Creating a timely magazine is hard enough in normal times … and then there was the year 2020. An all-encompassing pandemic. The high-profile murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans by police. A president refusing to acknowledge the results of a Democratic election. And on and on.
So in the span of such a year, how do you fit all the news that’s fit to print onto the covers of one of the world’s preeminent Sunday supplements known for said covers rising to the caliber of the longform journalism contained therein?
Here, New York Times Magazine Creative Director Gail Bichler riffs on just that—and provides a full chronological survey of the past year of pandemic covers and beyond.
When did the severity of the pandemic begin to make itself clear at the magazine—and what sort of internal pivot was required to adequately meet the moment? How hard was the design pivot?
It’s hard to say exactly when the severity of the pandemic became clear at the magazine because our understanding of it kept shifting as we got more information. We started working remotely the second week in March, and were preparing for what we thought was a few weeks of working from home, or at most a couple months. We knew how dire the situation had become in Italy, but New York hadn’t become a hotspot yet, so we hadn’t had many firsthand experiences with the virus. That started to change quickly. Living in New York for those first months of the lockdown and hearing the constant sirens made things very real.
In terms of the internal pivot, it was tough. Typically, we plan our stories out weeks or months in advance. We have a much longer lead time to get to print than the paper, so we don’t generally publish stories on breaking news. That said, at points we’ve moved quickly to put out stories on important events, and we knew we would do that with the pandemic. The virus was the biggest news story of our lifetimes, and it changed everything so fundamentally that the majority of our planned stories no longer made sense. We canceled most of them or put them on hold. For the design team, that meant operating on extremely condensed timeframes and relying on our visual contributors to produce things on those timeframes as well. Our photo team was also moving very quickly and figuring out how to navigate the safety issues that were involved in sending photographers out on assignment. I’m really proud of what our team was able to accomplish under those circumstances.
How did going virtual alter your workflow, for better or worse?
We were in the unfortunate position of publishing our annual Voyages Issue, an issue that is travel-themed, when the travel ban was put in place. That was the first issue we produced from home. We were too far along on it to significantly change it, but that was definitely a turning point. We did try to do some things to make that issue relate to the moment. We considered publishing a cover that just said “Stay Home.” We weren’t sure how that was going to land in a week-and-a-half, so instead we made the story on disaster tourism the cover story, because it felt right in tone. We also commissioned a pandemic-related story about a family trip to Italy that related to the pandemic.
In the weeks before we transitioned to remote work, we were making sure that everyone had the right equipment to work from home and were setting up access to our servers, so the technological transition was surprisingly smooth. We acclimated to having meetings on Google Hangouts and sending PDFs of layouts relatively quickly, but the creative part was harder. Making magazines is so collaborative. We do our best work when we can sit down together in a room and brainstorm about an art approach for a piece or the theme of a special issue. Those kinds of conversations are infinitely harder on screens. I’m looking forward to the time when we can have those conversations in person again.
Do you see things as a sort of “before and after”—and what were the issues of the magazine delineating that moment?
There were definitely changes in what we published before and after the pandemic started. In normal times the magazine publishes a wide variety of content—reported stories on serious topics, and also lighter stories on pop culture, personal essays and profiles of notable people. Since the start of the pandemic, our stories have largely been driven by what’s happening in the world in that moment. At first, we focused on the virus and the inequalities it exposed. Then after the murder of George Floyd, we covered the protests. We also published stories on the California wildfires, the election and the insurrection at the Capitol. We did run some lighter stories, but many of those stories were pandemic-related as well. For example, we devoted an entire issue to lessons learned in quarantine, and an issue that was all original fiction inspired by the pandemic and commissioned by the magazine.
In a nutshell, if you can break it down for readers, how do the covers of The New York Times Magazine come to be? What’s the essential process?
