Rick Poynor | Essays

Dot Dot Dot Dot Dot Dot Dot Dot Dot

Dot Dot Dot no. 5, summer 2002

Dot Dot Dot is the most stimulating and original visual culture magazine produced by designers since Emigre's heyday in the late 1980s to the mid-1990s.* Founded in 2000, it comes out twice a year and they print only 3,000 copies, so I'm guessing that many people reading this may never have seen it. Don't let that put you off. If you are reading Design Observer, then you are likely to be the kind of person who would enjoy this publication.

The latest issue, no. 9, has just appeared. Where else can you find a mixture of articles like this?** There are essays about Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, the cult British rock band Stereolab, experimental novelist B. S. Johnson (currently undergoing a revival), and the Polish women's magazine Ty i Ja (You and I), which "struck a strange balance between fascination with the spectacle of consumer society and its critique." There's an article about the semantic poetry of Polish émigré avant-gardist Stefan Themerson, illustrated with many intriguing examples, and another about Dutch radical Jan van Toorn in the form of a numbered list.*** You've never heard of half of this stuff? Maybe not, but perhaps you should know about it because it's fascinating, out of the ordinary, demanding and rewarding. Isn't this what a good magazine should be doing — taking you somewhere unfamiliar rather than falling into lockstep with the brain-ossifying PR agendas of media corps that dish up the same predictable pap the world over?

Still, at first sight Dot Dot Dot could seem a little too serious. It's the size of a paperback book and the typography tends to be fairly plain, though, as with issue 9, it's usually highly readable. There are generally a few colour images and this issue has some mysterious diagrams and lines of figures resembling equations that I have yet to unravel. There is often something of the physics textbook about DDD, though a mad collagist sometimes appears to have gained control of its pages. The magazine has a dry humour, too. The editors, Peter Bilak (from Slovakia), who is based in The Hague, and Stuart Bailey (from Britain), like to keep things oblique, off kilter, a little enigmatic. They loathe designer slickness and gloss and love accidents, imperfections, discontinuities and visible signs of process. They don't believe in making things easy for themselves, or for that matter, the reader. The issue comes with an A4 stapled facsimile insert of some lecture notes about Kurt Schwitters, which were already quite bashed up when my copy arrived in the post (it's probably the effect they intended). DDD is about as far from, say, Communication Arts as a design publication could get. The covers usually have a peculiar offhandedness and number 9, with its three scribbled red blobs on a graph paper background, is no exception. It almost shouldn't work, yet it does.

This issue has a rather poignant sign-off, though it's delivered without self-pity and with DDD's customary, off-the-wall cleverness. The back cover offers a lesson in what the editors call "elementary mathematics". Here, with stark clarity, is the dispiriting reality of independent publishing.**** It has taken them nine issues, they confess, to find out why the term is an oxymoron. DDD is owed 14,221 euros ($19,025) and because they cannot afford legal help their debtors ignore all demands to pay up.

Bilak and Bailey present two lists. The first shows their expenses for issue 8: printing, authors' fees, editorial and office, postage and miscellaneous. Total: 19,430 euros. Advertising, subscriptions and sales generated only 8,743 euros. If it weren't for a 14,000 euro subsidy per issue from Dutch arts funding, they would never have made it this far.

The second list — what a masterly stroke — shows all the debtors and the amounts they owe. According to DDD, Hennessy & Ingalls in the US have owed them 1,905 euros since 3 August 2002. The Spanish distributor Actar's debts, each one separately itemised, also date back to 2002 and total 8,546 euros. They have other non-payers in Britain (the shop in question is selling the issue), Canada, Portugal, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic. In a nice design touch, the accusatory column of figures wraps around on to the spine. DDD hope to shame these companies into settling their bills; they reason that, at this point, they have nothing to lose. But this being Dot Dot Dot, they don't waste the opportunity to provide some referential devices and illuminating historical context. The back cover also shows three previous cases where the economic realities of a project were made explicit: a page from the Last Whole Earth Catalogue, itemising publishing costs (1971); the back sleeve of a punk record by the TV Personalities, noting production costs (1978); and OMA's studio expenditure shown on a page from S,M,L,XL (1995).

Let's hope this brave, audacious ploy doesn't end up being a kind of suicide note. DDD's unpredictability and intelligence, its enthusiasm for pointing a flashlight into corners of culture that tend to be overlooked, makes it one of our more valuable design publications. Their five-year struggle as publishers also underlines the absolute necessity for independent projects with small print runs but something important to say to receive subsidy. The idea sometimes advanced by successful people in the arts that everything should be left to flourish or fail on its own terms, without life-support funding, in a market place heavily stacked against the off-beat and marginal would spell the end of such publications. Our appreciation of visual culture would be a whole lot poorer without this kind of passionate personal venture. Why not take out a subscription?***** They have created something special and they deserve support.

