You are here

An interview with Leo Jung on his sleek California dreamin'


man of many talents, Leo Jung continues to explore the limits of magazine design in the digital era. As the Creative Director of California Sunday Magazine, a publication that many have called the West Coast’s answer to New Yorker, San Francisco based Leo Jung’s vision of communication has been recognized by the Art Directors Club, Type Directors Club, and the Society of Publication Designers. This is a small talk we had with the former design director at Wired and deputy art director at The New York Times Magazine.The man who is responsible for a start-up experiment of many prospects. 

Please tell us a little bit about yourself: who are you, where do you come from and where are you going?

Hi! My name is Leo. I was born in a small town outside of Montreal, but grew up and spent most of my life in Toronto. Over the last nine years I’ve worked in the U.S. — five of them in New York and the last four have been in lovely San Francisco. I am the creative director for California Sunday Inc., a media company, that includes The California Sunday Magazine and Pop-Up Magazine. 

What was your first job ever?

I was lucky enough to start my design career at a brilliantly creative (and still very much so after many years) Toronto-based studio called Concrete. It didn’t occur to me then that the projects and the people would leave a very lasting impression on my growth as a designer. It was a post art school education unlike any other. The less interesting answer is my first job as kitchen help at a rotisserie chicken restaurant in Toronto back when I was a teenager. 

What’s been the biggest turning point in your career so far?

Back in 2006, I moved to New York to work for The New York Times Magazine. Needless to say it was a completely eye opening experience. Aside from working for the most renowned news organization in the world, I was jumping from the quiet suburbs of Toronto to the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. It was life changing on many levels. I love Toronto and it will always be home — but there’s no other place in the world quite like New York City. The design community is incredibly big but surprisingly small at the same time. I was meeting designers whom I admired and only knew by name in design annuals. It was the design version of meeting Hollywood celebrities. I realized they were actually people. Real people -- like you and me. Becoming a part of that community does wonders to build confidence in what you do and motivates you to become better.

California Sunday Magazine was a challenge unlike any other. For the first time, I didn’t have the reputation of a company to define me. The blank canvas was as scary as it was exciting

What’s been your worst moment?

I don’t find it healthy to dwell on bad times. I’ve had my share of bumps in the road and the truth is they needed to happen in order for me to be where I am today. It’s about how you bounce back and not letting those moments define you. 

What’s been your finest moment?

I’m very lucky to be able to say I’ve had many. And every time I think it’s as good as it’s going to get, something bigger happens. As of right now? Putting out the debut issue of The California Sunday Magazine. The whole team has very high ambitions for this title and we are working very hard to make sure that it lives up to everything that it can be. As time passes, I hope the answer to this question will change — and often. 

Why did you decide to join the California Sunday Magazine start up?

Douglas McGray, one of the founders and brilliant minds behind Pop-Up Magazine approached me with a very intriguing proposition — a national magazine for the west coast. I realized that this was the opportunity that I was waiting for. It was a challenge unlike any other — head up the creative for a brand new magazine for print, digital, and live events. Oh, and build it from the ground up. Its potential was as big as I wanted it to be. Its creative vision would be mine to define. That’s not something any already-renowned magazine could ever really offer. For the first time, I didn’t have the reputation of a company to define me. The blank canvas was as scary as it was exciting.

Respecting the rules of graphic design and knowing when to break them is the best skill you can develop

What are your hopes and vision for it?

From the very beginning, Doug had always described wanting the magazine to be very visual and cinematic. That puts a lot of weight on the imagery to tell the stories. Working with my incomparable photo director, Jacqueline Bates, we’ve been able to define a look to our imagery that feels real, intimate, and engaging. Great photographs can convey so much information in terms of setting, mood, and emotion that the challenge lies in how you present that information in a way that best coincides with the narrative arc of the story. From a visual standpoint, the imagery (photography and illustration) is the most important. It gets the most real estate. The design is obviously important to me as well, but more secondary. You’ll notice the design more when it needs to be, but often times the imagery will do all the heavy lifting for me. Surprise is always an objective. The beauty of a general interest title is that you get to cover stories from a whole range of topics. That allows us to have an artful photo essay about the US-Mexico border in the same issue as a story on Cambodian-owned doughnut shops in California. Similarly, this is an opportunity for the imagery and design to be different as well. We try to avoid boring and expected. 

Which commercial typefaces to you use and why?

When I set out to find a workhorse typeface for the magazine, I knew I wanted to find one that:

1. not many designers were using

2. felt appropriate for California

3. was versatile enough to be used for serious and fun stories

4. did not compete or look similar to the logo

I found that wonderful balance in Foro Rounded, a beautiful typeface designed by Dieter Hofrichter. When you look closely at this typeface, or any of his typefaces for that matter, you’ll notice how beautifully crafted they are. The letterforms, the ligatures, the small caps, the proportional old style numbers, and the vast array of weights all make you realize how comprehensive and considered the typeface was when it was designed. The use of a rounded slab serif as the main typeface seemed refreshing to me as well — not so serious, casual, but intelligent. Very California. I really love it. It feels modern without being trendy. I really had to trust my gut when I chose Foro. It’s not like everyone was using it and it wasn’t a face that everyone was talking about. Sometimes you need that reassurance to feel good about the choices you make. For what I was looking for though, it felt and looked perfect. I needed to trust that. After that, it seemed natural to try out some of Dieter’s other typefaces to pair with Foro. I landed on Sina Nova for the body text. I thought it had character without drawing too much attention to itself. The last thing you want to do when reading a story is be distracted by what a typeface looks like. For a generic sans, I chose Equip. It had a nice neutral feel reminiscent of Avenir and Gill Sans. It gave me a simpler typeface to work with whenever Foro felt too fussy to use.  

The use of a rounded slab serif as the main typeface seemed refreshing to me — not so serious, casual, but intelligent. Very California. I really love it

You’ve featured some fantastic graphic design work while working for The New York Times Magazine and Wired. Bold typography combined with strong imagery et al. How would you describe your approach to typography and the kind of lettering you like to feature?

Good typography and design are incredibly powerful tools. Combined with imagery, they can be even more powerful. My general design approach is one that’s responsive rather than premeditated. For example, I don’t set out to do a giant headline in every issue. As much as I love big, bold, graphic type, it isn’t always appropriate. I take my cues from the tone of the stories themselves which also informs how we want to set them up for our readers when they first see it. 

If there is one fundamental editorial/typographic gesture that gives a magazine its identity, which one is it?

Sticking to two or three typefaces for everything — and not straying from it. 

So is there any real “science of editorial design”? Do you believe a designer should follow an organized, methodical, and logical method for creating the overall design with absolute precision to templates, grids, layouts and kernings or thinking out of the box is the way it is?

I think every young designer should follow the grid religiously for the first five years of their career. Make them feel uneasy with any kind of misalignment or rule breaking. Once you do that, then tell them to break the grid. They’ll hesitate at first, but that’s the point. Respecting the rules and knowing when to break them is the best skill you can develop. And that doesn’t just apply to editorial design. 

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Follow the work, not the money.

Text by Loukas Karnis

Portrait by Jake Stangel