Gail Bichler: “What is the biggest challenge of the job? Endurance. The schedule can feel relentless at times.”

First published in GYM CLASS 12, March 2015

THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE Design Director Gail Bichler nabbed the second spot in our inaugural list of top 20 magazine makers. And with good reason. She is, without question, one of our industry’s brightest stars. Gail spoke with Robert Newman for GYM CLASS 12.

What is your normal workday like?

The official start of my workday is 10am, but I tend to start a lot earlier. I try to get some email out of the way before leaving home and usually make use of my commute on the subway to read manuscripts or come up with concepts for covers. Once at work, my day is busy. I spend a lot of my time in meetings both with people in my own department and with our editors, photo editors and digital designers. The process at THE TIMES is a collaborative one, so we are in constant communication. The official end of my workday is 6pm. I sometimes work late, particularly during the weeks when we are producing special issues. I often think about upcoming issues on my off hours.

Who works with you on your staff?

My predecessor, Arem Duplessis, and I worked very closely on a lot of fronts. Hiring was one of them, so while some designers in my group were at the magazine when I took over, I had a hand in bringing them in. I have two very talented staff members that were hired under Arem — Jason Sfetko is the Deputy Art Director, and Ben Grandgennett is a Designer. They, along with Raul Aguila who departed in October for WIRED magazine, were my rocks during the transition period in between editors earlier this year. And I recently made an exciting hire. At the beginning of December, Matt Willey joined our group as the Art Director of the magazine. At the moment, freelancers are filling the remaining spots.

How did you get Matt Willey to come work with you at the magazine? And what will he be doing?

Matt and I met when he was in our office working on our last redesign. We hit it off and stayed in touch. I’m a longtime fan of Matt’s work, so when I was promoted to Design Director, I saw an opportunity to work together. I asked him to team up with me and be my creative partner, helping to run the department and develop the magazine’s new visual language. I’m incredibly excited about what he’ll bring to the magazine. His smart approach to design is perfect for our content.

The working relationship between Art Director and Editor is key to a successful magazine. Can you talk about your new editor and how you work together?

We have only been working with each other for about seven months, but Jake Silverstein and I have a great rapport. I feel really lucky to have the opportunity to remake the magazine with him. He’s ambitious about what can be done and is encouraging all of us at the magazine to think big. That’s inspiring. He’s keen to make use of our non-newsstand status to pursue a cover strategy that is unique to our brand and to shake things up visually and bring a sense of experimentation to the design. I’ve really been having fun with that and with pushing what’s possible, particularly on the covers. Jake is very inclusive. If he likes an idea the art department has proposed he often makes suggestions for furthering the editorial point or sharpening the idea to be more inline with the content of the piece. He will sometimes change display language so that the text and image support each other more seamlessly.

What is the creative process you go through each week to design a cover?

We usually focus in on one cover story; there are times, however, when we have a showdown between two, and we will play them both out to see what makes a more compelling visual. In either case, we have an initial brainstorming session to talk about directions. If we are going in a conceptual direction, we have a second meeting for the art and the photo departments to propose ideas. If more than one direction has promise, we’ll continue to work on several versions of the cover until there is a clear winner. Jake obviously has the final say over which cover we publish, but he’s open to other opinions. The process has been quite flexible.

As Design Director, are you in charge of the photography at the magazine, or does the photo staff operate more independently, in a more traditional newspaper way?

I’m not in charge of the photo side. The photo department is headed by Kathy Ryan and is one of the most respected in the business, with good reason. She and her team do an amazing job week in and week out. The relationship between our departments is collaboration in the truest sense. We often work together to conceptualize the more abstract or hard-to-visualize articles and to figure out who will best shoot stories. We are all very passionate about our views and occasionally butt heads on things, but I think that interplay ultimately makes for a richer product.

How do you design the cover within THE TIMES production schedule?

The magazine’s covers ship eight days before the magazine appears in the paper. Sometimes we get a head start on coming up with a concept for a cover and may start working on it as early as two or three weeks in advance of the ship date. More typically we are generating the cover over the course of the five-day work week. Because we are operating within such a short time frame, there’s no time for indecision. There are weeks when I wish I had more time to flush something out or that I had come up with an idea earlier in the process, but on the whole I get a lot of satisfaction from the quick turnaround. I love having an idea for a cover and being able to make it and see it out in the world within such a short period of time (and 52 times a year!).

Which have been your favourite covers that you’ve created?

I’ve been really happy with some of the more recent covers. I like the cover of our Food Issue. Christoph Niemann’s illustration of a little girl flipping an egg is simple but graphically strong, and it also has a real sense of joy to it and the design and illustration work well in tandem. The egg bleeds off the top of the page covering most of the logo, but leaving recognizable elements of it visible, and the bleed helps the reader understand the illustration’s vantage point.

