• Steven Heller

Martin Fox, Influential Editor-in-Chief of PRINT Magazine, is 90 Today

Martin Fox, who lead PRINT magazine as editor-in-chief from trade mag to cultural journal, turns 90 years young today. As Alice Twemlow wrote upon his receiving the 2004 AIGA Medal for Lifetime Achievement, “Fox created one of the visual communication industry's most reliably high-quality, accessible and well-respected magazines. Its wide distribution, combined with its intellectually and visually fulfilling content, means that PRINT more than earns its tagline billing as 'America's Graphic Design Magazine.'”

Marty Fox, PRINT's trailblazing editor. AIGA photo.

“Over his four-decade-long association with PRINT, Fox's editorial mission has focused on some primary objectives,” added Twemlow. “One is to counter the characterization prevalent in society at large that graphic designers are decorative artists. Another goal is to communicate important developments—not simply trends but transforming changes in the design field that have been the result of transforming changes in the culture. An admirable demonstration of this last mission, is an issue of PRINT devoted to 'The Designer and the Computer,' published in 1966.”

Celebrating Martin Fox (bottom right) at 90.

Marty's insight and instinct instilled in all his colleagues the sense that graphic design was imbued in all things human. He was not afraid to cover politics and aesthetics, business and art, and he shifted the magazine from covering just print to all communications media. Without Marty, there would be no design history, design criticism or design journalism.

Yesterday, a dozen friends, writers, editors and contributors gathered on Zoom to celebrate his birthday. To everyone's great joy, Marty, who lives at an assisted care residence in Manhattan, is sound of mind, memory and humor, as he cracked wise during the ongoing tributes to his editing skill and generosity. If an article was broken, he fixed it; if an article was lagging, he gave it energy; if an article was promising, he gave it space.

A playwright at his core, he was the father, grandfather and now great grandfather of PRINT. Those of us who benefited from him were glad to pay homage. We salute you here at Printmag.com, Marty.

Author's note: The following interview was conducted a few months after Martin Fox's retirement from PRINT after four decades.

I’ve known you for almost thirty years, ever since I began writing for PRINT in the late Seventies, and I never really knew how you became PRINT's editor. After all these years I’m embarrassed to ask you now. So let’s start this conversation by asking, were you involved in design, or rather “commercial art” before coming to the magazine?

When I first got into this field, I didn’t know anything about graphic design. In fact, in a sense, I was probably hostile to in its then-terminology, “commercial art,” because I had an older sister who went to Cooper Union, and her friends were divided between fine art and commercial art. She was a fine artist, and the commercial artists were the sellouts. So I always had that kind of feeling about it. Therefore, the strongest thing I brought to this job when I first came here was this revelation: You could go through life never seeing a great painting. But you could not avoid, in any way, shape or form, dealing with what we now call graphic design, even if it’s bad graphic design. I realized even these things had to be designed in some way, even if it’s mediocre. So I thought that this was an important thing to deal with it in not such a specialized way, but to open it up, so that readers who were not necessarily graphic designers would understand what this profession was.

So, how did you come into this job? Did you answer an ad in a magazine?

I don’t think it was an advertised job. I may have been sent here by some agency. But I told a friend who was in advertising that I was going for an interview at a magazine called PRINT, and he said, ”Wow, that’s a great magazine.” I was hired in 1961 and the co-publishers were Milt Kaye [in New York] and Robert Cadell [in Washington], and the editor was a guy named Arnold Farber. When he left I was not given the title “editor” but I served in that capacity for a while.

What kind of work were you doing prior to that?

Basically, writing jobs. I wanted to be a playwright and I wanted to be a writer. For a long time, I decided I would write a novel, which I never did. I knew what I wanted to do, and I didn’t really want to do editorial jobs.

So this was kind of a stop-gap measure that lasted 42 years. Well, I remember the very early PRINT when owned by William Rudge was a journal for typophiles and printers (and today a great historical resource), but what was Print like at the time you came onboard?

PRINT was much simpler then. It was black-and-white and much smaller. Basically, it was about a half-dozen articles an issue.

And a lot of trade news …

Well, it was never that newsy, but under Milt Kaye (who was very hands-on), it was very trade-oriented. PRINT never had much advertising but somehow Kaye managed to get all these paper companies to come into PRINT. People scoffed at those issues as paper samplers. And it was true. PRINT had these thick paper inserts. But it certainly helped the magazine financially.

