Louis Silverstein, Godfather of Modern Newspaper Design

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Louis Silverstein died yesterday at 92. I thought he’d live forever. Truth is, his generation of design pioneers – and godfathers – is passing. He was the Corporate Art Director and Design Director (later the first Assistant Managing Editor for Design) of The New York Times. He revolutionized newspaper design.

He introduced white space to the Times. He conceived of using allegorical and metaphorical art, rather than editorial cartoons, on the OpEd page. He ushered in the multi-section newspaper and designed them like magazines. He perfected conceptual data-graphics (or what he called “sides of beef”) prefiguring information graphics. He brought the “Old Grey Lady” out of the 19th Century. He took the period off The New York Times nameplate. He hired some amazing art director/designers. He hired me when I was 23 as Art Director of the New York Times OpEd page (I thought I was interviewing for an assistant’s job!).

Lou taught me more about journalism, dramatic presentation, cropping pictures, conceptual thinking and how to get ideas through a gauntlet of editors than any class in any school. Put a tracing pad in front of him and he went wild. Give him a litho crayon and he’d produce award-winning and newsworthy pages in minutes.

He loved The New York Times. It was infectious. He was serious about making the Times greater and greatest, but he was funny, charming and warm.

Here is an excerpt from an interview conducted by Aviva Michaelov, current Times OpEd Page Art Director, for the film Op-Ed at 40 (which I wrote and narrated).

The OpEd page began, as far as I was concerned, with a meeting in Punch Sulzberger’s office. I was not in the news department then, I was in the promotion department. So it was a little awesome for me to be invited to this meeting because all the top editors were at that meeting to discuss the creation of an OpEd page. And what I remember about it clearly is that James “Scotty” Reston talked very eloquently about the creation of this page. I think I remember that he mentioned that there were things happening in society, social issues, science issues, that simply were not getting the kind of coverage that they deserved. And he envisioned this page as an opportunity to get that kind of information into the paper.

I always thought, actually, that it was Reston’s idea because he was so eloquent in speaking for it. But I think I read somewhere that somebody else actually had the first idea… This was my first involvement. [It was the] meeting that kicked off the oped page. That was the vision that I remember being expressed.

Louis Silverstein died yesterday at 92. But he spawned many, like me, who will never forget and always be grateful to him.

Read Douglas Martin’s obituary here. Watch Op-Ed at 40 here. See his Art Directors Club Hall of Fame citation here. Learn about his book Newspaper Design For The Times (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1990) here.

Louis Silverstein
Louis Silverstein