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Fast Company’s creative directors describe how we got that FC look over 25 years

The four creative directors in Fast Company’s 25-year history share their inspiration and ideas for FC’s distinctive visual style.

Fast Company’s creative directors describe how we got that FC look over 25 years
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Much like music and art, graphic design is a sign of the times.

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It always solves a current problem at hand.

Since the launch of Fast Company in 1995, the world of business has seen its ups and downs, and as a result, our design has evolved to help readers through that change.

I distinctly remember seeing my first issue of Fast Company at Tower Records, back when I was in art school in the early 2000s. At the time, the newsstand was monolithic, and magazines were a great design resource for a student. While the shelves were full of celebrity-driven covers screaming for a consumer’s attention, Fast Company stood out. Sure, the cover was typographic and loud, yet it felt like it was speaking to me, and not over me. As a student, this taught me the power of graphic design: It could enable a reader to actually feel a message at a deeper level.

Since that moment at Tower Records, Fast Company has remained a design inspiration through its innovative use of photography, illustration, and type. So, when I joined the team as creative director, I felt the responsibility of the position. To celebrate our 25th anniversary, I asked each of those creative directors who influenced me to explain how the times inspired them.

Patrick Mitchell, 1995-2003

[Illustration: Christoph Niemann]

When we launched in 1995, business media was pretty much Fortune and Forbes. Both publications celebrated rich white guys in expensive suits. We were born to change that.

At first we struggled with what a magazine about “the new economy” should look like. But after somewhat mixed results in the first few issues, we arrived at the look and feel that would carry us through the early years. FC was a magazine that celebrated ideas. The big, bold, and crazy ideas that were changing the world.

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Our covers, topped by the iconic logo Roger Black created for a prototype printed two years before the launch, became posters for the revolution, featuring typography that amplified the themes of the new economy:

Free Agent Nation
It’s the People, Stupid
Quit Your Job
Design a Life That Works
The Brand Called You

We also had an unwritten rule that the magazine should actually “talk” to our readers. Display type was very conversational and inclusive. We tried to get the word “you” on every cover.

In a short time, due to an incredible tidal wave of advertising, we found ourselves producing 400-page issues every month. The first time it happened, we leaned into it: The cover headline was “The Big Issue(s).”

Inside the magazine, the goal was to sustain the energy and have some fun. Typography was always a big part of the design. A great quote is much more powerful than a spot illustration. To us they were art.

Alan Webber and Bill Taylor, the founding editors, used to tell people that FC was “Fortune meets Rolling Stone.”

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Alan devised these design guidelines:

  • Always look for ways to “ratchet up the caffeine.”
  • Every issue should leave readers with more energy after they’ve read it than they had before they read it.
  • Magazines are performances. Think of every issue as an album (you remember albums?). What’s the big hit? The slow number? The hard rocking song? The iconic cover?
  • Magazines are conversations. We should be the first word in the conversation, not the last.
  • Magazines are packages. Look for ways to bundle, combine, and produce a package of ideas and practices—what if a magazine was delivered to your home as “ideas in a box”? What would be in the box?
  • People before they’re famous, ideas before they’re safe.

Dean Markadakis, 2003-2010

New editor-in-chief John Byrne and I had worked together at BusinessWeek (when Fast Company was still more or less a startup), producing 256-page issues weekly (the maximum capacity for a stapled magazine). By the time John hired me at Fast Company in 2003, the business landscape had changed dramatically—and it all happened so quickly. The focus of the magazine changed as well to reflect this new reality. While still a magazine about bold ideas and innovation, it became more of an explicit service magazine, helping readers build back from the ruins of the dot-com bust. We came up with a new tagline—”How Smart People Work”—and created a new logo that was more evocative of the original one, making it a bit friendlier and more familiar.

We rethought the front-of-book sections, adding more actionable, easily digestible shorter elements, always conceived with the new tagline in mind. Feature stories changed as well, incorporating more sidebars and entry points, making the magazine feel more like an indispensable tool than a purely entertaining read.

The one constant, though, was bold, compelling, simple type treatments. Type was always a critical component of Fast Company‘s message, but in the new business climate, it conveyed a heightened sense of urgency. It was often black and all-caps, commanding but not quite shouting. Words often bled off the edges of the pages, and were framed by swathes of white space. Illustrations were almost diagrammatical, helping readers navigate complicated stories about business in a now quickly recovering economy.

