Re-inventing the afterlife of periodicals through the zine-format

The work done in the group focusing on periodicals publications has taken inspiration from the notion of the ‘parasitic zine’, as was presented on the Urgent Publishing conference by Marc van Elburg (see the report here and the video recording here). Read up on further plans and ideas below.

Our current goal is to make an ‘academic zine’. We provide an interface that allows users to make their own selection of existing content from an online academic journal. This content is laid out according to an aesthetic that combines input from the user, from the journal and from the algorithm, resulting in a zine-like experience. This laid out content is then offered as a pdf that must be printed.

The first sketches for both the interface and the resulting zine design are finished. Most of the concepts used in this first zine design have been tested for viability, the result of which is currently being used for a redesign. Concurrently, we are building the interface so that it can also be tested and tweaked.

Our first idea was to develop a WordPress plugin, because that appeared to offer the most convenience and publisher control. However,  during development we discovered another (more exciting) possibility. Since all (relevant) WordPress content is available from the front-end, we can also just scrape the content without having access to the back-end. This allows us to create a ‘parasitic’ tool that can be used on any (properly laid out) WordPress.

Sharing power
One of the early ideas was to give an AI full curation power over the resulting zine, using only limited input from both publisher and user. This idea was especially interesting from a conceptual and technical perspective, but less so from the perspective of a user or publisher. We therefore decided to share powers between AI, user and publisher. Together, these parties all influence both the design and the content of the resulting zine.

The content is mainly laid out according to tags that are set by the publisher in the journal. Subsequently, the user makes their own selection. At the time of creation, an algorithm adds a small selection of content that are deemed interesting according to a set of predesignated rules.

The design consists primarily of a set of rules designed by our designer. However, styling rules from the source journal are also incorporated, as well as certain parameters set by the user.

Specific to one journal
Our tool is built to provide an interface for one journal at a time. Although aggregating content from multiple journals in one zine would be interesting, it would over complicate both the development and the use of our tool. We have therefore decided to create a tool that can be implemented on many different online journals, but not to collect content across journals. In it’s current form, it is tailor-made for However, we plan to simultaneously develop a journal-agnostic version (possibly with limited functionality).

As mentioned, the zine is purposely laid out just so, that it is very hard to read directly on the screen. We achieve this by creating a pdf in spreads and with various quirky text layouts and directions. We believe the zine should be printed to achieve it’s specific goals as a zine. It is not meant for convenience, that is what the existing journal interface already provides. The zine should provide a new way to look at the content that is more social and engaging.

Once the zine is generated, it must be printed from the browser. Although most browsers offer decent print functionality, the possibilities for complicated lay outs are limited. We therefore use a server-side tool that generates  a pdf that is then offered for download in the browser. This has the added advantage of ensuring a consistent lay out, independent of browser. We have chosen Weasyprint as the main pdf generation tool, because it is both open-source and offers comprehensive lay out functionality. Some competitors (e.g. Prince XML) offer even better lay out options, but they are prohibitively expensive and their source code can not be tweaked.

Experimentally laid out
The possibilities of web-to-print have improved over the last few years, so it will be interesting to stretch the boundaries of what can be done. We will report more specifically on this in separate posts. In general we have found that the typographic possibilities are quite comprehensive, but alternative text flows are very hard to accomplish. Since we are using Weasyprint, some of our findings are specific to that software.

The generator
The zine can be generated through an online webpage. This webpage works with drag and drop and splits the page up in three, one row at the top which shows you the information about your zine, and below this two columns: one for the site index and one for the zine contents.

The scraper generates in a way a site index, visible through tags. We use these tags to let the user create a personal zine. Thus you select a tag, view the titels that are connected to this tag and drag a title that you like into your zine contents (option is to have the accompanying description there, maybe when you click an ⓘ-icon).
In the zine content column the user is building a table of contents for the zine. As we will not use page numbers, this TOC is more a synopsis of the zine than a way to navigate through it. Also, the zine will not have too many pages, so navigating it is easy and clear.

Each zine will be saved on the server and receive a corresponding QR-code. This code will be incorporated in the design on the back, so the zine can be shared among others.
For each article you select, another article is added. This parasitic function is there to surprise the reader, give more background information or inspire. This related article is derived from a few steps: 1) if the article has another keyword 2) the autor wrote another article 3) the length of the related article (this one is the most important one, thats why it is last in line). The related article is only visible in the printable pdf, and the design will be different than the design of the main tekst. It will, however, effect the design of the main tekst.

How does a parasitic design work?
The core concept is a parasitic way of working. To emphasise this concept for the design of the generator, which is web-based, it is interesting to use this concept to make design choices. The wireframe is basic and straight forward, here we looked at how the function of drag – from the website – and drop – into your zine – can be positioned in a clear way.
In the styling of the webpage we want to steel from the ‘main’ website, maybe even parts of certain elements and change or alter them. For instance a zoomed in, pixelated part of the logo.
The zine works in a similar way, it has parts of its own and also parts that are stolen from the original. An example for this concept is parts of text floating around, being there like they only half came through. The related article is a parasitic element, and will have some styling stolen from the webpage and some styling stolen from the zine.