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Features / Here 2016

How I Got Here: Gail Bichler, design director of The New York Times Magazine

Illustration:

Michael Driver

In the run up to It’s Nice That’s annual symposium, Here 2016, we’ll be introducing each speaker who will appear at the event. We have asked each of them to share an early piece of work and a recent project, to reflect on how they’ve progressed between the two.

As design director of The New York Times Magazine, Gail Bichler is one of the driving forces behind the Sunday supplement’s succession of brilliant weekly covers. After joining the magazine as art director, she was appointed design director in 2014 and now has over ten years experience at the publication. In recent years the unveiling of the news magazine’s weekly cover has become something of a design event. As testament to its clout, Gail’s stellar design team, which includes Matt Willey, recently scored eight certificates of typographic excellence from the Type Directors Club for its outstanding work.

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Gail Bichler: Art in Chicago 1945-1995

Art In Chicago 1945–1995 exhibition catalogue, 1996


What is the work? Why was it created?

Art In Chicago is a catalogue that was created to accompany an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. The exhibition attempted to define the entire recent history of art in the city and was controversial for that reason. Chicago artists and critics paid close attention to who made it into the show and who didn’t. A local newspaper ran a piece on the exhibition with quotes from artists who were in the show and some that didn’t make the cut. I remember reading a quote from one of the artists who was not included that likened being left out of the exhibition to being written out of art history.

What did you learn while doing it?

This was the first big project I worked on after I left school, so there was a tonne to learn. One of the partners at the studio that I worked at did the preliminary designs, and I spent nine months working with her visual language designing the interior. I learned a lot of practical things about dealing with clients, being organised, and batch typesetting large amounts of copy, but there was something that really stayed with me from the reaction to the book after it was printed. A national art magazine published a review of the exhibition and the catalogue. The writer devoted almost two pages to a critique of the book. He hated it. The last line of the critique was: “The designers of the catalogue ought to have their eyes put out slowly with blunt and unsympathetic thumbs.” I was devastated. Later that year the Art In Chicago catalogue won an award in a prestigious book-design competition. It was a real-life example of the Tibor Kalman quote: “When you make something no one hates, no one loves it.” I realised then that you can’t put too much stock in any one person’s opinion of your work. You have to just make things that feel right to you.

What do you think of it now?


I really like this book. It’s not that I love the aesthetic of it, but I like the spirit in which it was made. It’s not a traditional art catalogue where the design is a backdrop and is meant to contain the work and to basically be invisible. It’s saying something. It has a visual point of view.

How does it relate to your current work?


I bring the level of craft that I learned from my early studio job to my current work, but making magazines is different from making art books in many ways. The main purpose of an art book is to display the art. Your design can complement and elevate that work in a variety of ways, but you are making something in service to those visuals. In my current job, particularly with the covers for the magazine, I am often commissioning art to convey an idea. I’m making something with a point of view in a much more overt way.

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Gail Bichler: The New York Times Magazine, October 2015 cover

The New York Times Magazine Trump cover, October 2015

What is the work? Why was it created?

This cover for The New York Times Magazine was created to accompany an article on Donald Trump written by Mark Leibovich. We sent a photographer on the campaign trail with Trump. He also took a great studio portrait of him that could have worked for the cover. However, in the months preceding our story Trump had been on the cover of almost every major news magazine in the country. We wanted to make a cover that would stand out from the rest of the coverage and be memorable, something with the same kind of attitude as the written piece. So we came up with the idea to make an image of him as a helium balloon.
 
What would you tell your younger self about this work?

There are always multiple ways to approach a project. Pursuing a direction where the outcome is uncertain can be scary. There is a real possibility that you could make something that doesn’t work or is truly bad. We had five days to make this cover and no idea if we could make a balloon that looked like Trump. I’m glad we took the risk.

As well as Gail Bichler, Here 2016 speakers include artist Bob and Roberta Smith, founding member of Turner Prize-winning architecture collective Assemble, Joe Halligan and visual artist Yolanda Domínguez.

We will also be welcoming creative director at MTV Richard Turley, illustrator Malika Favre and Omar Sosa and Marco Velardi, art director and editor-in-chief of Apartamento magazine.

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