Since its founding in 2011, The Atavist Magazine has been a pioneer in digital storytelling, publishing one incredible true story every month. The recipient of many accolades, including nine National Magazine Award nominations and one win, Atavist shines as a space for in-depth longform journalism and elegant, thoughtful design.
In April 2021, the magazine moved to WordPress.com, joining the Newspack community of publishers. In this conversation, Atavist editor in chief Seyward Darby and art director Ed Johnson discuss the magazine’s unique legacy, the recent redesign, and the benefits of a Gutenberg-powered CMS.
Seyward Darby: For a decade, there were two parts of the Atavist’s business: There was the award-winning magazine, and there was the platform on which it was built — a CMS intended to support longform digital storytelling, which was available to subscribers around the world. Attention to design has always been a big part of the Atavist’s mission. Each story in the magazine is crafted to be sophisticated, immersive, and beautiful. Ed Johnson joined our team in 2019; he’s now the art director. Ed and I had worked together previously at another magazine, and I knew he would be a great fit and do awesome things for the publication.
Ed Johnson: The Atavist platform and The Atavist Magazine were always really interesting to me. Working in the magazine world, it was for a long time very tough to translate the design of long features in print to editorial websites that mostly relied on very limited page templates. The only option was essentially to make bespoke websites for each feature, or jam long stories into regular article pages. The Atavist was a solution to this problem — a CMS built to make feature stories sing — and the magazine published great work to show how. When Seyward brought me on I jumped at the chance to work on the magazine. Stories about almost anything? Not designing templates around massive display ads? Room for photographs and illustrations to be really appreciated? Yeah, I wanted in.
SD: Atavist was purchased by Automattic in 2018, and we always knew we’d eventually move to WordPress.com. When we got down to planning, in late 2020, we knew we wanted to keep doing what we’d always done, but use the WordPress ecosystem to do it better than ever. We decided to use the occasion to give the magazine a fresh look: new homepage design, new fonts, new logo — the works. We were aiming for Atavist 2.0.
EJ: I thought it would be good to create a real break from the previous design to indicate the switchover, and the fact that the magazine would no longer be attached to a tech platform of the same name. I’d been looking at this typeface — Triptych, from The Pyte Foundry — that I thought had a really nice, classic literary quality, without being too pretentious or stuffy. (A lot like the magazine!) It ended up forming the basis of our new visual language, which led to rethinking how the standing pages like the Homepage and Archive could be simplified and made more pleasant to navigate. The main goal was to really guide people to what the magazine does best: the standalone stories we publish each month. And those look and work very similarly to how they did in the previous design.
SD: Ed came up with a great concept and presented it to me. I loved it, but that was no surprise: The Atavist has a small team behind it, and we have a lot of trust in each other. We were lucky, too, in that the Atavist CMS was block-based, so learning Gutenberg was pretty intuitive for us. But that doesn’t mean the move was easy! It was a lot of work. We had to migrate and clean up all of our existing content, a process made possible by awesome technical support from the Newspack team.
EJ: I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to translate my design mockups to a functional website using Gutenberg. Starting with the right theme was key — I used Blank Canvas, which lived up to its name. Most of the work was really about recreating as much as possible all the custom design that went into each archive story, because there wasn’t a good way to automate that transition. I’m still sprucing up some older stories in the archive.
SD: For me, there are already clear benefits to being on WordPress.com. We’re connected to the Newspack community and the wider open source world in a way we weren’t before. The site is faster and more secure. There’s a ton of flexibility for customizing CSS, and if there’s something that doesn’t exist yet — a block, for instance — that we think might be a good addition to Gutenberg, we can suggest it to the Newspack team. Ed has now had the chance to build several stories on WordPress.com, so he’s got an even better handle on the CMS.
EJ: One thing that impressed me about being in the Newspack system was all the tools and plugins that were easy to configure for stuff publishers need: email newsletter signups, subscriptions, etc. Having worked on many different platforms over the years, being able to execute on these items quickly made the relaunch process much less painful than many I’ve experienced.
SD: We’re excited about the Atavist’s future. Mid-June marks the launch of our first-ever narrative podcast, No Place Like Home, in association with C13 Originals. It’s about the theft of the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, from a small museum in Minnesota, and the quest to get them back. I’ve been working on the story for three years with journalist Ariel Ramchandani. We’re very excited to be flexing our muscles in a new medium.
And then we have loads of great stories coming down the pike: investigations, forgotten history, true crime, and more. All of them will feature beautiful design, that’s for sure!
Explore the redesigned Atavist for more.