Is Eight by Eight “the magazine the beautiful game deserves,” as veteran designers Robert Priest and Grace Lee describe their soccer-themed quarterly? The designers are savvy enough to know that they couldn't create just another snazzy print publication—even one laser-focused on soccer—and expect everything to go swimmingly. The duo's design company Priest+Grace has received numerous awards and were critical to Newsweek’s recent re-entry into print. They've also worked with Esquire, GQ, ESPN, and Bloomberg. Eight by Eight—named after a soccer goal, eight feet tall by eight yards wide—debuted in late 2013.
They knew their third issue would have to be killer—it would showcase the World Cup, essentially the most popular sporting event in the world, and they'd have to compete with top talent at established publications to prove their mettle. What could they do that no one else could do better?
The design is, in a word, provocative. In that it trades in highly controlled excitement, it's a stylish blend of Businessweek and ESPN The Magazine—it has the playful layouts and typographic experiments of the former, and the big, bold art of the latter. Key to the design are the illustrations. Eight by Eight makes no bones about leaping into a more agitated and variable design aesthetic. Priest and Lee portray some of soccer's biggest personalities and story lines through sprawling and intricate illustrations that amp up the text. Text columns vary in width and number, and a slightly pop feel—with geometric sidebars and marginalia, and colorized text blurbs—defines what amounts to a vigorously calculated restlessness. Priest and Lee also experiment with typography, which often varies from one feature to the next.
It's refreshing to see Priest and Lee frequently opt for comics-inspired renderings rather than for photography. “We consider them like New Yorker cartoons,” Priest says. “They can be satire on the game—a reflection of life. And we can make a point with an illustration that can’t be made when a person is being photographed.” Some illustrations eat up the entire page, as do strikingly dramatic headshots, but other times there are empty spaces to ease the flow of reading.
Why this tactic? “We had to anticipate what everyone else was going to do,” Priest tells Co.Design, adding that ideas they thought were original were appearing in other publications. "So it’s a question of doing them better," Priest says. "We think the illustrations can do that.”
This is best embodied in the depiction of the 1982 semifinal between France and West Germany, the first game in the World Cup to go to penalty kicks to decide the winner. It's told as a comic strip, though the turns the traditionally boxy panels are rejiggered with jagged lines that move the scenes along visually. This technique does bring the game to life in way that's wonderfully immediate: "Injustice bleeds like a wound," the story goes, right before it settles on an image of a 10-year-old in Marseille, head hung while sitting on some backstreet stairs, next to a soccer ball, vowing that France's glory would come.
How did they tackle the World Cup issue itself?
Predicting the biggest stories of the tournament proved to be no easy task, Priest admits. “With the World Cup," for example, "a few players we predicted to have great moments have gotten injured,” Priest says.
But does their strategy—of catering to the stimuli-seeking eye—work in a crowded field, and satisfy fans? (Also, can the magazine itself sustain this approach in the long run?)
The cover subject for the World Cup issue is Argentine striker Sergio Aguero flying high above the pitch. Though Argentina is one of the tournament favorites, Priest says they didn’t want to take the easy route and pick Aguero's fellow countryman Lionel Messi: “We thought about who could assist Messi or get the assist from him and possibly recreate how he [Aguero] helped Manchester City win the 2012 Premier League title on the last day of the season,” Priest says.
While many of the illustrations in the magazine took just a revision or two to make it from idea to page, the cover is always (not surprisingly) a different story. Lee notes that since the founding of Eight by Eight, the team has wanted Mario Balotelli to be on the cover. The staff has a stack of Balotelli illustrations waiting. “We haven’t had the right moment yet,” Priest says. Initially, Balotelli was shown confronting his inner demons in a dark street with “Why Always You” painted on the wall, referring to one of Balo’s goal celebrations. “Our illustrator, Diego Patiño, has done probably 20 or 30 renditions of Balotelli," Lee adds. "So we’ll have one when we need it.”
In addition to ample sports commentary and a slew of favorite-player profiles, this issue angles in editorially in ways that are not just about the current moment. The editors have done a good job of putting the sport in its historical context while also giving it a rustic indie cultural appeal beyond the masses. That sensibility emerges in a fictional piece with diary entries by the filmmaker Werner Herzog in advance of his would-be FIFA-sponsored trip to Brazil to referee the England versus Italy game. (The game took place last weekend.) There's also a compellingly thoughtful spread called The Never-Ending Crash, with a Dürer-inspired illustration of the 1949 Torino plane crash that took out Torino F.C., "the defining team of the 1940s," led by the gifted Valentino Mazzola who, the article's author says, foreshadowed the universal player. (He scored 118 goals in 204 matches.)
Given that the World Cup is increasingly saturated with news coverage every four years, Priest and Grace have been savvy about incorporating the work of noted artists Diego Patiño, Yuko Shimizu, Roberto Parada, and Brian Cronin to give the magazine its distinct look. For now, anyway, we see the appeal: World Cup players and their colorful depictions leap off Eight by Eight’s page. The games, as we all know, have begun.