01 . 11 . 19

Find your flow

Words by: Print Power
10 lessons all print publishers should follow from Irene Smit, Co-founder and Creative Director of Flow Magazine

The power of print at a glance

  • Launched 10 years ago, Flow magazine has a circulation of 80,000 per issue
  • Published in 4 languages and 40 countries, printed copies of Flow are bought in countries as diverse as El Salvador and Malawi
  • Flow combines a successful newsstand and subscription model, with sales coming from a near equal 50/50 split in distribution channels

December 2018. Two weeks before Christmas. In Amsterdam’s DeLaMar Theatre, the great and the good of the Dutch media gather for The Mercurs, the industry’s most prestigious awards ceremony. Every awards night has its ‘best of the best’ gong, at the Mercurs, it’s the Mercur d’Or LOF Prize. On this starry night, in recognition of a decade spent crafting Flow Magazine, a nearly monthly ‘paper present’ that delights a loyal and growing international readership, Irene Smit takes to the stage with fellow Creative Director Astrid van der Hulst and their team to collect the award.

“It’s the highest prize you can win. It was recognition of Flow showing the world that print is still alive,” says Irene, Flow’s Co-founder and joint Creative Director.

Flow is an ‘against-the-odds’ phenomenon. A print magazine launched into a world on the brink of digital revolution. Under the shadow of the international banking crisis. Made by two women following a gut instinct rather than metrics and audience-tracking.

“We pitched the idea to our publishers Sanoma in spring 2008. That September they gave us the go ahead to create six issues a year. Then, in October, the bank crisis broke out!” Irene recalls.

With the crisis came the first valuable lesson for print publishers: understand the times you’re living in

“For a long time, myself and Astrid had had the feeling people were becoming interested in other topics. They no longer wanted to read about luxury and beauty. We sensed a mental shift towards consciousness. Remember, this was 11 years ago, the prevailing attitude was: “earn more money, have more holidays, buy more cars, that will make you happy!” Now people had less money and many of them were saying: ‘OK, I have less money but maybe it’s for the best because maybe it will make me happier to make more conscious choices.’ It was good for Flow because people became more aware of how they wanted to spend their money and their time and started to reflect on how they were living – all things that were important to our title.”


Flow magazine and its founders Astrid van der Hulst and Irene Smit

Spotting a gap worth filling is lesson number two. Irene and Astrid launched Flow to fill a gap in our wellbeing needs.

“I was features editor of Dutch Marie-Claire,” says Irene. “I’d been feeling stressed and went to see my doctor to get advice on how to manage the hectic pace of life and my feelings of stress. He suggested I try a mindfulness course. Mindfulness was a very new idea back in 2007 but I decided to give it a try. And I took Astrid with me. We learned so many nice lessons about how you can live your life well – answers to all the questions we had about stress, self-doubt, perfectionism. We came away thinking why didn’t we learn about this in high school and why don’t we read about this in magazines. And that’s where the idea to make a magazine that shares these lessons with people came from.”

“At a cross-media congress I announced that print is the new yoga! Research had come out in the UK saying young people are going back to print because it helps them focus while online makes them dizzy and it’s not satisfying. My message was it’s time to slow down, and paper is the new yoga because it helps you slow down.”
Irene Smit
Co-founder and Creative Director of Flow Magazine

In an era of message overload, employ lesson number 3: print a message that resonates with a core audience, print your truth!

“When we started Flow, we didn’t know if people would like it. Then, when it came out, people started sending us posters, letters, collages, things they made with the magazine. They wrote saying: ‘This magazine feels like my friend, it feels like you understand me.’ That was really moving,” says Irene. “We got letters from all over the world, including people who found us at airports saying: ‘I don’t know what’s in this magazine but I like it so much. I like the colours and the illustrations. I like the paper and the paper goodies. Can you make an edition in my language?’ It’s so funny that people felt that Flow was a present for them and they bought it even though they couldn’t read it.”