Nearing the middle of the decade, the economy was by all accounts booming, and the magazine became more focused on the personalities leading the recovery rather than broad concepts. Covers were always people-focused, less conceptual, and we began seeing more celebrities in the mix. The paper stock got heavier, the stable of photographers more exclusive, and the overall “glossy” quality of the magazine got kicked up a few notches. Typography began to soften somewhat, with delicate serifs evoking hope and opportunity added to the mix, rather than the cutthroat urgency of black-weight all-caps wide sans serifs and imposing slabs. Even as another catastrophic financial crisis began to decimate the economy, the magazine held steady, again being an indispensable tool for those looking to rebuild.

Florian Bachleda, 2010–2018

[Photo: Eric Ogden]
In late 2010, our philosophy was based on recognizing that Fast Company was a different type of business brand for a different moment in time. Especially after the financial crisis, many believed that the goal of business shouldn’t be solely about the pursuit of high stock prices and profits, but rather about embracing innovation and creativity (the iPhone was only three years old).

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This editorial mission inspired experimental approaches that ultimately resulted in a restrained palette of graphic devices and a nontraditional use of photography and illustration.

In addition to that, we hired Christian Schwartz to create two custom typefaces: FC Kaiser and FC Zizou. The faces have multiple weights, which gave us both a nice variety and a strong consistency. Kaiser was often used for covers and display type, and Zizou was the refined compliment to its bolder sibling. By relying solely on these two families, we avoided any “skeuomorphic” typographic gimmicks (no tech stories with computerized-looking fonts or education stories with handwritten fonts).

Our palette of graphic devices consisted of gradients, slashes, long horizontal rules, and “stepped” gradients (a combination of different vertical rule widths to suggest a gradient). They were all employed to suggest a sense of graphic motion, but also as connective tissue for a unified tone to the magazine—as well as the brand.

Our photography and illustration approach was to reject the notion of business visuals confined to conference rooms and corner offices. We tried to never represent a person, a company, or a product as they were typically shown. This often resulted in placing subjects in unusual environments, but mostly meant selecting photographers and illustrators that were often unexpected choices, and we counted on these fresh perspectives in our overall philosophy.

Perhaps the most valuable factor was the trust placed in us by our editor-in-chief Bob Safian. He always supported us, granted us a tremendous amount of freedom, and maybe most importantly, always encouraged us to take risks. He truly lived the Fast Company mission, and we were incredibly fortunate to work with him.

Mike Schnaidt, 2018–present

[Photo: Shaniqwa Jarvis]

In 2018, editor-in-chief Stephanie Mehta and I sat down for a beer at Fast Company staff favorite, The Wooly. We were both relative newbies to the brand but longtime fans of Fast Company. Great design always starts with a conversation, and we drew our line in the sand with a chat about how much has changed since the publication’s launch. Over the past 25 years, Fast Company taught us the value of innovation, ideas, and how to put them into action. Technology has accelerated our productivity to breakneck speeds. But now, readers are less spellbound over the devices that propel them, and in search for greater purpose. That’s what brings them joy. During our conversation, it became clear this human-centered approach would be the visual focus for this new era.

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Fast Company has always celebrated work that matters. In fact, they inscribed it on one of my favorite covers, in November 2001. In order to celebrate our current state of purpose-driven work, we looked back for inspiration. Typography is core to Fast Company‘s voice, and we refined the conversational tone of the early-era design for current times. We wanted the type to be playful—sometimes loud, other times quiet, and always in response to the content. In a similar vein, we placed a strong emphasis on a diverse mix of photography and illustration, so each issue is the perfect visual playlist. By allowing the look of Fast Company to have different moods, it feels more human.

From the very beginning, Fast Company spoke directly to readers. When you’re on a call with someone, their voice takes a lighter tone while smiling. You don’t need to see them to know they’re having a good time. The same joy shows through in pixels and paper. We find great purpose in the medium of visual storytelling, and want that to show through every time someone engages with the website, magazine, or an event. This in turn creates a feedback loop and tells readers that we have equal joy for the work we do.