Student Projects Explore Publishing Through Design

Research Matters writer Cailin Potami reflects on the work they and their classmates completed in a course that helps make the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program unique.

What would a gossip magazine by houseplants, for houseplants look like? How can people bridge gaps with their families that span generations, nations, and languages? How do we create communal music spaces when we can’t be in the same space? These are just a few questions that guided students’ final projects in the Fall 2020 Design and the Future of Publishing class at The New School for Social Research.  

Design and the Future of Publishing

The class was born in 2014, two years after Jim Miller, Professor of Liberal Studies and Politics first approached Juliette Cezzar, Associate Professor of Communication Design, with an idea for a course that would bring together MA students from Liberal Studies at NSSR and from Communication Design at Parsons School of Design.

“It was like a dream come true for me,” Cezzar recounts, “because I really felt like communication design students needed to work with non-designers and know more about what it was that they were doing beyond aesthetic concerns.” Students spent half the semester on theory, and the other half working in pairs to design prototypes of design projects.

In 2016, Design and the Future of Publishing became a core course in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program, which Miller directs. With more CPCJ students requesting more time to study design, Cezzar now offers two variations on the course: one in the fall, tailored to non-design students, and one in the spring for both non-design and Parsons students.

“I have a real love for designing classes and for thinking about how different kinds of students can come together,” Cezzar says. “Who’s in the class makes the difference.”

The course still begins with a focus on theory, with lectures and texts on design principles and history, as well as the idea of publishing and the state of the industry. After seven weeks, students are asked to come up with at least six ideas for creative projects that center design, creativity, and iteration, not marketability, presenting students with a rare opportunity for full creative freedom.

Creating a Music Scene in Quarantine

Since COVID-19 lockdowns began, Maya Bouvier-Lyons, a CPCJ student, has been missing live music. Livestreamed shows lack the ephemera that helps foster human connection. “I initially wanted to make a zine version of the playlist experience,” Bouvier-Lyons says. Cezzar challenged her to think about why that idea matters in this particular moment. “That’s when I started thinking about how to incorporate a live music experience into this publication,” Bouvier-Lyons says.

Setlist zine gives New York-based bands a space to connect with listeners on a personal level, even as live music remains impossible.

 Setlist, a New York City-based zine, will feature new artists in each issue.  Artists will “write in their own handwriting and their own words about their songs, which they choose to feature, and the role that place has played in the creation and life of each song.” Digital elements, like screengrabs of text messages, bring the zine style into the current moment. After the release of each issue, featured bands will perform via livestream on the Setlist Instagram account.

The design of Setlist incorporates photos from shows, the artists’ handwriting, and screenshots of actual text messages.

Bouvier-Lyons hopes that the performances, alongside the zine, can evoke some of the real-life concert butterflies. “[My project] asks questions about how we can use design and publishing to recreate and emulate a real-life experience of community,” Bouvier-Lyons reflects. She hopes to continue publishing the zine. “I had fun putting it together and seeing what it can be. I’m excited about the zine changing with each artist in a way that’s personal to them.”

Exploring Home, Language, and Loss

When her grandmother passed away, Simran Narwani felt a distinct loss of not only of her relative, but of the world that she carried; her homeland, pre-partition Pakistan. “All my poetry grew around this theme, because I will never have a chance to go back to my ancestral home,” she shares. “One of my great-aunts went back, and she said there were only pieces of rock left—there’s nothing of what we left behind. There’s no shadow of it. That hit me hard, and I wanted to get that experience shared.”

Stories from Somewhere is a powerful meditation on language and lineage, combining the languages spoken by its contributors with the languages spoken by their grandparents.

A Media Studies MA student, Narwani saw this project as an opportunity to honor the stories of her family and families like hers. Course feedback helped Narwani expand the project — a book entitled Stories of Somewhere — to young people from across India with similar experiences, and to consider new kinds of forms. She wanted to incorporate letters because their tangibility feels more permanent and more personal than digital formats. Plus, the human texture of letters appealed to her from a design perspective: “I want to see bad handwriting and good handwriting. I want to see your personality!” But when people felt uncomfortable writing letters, she turned to Instagram, asking instead for photographs and stories that “connect you to your childhood…your grandparents…your people.”

