The Interview Series // 43

Brendan McKnight (http://twitter NULL.com/hellobrendan) is the fresh-faced editor of Desktop (http://www NULL.desktopmag NULL.com NULL.au/) magazine. At just 26, the magazine is almost older than him – but that hasn’t stopped him. Since stepping up from Online Editor, he pitched a new vision for the mag, which centred around a celebration of the ‘culture of design’. We’d tell you more of the juicy goss, but Brendan swore us to secrecy when we caught up with him amid the craziness of the unveiling of the first issue. Which, by the way, goes on sale next Wednesday. Fact: Brendan watched Press Gang (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Press_Gang) as a kid — so, for all you Lynda Day (http://www NULL.yoyo NULL.org/pressgang/images/slides/lynda NULL.gif) wannabe’s, Brendan’s gonna show you the way!

Junior: Hey Brendan! What’s your background? Uni degree? Where was the house you grew up in — tell us all that stuff.

Brendan: I grew up in the western suburbs of Melbourne, and once year 12 had finished, I moved to the big smoke (West Footscray) and began a bachelor of Fine Arts/Media Arts at RMIT. There I dabbled with a bit of animation and video art, but mostly focused on installation and ‘non-linear’ work. My graduate project was called ‘Brendan McKnight’s Incredible Moving Image Wishing Machine’, which was this hectic coin-operated machine I built, inspired by those whacky contraptions the dad makes in ‘Honey! I Shrunk the Kids’. This was shown in a group exhibition I curated as part of the 2005 Melbourne Fringe Festival.

Jr: Then what?

B: After graduating I packed my bags and headed for Tanzania in East Africa where I helped to develop an arts curriculum in a secondary school, whilst also teaching English to classes of 50 beautifully spirited and eager students. I also managed to do some other fun things like climb Mt Kilimanjaro, white water raft down the Nile and go on a safari. Fast forward six months and I rocked up in London with no job, no contacts and about £500 to my name.

Jr: Being poor sucks. What did you do to survive?

After six months working in a call centre, I landed a gig as the creative assistant to the Chief Creative Officer (Tim Greenhalgh) of international design studio FITCH (http://www NULL.fitch NULL.com/), which at the time was still being headed up by Rodney Fitch (appointed Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1990 for his ‘influence on the British Design Industry’). Whilst I wasn’t directly working for Rodney, I did work very closely with him throughout my stay at FITCH.

Jr: We googled Rodders, he sure does have a lot of little letters after his name. What was it like to work closely with such an industry great?

B: It was pretty fantastic, although in hindsight I probably took it a bit for granted and perhaps should have utilised his knowledge more. Hearing Rodney speak, even just around the office was quite inspiring, he was quite old school and traditional, but a very clever thinker. At that time the recession was starting to hit, but it was almost just another day for him as he had been through a few before. Rodney obviously came from a time when there were no computers and thus his mentality was never about technology — and always very concept, consumer and ideas based. The evolution of design education was also something he heavily believed in – he was Governor of the University of the Arts London from 1989 to 2007.

You can read a little more about my initial struggle to find a job here (http://www NULL.desktopmag NULL.com NULL.au/blogs/londons-calling/).

I left FITCH after a year to do a cycle trip across Germany, and when back in London started sourcing and taking on a whole bunch of freelance writing work. I’d always been interested in writing as a kid, but it all kicked off again about then. I put my name out there and tried to get as much work as I could, and ended up writing for a range of blogs and magazines including Dazed, Vanity Fair and also writing on-and-off for thecoolhunter.net (http://thecoolhunter NULL.net) for about three years. Although most of these were unpaid, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today without them, and I scored some incredible travel experiences along the way. I have a pretty mean snow globe collection to prove it.

Jr: It seems writing for publications for free is a bit of a rite of passage for all young writers. But knowing when to draw the line is also important. At what point did you stop doing freebies?

