The Magazine Whisperer

Kent B. Van Cleave

All right, my title is pretty far over the top. But I am proud of the unusually creative solutions I found to key production problems while editing the Mensa Bulletin on contract(s) for American Mensa, the famous "high IQ" society.

Lest this seem like gratuitous bragging, the primary function of this web page is "partial professional portfolio." With a background as checkered ... umm, maybe that should be "pointillistic" ... as mine, it's important to convey the personal qualities that have reliably combined to produce extraordinary results in various contexts. As my mom always said, "you have to toot your own horn." That's worked out fairly well for me ever since I got my first trumpet in 5th grade....

I edited the Mensa Bulletin back in the late 1980s and early '90s -- when desktop publishing software was just emerging, and the Internet was still an academic novelty (folks typically used Compuserve, AOL, and Delphi back then for email, websites, and file exchange). Some of my innovations hardly qualified as ingenious; they were obvious uses of the new technology, such as coordinating communications with my editorial team, including submissions of columns and posting edited versions, at an official account on the Delphi service. But some other ideas were definitely out of the ordinary.

The Bulletin had a pretty tight production budget, and it allowed for covers printed only with black ink plus one "spot" color for accents. But I really wanted to deliver the sort of snazzy product that magazines using 4-color covers could manage. There are only so many ways you can use a single extra color along with your black to make your cover look a bit spiffier (some pretty cool ... but there's nothing like full color). How could I break out of such limitations? The answer came when I considered that I was using two colors of ink, and that maybe black didn't need to be one of them. WHAT? Everybody uses black! But, having some experience as an artist, I knew that you could produce black by mixing other colors. And if you picked two complementary colors (on opposite sides of the "color wheel"), you could get a wonderful range of other colors -- browns, grays, and even flesh tones! At its best, this technique makes readers wonder how you managed to pick photos all having the same color pallette. The two covers shown at right were printed in blue/orange (top) and red/green (bottom). I don't know about you, but my brain tends to insist that the huge U.S./Canadian flag cake shown there contains actual RED. It doesn't.

Another production challenge for the Bulletin was how to minimize typesetting costs and hassles. I was sending ASCII text files of editorial contents to our typesetter by modem (can you say, "1200 baud"?), and they would add formatting according to our standing styles for typefaces, fonts, sizes, etc. That was a lot of work, and cost much more than I liked. So I asked a bit about how they did the job ... and found out they used a system of codes I could simulate on my own computer. I designed my own economical set of codes to apply before sending in my files. At their end, they'd just do search-and-replace and, voilą! All finished but for some fine tweaking. Now, most folks would have just assumed that typesetting was too complicated to take a direct hand in -- at least until desktop publishing became more widespread. I have to say it was pretty great years later to typeset entire pages from PageMaker onto my cutting-edge 1000-d.p.i. LaserMaster printer!

Sometimes a good idea is missed because people assume that the best options have probably already been implemented. I asked myself if there was some kind of column that would be of special interest to our readers that wasn't already part of our mix ... and realized we hadn't addressed what was perhaps the greatest complaint Mensans had in common! To paraphrase, "So much to read; so little time!"

Thus was born the column "SuppleMentally" (originally proposed under the title "Concentrate"). [Yeah, I do puns almost as regularly as most folks breathe air....] The column was just a digest -- a summary of articles with some claim to being on one cutting edge or another, usually involving science or technology. I often wondered if the write-ups we did of many articles from Science News ever cut into their subscription base ... or recruited them readers. Probably some of each. I think it was around the end of the '80s when I stopped worrying about their bottom line because I thought political correctness was diluting their commitment to real science, and I started calling them "Sigh and Snooze." They're probably better now. "SuppleMentally" took off like crazy and is still running after more than two decades, apparently as popular as ever.

Editing the Mensa Bulletin was the most fun and stimulating job I've ever had. I hope and expect other things I've done and will do in the future are a lot more important in the grand scheme of things, but I felt the kind of connection with my readers that a good jazz musician (OK, I've done a lot of that, too) feels with an audience.