The Abortion by Mail cover is another favourite. The main point of this article was that women who would otherwise be denied abortions by law were gaining access to them by mail. To bring the point of the story home, we played with the physical presence of the magazine to make it feel like a package and evoke the emotional response that you feel when you receive something in the mail. The Innovations Issue cover was also a standout. The theme of the issue was failure, and we published a photograph of a crumpled cover proof — essentially a failed cover. That concept felt pure to me, and the execution feels unlike anything we’ve done before. It looks a bit jarring in a good way.

One thing that is consistent with the recent covers that I’ve been liking is that they all play with identity of the magazine, whether it’s almost entirely covering the logo, turning in on it’s side or publishing a crumpled-up logo. Is there a cover that didn’t work?

I don’t think that our Is Football the New Tobacco? cover was particularly successful. The concept for that article was evolving as we were working on the imagery, and when the article came in, the photograph that we shot no longer seemed to fit. We abandoned that visual and came up with a new cover idea to be shot the next day. The tight turnaround worked against us in this instance. In the end, I think the photograph is dramatic, but the idea of putting an evidence tag on a football feels forced and is not as sophisticated as some of our other covers.

How would you describe your design aesthetic at the magazine?

My design work and aesthetic are stripped down and graphic. I love white space, impactful photography and illustration and beautiful typography, and I definitely have a bent toward the conceptual. I aim to respond to the variety of topics that the magazine covers with my aesthetic choices. I hope that at its best, my work makes an emotional connection with the reader and is both appropriate and surprising.

What is the biggest challenge of your job?

Endurance. The schedule can feel relentless at times.

What is the coolest thing about your job?

Being able to work with the content generated by the incredibly smart group of editors, writers and photo editors at the magazine and playing a role in shaping the national conversation on topics ranging from politics to pop culture. It’s such a unique and amazing opportunity.

As THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE Design Director you’re the latest in a long line of talent. Do you study the work that was done before you, and where do you feel that you fit in the design continuum of the magazine?

I definitely look at what was done at the magazine in the past. THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE has such a rich visual history. It would be a mistake not to draw from it. Some things that I take from looking at the previous successes are the incredible ambition that the magazine’s staff has brought to special issues, and the philosophy on assigning visual contributors.

The magazine has typically worked with a mix of fine artists, well-established photographers, illustrators, and designers, but also introduced and launched new talent. Another hallmark of the brand is the way that the photography and the design work together in ways that support and complement each other. I hope to continue these things.

Having worked closely with Janet Froelich my first year at THE TIMES and then with Arem Duplessis for the subsequent eight years I absorbed a lot, particularly from my extended time with Rem. I’m aiming to continue the traditions that they started but with my own twist. My work will naturally be distinct, because it will be a result of my partnership with Jake and of the talents that exist within my current group.

Earlier in your career you were the deputy at the magazine to Design Director Arem Duplessis, a super-talented and highly-respected art director. How was it working with him, what did you learn from him, and what is the challenge in following his tenure?

Rem was fantastic to work with. He is an incredible art director and one of the most decent people I know. He often came up with great conceptual ideas on the spot, but was always open to what other people brought to the table. He was supportive of his staff and just a lovely, positive person. I could go on.

What did I learn from Rem? Wow. How much space do we have here…? Rem was the person who first put me in a managerial position at THE TIMES, so I learned how to be a boss in a challenging environment from him. Working at THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE means working at a fast pace with high-level content and dealing with a variety of personalities. There can be a lot of pressure. Rem was always calm and collected, and was the first to break any tension with a joke or one of his legendary funny stories. I model my management style after him, although I definitely cannot compete on the storytelling front!

The challenge in taking over a magazine after any celebrated art director is in keeping up the level of work. If you take over a publication that’s failing it’s easy to improve. In following Rem, the bar is set high. Not only do I need to make sure that the design continues at a high level, I need to establish a vision that doesn’t feel like merely an extension of his work, no matter how successful. In my case, that has particular challenges given that Rem and I worked together for such a long time and share a similar sensibility. Rem and I are still close and communicate quite a bit.

There are some big changes on the art and design side this year. What can you tell us?

Yes, we are currently working on a multi-platform redesign [unveiled February 2015], which will involve substantial changes to both the content and the look and feel of the publication in all mediums.

We will be getting a heavier, brighter paper stock and will be working with an entirely new suite of custom typefaces. We plan to introduce a number of new contributors and columns. Our look will extend into the digital space, where we’ll make use of our new fonts and have a more magazine-like presence that maximizes the great photography that has always been a defining part of our publication. And one of the biggest changes, content-wise, will be that the magazine will produce daily content, some of which will primarily exist online. We will be shooting for quality over quantity, aiming to bring you timely content from our contributors.

Finally, where do you look for visual inspiration?

I used to be a book designer and have a large collection of art and design books that I often refer to. I love anything by Dutch designer Karel Martins and compilations of vintage book jackets. Some of the old book covers use typography in really interesting ways and convey so much with so little. I also look at blogs, mostly art and illustration based, but a few design blogs as well. Beyond that I’m influenced by what’s around me in my daily life. New York city is such a vibrant, visually alive place.

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