B: Yes I absolutely agree that it is important to draw the line, but it’s always going to be difficult deciding just where that line should be drawn. It sounds easy (it’s not), but I suppose you need to weigh it all up; is what you are getting in return (freebies, exposure, experience etc) worth the amount of time you are putting in – or are you just being taken for a ride? For me, I had a full time job on the side, so the money wasn’t a massive issue, and the writing work I was doing was something I enjoyed. The perks were pretty great, as was the experience and the exposure. I had never studied journalism or writing, so it was all one big learning curve for me.

Jr: You’re 26. You must have grown up watching Press Gang (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=E-uOKWWYl1I). Did you ever watch it and think you’d be an editor of a publication like Lynda Day?

B: Ahh, the good ol’ Junior Gazette. The Press Gang wikipedia page describes Lynda as ‘brittle, very fierce, no empathy and very cruel to the people around her’. I hope my colleagues do not see any comparison! Actually growing up, all during uni and even up until very recently, I wasn’t at all sure about which career path I would take. I had a strong interest and good eye for art and design, but did not want to be a designer. I loved writing and research and was a bit of a culture junkie, but was uncertain as to how my skill set would all fit into place.

Jr: Tell us how you started out at Desktop and about your journey to become editor of the entire mag?

B: After working for a year with the trends and insights team at Nokia Design in Soho, I’d clocked up four years of living overseas — and so decided to call it a day and head back to Melbourne. I arrived a few days before Christmas 2009 and really had no clue about what I wanted to do with my life and which direction I should take things in. I was scared again that even with all my experience in London I would end up working in a café or call centre. Searching through Seek one night, I was applying for any jobs that sounded vaguely interesting and came across a listing to be the online editor for Desktop, a magazine I remembered reading at uni. I applied for the job at 2am on the Monday morning, was called in for an interview on the Wednesday, and by the following Monday I was in the office starting my first day. I spent eight months working as the online editor and features writer, and in September was promoted to editor.

Jr: Was editor always the goal? Why do you think they promoted you?

B: I didn’t have the goal of editor in my immediate sight, as I thought I’d be in the online role for a while longer. However having said that, the editor role was of course the next natural progression. The previous editor (who had been there for 4 years) moved on, and so I applied for the editor position – it wasn’t a given that I would instantly be promoted to the role by default. The publishers were looking for someone who could give the title a revamp, I put together my vision, and they liked it.

Jr: What advice do you have for those of us keen to progress up the foodchain?

B: Work hard and prove yourself. In my online role I was already putting together about a quarter to a third of the magazine each month, so the publishers knew I was a hard worker, well organised and could look after the title. Try to take on some of the work of the role above yours, challenge yourself, be genuinely nice and interested in those above you and ask questions.

Jr: What plans do you have for Desktop now that you’ve taken the reigns?

B: The relaunched Desktop goes on sale next Wednesday, and it is a completely new offering. Over the past five months I’ve met up with countless designers as well as run a focus group and readers’ survey to try and get as much feedback as possible. The response was overwhelming and it was a challenging yet exciting time for me and my team to mould and shape the magazine into the new format that you will see on newsstand next week. From the design point of view, you can expect a much nicer looking magazine, perfect bound, uncoated stock, up to 100 pages (from 84) with a clean structured template. Editorial wise, the content is more sophisticated, inquisitive and rather than only showing finished works, the new Desktop is about ‘the culture of design’. The readers get to find out a bit more about the people behind the work, their backgrounds, ethos, mentors, inspirations and opinions. Plus we have some really great local and international designers and academics that will be writing for us throughout the year. On top of this, each issue has a pull-out poster, designed by a different designer/studio each month.

Jr: For those of our readers who want to write for publications like Desktop, tell them what not to do. What mistakes do people commonly make that could ruin their chances?

B: Instead of just sending your CV through with examples of your past writing, actually write an article suitable for that particular publication and pitch it to the editors, or at least pitch a list of bullet-points of articles/angles you think would suit the publication. Do your research and make sure the topics are ‘on brand’ and have not been covered before. Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box a little bit. If the magazine has a strong online presence, then pitch some articles first to the online editor, as normally that is a great starting point. Most editors get hundreds of emails and press releases each day (I know I do), and they all start to blend in after a while. Be creative, stand out and don’t be afraid to pick up the phone.

Written by Junior
Originally posted on: 24/02/2011