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Writing on the Wall

Text by John Lampard

The concentration of advertising in some magazines is enough to drive any reader to distraction. Flicking through pages of adverts, searching for an article to read, can sometimes leave us thinking we have paid for little more than a glorified advertising supplement.

Melbourne publication “Is Not Magazine” or “Is Not”, sets itself apart from other magazines for a number of reasons, but perhaps most notably for the way it is ad-free, yet dominates advertising space.

Published as a one-and-a-half by two metre poster, Is Not, needless to say, cannot be found on the shelves of your local newsagency, but rather among one of advertising’s cherished realms; billboard poster space.

Is Not Magazine - Love Is/Not Lust
Is Not Magazine “Love Is/Not Lust”
© Photo courtesy of Is Not Magazine

Launched in April 2005, by Mel Campbell, Natasha Ludowyk, Stuart Geddes, Penelope Modra, and Jeremy Wortsman, one of the group’s goals was not to feature any sort of advertising.

“We recognise that people are very suspicious of advertising material encroaching on their lives. They don’t like being treated as a target market. It’s really important to us that we address people in a genuine way, as thinkers, readers and as citizens who are engaged with the city around them,” says co-editor Mel Campbell.

Inspired in part by Melbourne’s Astor cinema posters, and the Readings bookshop housing notice board in Carlton, Is Not publishes every two months. Contributors, often working with apparently contradictory themes, find themselves taking-on subjects such as “Love Is/Not Lust”, “Seeing Is/Not Believing”, and “Time Is/Not Money”.

Is Not Magazine - Young Is/Not Free
Is Not Magazine “Young Is/Not Free”
© Photo courtesy of Is Not Magazine

“Because part of the project’s aim is to explore complexity and ambiguity, each edition has two themes, and our writers and illustrators explore the relationship between the two. We mix up quirky takes on traditional magazine columns, personal narratives, semi-fictional stories and hard-hitting features about the international drug trade, terrorism or industrial relations,” says Mel.

“We also reviewed Architecture in Helsinki, which was not about the band, but about actual buildings in Finland. It’s all about encouraging people to keep an open mind about what magazine content should be.”

Is Not usually appears in public areas with high pedestrian traffic around Melbourne’s CBD and inner suburbs. “Private sites”, such as bars, cafes, bookshops, and laundromats, also host the magazine.

Is Not Magazine launch party - Seeing Is/Not Believing
Launch party for “Seeing Is/Not Believing”
© Photo courtesy of Is Not Magazine

Originally the editors sourced contributors through their own contacts, but today the magazine features the work of other writers, many now regular, who initially pitched ideas as they became aware of the magazine’s existence.

“We’ve set up formal guidelines for people to pitch us stories, and we’ve advertised for contributors on Arts Hub and at the Victorian Writers Centre, but in practice we find it’s much more organic. The content is a pretty even mix of regular and new contributors, and we collaborate and workshop ideas with writers rather than have them submit finished work to us,” says Mel.

While gauging circulation numbers is challenging for a magazine such as Is Not, Mel says attendances at their various events, subscribers to the “Is Not Friendly Society” newsletter, plus website statistics, all go together to provide an indication of readership interest.

Is Not Magazine - Habit Is/Not Addiction
Is Not Magazine “Habit Is/Not Addiction”
© Photo courtesy of Is Not Magazine

Having become established in Melbourne, Is Not has future plans to publish in other centres including Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. And despite appearing only in Melbourne, they are surprised by the interest of people who have never actually seen the magazine.

“We’ve had contributions from Argentina, New Zealand, Poland, the US and Finland, to name a few, and we’re well known in the international design community because of our relationship with European boutique type foundry Underware, who provide our typefaces. It’s amazing to think that these people want to be part of Is Not when they don’t even see the magazine on the street,” says Mel.