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Features / Graphic Design

Design of the Times: Design director of The New York Times Magazine, Gail Bichler, tells us her story

First published in Printed Pages Spring 2015

Words by

Rob Alderson

Photography by

Jeremy Liebman

Everyone loves an underdog, which is why the conversation about a new golden age of magazines often centres on small-run indie titles; plucky print upstarts with nimble publishing models and niche themes. Less attention is paid to the industry’s real big hitters and the pressures of producing high quality products for hundreds of thousands of readers. As design director of The New York Times Magazine – which distributes 2.5 million copies with the Sunday edition of the newspaper – Gail Bichler knows a thing or two about those pressures. Growing up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a small city in the American mid-west, Gail knew really early on that she wanted to do something involving art. She went to college in Michigan to study fine art, before switching to graphic design. After college she worked as a book designer for several years before moving to New York where she emailed her portfolio to a bunch of prospective employers, including legendary Times Magazine creative director Janet Froelich. Ten years later, she’s replaced her one-time mentor, working closely with editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein to deliver a magazine that defines the weekend reading habits of millions of Americans…

When you switched from doing fine art at college, what was it about graphic design that captured your imagination?

I loved the craft of typography. It was an interesting realisation for me, because I am kind of a messy person and often typography is about paying attention to the minutiae of spacing and sizing, but there’s something about setting type that is calming. I also like the storytelling aspect of it and the way things unfold over time, mostly in publications. For a while after starting work as a designer, on the weekends I would go into a printmaking studio and I was always alone – all the impetus for it had to be internal. I had to come up with the project and keep pushing myself and I was the only one who would make something happen. The interaction that happens with design is something that I find really inspiring.

Is it true that your professor on the graphic design course told you she never thought you’d complete the programme?

(Laughs) Yeah she did!

Why?

Because I was still so involved in fine art. I would come in in a cloud of charcoal dust and I seemed really involved in that fine art aspect of things. So she thought ultimately I would end up there.

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How did you first come to move to New York?

I had moved to Minneapolis with my husband and I was having a really hard time with the weather there because it’s freezing cold. I was working for myself and feeling kind of isolated – working out of my house making these books. I didn’t have a real community. I had always wanted to move to New York and there was an opportunity for my husband here so I pretty much insisted that he put his name in for the job. He got it and we moved here and I started to look around for what I wanted to pursue.

The story goes you cold-called the magazine to get a job?

I had a whole portfolio full of books I’d designed but I had no magazine experience and having run my own business out of my home in Minneapolis I realised that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to work with people and a few people were telling me that they thought Janet Froelich would really respond to my work.

I decided to give it a shot, so I emailed Janet and came in and had an interview with her and she brought me in for three weeks. That turned into the ten years I have now been here.

And was it somewhere that immediately felt right for you?

No. I was really apprehensive about it. I had been designing these books where I got to pick everything new for each project – what the paper would be, what the format would be. I wasn’t sure how I would do with magazines and it was a real learning curve for me. One thing that’s entirely different is the pacing; I had been working on very long-term projects and suddenly there was this very quick turnaround and I wasn’t really sure it was the right thing for me. But a three week commitment isn’t much of gamble and I have always loved The Times Magazine. I was also really interested in having just arrived in New York, working for such an iconic New York institution.

The New York Times has a really significant heritage and a certain place in the US media. Does that filter into the magazine as well?

I think it definitely does have a huge effect on the magazine. It’s very different tonally from the paper but we adhere to the same kind of standards. One area where that affects us quite a bit is our photography because we are under very strict rules about what we can and cannot retouch. Other magazines are able to go in and alter images quite a bit but we really cannot do that because we’re part of a journalistic organisation and people have to know the photographs we are publishing are not altered. We also have standards for how we interact with the subjects of our articles and the way things are fact-checked – those kinds of things.

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I’ve often seen you talk about your personal pride at working for The Times

Yeah I feel really lucky to work here. I believe in our mission and I do feel proud to be a part of it. I see the commitment people here have to telling these stories, to getting things right and to getting information out there that is valuable to the public.

And you work in a competitive local context with titles like The New Yorker and New York Magazine at the top of their games too. Do you keep an eye on what they’re up to?

Yeah definitely. I am very aware of what they’re doing and sometimes I look at them and think “Urgh that’s so great I wish we would have done that.” But we have a real sense of what our brand is, so oftentimes I will see something someone else has done and while I really appreciate it, I know it wasn’t something that would have been possible in our magazine.

How does the design/editorial relationship work at the magazine in very practical terms? At what point do you start talking about the visuals?