* Emigre will cease publishing with issue 69. We'll doubtless return to the subject.
** OK, Cabinet is pretty good, too. So is 2wice.
*** Full disclosure: I have a short essay in the issue.
**** For more on this subject, see Put About: A Critical Anthology on Independent Publishing, which is designed, with elliptical informality, by DDD's Stuart Bailey.
***** Dot Dot Dot no. 9 is also available here.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, Media, Theory + Criticism

Comments [17]

Thank you Rick, this is all very encouraging. I am happy to say that Nijhof & Lee in Amsterdam have promptly paid their outstanding bills, and now sell the new issue. We will continue giving an update about this situation. P+S

Peter Bilak

They have other non-payers in Britain (the shop in question is selling the issue)

Could this be Magma by any chance? I'm currently having trouble with them myself, regarding an order I placed with them two months ago which still hasn't been sent. Ironically one of the items is a copy of Dot Dot Dot #7.
Michael Oswell

You can also get issues of DDD at You Work For Them. Sorry, not tryin to promote, just trying to make sure this magazine sells, cause it is unlike any other design mag out (I'm a little too young to remember Emigre's heyday). I just hope that means I keep getting one of their 3000 copies, instead of some karmic backfire.
Derrick Schultz

Thanks for the post Rick, DDD is indeed a great magazine.
I never subscribed (sorry...) but I was happy to get one copy of no. 7 in its launch in Paris, and a copy of no. 5 from a friend who actually worked on no. 7 with a brush stroke...
Not that it contributes to DDD's or its editors' financial health, but one of the great things about the magazine is the "hey, there's this great article in the last DDD, you should read it, I'll come round your place next Saturday and lend you my copy."
Having said that, I sure hope the debtors won't put Peter and Stuart out of business. Good thing Nijhof & Lee paid their dues, it's my favourite bookshop anywhere in Europe - Magma should learn one or two things from them...

Peter Bilak: I saw the magazine around here, in Porto, for several times. I even thought it would have a wide crowd of buyers. I remember reading something about Paul Rand and getting quite impressed, in a good way, with that issue crude design. Thanks for letting me get sure of its rareness. I'll look better for it around here, hoping that you got your credits payed by the Portuguese distribution company. I subscribe your transparent approach to all matters! Make it even more earnest, turn it against you, by don't copyrighting...
João Marrucho

14,000 Euros per issue? is that correct? that's quite a hefty subsidy. i wish i lived in the netherlands. it makes me wonder how many great publications would come out of the US if we had those sorts of subsidies available to us. of course im not discrediting the pain and struggling that goes into publishing an independent magazine, but subsidies (a secured income even in the event of failure) do allow for the visual and editorial risks that rick poynor talks about.

emigre is an example of an indepently published american magazine that seems to have done well for itself. of course, they've had their business side to support them as well.

since we're promoting dutch magazines, id like to point everyone to OASE, an architectural journal designed by karel martens. the current issue is on ornament, and ties current architectural practices very well to visual culture.


I would be very sad indeed if this marked the final ddd. There is no other publication like it. The perfect pocket size read for stimulating thought on the train ride to work. My design days always go better after I've read some Bilak and Bailey.
Stephen Coles

I was fortunate to see Stuart at BOLDitalic last month and it was quite refreshing to hear them (Will Holder too) talk about the importance of close readings and then see how they try to put this into action. Stuart walked us through much of the new/current issue. The article on Semantic Poetry is very intriguing and listening to them read through some of it was a treat. DDD's take on advertising is worthy of a closer look by DO too...

To add to the praise, dot dot dot's website is also about as 'different' as the publication it promotes. I especially like the photos of each issue, they are always wonderfully set in a unique surrounding and this issue is no exception!
here is the url (if you don't know):

Being a big fan of DDD and Mr. Poynor it is a thrill to read this article.

I merely wanted to mention that living and working in Toronto (I am originally from the UK) I have shown DDD to most of my designer friends and all but one think it is infinitely boring and irrelevant to graphic design.

However all of my writer and artist friends find it infinitely more interesting than any other graphic design periodical currently available.

I have been a (patient) subscriber since issue 2.
Ben Hagon

Good sell job. I subscribed. Of course I've heard of it; just never seen an issue. I was tempted to order a bunch of back issues to add to my mountain of unread design publications, but the pocketbook bleeds.
marian bantjes

Because Amazon.co.uk does not currently stock the title, here is the direct link to the publisher of "Put About: A Critical Anthology on Independent Publishing": Book Works Publishers.

Book Works carries a number of quality titles. I personally enjoy Alison Turnbull's Spring Snow—A Translation, and Nathan Coley's Urban/Wild, (designed by James Goggin of Practise).
David Cabianca

I`ve been meaning to subscribe to Dot Dot Dot for a while now, but after reading your post I promptly ordered my subscription this morning. A little while later, the dutch distributor called me and wanted to know why I ordered. It seems they had been flooded by orders for the mag in the past coupple of days.

Way to go!
Adrian Enok Friis

Princeton Architectural Press is the distributor of Dot Dot Dot in North & South America, Africa and Asia.

Dot Dot Dot issue 3 and issues 5 - 9 are available at:


Russell Fernandez

Well, I guess that debt of Actar's explains why I can't get hold of ddd here in Barcelona any longer. I both hope and hope not that this article has made it impossible to get hold of a copy online . . .
Fredrik Jonsson

thanks for pointing this magazine out. i saw it a few times on the shelves and wondered about picking it up but thought id just be dissapointed again (magazines are so bad at the moment). really really good.

Stephen - No worries, I saw Stuart speak not long ago, and #10 was finished before #9 was finished printing.
Matt Waggner

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