Looking back at those issues under Kaye’s direction they were pretty boring. I understand that he and Cadell had a falling out and Kaye left. I also understand you had quit the magazine and Cadell encouraged you to come back as editor with, shall we say, carte blanche, unlimited power, noblesse oblige – is this true? When did you become editor?

I couldn’t stand working for Milt. I remember my parting remark to him was, “You have no respect for the editorial function.” Which was true. In 1962 or early 63 Bob Cadell comes in; I come back pretty much as editor and essentially I tried to improve the editorial content. For example, this was during the Cold War and I remember I gave big treatment to one of the first exhibitions of Eastern European design in this country because I thought it was important. In other words, I wanted the magazine to deal with design as it involved political issues and in social issues, and not just be a portfolio publication, which essentially it had become—and not a very good one at that. I wanted to impress the readers with the kind of diversity of the design world that was involved in all aspects of design. I did political stories: I remember the first time there was a mayoral campaign in Cleveland, and it was the first black candidate [Carl Stokes], so I did a feature around political posters

You came into it not knowing much about commercial art. How did you come up to speed?

It was a learning experience in terms of finding people, like you a little later, who I was in tune with and who knew a lot about design and visual communication, and who would suggest things that PRINT should do. But the field was so much simpler then. The truth of the matter is that, while there were graphic designers working everywhere, basically it was New York oriented, with a touch of West Coast and Chicago, too. If you knew what was going on in those places, you were pretty much in touch with what was happening in the field. Design wasn’t very significant elsewhere. A lot of these other cities would have design communities and the different regional design organizations would dutifully send us the winners of their current competitions, which was generally mediocre stuff that would never pass muster.

PRINT, to my recollection, was the voice of East Coast design. CA was publishing on the West Coast, but you didn’t see it that much here.

As a matter of fact, CA came along at the right time for them. I think CA started up in ‘59, and that was PRINT at its weakest, so CA was able to fill a gap. They were primarily, and today this is the case, and why CA has always had a larger circulation than PRINT. They were a portfolio magazine, and designers essentially wanted that. They weren’t looking for what I thought PRINT should provide. But I really felt that this was the kind of magazine that I thought PRINT should be. We didn’t even have color then, and CA had color. We couldn’t compete with CA as a portfolio publication, but we could examine design’s role in the issues that confront people every day. But I have to tell you, the PRINT circulation never really soared. It did go up when I came in but what put PRINT on a viable basis was the Regional Annual in 1980.

Was the Regional your idea?

The concept was, yes. It was always a struggle to try to make PRINT more financially successful. Finally, Bob Cadell decided that we should compete with the CA annuals. He did not want to do a separate annual but rather make it as one of the issues, and I remember being disheartened by that, because I felt that an annual, whatever it is, is still kind of like a directory. But at the time design was spreading out. Someone said, “The greatest invention of all time is the fax machine,” because you can live anywhere and have clients anywhere. That’s true.

So you decided to create a regional scheme rather than a thematic one?

I didn’t want to do conventional sections. I didn’t think we could do it as well as CA was doing it, or even other people as well. By that time, Gebaushgrafik and Graphis never had huge circulations in this country, but they were very prestigious, and PRINT was constantly struggling to build its own prestige. So my feeling was that the best way to not only build PRINT circulation but also to denote the fact that design was becoming more significant in areas other than a few major design centers.

Did you test this notion?

One of the things that PRINT never did, because they never had money for it, was to come up with an idea and have it tested. We just did it. I remember, I was discouraged, the handful of people who I spoke to—people whom I respected and on whom I depended to tell me what was going on in their areas—discouraged it. I remember one guy said, “Look, I have established myself as a national designer, and I want to be stuck in Portland, Oregon, if you’re going to do a regional. That makes me some kind of a hick.” Clients are not impressed with that. They want big-time people. So you have to establish yourself (which they could now, more or less) as national designers.

Frankly, I thought that too. I felt the annual was a sell-out, and the Regional (which I wrote for) was like a ghetto of sorts. Good design is good design. Still, you went ahead in that case?

There was a good of a reason to do it. There were regional differences, much more so than they are now. Traditionally, Southern design is always kind of cartoony—it was illustration more than design. The San Francisco design was very elegant. L.A. design was kind of L.A.-kooky and all that. I remember remarking some years later that the differences seemed to have flattened out. They said, “Well, it’s your fault.”

Do you think through the Regional PRINT developed standard of design?

