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About Success Builder

How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features HSE University graduates who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences and lessons learnt and talk about how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.

The world is digitising. This is not a simple process for the media, as ‘ordinary’ reality and digital reality are two different worlds, themselves separate from a magazine. Trifon Bebutov, Esquire Russia’s Digital Editorial Director and a graduate of HSE’s continuing education programme in graphic design, met with Success Builder to talk about what responsibilities his job entails, what exactly ‘paper aesthetics’ means, and how bad packaging can kill amazing content.

Your undergraduate degree was in history. Why did you decide to change career trajectories?

I was always simultaneously interested in creative and applied professions. I graduated from an art school and initially wanted to enrol in the Moscow Architectural Institute, and then Stroganov Moscow State University of Arts and Industry. In the end, though, I settled on art history and got a degree in exhibition management and supervision. After that, I worked at Garage and the Jewish Museum, but I always wanted to broaden my field of work and understand how design process are structured, because design is omnipresent and an important part of contemporary culture. If you create an exhibition, this is design. If you build a website, it’s also design. That’s why I wanted to gain basic design skills that would allow me to improve my own work. Then I chose a programme in basic graphic design at the HSE School of Design. This was an interesting experiment, and I think that now any humanities specialist is somewhat a designer, copywriter, and editor. It’s hard to keep these things separate in the modern world.

How did you start working in media?

My first internship was at the Pushkin Museum in the public relations division, and my first full-time work experience was at a PR agency that organised events – anything from conferences to concerts. I worked with the media there, and to a large extent this brought me closer to the media world.

How close do you think art history and design currently are?

A person who creates visual content is required to know at least basic art history. Without background and cultural allusion, it’s hard to find and produce new concepts, and this is true for the visual arts as well. When you start thinking about how the brand’s style will look, you always know the starting point. Say someone wants something ‘modern,’ what does that mean? Contemporary design – from logos to iPhones – is based on references to the 20th century. This means that ideas from that time still echo today. During this period, European culture was moving towards pragmatism and towards the rejection of unnecessary forms that led to the mass production of as many practical items as possible. Even IKEA wouldn’t exist without Bauhaus.

How can one apply ‘cultural references’ to life?

The profession of a designer, starting from the development of an idea all the way to visualisation, is very structured. A person who goes through this process, no mater what he does subsequently, will have this structure in his or her brain their entire life, and they’ll think accordingly no matter what type of job it is. Information, including textual information, cannot exist by itself; it is full of examples that are in one way or another born from our cultural ‘cache.’ And since all off contemporary marketing is built on emotion, the visual component becomes a method of direct communication with the consumer.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev

When you got into the School of Design, you were among the first with a history background to enrol. Why did you believe in HSE in particular?

HSE is a brand and a sign of quality that does not need confirmation of its endeavours. In the same way that Apple’s supporters blindly, but deservedly, believe in the company because each new product is a priori cool – people who are looking for a top-notch education go to HSE. In addition, I followed and continue to follow what is going on in education, and I see the people who are the originators of the School of Design – Protey Temen, Igor Gurovich, and other serious designers who are at the peak of relevancy. For me it was critical that I be given the very tools of design that will become key and truly useful to my work.

How did your career at Esquire begin?

It’s an unconventional story that is actually connected with design. I ended up at Esquire six months after finishing the HSE programme. The magazine was undergoing some editorial changes, and the team itself was changing. I joined as a designer for the print version. I always loved Esquire – it’s an unusual publication for Russia, and I of course did everything to get here. We discussed the site, which at the time wasn’t fitting in with the media market well. Essentially, the paper version and the digital version contain different content because any digital publication produces ten, twenty times more material over the course of the month than the print version. The reason is that there is the need to work with the readers every day. I brought this idea up with the editorial team, and the chief editor, Sergey Minaev, gave me a key role in the project and set specific goals for developing the site. I developed a concept, they liked it, and I was given two months to achieve results. These results came pretty soon after. After just six months, the readership doubled, and it became clear that we were on the right path. We are now continuing in this direction. We’ve completely relaunched the site, and we’ve also reworked the content and changed the design. Readership continues to grow.

Design isn’t about beautiful and ugly, but function and meaning

How did your design skills come in handy?

The site’s relaunch was a multistep process that is linked to design, among other things. Of course what the new site will be like depends on the content objectives the publication sets for itself. We changed the style and thought up a concept for content design. After all, the way the content looks will depend on the meaning behind it. We also had to maintain the recognisable visual content of the print version. It was necessary to start with the basics and change the product considerably without destroying the things that were already good. Though much has already been done, we are working on our mistakes, and this is almost a process with no end in sight. A lot of my time is spent working with the visual side of the site. Without basic knowledge of communication through design, it would be impossible to boost online readership. Design isn’t about beautiful and ugly, but function and meaning. If the site makes the reader feel comfortable and interested, they won’t leave.

The world is moving towards the visual. What impact is this having on digital publications?