Handwritten notes link the past to the present in Stories from Somewhere.

The stories that emerged were complex, exposing grandparents’ flaws and their strengths. “Maybe I don’t know my people from way back when, maybe I don’t understand them,” Narwani says. “But I do know that the fact that we were able to pick up and adapt and make our own element of home everywhere, I think is a vital takeaway.”

The Secret Lives of Plants

CPCJ MA student Jessie Mokhami began thinking about her prototype while comparing gossip magazines for an earlier assignment.  Initially, she pitched a houseplant gossip magazine as a throwaway idea for the final project, but Cezzar encouraged her to push the concept further, and ask: What could it really look like for a gossip magazine to be about the social life of something we don’t perceive to have a social life?

The Dirt is a loving exploration of the “celebrity gossip magazine” form.

Mohkami developed The Dirt, a 20-page gossip magazine complete with a letter from the editor, horoscopes, and a “who wore it better” section.

“I’m really looking to explore the format and design layout of a gossip magazine, but really play with it.” The iteration process involved adding lots of color, layering images, and playing with loud fonts. While the prototype is mainly just pictures of plants and lorem ipsum filler text, “I’m trying to emulate a gossip magazine and make readers really feel that it’s exactly that,” Mohkami says.

Bright colors, flashy fonts, and photos of plants adorn the pages of gossip mag staples like “Who wore it better?”

The Opposite of Productivity

Under the best of circumstances, the pressure to lead a productive life stokes my anxiety. Amid a global pandemic, that pressure feels downright absurd — yet it has not wavered. For the course, I, also a CPCJ MA student, channeled that anxiety into a 2021 “Anti-Planner,” designed to minimize productivity and maximize stress.

The Anti-Planner subverts the qualities people most value about planners by scrambling layouts and minimizing the space to write.

I developed my design by polling people on Instagram about their ideal planners and subverting all their responses. Instead of ample space to write, the Anti-Planner incorporates tiny spaces, black pages, and a second-person narrator taking up some spaces. Instead of a clear, consistent depiction of time, the Anti-Planner tries to reflect the subjective experience of time, with days and weeks bleeding into each other, seven Tuesdays sometimes strung together, and to-do lists with tasks longer than the days themselves. I used QR codes to incorporate digital elements in some pages and designed accompanying sticker sheets for others. With an entire year’s worth of space to work with, I could indulge my quirkiest ideas as long as I could find a way to get them on the page.

The Anti-Planner’s design plays with the subjective experience of time–some weeks collapse into themselves, some repeat, and some fall apart.

Like Mohkami’s The Dirt, the Anti-Planner was not my initial choice; the task of creating 52 spreads seemed too intimidating. However, Cezzar and my classmates encouraged me, seeing potential in the project. The class’s collaborative environment, where everyone had investment in everyone else’s work, made an enormous difference. The final design incorporated ideas from almost everyone in the class.

Learning by Design

Design as a discipline, Cezzar contends, offers a wealth of opportunities for education and growth, even for non-designers. Every creative process “from making music to fitting a pipe” depends on the same steps: developing an idea, doing research, iterating on that idea, developing a prototype, and integrating feedback. The class offers a space to practice those steps and, importantly, to practice failure and patience.

“Learning design is a way for people to indirectly confront hesitation about learning technology, about learning about ideas, about learning how to read and write. People don’t study design because they’re great at these things. A significant number of students come into the classroom really hesitant about it, Cezzar says. “I think it’s really good for some students to understand that new skills are not closed forever. You can actually learn anything you want, as long as you are able to kind of get past feeling so embarrassed about not knowing something that you can’t continue learning.”


Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguine and Tortellini.