When we’re concepting the art for our covers, our decisions are driven by the content. We look at the stories and determine what types of visuals feel right to accompany them. Sometimes our photo team will commission documentary photography or a portrait if it’s a profile of a person. In those cases the choices are about which photographer to work with and how the cover image can convey the message and tone of the story.
When the stories are about more abstract ideas, we need to think more broadly about how to visualize them. Sometimes we brainstorm ideas in-house and collaborate with a photographer or an artist to make the image, other times we ask our contributors to come up with ideas. Often language provides the inspiration for the visual. I always ask our editor to give us working display language for a story before we discuss cover ideas because it tells us the essence of the story in a sentence, and also tells us how he wants to frame it. Usually, we try to make an arresting image or a typographic treatment that conveys that message, but sometimes after reading the story we come up with a way of visualizing it that isn’t the same angle as the one our editor imagined. If he likes it, he’ll write language to go w
ith it. It’s great to have the flexibility to have either the language or the image determine the outcome. After we’ve nailed down a visual direction and the display language, we move into the design phase. We tend to iterate and experiment a lot before deciding on a final design.
Looking back on the past year, what were the biggest challenges that you and your team faced?
I should start off by saying that we felt lucky to have jobs that we could do from home, and to be able to do something meaningful during this incredibly hard year. But there were definitely challenges. It’s tough to cover a story that is constantly changing. We had to become a lot more nimble. We had to contend with the fact that there is an eight-day lag between when we send out the pages of our print magazine to the printer and when the magazine gets delivered to our readers. Many magazines have a much shorter lead time. With a story that was moving as fast as the pandemic, we needed to consider how our stories would land a week later. That wasn’t always possible to predict. We often prioritized the digital version of the magazine, which we knew we could get out there in a more timely way.
What unique responsibility did you feel when creating the covers of this era? (Or perhaps stated differently, what is your personal goal with each cover?)
This was a historic time, and it felt important to record that on our covers. I hope that when people look back at issues of the magazine from this year, they will have a real sense of what it was like to live through this moment. The team as a whole also felt a responsibility to help our readers make sense of what was happening. There was a real urgency to some of the stories we published because understanding the dangers of the pandemic could truly be the difference between life and death. We hoped that issues like the epicenter issue that we published in early April really drove home the seriousness of what was happening. I thought that the way The New York Times as an organization covered the pandemic was pretty incredible, and I felt privileged to be able to play a small role in getting information out there.
I’ll refrain from asking about specific covers because of the level of depth of the Behind the Cover series that ran for two years, but what cover are you most proud of from the past year, and why?
I really can’t pick one. This was such an emotional year and I have attachments to different covers for different reasons. We worked with a lot of documentary photographers over the course of the year who risked their own safety to document what was happening. Our photo team worked incredibly hard to get them into places that weren’t easy to access. We felt there was real power in showing people what was happening, and I was extremely proud to put those out there. I was also really proud of many of our conceptual covers. I loved how the illustration on the cover of our quarantine journal seemed to tap into what so many of us were feeling after months of not being able to leave our houses. The cover on Trump’s legal troubles and the cover of our fiction issue were also favorites.
As vaccines continue to roll out, is it hard to imagine designing the magazine without the all-encompassing specter of the pandemic, either topically, practically, or both?
No. This was an incredible time to be making magazines, but it was also exhausting. I’m looking forward to going back to being a bit less reactive.
The New York Times Magazine Team:
Editor-in-Chief: Jake Silverstein
Creative Director: Gail Bichler
Director of Photography: Kathy Ryan
Art Director: Ben Grandgenett
Digital Art Director: Kate LaRue
Deputy Art Director: Annie Jen
Designers: Rachel Willey, Claudia Rubin, Matt Curtis, Raul Aguilla, Caleb Bennett, Anton Iouknovets, Sonsoles Alvarez Otero, Anthony Bryant
Deputy Director of Photography: Jessica Dimson
Photo Editors: Amy Kellner, David Carthas, Shannon Simon, David La Spina, Kristen Geisler, Rory Walsh, Debbie Samuelson