What Does it Take To Excel in a Fast-Paced Work Environment?
Learning from Richard Aloisio
What does it take to excel in a fast-paced work environment? Who better to ask than New York Times Art Director, Richard Aloisio?
Richard is the Art Director of the Weekend and Daily Arts sections of the New York Times, and is one of the most creative and best-dressed New Yorkers in the city.
In today’s episode of Question Everything, Richard talks about why he wanted to quit during his first two-and-a-half years at the New York Times and shares valuable advice for young people who feel overwhelmed by a new job or position. We also discuss why it’s important to never give up too quickly, and reflect on what it takes to succeed while working in fast-paced and high-pressure environments.
Can you tell us about your background and how you started working at the New York Times?
I went to an art school for four years in Brooklyn–Pratt Institute. I didn’t know quite where I would end up. When I was in high school I had two choices: I thought either I would go into some field of art or journalism. It turns out I did both. But that was sheer luck I think.
When I got out of Pratt I interviewed at a couple of places. Some of them were little design studios, but they never seemed right. I knew I wanted to work among a lot of people and the design studios were always small groups of people. They’d offer me the job and I turned down a couple because I really needed what I wanted.
When I walked through the doors of Penthouse Magazine there were people moving back and forth… coming out of doors… just so many people. The minute I walked out of the elevator I said to myself, “This is where I want to work!” I didn’t know what I’d be doing, but I was interviewed and I’ll never forget the Associate Art Director opened my portfolio (this is before computers) and the first thing he said was, “This is the neatest portfolio I’ve ever seen!” I didn’t know what he’d been seeing, but mine was very clean. So I got hired at Penthouse and I started doing magazine design. I fell into that in a way. I left that after about two-and-a-half years and then I became the Art Director of a sports magazine called Inside Sports. I’m not a sports fan at all and I couldn’t face the thought of doing another Super Bowl issue, so I left. I think I took off for about six months and then I felt it was time to start working again. I signed up with a headhunter and she had me interview at the Times and then I got that job. But the job was really difficult for me at first. I wanted to quit every day for the first two-and-a-half years. It was miserable for me.
I had an anniversary party when I had been here for thirty years and one of my bosses asked sarcastically, “Why did you stay if you wanted to quit for two-and-half years?” I didn’t want to quit, is basically the answer. I didn’t want to give in. It was very difficult in terms of design, but also in terms of deadlines and the nature of the place. You know? You’re working for the New York Times, so it was important to do everything right! But also, I came from a magazine and going to a newspaper which was even bigger than it is now (because we’ve shrunk it in size over the years) it was huge! The scale of design was really difficult for me to grasp, because I had been doing layouts for a little magazine. It was a real learning experience and it took me a long time to grasp it. But, the best thing is that it made me incredibly fast because I was used to a monthly magazine and then I was doing daily pages. It was a really amazing shift. So I got very fast, which was wonderful.
What advice would you give to young people who are in those positions where they’ve found themselves at a new job where they don’t know what’s going on? Do you have any insights that you could share from your two years of feeling like that?
Everybody is different, but it was a sense of not wanting to give up. I’m a perfectionist, so I pride myself on getting everything right and getting all of the details right. That would have seemed to me to be giving up, and I didn’t want to do that.
As far as advice, I think you have to stick with it for a certain amount of time. Either they are going to fire you or you’re going to say I’ve had enough. You can’t give up too quickly. Two-and-a-half years is a long time. I know people don’t even stay at jobs that long anymore because of technology now days, especially here. We used to have people who were here for a lifetime, and now anybody new and young who comes here considers three years a very long time to stay.
Your position sounds very hectic. I’m wondering what a day in the life of a New York Times Art Director looks like.
Every day is different here. Each director has his or her own section and we’re all on different schedules. It starts slow because nobody knows what they are putting into the section yet. Decisions here are often made very late. This has been something that has been worked on to be corrected for my thirty-five years and it hasn’t been corrected yet. It’s just hard to get people to say, “This is what’s happening.” It’s not like a monthly magazine where there is all of this lead time. If somebody dies–when Prince dies–you scramble! When Michael Jackson died, everybody was running around! When Bill Cunningham passed away, everybody was in turmoil running around looking for stuff and generating story ideas. It’s a zoo!
When people are running around and you don’t have time to think, but everything you do is going to be read by millions of people, what do you do? Are you consciously aware of that when you’re in those moments?
No, I never think of that. If I see someone reading the paper the next day on the Subway I’ll think, I did that big picture! You hate to see it on the Subway floor, that’s a bit disheartening, but thirty-five years later you still get a kick out of seeing somebody holding your section in their hand.
Being one of the more senior people here, how do you find new people adjust to the intense work environment?
The young people we’ve had that are starting here actually seem very good at it. They know the technology so that helps them. They usually start out under an art director’s wing and that person has his or her own style so in a way they are teaching them that style. But I think the people I’ve seen handle things very well. There is still that pressure, but maybe they are just hiring better people. With me… that was a whole different story. I would have been crying in the corner because of the stress and the time limits. But if you stick it out you do get better, because you understand how things work.
You are one of the best-dressed New Yorkers around. Can you talk to us about your style and what inspires you.
I like getting dressed up. It’s almost another form of art and design. Bill Cunningham (who just passed away) would see me here every day and he would look me over. He would always smile and say, “You have fun with it and you really think about it.” That’s what gave him the biggest kick.
Once I left home that’s when things happened for me. I was very neat and I was very OCD about things when I was in Pratt doing my projects. There weren’t any hints of my color obsession (at least not to me) until I got my first apartment and left home. That coincided with my first job working in Manhattan. I think it was more because I had my first place all by myself. Back in those days you didn’t need five roommates to pay the rent the way it is now, so I had my own place. Fortunately I worked and made decent money, and when I moved to Manhattan and I just felt that if I liked something then I could buy it! That’s just the way I was. But everything I bought was colorful.
I had friends at home, but I wasn’t an explorer so it wasn’t like I was going out and meeting people. We were very isolated where I grew up. When I first started going to Pratt, my father (who never really said anything) said, “Make friends.” That was my father’s parental advice, “Make friends!”
When I went to Pratt I sat all by myself and I didn’t talk to anybody. In first year, there was a guy who saw me and actually said (once we became close friends) “I saw you sitting by yourself and I felt sorry for you so I thought you could use a friend.” So he took me as a friend and we started hanging out. He introduced me to three women who were identical triplets at school and then we became five connected people. We took almost all the same classes together, hung out most of the time, and after college and graduation we went to Europe. My life would be completely different had he not introduced me to them. They were very open to doing new things, which I had never been, so I started doing lots of different things with them and I felt safe. So if they wanted to go to some strange theatre or recital I would say, “Yeah! If you’re going I’ll go with you.” So they opened up whole new things for me. They had a great influence on me and everywhere I‘ve gone I’ve meet somebody who’s had a great influence on my life. It’s very much like that movie It’s A Wonderful Life. Everybody is so connected. If you take one thing away it’s totally different. That’s not to say it couldn’t be better, but hopefully you are happy where you are at the stage in your life where you can say, “Thank God I met those people.”
This interview has been condensed and edited.