The New York Times Magazine‘s design director and art director on trashed covers, never learning Flash, and the dark cloud over Manhattan publishing
What’s the process of designing a cover like? How many versions are scrapped before you get to the final one?
Gail Bichler: It varies quite a bit. We often go through many, many rounds. Sometimes as many as 30.
Arem Duplessis: But then there’s the process where we show the editor. That’s not as many rounds, obviously—probably eight to ten. First we have a bunch of images that we show, seven or eight images, then we narrow it down to one. And then we’ll start putting type on it. Then another round, maybe seven or eight iterations of that.
You often post early versions of covers online. Why let readers see the designs that were passed over along the way?
GB: It’s just to show the process that we go through, that we try all these different ideas, do things that have a different feel and often even have a different headline. People like to see behind the scenes. It’s just our attempt to open up the process and let people see what we’re up to.
At a recent talk in New York, Christoph Niemann said that when magazines show their killed covers, they take away from the inevitability—the authority—of the final versions.
AD: Well, I would agree with that, 15 years ago. But between blogs and Twitter, everything is so transparent now. I think it’s nice to share the process. When we blog the covers, it’s not just for the designers—it’s bigger than that. Maybe I wouldn’t do that for the AIGA—and I’m not saying I disagree with Christoph—but our readers want to know. They want to know what goes on in the cafeteria or in the magazine. Showing that will teach them how we make decisions. I think it’s a great tool, and very useful for students.
GB: Sometimes we’ve done a number of covers that we’re proud of, and otherwise they’re not really ever going to see the light of day. So it’s a way for us to get those out there, and for artists whom we’ve commissioned to have their work be shown at some point.
What’s the most common reason that a cover gets killed?
GB: Because this is a process that happens quickly, sometimes the focus of a story shifts. We may make a cover that emphasizes one side of the story, and as we’re making the cover, the editors are working on the text. And it turns out that what’s being emphasized on the cover is no longer the point of the story. That happens fairly often.
At a time when it’s possible to create beautiful editorial design exclusively for the web, what’s the justification for producing a weekly paper magazine that will end up in the recycling bin?
GB: I think it’s the experience. It’s a really different kind of experience to hold something in your hand and page through it. People go through them in different ways, if you’re looking at a tablet versus a print piece. And I think there’s a tradition, especially with the newspaper, of people kind of sitting back and relaxing and paging through it—there’s something really nice about that.
AD: I also think it’s the demographic. People keep talking about “the death of print,” but if you look at a certain age group—age 45 and up—those people are still reading print. Not everyone is interested in buying a tablet or can afford a tablet. I’m not saying the world’s not going in that direction, because I think it is. But it’s a slow process. We might still see the death of print, but there’s not going to be a dark cloud coming over New York City’s publishing businesses and shutting everything down. I always tell a story: Back in 1996, an editor came into my art department. I wasn’t an art director yet but a designer, and she told us we would all be out of jobs in three years if we didn’t learn how to use Flash. That was a big thing back then. And here we are, 15 years later, and we’re still talking about it.
Photograph by Dustin Aksland