“I think people feel that it really comes from our hearts. A lot of people who work for magazines make it from their heart but it helps when you have such a passion about your own product.”
Irene Smit
Co-founder and Creative Director of Flow Magazine

And so we have lesson 4, love paper! Because if you’re going to print something, print something of value, that celebrates paper’s versatility.

“We started Flow with the ambition to express the idea of mindful living and bring this new topic to readers. Part of the way we planned to do that revolved around our belief that there is so much more you can do with print and with paper than just print words on it. Back when we were hatching our plan, Astrid and I had a session in my attic in Haarlem. We both brought things that we liked, including magazines and books and a box filled with paper goodies. There were labels and stickers and little notebooks and rough paper and glossy paper… We looked at all that and realised that even with nothing printed on it, all those paper goodies made us feel happy. Maybe, we thought, we can bring this idea that the paper is a present to our magazine. So we tried simple ideas like putting a label on the first page so you can write your name. And we often add some blank pages to the issue. Pages where you can write your thoughts because sometimes, after reading an article, you may want to reflect on it and write something about yourself.”

“We also thought about using the paper to communicate with the readers, using paper’s tactile nature to let them feel that something different is happening. So, for example, if we have a psychological topic it might be on rougher paper where you can feel the fibres and you feel, ‘hmm, this isn’t completely balanced’. Sometimes the paper is a little bit yellow or a little bit grey or the ink is getting a bit blurry. Our readers feel something different, smell something different, see something different in each of the magazine’s four sections.”


Paper goodies like calendars, bookmarks and notebooks make Flow even more of a present for readers

Lesson 5 is simple – have a USP, a unique selling point that goes to the heart of your core offering

“We create two paper goodies in every issue,” says Irene. “We’ve been doing them for 10 years. Anything you can think to do with paper, we do it! Bookmarks, notebooks, big and small, tattoos, stickers, pull-outs. Every issue we go to the company’s production people and tell them what we’d like to do – six bookmarks, in this paper, with round corners please! And they get a cost from the printer, and mostly we can’t afford it. So we do 3 bookmarks with straight corners instead. I’m always grateful that our publisher gives us the freedom to make the magazine we want. Sanoma is a big company, and that helps us a lot because there are specialists in the firm that can help us, for instance with paper and printing suggestions. And luckily, no one tells us to cut our printing costs because they understand that our paper goodies are the core of Flow, they are the magic of the magazine and if you change things like that, it stops being special. Those are the decisions we make – we don’t have a bigger budget than other titles, we just spend it on paper rather than expensive photoshoots and hiring models.”

Staying faithful to your cause can be hard in difficult times. Irene’s answer is lesson number 6 – be stubborn!

“When we started, a lot of people told us to do things differently. That we could not use certain colours on the cover; that we could not place the logo in the middle; that we needed to add beauty and lifestyle topics; and write about new trends and products; that people did not want to read poems in the magazine and would not want to pay for nearly empty pages. But we were stubborn. And sometimes this means that we don’t get a certain ad, but in the end, I think if you make a successful product, they will come to you. There are great brands in, for instance, the French and German Flow and we would love them to also advertise in our Dutch issue. And we also do collaborations like special brochures in the magazine, and we make a lot of branded content. It’s finding ways that work for them and we always keep the reader in mind: is she interested, how can we bring this message to our reader in a genuine, interesting way?”

As print battles through this digital age, lesson 7 suggests a new measure of success.

“I think we have to rethink our business models. Is it really necessary to grow all the time? And how do you measure your growth? Should it always be a growth in figures?”says Irene. “It’s an idea the British economist Kate Raworth talks about. She says it’s so strange that we always feel that we have to grow. It’s so true! Why do we believe we should always have more revenue, that more revenue means something is a success? It’s a discussion we have at the Flow offices when a magazine comes out and colleagues say it wasn’t a success because it sold less than expected. But for me, when an issue comes from the printer, I judge it on whether the articles are good and the paper quality is what I expected. For me, it’s a success because it is a beautiful magazine with beautiful stories. We often say to the ‘numbers’ people: ‘OK, maybe it was not a success in terms of figures but I got 10 letters from people all over the world saying, I changed something in my life, or you really helped me, or this story really meant something to me. That is success to me.”

