The Multiple Lives of an Art Director: The Art of Art Direction Event Recap

Katie Henderson
Jun 19, 2017 · 6 min read

On April 13th, Alexandra Zsigmond, Art Director for The New York Times Sunday Review, gave us some tips on what you need to successfully direct art. During her 7 years at The Times, Alexandra has learned a few things, such as how to work with a limited budget, how to convince non-creatives one graphic style is more suited to a story than another, and above all, how to write a polite email.

Originally, Alexandra went to school for philosophy and art history. She worked at art museums as a coordinator and was a self-taught designer. She came to NYC to attend Parsons and officially study design. And, it was through those connections at Parsons, that she became linked with The Times and the Sunday Review.

Her work at The Times has been an exploration in design theory and striving to define what it means to be an Art Director. The 12 page section, which runs on Sunday, includes articles from contributing writers and Op Ed pieces. Historically, the section has been primarily illustrated (from design illustration, comic artists, sculptural artists and fine artists to animation, collage and photography). As Art Director, it’s Alexandra’s job to determine which of these styles is appropriate for the subject matter. In her time doing this, she identified the variety of identities Art Directors must take on to get the best quality of work from their collaborators and peers. These identities are as follows:

Collector

As Alexandra shared stories of her dad and his obsessive shell collection — all labeled with where they were from — she drew a connection between this upbringing and how it influenced her success (our words, not hers) as an Art Director.

For her, this ingrained addiction to collecting has manifested itself as an endless collection of images. As Alexandra pointed out, “you’re constantly inundated with images.” Being more proactive about sourcing, by collecting zines and publications, and finding artists through anthologies, has been really helpful to her work. (She mentions It’s Nice That and Nobrow as go-to publications.) Alexandra also tries to attend as many art and comics fairs as possible (like ELCAF in London, BilBolBul in Italy and Entrevinetas in Colombia).

This constant curiosity and archiving has given her a repertoire of potential collaborators and a sea of inspiration. Thankfully her dad still sends emails that include only photos of shells, in case she ever needs them.

Matchmaker

Alexandra believes that being a matchmaker is the core job of any Art Director. The duty to create an intelligent match between an artist and an article is imperative to creating content that resonates successfully with its audience. The more people you know, and the better research you do, the better you’re able to match the right person with the right story. As Alexandra says, “it becomes second nature once you do it enough.”

Through research Alexandra is inspired to work with a variety of artists, some brand new, and some she has wanted to work with for a while.

Translator

From print to web and web to print, an art director has to be fluent in translating; from verbal to visual, print to digital, The Times’ website to social media, desktop to mobile, you have to anticipate usage and be flexible with editing.

Alexandra identified that there are pros and cons in each platform. With print, although you have to make sacrifices, you can use the context of the page to create meaning. However, that same design and visual can lose impact and meaning when it goes online. But, once online it can take on animation and energy that wasn’t possible in 2D.

Alexandra says that her biggest translation project is “The Year in Pictures.” Because the project is first and foremost a web based project and includes numerous photos, trying to translate the impact onto the printed page is difficult. For her, paying attention to color, layout and what has to be cut to fit in the book, are the largest hurdles. Alexandra advises, “you have to make images work together and tell the story of the year with images.” For her, this sometimes means juxtaposing images and cultural events that are opposing views of humanity, such as a tragic photo of Syria next to a jubilant one of the Olympics.

Amer Almohibany/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
James Hill for The New York Times

Only the images that are really important to the piece get to be included in the printed publication. Alexandra elaborates, “these micro-decisions influence how these photos are treated…How do you decide between prince and bowie?”

Diplomat

Probably the hardest part of the job for Alexandra is being a diplomat. At the Sunday Review, the Art Director works with over 100 people and it’s not always clear what the power plays are in any given environment. While many editors and coworkers can be accepting and excited about being directed by someone, there can also be a lot of interpersonal conflicts. However, all of this experience can sharpen an Art Director’s skill for debate and compromise.

Critic

For Alexandra, ever since Trump entered the scene as a political figure her job has forced her to be more critical of content. Because we’ve been inundated with content on Trump, there hasn’t been any way to avoid imagery featuring him; one week might have 6 different articles about Trump. The question is: How do you create variety amongst that? The answer: You have to be critical of content and focused on concept. Examples of Alexandra’s playful strategy can be seen in articles such as, Voting Narcissistic Sociopath — Until Now; Donald Trump: The Art of the Address; Will the Supreme Court Stand Up to Trump?; and To Tweet Is Human, to Delete Divine.

Erik Carter, Trump as the Center of the Solar System
Selman Design; photograph by Damon Winter/The New York Times, Trump: The Art of the Address
Adam Maida, Will the Supreme Court Stand Up to Trump?
James Kerr/Scorpion Dagger, To Tweet Is Human, to Delete Divine

However, after exhausting all these variations, the real challenge for Alexandra is: how do you show Trump without showing him?

Design Teacher

As designers, we understand the role of an Art Director, we understand symbolism and connotation behind colors, images, styles and subject matter. However, non-visual creatives usually don’t have this understanding. This is where Art Directors need to become teachers. It’s paramount that they strive to educate their peers and coworkers, make them understand design theory, visual history and imagery. It’s paramount that they strive to educate their peers and coworkers in design theory, visual history and imagery through open dialogue whenever possible.

Living Multiple Lives

By design, an Art Director must have multiple identities. The ability to switch gears from creating, to collaborating, to compromising, is essential. This inherent collaboration allows Art Directors, as well as the artists, designers and illustrators who work with them, the capability to explore their own identities, and re-contextualize their work. It’s a position that thrives on continually reinventing itself and constant focused curiosity.

AIGA NY

AIGA NY’s mission is to demonstrate design’s impact and…

Katie Henderson

Written by

Content Manager, AIGA/NY

AIGA NY

AIGA NY

AIGA NY’s mission is to demonstrate design’s impact and cultivate the future of design in NYC. This publication is a platform for ideas, thoughts and words from our board, members and community.

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