Matt Willey, the British designer who has been the art director of The New York Times Magazine for the past five years, is set to become a partner in Pentagram’s US office. On the eve of the announcement, we caught up with him to discuss his love of magazines both large and small, the importance of good storytelling, and what he wants to do next, now that he’s joining the world’s most famous design partnership.
First things first, though: What sorts of emotions is he currently experiencing? “I’m very excited and overwhelmingly terrified at the same time,” he says, with an audible chuckle down the line from New York. “I’ve had a lot of time to worry about it. It’s more exciting than anything else, but you go through imposter syndrome and you go through fears that you’re somehow not up to it. I’ve never done this before, so there’s a side to it that scares me. But the overwhelming feeling is one of excitement.”
Anyone who is unfamiliar with Matt’s work will likely have seen it – and will probably have held it in their hands at some point, too – without knowing it. He has spent much of his career working on editorial publications and has helped fundamentally shape the visuals of a huge number of titles, from the august (The Independent, Condé Nast Traveler and The New York Times Magazine) to the small and more niche (Avaunt, Elephant and Port).
Yet, for someone who has spent much of his working life designing magazines, it’s surprising to hear that Matt never intentionally planned that path. “I didn’t make a conscious decision to go out and do as many magazines as I could,” he says. “It’s just, you wind up being known for doing something and your portfolio sort of becomes this self-perpetuating thing. The more editorial projects I did, the more editorial projects came my way.”
Certainly, this is how things started. In 2003, when Matt was working for the designer Vince Frost, the editor Dan Crowe approached them with an idea for a small literary magazine called Zembla. Matt was thrown in at the deep end and was tasked with helping to design the publication alongside Vince. The work was hugely successful and, after Matt left Vince Frost Studio and struck out on his own 18 months later, one of the first things he was offered was the redesign of the Royal Academy magazine. “That’s because they’d seen Zembla,” says Matt. “It was an entirely different kind of magazine, but that was enough for me to start a studio off the back of.”
Of course, on one level, it’s flattering being offered work, because people have seen and liked work you’ve done previously for other clients. But there’s also a downside. “It can get frustrating,” says Matt. “That thinking could be applied to other things, but you’re rarely given the opportunity to design a piece of furniture, for example, or a shirt, or just something completely different.”
Also, as many heads of studios will know, pivoting away from what you’re good at and known for can be tough when you’ve got a company to sustain. “When we ran Studio8 [the business he founded in 2005 with Zoë Bather], we had a studio to pay for and we had people to pay, and you say ‘Yes’ to a lot of stuff because you feel like you have to,” Matt explains. “I actually think that one of the most enjoyable years I ever had as a designer was when I closed Studio8 and I was working on my own.” This was 2013, when he redesigned The Independent and the RIBA Journal. “That was the first year I just really, really enjoyed doing the thing that I do.”
Despite his frustrations, speaking to Matt, there’s no doubting his passion for magazines. In fact, since Zembla, he’s gone on to set up two more magazines, Port in 2011 and Avaunt in 2015. For him, the joy of such publications is that they’re generally “a handful of people who were all very excited about an idea for something,” he says. The journey from “nice ideas about what this thing might be to actually having the physical thing in your hand” is, he says, a “really addictive” process.
Matt has recently become more involved again with Port, almost as a counterweight to his work at The New York Times Magazine, which he describes as “a huge corporate machine, in which I’m a small cog” (he hastens to add that he doesn’t mean this in an impolite way, rather more factually). Port for him is “a place where I design almost entirely on my own terms,” he says. “I don’t have to consult anyone, I just do it as I want to do it. The great luxury of launching your own magazine is really that it allows you to do something the way you think it should be done. There’s great freedom to doing that.”
Gail Bichler, the design director of The New York Times Magazine, who has worked alongside Matt for the past five years, believes that his intuitive understanding of how to treat stories in print can be attributed to his experiences on such independent titles. “Matt has this ability to come at things and think about what they ought to be without being influenced by what’s been done before,” she says. “I think it allows him to make things that feel truly original and driven by the content rather than any other kind of restriction or precedent. I’ve often thought that this ability to approach things so openly comes from having started several magazines from scratch.”
The magazine’s regular special issues, Gail explains, were an arena for Matt to showcase his content-led design ethos. The “Life Above 800 Feet” issue from June 2016 is a prime example (and a particular favourite in the It’s Nice That studio, too, as it happens). For this issue, Matt not only drew a bespoke elongated typeface, but flipped the orientation of the entire magazine to create long portrait spreads, all serving to enhance the issue’s key topic: the constant upward trajectory of New York’s built environment, fuelled by, in editor Jake Silverstein’s words, “cash and ego”.
Over the past five years, Matt has worked on too many special issues, iconic features, and unforgettable covers to mention all of them. A few deserve being singled out, though. Like his cover for the “XXXY” issue, with those bold letters plastered over the cover, in which the writer Ruth Padawer uncovered the way in which international sports organisations were policing women’s bodies. Or the special issue for the 2018 Winter Olympics, for which Matt again created a custom font. And who could forget the cover of the issue in April 2017, which depicted a (painfully) close-up image of Donald Trump’s face overlaid with multiple tweets written by him criticising members of Congress?
For Matt, everything comes back to the stories. “In the end, it’s just incredibly interesting working somewhere with this much editorial clout and reach and influence,” he says. “It’s extremely varied in what it can and will talk about, it’s hugely ambitious week in, week out, and if you’re interested in magazines – which I was and still am – you ultimately want to work with great content, great stories and great ideas. And this place is about as good as it gets on that front. I think I’m working in the best magazine in the world.”
Posters for the book launch of ‘Photographs’, by Jack Davison, at the New York Book Fair (September 2019)
If that is the case (and few would vehemently contest the assertion), then it’s also partly down to the redesign of the magazine that Matt worked on when he arrived at the publication in 2014. He had already worked on one redesign of the magazine in 2011 when he was brought from Studio8. Three years later, though, it was a total overhaul. “When I moved here permanently, my first three months were really myself, Gail Bichler and Anton Loukhnovets locked in a room working on the redesign,” he says. The most intense part of this, he says, was working with the type designer Henrik Kubel on all the new typefaces. “We threw every single typeface out and started again,” he says.
The stress was worth it, though. That redesign has stood the test of time over the past five years and has helped cement The New York Times Magazine even more firmly as one of the world’s best (if not the best) weekly magazines.
So, how does he look back on his half-decade at the publication? “I think I was very lucky to be here at this particular moment, for my time here to coincide with an editor-in-chief like Jake [Silverstein], to have Gail [Bichler] as the design director, and Kathy [Ryan] as director of photography,” he says. “It’s those people being here, at the same time, that makes this magazine absolutely extraordinary.”
Gail attests to this close, trusting and incredibly fruitful working relationship with Matt. “We’ve been a sounding board for each other,” she says. “Creative confidence can be a fragile thing. There are often many reasons why a great idea shouldn’t happen and it’s up to you to articulate why it should. We’ve supported each other’s ideas and pushed each other to follow through on those ideas.”
So, now that Matt is leaving, what is he looking forward to doing next at Pentagram? He recently designed the logo, titles and typeface for the hit TV show Killing Eve. Would he want to continue that kind of work? “I’d love to continue doing more on-screen type, because it’s just been a huge amount of fun and I’d love to explore that more,” he says. “But I also really want to try things I haven’t done before. I’d be open to doing branding and packaging and wayfinding systems. Part of the excitement for me of going somewhere like Pentagram is that a lot of those things become possible. You can choose paths that maybe would have been harder otherwise.”