Chris Dixon on VANITY FAIR’s design evolution: “It was about making the design cleaner, stronger and more compelling.”
First published in GYM CLASS 12, March 2015
VANITY FAIR Design Director Chris Dixon — number three in our inaugural GC20 list of influential magazine makers — chats with Emma Tucker about NEW YORK magazine, working with Commercial Type, and VANITY FAIR’s poster-like, typographically-lush covers.
When you first started at VANITY FAIR, in 2011, did you have any initial thoughts on the direction you wanted to take the magazine in, design-wise?
I knew I wanted the magazine to be more typographically driven; to be something well-crafted and detailed, but still bold and muscular. A magazine that people are compelled to pick up and read.
Did you bring anything in particular, whether knowledge or influences, from your time at NEW YORK magazine?
I learned so much from Adam Moss and Jody Quon during those eight years. NEW YORK was an environment that valued intensive collaboration and trained you to have strong opinions, and the same is true of VANITY FAIR. Both magazines rely on having an authoritative but witty editorial voice — that’s what informs our design choices. Graydon Carter, our Editor, helped create SPY magazine, and we’ll reference that often — an approach to design that is clever but not too clever, that isn’t over-designed. Both magazines are high-quality general interest magazines, and there are not very many of those out there. I was comfortable with the varied mix of content, all in one issue.
What were the elements that you felt were absolutely essential to the magazine, on a visual level?
There were some things, like photography, that have always been strong. It didn’t need to be interfered with. The calibre of photographers we work with is fantastic, and there is so much attention to every facet in the execution of shoots. The entire process of shooting a cover, from inspiration to retouching, is something that I’ve really enjoyed being a part of here. The fact that our editors and writers are so strong pushes our design forward as well — the quality of the content is essential to our visual direction.
Was there anything you particularly wanted to introduce or change?
It’s definitely a process that’s ongoing. Starting out I knew I wanted to introduce a more detailed approach to the design as a whole. Part of that meant developing a visual language that was engaging and fresh, but that still felt like it belonged in VANITY FAIR. The Vanities section and the whole front of the magazine is a good example of that, where we were able to introduce devices and more finesse in the overall design. And I think a key word was cohesion, making the magazine flow more naturally.
What was it that made you opt for a gradual change, rather than a total visual overhaul?
Graydon and I wanted to make sure that every change we made was careful and considered. It was more important for us to take our time and see what really clicked through many iterations, rather than using a redesign like a fresh coat of paint. VANITY FAIR has a long history behind it, and I wanted to take advantage of that to drive the visuals. We couldn’t just give people a completely new magazine and call it VANITY FAIR. It was about making the design cleaner, stronger and more compelling, while remaining true to our character.
How have you preserved that iconic identity of VANITY FAIR, while still making your own changes to the design?
VANITY FAIR has such a rich legacy, and that informed what direction the redesign took. Typographically was where we had both the greatest challenge and the best opportunity for a refresh, and I’ve tried to make the most of that.
What kind of inherent challenges are there, when you’re working with a magazine with such a level of prestige and history?
The prestige and history can be hugely useful. When you’re at a title that people respect and want to contribute to, then you have some wonderful opportunities for collaboration with the best illustrators, photographers, and typographers. The challenge that comes along with that is how to work within the existing framework to create something new each month. So in a way it’s about constantly raising our own expectations of what we can do with the design.
In the past you’ve worked on a complete redesign — how does your ‘gradual update’ approach to VANITY FAIR compare?
For one thing, the timeframe is different. When we redesigned NEW YORK, we were constantly prototyping and having discussions about the design direction, and at the same time putting out an issue every week. It was exciting, but there was a certain amount of chaos and late nights that came along with that. At VANITY FAIR we’ve been more focused on identifying a specific problem we want to address and then finding the right solution over time. There was also no editorial rethink at VANITY FAIR, and our photography has stayed at the same high levels, so Graydon never envisioned it as a complete overhaul. It’s been about clarifying our design and visual storytelling.
As with most magazines now, there’s the print/digital divide. How do you continue to maintain a cohesive identity across both?
Well, it’s something I’m very aware of — it helps that we have the same team of designers doing print and tablet. There is a website redesign in the works to bring it closer to what we’re doing across the other platforms. And the art department have been working on many interesting motion graphics projects; web intro credits, animated logos, issue preview videos for Instagram, etc . Our department bounces between designing for the magazine and the tablet and social media and events and books… and on and on.
Tell me about the decision to work with Commercial Type, and commission VF Didot?
I had seen some spectacular stuff that they had done, in particular THE GUARDIAN work they did with Mark Porter, and of course their type for BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK. And Christian and Paul are tremendously kind and talented.
What qualities did VF Didot need to embody?
Our Didot needed to be versatile. VANITY FAIR is a general interest magazine, and in any given issue you have a huge range of stories, from Hollywood to the civil war in Syria to a profile on Tony Blair. The new typeface had to be flexible enough to work with all those topics. I also wanted a Didot that would play well with other type — some covers get rather involved typographically and we’ll mix VF Didot with Solano, VF Sans, Flama, Futura, and we’re always looking for the perfect script face.
This style of type has plenty of fashion connotations, how did you want to differentiate it from the other Didots of the world?
Our type designers were basically presented with the same challenge we had in redesigning the pages: to create something that is at once familiar and new. Our Didot has weights that feel more journalistic, less delicate. Christian and his team understood the need for versatility, and we ended up with seven distinct sizes, each with multiple weights. So it’s been interesting to see how each of my designers will pick up on a particular weight for a new story or package, and explore what its advantages are. It also gives us a huge range to work with, our covers tend to be type-heavy, and the range allows us to keep the covers looking typographically lush.
Have you had any favourite issues, or moments where you felt the design really ‘clicked’?
The 100th anniversary issue. It was the first issue that we used our new logotype, and we did some custom type and infographic devices for the anniversary package. Lady Gaga was my first cover in 2012, and I think typographically some good things happened there. The Jennifer Lawrence cover allowed us to use type in a poster-like way. The October Robert Downey Jr. cover turned out great, and that whole issue was strong. I’m also lucky to have the most brilliant team of designers and art directors here. We have fun doing this, and are always thinking about what’s coming up next.