“It’s the combination of the use of paper and the topics that makes Flow so interesting. We do more than put letters on a page. We explore the tactile nature of paper, we make it more a present for readers.”
Irene Smit
Co-founder and Creative Director of Flow Magazine

Lesson 8 calls for considered consolidation of your brand, and building with meaning

“We are at the stage where we are really looking into the different things we can do with the Flow brand and how it connects to slowing down,” says Irene, who has recently shifted the focus of her work at Flow to overseeing the international editions and new business.

“We have always done spin-offs. On top of the eight issues we publish each year, we started creating two special issues (which quickly grew to four, then six and then more!). We created specials on mindfulness, and poster and card books, and specials about travel. And we started making the Book For Paper Lovers. A magazine inspired by the fact people love blank notebooks. We thought, rather than print words on paper, why not bundle up all kinds of paper, different structures and different colours and pop-ups and pull outs and just make a big book of paper without articles. It’s now our bestselling issue all over the world.”

“And now we are looking at ways to help readers slow down beyond reading the magazine. Could there be Flow Travel or Flow Reading Socks? We’re going to be working with a museum next year. Could we have slow walks? Or something that uses the benefits of sitting in nature? There are so many ideas.”  


Paper and beyond: the Flow team is always looking for ideas to help readers slow down and make more conscious choice

Make use of all the tools available to you is Irene’s penultimate lesson.

“We focus very much on print, because it’s the thing we love most and it’s also the thing that brings us a lot of money. But we also want to do online things because digital offers interesting ways to do different things. We always say print is for good journalism and the tactile feeling, while online is for the community feeling. The community feeling is very important. We have a lot of followers on Instagram, people living all round the world, and this is a way to help them connect and to give them the Flow feeling. We started a Facebook group for paper lovers. In just two weeks the group had 5,000 followers. It continues to grow, with people around the world writing posts about the things they do with paper and why they love paper. On Instagram and on our website, we give our readers, content with a community feeling. For us, it’s about embracing the qualities of the different channels so our readers and followers have the best experience.”

Irene’s 10thand final lesson? Have a care in the world

“Sustainability is a question we’ve been asking ourselves about. The German team is doing a lot of research into it. An early finding is that if we leave a certain layer out of the cover, it’s more recyclable, so we are looking into doing that. Sanoma also has a working group investigating ways to print more sustainably: can we use other materials, or different papers, or stop using the plastic bag when posting the magazine? What we’re finding is there is no one easy solution. Next week I’m going to a session on sustainable printing, hoping to discover some good ideas. One interesting thing about Flow is that it is timeless. Yes, we destroy some magazines that come back to us from shops, but we also resell a lot. You can order our old issues because people are still interested in them. It’s not the same as a glossy magazine where you only want to read about the trends now and by next month it’s already old news.”

“There is still a lot of figuring out to be done on how we can print and produce more sustainable paper products. And we have to work it out because we need wood and paper products. Even in this digital age, I think we all want paper. I can’t imagine that there will be children who don’t want to play with paper and draw on it – even when they can draw on an iPad. The attraction of paper will stay the same – you can feel it, you can touch it, it has fibres in it, you can smell it. We’ve had five to 10 years of people growing up with their mobiles, and using them for a lot of things. But they will always want to have paper to slow down and for the tactile feeling.”


In a time that has seen many established print titles pulped out of existence, Flow has not just survived, it’s thrived!

“Currently, we print eight issues a year, each has a circulation of 80,000. Next year we will go to 10 issues,” says Irene.

The title is published in four languages – English, Dutch, German and French.

And distributed in 40 countries. “The English edition, which we make here in the Netherlands office, goes out to 40 countries. The US, Australia and the UK have the highest sales. I was in Malaysia last summer and discovered a lot of shops selling Flow. It’s also very popular in Tokyo, and we know from sales on our webshop to readers in Malawi and El Salvador!”