Smile Politely

Mason Kessinger and the design of Smile Politely

When Smile Politely was founded in 2007, the way we used the internet was much different. The way we consumed media and information has changed so much since then. Social media wasn’t even remotely what it is today. Sure, there were forms of social media, but some of the modern spaces we use today like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram weren’t much of anything at that point in time. So, founding a magazine and configuring the best and most useful way to disseminate information to users was a different conversation a decade ago.

Mason Kessinger was one of the founders of Smile Politely back in 2007, a student of website design for many years, leading back to his time as a self-deprecating, self-dubbed “idiot student” that just had a passion for the web during his time as a student at the Univeristy of Illinois.

He lives in Iowa now after spending time in Chicago and Washington D.C. after his time here in Champaign-Urbana.

“I remember running into Seth [Fein] pretty often at Caffe Paradiso. While I don’t know where the impetus came from, I know they needed someone with some tech knowledge to give this thing life.”

Kessinger, Chris Maier, and Fein, alongside some others, would meet at Farren’s every so often to talk about the ideas behind what the ideas for the magazine were, and early spitballing sessions. An “idea” as Mason referred to it.

“I think a lot of credit goes to Seth and Chris, I don’t think a lot of people can take an idea and make it blossom like this,” he said, “it was an idea, it didn’t have boundaries in a lot of ways, it was interesting to be a part of something that felt like that. I’ve always been a background player… involved in ideation but ultimately someone to help get this thing designed.”

Kessinger was behind the design. Besides the site itself, he would design flyers, postcards, and things of the like to help get the word out as things were just getting started. He was the “why is the server hacked?” guy, as he explains it:

“The editorial arm is far more interesting, but it was still super cool to keep tabs. At the beginning, I was thinking, ‘how can this even go anywhere?’ but then, you’re suprised, but you have people at the helm that can really make shit happen.”

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Kessinger and Chris Maier met through Ninth Letter, a literary journal by the Creative Writing Program and School of Art & Design at the University of Illinois.

“We met through Ninth Letter, where Chris basically started it. It was his idea, in my memory. He shopped it around, asking, “Why don’t we have a literary journal?” and he sang this to his professors as a grad student in the English Department. He approached the Art + Design Department about what the Ninth Letter was doing. I was just a young idiot, annoying the grad teacher, and Ninth Letter reached out and asked if they had anyone who might be able to help with the website. I got involved with Ninth Letter in that way, but then Chris and I became friends, and he and I — based on Seth’s recommendation said, “Hey, there’s this great band, The Arcade Fire, playing at the Highdive. You gotta check them out.” So of course I’m gonna do that, and we just all connected.”

Little did Kessinger know, but he and Maier would eventually move to Washington, D.C. to start a business together. Smile Politely started that track, he mentioned. A side note of sorts, but it showcases a little more longevity of the relationship the two had aside from these two projects, which I found interesting.

In both of my conversations with Kessinger and Maier, both mentioned how people eventually started to latch on and contribute to SP — Kessinger referring to it as “help was coming”. People came to write stories, and with an editorial direction by Maier and Fein, and the design by Kessinger, things started to come together.

“Once Chris came along, it felt like the editorial background of Smile Politely came together. When you have a few powerful voices, me not being one of them, who are all very adamant about who they are and what they were doing, it started to take shape and develop.”

One would think that the magazine would look and feel much, much differently than it did a decade ago when Kessinger was sculpting it. And contrary to that, it hasn’t really changed all that much, despite the waves and waves of changes on the web today.

Sure, our mobile responsive site actually functions as such now, but in 2007, that wasn’t really much of a thing, people reading and consuming news on a piece of plastic and glass that sits in the palm of your hand. 

“Gosh, web technology back then… we weren’t even looking at responsive websites. iPhones didn’t really even exist, I was still messin’ around on my laptop pulling [Adobe] Illustrator files out like I still kind of do now.”

The backbone of Kessinger’s initial design remains: the two-sided approach. One larger column and one sidebar. As you can see on the desktop portion of the site, that’s how it remains to this day.