It varies depending on the articles. It can happen relatively early on and we’re getting drafts at whatever stage they’re coming in so the art and photo department are reading things as they’re developing. We have an ideas meeting which is mostly photo editors but there’s representatives from the art and photography departments there too and people are welcome to pitch stories as part of the process.

There’s a real marriage between the visuals and the journalism and there’s also the idea that we’re doing something that really houses and affects the story.

With the kind of stories you run there must be times when there aren’t any obvious visuals, because it’s very complex or conceptual…

I think those are my favourite projects, where there’s no obvious treatment. Often it could be almost anything and you have take the time to think about all the possibilities to come up with something that will have impact and really draw people into the story.

Can you give us an example of that?

We did a cover story on Rand Paul that was a lot about how he was going to make this impact on the Republican party because of how youth voters would respond to him. We did a number of different cover options – with a Republican symbol as a nose ring or a tattoo – but ultimately that didn’t feel right and we ended up going with a gig poster style cover. But we executed those other things right the way through to the finish before realising they weren’t exactly tonally right.

Is it common to work up different options? Do you still have last-minute panics at your level?

Yeah because we work at such a fast pace! And sometimes the cover story will change the week of the ship or sometimes you think something’s going to work and it’s not up until the very end that you realise it’s not exactly working and you come up with a new plan.

Or sometimes the idea of a story will shift or even some current event will change what the visual needs to be. So yeah we still sometimes commission a cover at the very last minute or do something entirely different to what we had planned!

Do you think there’s a science to editorial design?

I don’t think there’s a science. I do think that people have their own methods of approaching it. My method is reading through a story several times. So I read through it once to get the sense of it and the tone of it and then I go back in and look at the language because somehow language is very inspiring to me. Sometimes I get an idea from the specific phrasing of a story. I often find it harder to concept something if I just have a general idea rather than the specific language that goes with it.

There are certain tools I use when I try and think about a visual for a story: Could it be typographic? Are there certain obvious visuals that you can subvert in some way to make something more interesting? So there are ways people can approach things but I don’t think there’s a science to it, partially because I think successful design is the confluence of a huge number of different things. You might have a great idea but if the execution isn’t right on then it doesn’t work. I feel everything has to come together in ways that can’t really be orchestrated in order to have something great.

That really reminds me of the video Matt Willey put online of him playing around with type on the cover of Port, that sense of something not feeling quite right. You hired Matt recently as art director, how did that come about?

I met Matt when he was here working on our last redesign but I didn’t have a real chance to work with him. I’ve always liked his work but in talking to him I was really impressed with his curiosity about things, his interest in writing, his commitment to doing something that he really believes in (I guess in a similar way to what you mentioned about my having pride in working for The New York Times). I just felt there was a similarity in terms of our approach. Also I think he’s a lovely person and if you’re going to have the ability to affect who you’re going to work with, then you want to bring in somebody who you really like. It was kind of everything about him that made him the right choice and I was really excited that he seemed interested in working with us.

It’s interesting that you mention that passion for writing. How important is that for editorial designers?

I think it’s key. I spend so much time reading these stories that it would be torturous if I didn’t enjoy reading them.

But I think it’s rare to interview designers who talk about their passion for writing…

That’s interesting. Particularly for what we do where it’s so much about coming up with visuals that so closely relate and are also tonally on target. If you don’t really love reading it’s hard to have that marriage that makes for a successful visual for these pieces. And that’s definitely something that we look for in terms of the people who work here; that they have a real respect for language and they love to read.

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As design director a lot of your job is getting the best out of other people and managing that design team. That’s something you don’t often hear about because people like to focus on inspiration and creativity…

I think that’s really true. I worked for close to ten years under Arem Duplessis who really focussed quite a bit on being a great manager, so it’s something I’ve focussed on myself a lot because I think that’s the only way you get something great.

It’s not about making a magazine that is your thing, it’s about inspiring people that work for you, bringing out their talents and finding ways to incorporate things you wouldn’t necessarily have done yourself but are fantastic. Those are the things that make a publication really rich, the mix of all the talent and being able to get that out of people; that’s the difference between being a designer and being a great creative director.

Lastly I can’t let you go without asking you about a story that involves you, Tyra Banks and a magazine cover…

(Laughs) Oh my god! Do you have to ask me about that?

Yeah I have to. It’s one of the strangest magazine-related stories we have ever heard…

I was standing in line waiting to buy a magazine and it was taking such a long time. I was looking at my phone or something and then I looked up and realised I wasn’t waiting in line to buy the magazine, I was waiting behind this guy who was kind of making out with a cover of Tyra Banks…

That’s so weird. You should shoehorn it into your personal narrative, make it the moment you realised the power of a great cover! I mean we won’t do it…

Yeah please don’t do that!