 when Norman moved on. He’s the creative director at Warner Bros. in L.A. now, so he went straight from AP to Warner Bros. That was always big for AP … it comes out of that fanzine sect. The photography is everything. As a designer, it will always be an anchor on a string and the ultimate focus, and that would be because I worked with Norman for so long, and of course, that was important to him. But it was also important to the bands, having that wallpaper, having that image was such a big thing. Collaborating with so many artists, and also creative people—I mean, that’s what every real artist lives for. That positive, excited, kinetic collaboration, and that’s true with us and our photographers, and us as designers, but also us and the artists.
A perfect example, and probably one of the most interesting, was the design for Marilyn Manson. That was when we did three different covers. We had one where school kids were polishing his boots and doing his nails, and another where he looked like a dejected prom queen, and the other one where he had the eye makeup with a mask across it. I forget what that’s derived from, but Marilyn himself was so creative that it was a boon for the photographer and for us.
When you have great photos, it’s like you can’t go wrong. We’d get the photos in and that excitement would generate all the way through the layouts and onto the pages. So, it was like hyper-collaboration, and that’s the best. Those were always our strongest things. You’d have super-simple parts where a photographer could get access to a movie set, and give us this really serious, really awesome opportunity to do something cool and creative as opposed to some band standing in front of a brick wall.
It gets to a level where you work so hard on stuff, and you spend so much time, poured so much into it, and you had the passion and took the extra steps and now where is it? Mike probably has a pack of ten of them in his office, and the rest of them, who knows where they are? Or do they even exist? There’s a temporary kind of quality. It’s not like a newspaper or something like that, that has a little more presence … you spend so much time working on it, and then where is it? You’re like, “Why did I make myself so crazy about it?” But, you get so caught up in it, just having that kind of excitement and passion and having somewhere that you can use that, I mean, that’s sort of a dream job. Not sort of. It absolutely is a dream job. alt