A strong one because competition is extremely high, and there are a lot of high quality publications in the information field. All publications – small, large, news, lifestyle, fashion – are constantly experimenting and improving. Meduza is a news site, but they can also post a review of the new NIKE collection. This is a fight to stick out on newsfeeds, and one effective tool is a visual story. In order to find a Facebook post with an image that will be shared, it’s at least necessary to understand the emotional response of the readers and the publication’s image on social networks. Any image presents a certain worldview, as well as the publication’s philosophy and rules for working with graphic design. One can produce incredible content, but lose a lot because of bad packaging; this concerns everything – from books to perfume. Form and content have to live in symbiosis with one another. At any company – and it’s hard to find a company not represented online – it’s important to have a person responsible for the visual concept, someone who understands why something needs to be done a certain way.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev

Are there any breakthrough ideas when it comes to combining text with visual content?

Now everyone is trying to find a way of providing the modern reader with the most comfortable information possible. The most frequently updated format is the news. It might look very simple because it’s a story about several paragraphs that contain unique, up-to-date information. It’s important for them just to be first; form is secondary. But there are multimedia stories where reporting takes place from a wide range of locations and in different formats, and everything – audio, video, photos, illustrations, text – has to come together. In this respect, the leaders in intelligibility and elegance are the Guardian and the New York Times, which always give rise to fresh ideas. When launching or re-launching, a lot of Russian news sources like Meduza, Afisha, and Arzamas use design agencies, where mostly designers are asked to address the upgrades.

The digital first concept largely crushed print. How is the global media market digitising?

People are buying print less and less frequently. Though Esquire in particular is seeing a growth in print sales, for the industry as a whole, print remains an image-focused component of the publication, and all information is digitising. You wake up, grab your phone, open your feed, and see the news. There is always constant and instantaneous contact between the online publication and the reader, without the 20-minute walk to the nearest tabloid stand.

This is happening more slowly in Russia. For example, the websites of RBC, Vedomosti, and Kommersant have been around for a while and are not likely to kill the print versions; they’re already classics with their own specific audience. But at some point print will just stop existing. It’s too costly, and that money can be used to carry out a lot of cool digital projects. There’s also another trend towards an aesthetics to paper. This mostly concerns foreign print publications related to the design, art, digital, or fashion industries, which have an advanced readership. This is the lifestyle sphere, where a magazine can be an object of interior design or a way of identifying with a certain subculture. The most elegant publication is the winner. In these situations, digital almost doesn’t work. For example, there are publications like Travel Almanac that intentionally refrain from posting certain content on their website and only post carefully selected material. What justifies print? Print produces ideas, a philosophy that you really want to touch.

What is Esquire’s modern digital consumer like?

Esquire is about lifestyle, and we work with news from the sociocultural sphere – new shows, reviews on the collections of top brands, stories, or a famous musician’s latest clip… For example, a Rome-based specialist on the Vatican’s cultural heritage wrote material for us about iconography in the Young Pope from an art history perspective.

In short, our online reader is 25-35, middle class and above, a resident of a large city, and interested in something a little more than everyone else. They are constantly developing, and they want to be on-trend.

How is the structure of the editorial staff changing with the shift to digital?

We have an editorial staff for print and another for the digital publication. They work on different things, but both with the goal of releasing a high-quality product. There’s a chief editor who has a say on concepts and decision-making, of course. There are hundreds more digital publications than print, but this is content of a different type.

In any case, for a digital director a course in programming never hurts

When transitioning to the digital realm, a lot of employees started outsourcing – writers, editors, SMM specialists… I focus on communications with all digital employees, and together we decide what topics we’re going to shed light on and how best to present certain material. Overall, the digital version of Esquire works on different things and is particularly responsible for up-to-the-minute news coverage or any hype gaining momentum online. Those focused on the print version go to shoots, conduct interviews, and think up visual stories – these are different readers and a different consumer aesthetic.

What responsibilities fall under the digital director’s role?

It depends on the nature of the industry. My responsibilities can mostly be described as editorial management. I’m responsible for all of the processes that take place in the digital edition, from working with editors and looking for employees to developing formats and applying the different technologies used in publishing. My job concerns things like how best to make a survey or test, how to tell a certain story, or which format is best for certain content.

I don’t have to know every little thing about every detail, but I do need to understand how processes are structured. For example, I don’t have programming skills, but I do write technical requirements for programmers and have an idea of the processes related to all stages of carrying out my own ideas. When you are inside an article, the design work begins – photo and video placement, the structure of the text, the contextual links, and the location of everything as a whole. This all has to be relayed to the programmers for implementation. In any case, for a digital director a course in programming never hurts.

What does your future trajectory look like?

I got this position a year ago and am now developing the product with which I was entrusted. It’s hard for me to think in categories like ‘future career.’ There are a lot of pressing tasks, and when everything is completed, then I’ll see what lies beyond the horizon.