John Foster | Accidental Mysteries

Variations on a Rectangle

Some people are just born to do what they do. Neil Young formed his first band, the Jades, while in junior high school. At age twelve, Steven Spielberg made his first movie using his father’s 8mm camera, and financed it with a tree-planting business in his neighborhood. DJ Stout started a neighborhood newsletter as a kid, writing stories, drawing cartoons, and even distributing it door-to-door. It was as if his life as an editorial designer was in his DNA.

DJ Stout’s Variation on a Rectangle was one of the most enjoyable books on design I have read in a long time. The book has nearly 800 color images of design work created by Stout and his team, beginning with his work at the renowned Texas Monthly magazine. Most people who worked in graphic design in the late '80s and '90s knew of Texas Monthly magazine. The magazine was winning every major design award at the time, and with each new AIGA Annual or paper sample, there were covers and spreads, designed by a guy from Texas named DJ Stout. It seemed then that every regional magazine in the country was trying to emulate what DJ was doing there, but they usually fell short. With each new issue, Stout would blow the doors off again—either with his hand drawn type, or crazy, groundbreaking spreads about Texas things—like rattlesnakes, honky tonks, cowboys, criminals, Willie Nelson, or Texas politicians. I dare say—DJ Stout was making the state of Texas hip. 

Cover of Variations on a Rectangle by DJ Stout

How the West was Won, May 1991 issue of Texas Monthly, with photography by Raymond Meier

DJ was showing the world what great editorial design was all about and it was being noticed. The magazine was fresh and beautiful, and Stout was smart enough to hire the best illustrators and photographers in the world to grace the publication. Art directors and designers everywhere envied his budgets, which we outliers surmised must have been unlimited. Over the years, the pages of Texas Monthly showcased a virtual Who’s Who of the best creative talent in the world. Illustrators like Brad Holland, Marc English, Matt Mahurin, and Dutch artist Braldt Bralds, were just the tip of the very large illustrated iceberg. Photographers Mary Ellen Mark, Geof Kern, Keith Carter, and Michael O’Brian, again—there are too many to mention. Stout spent thirteen years at the magazine, enough time to have worked with just about everyone who was anyone in the creative field. 

El Circo, November 1997 issue of Texas Monthly, with photography by Mary Ellen Mark. Stout says this El Circo issue of Texas Monthly with photographs by Mark was one of the highlights of his editorial design career.

Lyle Lovett, Redneck, October 1998 issue of Texas Monthly, with photography by Albert Watson
He went on to become a partner at Pentagram, one of the most celebrated and important design groups in the world. And he didn’t have to leave his beloved Texas to do it. They opened an office in Austin for him, and Stout entered the next phase of his career, which included rebranding collegiate publications, magazines, designing posters, book covers, and advertising campaigns for some of the biggest and coolest clients imaginable.

Each segment of the book is highlighted by Stout’s entertaining stories of how they created this or that before the days of Photoshop. Concepts sketched out could be brilliant—but in those days you’d better be careful what gets approved, because then you had to build it—and then photograph it within a short timeline. Oh, the tales! 

Stout loves his Texas roots. As a young designer he once made a tepid attempt to go to New York, but he made it only as far as Dallas. It was his outstanding work at Texas Monthly that brought the world to his doorstep. He and his fellow designer Nancy McMillen (and others) helped the magazine win three National Magazine Awards. American Photo magazine named Stout one of its “100 Most Important People in Photography,” and I.D. magazine selected him for “The I.D. Fifty,” its annual listing of design innovators. The Society of Illustrators honored Stout with the Richard Gangel Art Director Award, and he was made a Fellow of the Austin chapter of the AIGA for his lifetime achievements. 

Stout says many times in the book he didn’t achieve all this alone. He credits all the people who helped make him look good—especially his editor. Says Stout: “An editorial art director is only as good as his editor.” 

If you are a young designer, get this book. If you have been around awhile like some of us—you will want this one in your library.


Sexy, down-home branding for Lucy’s Fried Chicken, a local fried chicken joint.

The winter, 2013 issue of LMU magazine for Loyola Marymount University 

Cream of the Crops, May 1991 issue of Texas Monthly, with photographs by Tom Ryan

Surf Texas, monograph by photographer Kenny Braun, published by University of Texas Press, 2013

Visual theme for 2013 Texas Book Festival, featuring work by Austin photographer Randal Ford

Society of Illustrators Annual of American Illustration, 2005

Book design, War Photography, 2012

Posted in: Accidental Mysteries, Photography

Comments [1]

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Taposy Rabeya

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