Sam Viviano: Designing MAD-ness

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For 60 years, MAD Magazine has been an astute observer of American society and popular culture, poking pointed fun at feckless politicians, annoying celebrities, irksome advertisements and much, much more.

Strong art direction coupled with nuanced design are fundamental to the magazine’s spot-on parodies and satirical observations, and driving it all is Sam Viviano, MAD’s art director since 1999.

A graduate of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, Viviano moved to New York in 1975 with the goal of making a living as a humorous illustrator. After hearing repeatedly that he should try his luck at MAD, Viviano phoned art director John Putnam, who politely told him that the magazine was a closed shop. Undeterred, Viviano dropped by the editorial offices, where his portfolio made an impression on associate editor Nick Meglin, who later would be instrumental in bringing Viviano into the fold.

MAD #521

Viviano easily found work at other publishers, including Scholastic Magazines, where he created illustrations for youth-oriented publications such as Bananas and Dynamite. Over the years, his work has appeared in such prestigious publications as Rolling Stone, Readers’ Digest and TV Guide. He also produced quite a bit of advertising work for various corporate clients.

Related: See dozens of vintage MAD covers curated by J.J. Sedelmaier.

In 1980, Viviano received a call from MAD editor Al Feldstein, who was searching for a replacement for longtime cover artist Norman Mingo, who had passed away a few months earlier. Viviano was assigned the cover of MAD #223 (June 1981), which featured Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing. Four years passed before Viviano received another assignment from MAD–a parody of the movie Ghostbusters.

“Little by little, over the following years, I did more and more work for MAD,” Viviano recalls. “I always thought of myself as a kind of utility infielder because I could do pretty much anything. I still did a lot of magazine work, book covers and advertising illustrations, but more and more of my output was devoted to MAD.”

MAD #223

MAD #223

In 1999, Viviano was approached to become MAD’s art director. It was a surprising offer because, as Viviano notes, his design background at the time was negligible.

“A far as I was concerned, art directors came from the ranks of designers, not illustrators,” he says. “On the other hand, MAD doesn’t do anything the way other magazines do. So I like to tell people I got the job with no training, no experience and basically no qualifications whatsoever.”

According to Viviano, whose official title is Vice President of Art & Design, his job as art director is two-fold.

“The first is logistical—to make sure the magazine gets out on schedule,” he says. “The second is to make sure that it’s the best-looking magazine possible.”

In addition to the bi-monthly print edition of MAD, Viviano is responsible for the production of ancillary products such as MAD books and bookazines. Assisting him are associate art director Ryan Flanders, assistant art director Mallory Herman and production artist Mark Russo.

MAD #537

MAD #537

Viviano and his staff work with a large pool of freelance artists, referred to on the magazine’s masthead, along with contributing writers, as “The Usual Gang of Idiots.” Contrary to what many people assume, articles are designed and laid out before they are assigned to an artist, Viviano says. The production staff determines which artist they feel is best suited for a particular feature, but executive editor John Ficarra has final approval.

Unlike most magazines, MAD does not have a specific template for the layout and design of articles; that is determined as the production department assembles each new issue. (One exception is movie and television parodies, which commonly follow a structural template established over decades.)

“Most of what we do is built from the ground up because it’s often a parody of something else, such as an advertisement, a catalog, another magazine or a web page,” Viviano says. “It’s its own thing and we have to figure out the best way to present the material over two or three pages.”

MAD #495

MAD #495

MAD’s look has evolved considerably over the years. Its earliest issues as a magazine (MAD originally was a comic book) were designed by editor/writer Harvey Kurtzman, who was notorious for micromanaging his artists. John Putnam joined the organization when Feldstein replaced Kurtzman as editor in 1956, and brought what Viviano calls “a clean, solid, type-savvy” design sense.

“Putnam never let the design get in the way of the gags, which I think is extremely important and certainly our goal today,” Viviano notes. “You want design to always be subordinate to the gags.”

For most of its existence, MAD was a black-and-white magazine. In later years it published the occasional color insert, but #400 was the first issue to feature color throughout. That issue was a huge challenge for the production department, Viviano says, but everyone loved the result. Soon after, MAD officially became a full-color magazine.

Reflecting back on his years with MAD, Viviano says he still can’t believe that he’s responsible for producing the cutting-edge humor magazine he adored as a kid, and through MAD has become a friend and colleague to some of the most influential humor writers and artists in the business.

“I’ve been associated with MAD as a freelancer for 18 years, and as an art director for 17 years, and boy oh boy, it sure beats working,” he says with a laugh.