XRDS: The ACM Magazine for Students

Back in August 2009, Jill Duffy from ACM sent me a fairly benign email. She had seen my research on shape shifting displays and wanted to know if I would be interesting in contributing an article to Crossroads. I had never heard of Crossroads, but a quick Google search suggested it was either an evangelical Christian magazine or an ACM student journal. It was the latter, and so I sent in my one page article and thought I was off the hook. Jill must have liked the article, because she followed up by phone, and after a brief chat, asked if I would be interested in being Crossroads' Editor-in-Chief. I did not know what an Editor-in-Chief did, but a quick Google search suggested it would be quite interesting. I accepted.

XRDS design pre-relaunch

What excited me most about the job was that ACM recognized the periodical needed a serious re- imagining. And so, over the next year, we rethought almost every aspect of the publication: mission, audience, content, membership dues, submission schemes, peer review, etc. Simultaneously, working with Luke Hayman from Pentagram, we crafted a new visual identity, inside and out (see covers below). A particularly tough decision was to change the name. I wanted to get away from Crossroads, which didn't fare favorably in search results and was nondescript. I wanted a unique, new name that signaled its rebirth, but also honored its 15 year history – Crossroads became XRDS. We took some flak from readers for that, but in retrospect, I think it achieved its purpose. It also became a magazine, and not a journal.

In May 2010, the first issue of XRDS shipped out to almost 30,000 students worldwide. I "edited" the first issue, much like a editor would put together an academic book. The next few issues were taken on by others from the editorial team. Crafting a coherent article line up and soliciting work from top authors turned out to be an intellectually challenging and rewarding experience. By Winter 2010, we were inviting top graduate students to be guest "issue editors", extending the model further. It was a radical shift in how we solicited and managed content, but the quality boost was immediate and significant. We were putting together issues on par with CACM in my opinion. Our articles were even getting cited in papers.

New covers since relaunch

We also created a set of recurring columns ("departments" in journalism lingo - don't even get me started on all the print terminology I learned!) that accompanied feature articles. These were aimed squarely at our student readers, tackling questions about education, work and life. These included people and lab profiles, as well as code snippets and career advice. I strong-armed Tom Bartindale into becoming "departments chief", a title we invented for the person who oversaw all of the departments. This was vital to provide some continuity (and ownership) to those parts during the transition. Slowly we recruited good people to write them every issue.

Redesigned interior pages

Maintaining our quarterly publishing schedule while working on the overhaul was a Herculean task. We were all volunteers; Ph.D. students doing it in our spare time (if there is such a thing in grad school). The original rag tag crew, which first met in New York City at ACM Headquarters in November 2011, was Tom Bartindale, Ryan K. L. Ko, James Stanier and myself (picture below). Jill was the only full time member, based in New York at ACM HQ. She worked tirelessly, pulling together all the loose ends and proof reading the torrent of text that poured in. Without Jill, XRDS never would have happened. Period. Jill went on to bigger and better things at PC magazine in 2012. Lucky for us, Denise Doig stepped in and we continued at full speed. I should also acknowledge Scott Delman and the ACM Editorial Board, who give us their full support (and budget) necessary to pull this transformation off. I stepped down as Editor-in-Chief in January 2012, having just shipped out an issue celebrating Alan Turing's 100th birthday. The subsequent EiCs - Inbal Talgam, Peter Kinnaird and Sean Follmer - raised the magazine to ever greater heights. XRDS continues to thrive today - you should check out their latest issue here.

From left to right: Luke Hayman, Ryan Ko, Tom Bartindale, Chris Harrison, Scott Delman, and James Stanier.
© Chris Harrison