“We were very much fundamentalists when it came to building the website, and part of that was because of the bear necessities, but we weren’t using the greatest and newest technology. It was practical, and there’s practicality to how you can build on the web. We built with HTML and CSS, we still use those things daily. It still lasts. It’s all built on this ideology that it doesn’t die out quickly. We’re all built to think that technology has a short shelf-life, but you’re still using the same code base that you’re using six or seven years ago, and I’m sure would last into many, many more years.”

A question still remained though — who came up with what Smile Politely was going to look like?

“I can’t even remember what site I kinda ripped off,” Kessinger mentioned. “Hard to remember. Just the format was a version of a site called A List Apart — which has now turned into a pretty massive company. They create all of these large main columns, where all the main stories and articles ran, and then there was a really thin column to the right where you could get smaller notifications for recent entries, or different links to categories. At the time, that was a fairly major shift in web design. It’s funny how common place it is now, or even you don’t see it anymore because everything has changed so rapidly.”

As a student in the Art + Design program, Kessinger was “infaturated with minimalism” at this point in time as he mentions. He talked about the typefaces — and how Akzidenz Grotesk was the initial typeface that he laid out, which was a precursor to Helvetica.

“Sometime after Smile Politely came out, or around the same time, there was a Helvetica documentary that came out — and now everyone knows what Helvetica is, and typography is a household word. But before then, it was rarely discussed online, but was something I brought to this.”

“The actual logo and colors though — what about that?” I asked.

“The smile itself was just a really quick happy accident. I always play around with this miminalistic idea, it was part of my schooling,” Kessinger said. “Start with elements, shapes, just really basic building block type stuff. You start with a circle, a square, a triangle, and suddenly you’re cutting the circle in half and staring at it and it is so brazenly minimal and not overly done, it just kind of fits. I never meant for it to be cute… hell, I never thought I’d still be looking at it to this day.”

“As for the colors, black is kind of an edgy color. It’s not soft, it’s stark. Maybe there’s a metaphor here in that black and white are like a newspaper… but this was inverted. I think some of my early designs were evocative of a newspaper… and then, I didn’t like that, it felt too easy. So I just turned it on it’s back and worked with a predominantly black background. That’s funny, I did remember staring at a stupid design of a newspaper and thinking, “fuck it, let’s just do a 180″, which was a pretty naive and young thought.”

The magazine part was an interesting portion of our discussion, because with Kessinger as a web developer, Maier as a literary magazine creator — it’s true that we get this question: Why call it a magazine?

“I think the attitude of the magazine was self-evident at the beginning. Seth never liked it when I called it a website. He always called it a magazine. I think that the writing reflected that. It was young, it was brash. It’s playful, and flip a little bit.

“I became more sensitive to what they were trying to get across, and the understanding of it. I think at first I said, ‘whatever, it’s a website” — so I’m really proud of the web and where technology can take us. So at first, I was like, ‘fuck your “magazine” term, it is a website’. I remember specifically in those days, no credible journalism came off of a website, because it was ‘Big Media’ that was still trying to shove their elbows around and they were controling the rhetoric and online media sources had no relevance. This was even before Huffington Post was around. It was bloggers, and “blog” was a bad four letter word, so they were trying to disassociate themselves with that. I, on the other hand, never had a problem with that, and it felt like I got a ton of relatively credible information off the internet. Ultimately, it didn’t matter to me, they wanted to call it a magazine, so we called it a magazine.”

It is a magazine, made up of articles and publishes as a magazine does. We’ve published 20,000 articles, so that’s a lot of “issues”, if you think about it.

“It’s amazing that it’s still around and you’re telling me you have 20,000+ entires. Smile Politely has a culture to it. You have an audience and that audience has a proclivity to be liberal and younger and a little more radical. That’s amazing. That’s part of the Champaign-Urbana community. I’ve always loved C-U because of that.”

This series is a part of Smile Politely’s 10 year anniversary series. Be on the lookout for more in the future, as well as a party for SP 10.

All photos and images courtesy of Mason Kessinger.

Executive Editor

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