Only in a jokey way: I remember Andy Kner [the art director] never liked pieces with babies in them—or dogs. So no, there really wasn’t that. To this day, I don’t see the work in PRINT, the work that we show, as being kind of, “Aha, this is what PRINT shows, and it shows what wouldn’t be seen elsewhere.” To me, the thing about the annual, and about Andy (and I have to give Andy a lot of credit here. Unlike most art directors that I’ve come into contact with, Andy is much more lower-case catholic in his likes and dislikes. That was very important, because Andy played a very key role) I think the Annual made a point of not liking just one kind of design, or liking one kind of design and not another kind of design, and being aware of kind of un-designy things.

Speaking of standards. PRINT was never designed in a glitzy manner. In fact, back in 1961 or so Herbert Beyer redesigned PRINT. Whose decision was that? And how did you feel about the Bauhausian look?

It was Milt Kaye’s decision, because Milt always liked to hobnob with the big names. As for the design, I thought Bayer’s obsession with lower case was a pain in the ass. To this day, I’m not that crazy about Helvetica type, really. I think serif type is much more elegant.

But you lived with that design for quite a while. Eventually, though, Andy Kner comes aboard as the freelance art director and made some changes to the basic format. Would you say that at this point it finally becomes your PRINT? Or stated differently, how much of your visual point of view is seen in the design of the magazine?

Andy worked basically from the Bayer model, and that model was done really without my input. I thought Andy was doing a solid, professional job as designer, and I decided early on that my basic concern was content, and that I was not going to get into design issues with Andy.

But wasn’t that something of a contradiction, being the editor of a design magazine and not dealing with the design issues?

Well, the answer to that is yes and no. Magazines, whether they’re design magazines or anything else, have personnel structures. Basically, the understated fact was this. Andy was the art director, and unless I had some problem with something, I would let him do what he felt was best. I don’t mean to suggest that I didn’t have input. But my basic thing is that, “This is his terrain, and I’m not going to interfere.”

One recurring critique of PRINT in terms of its design was that images tended to be too small. They were illustrative of the article and there was rarely an expansive page or spread. Did you feel it was more important to get more material rather than make a splash?

That’s interesting. I think that clearly was a weakness of PRINT. Just as I would defer to Andy, Andy tended to defer to me on story lengths. When I saw the end product, I felt, “I wish Andy had told me to keep the story shorter so that the visuals would stand out better.” So that basically, there was (and I think this was both the strength and the weakness of PRINT) a kind of “after you, Gaston.” In other words, we respected each other’s province.

One of the magazine’s strongest features was its covers. You rarely imposed coverlines, you just had a strong image. In fact, sometimes a rather enigmatic one; how did this work?

We decided that each cover would be a “sign” we’d ask people to do, and we’d give them few restrictions. I was never that much of a fan of cover lines. I like the fact that when you got PRINT, you didn’t know what you were going to get, and you kind of opened the magazine and looked to see what was in—and I thought that was kind of exciting. That has to do with the fact that I’ve always wanted to be a playwright, a dramatist, and I always felt I wanted to produce PRINT like you do a play; I wanted to have contrast, and I wanted to have surprise, and I wanted to have climaxes. Andy understood this.

Let’s talk for a bit about writing itself. I know you as a line editor went through pieces I wrote with a fine-tooth comb. You would change things around for emphasis or drama. You’d even change words that I wouldn’t necessarily use, but this was all part of the process. But what interested me in the early PRINT, and it’s changed over the years, you had a few professional writers and you had some amateur writers (i.e. designers who would also write). How did you blend these groups together to make a play that was consistent?

The one thing that I was prepared to do, and some people think I was being too kind to writers, if you like the writer, if you respect their ability – they should be permitted to write in his or her own style. Which is to say that sometimes they’re more circuitous and sometimes they may be somewhat more flowery. On the other hand, sometimes they’re terser to the point. In other words, I didn’t think there ought to be a PRINT style, and I thought that if you like the writer enough, you give them their head. The danger there is maybe you give them their head too much. But to this day, I miss the fact that we don’t have run-over. What’s wrong with run-over?

But while you gave writers their head, definitely, you also had a strong hand in the text.

Oh, there’s no question. Believe me, I’ve always been aware of other publications, and some competitive publications, which just seem to produce texts and run them almost as they are. No, pieces should be heavily edited! I think this is where I am a pretty good editor. I try to edit a piece not to conform the writer to a style, but to make the writer’s own style as good as possible. In other words, I’m not bothered by the fact that a writer might be a little more circuitous and have certain predilections in the way he or she writes (and this went for you, too), but basically, I felt that you respected that and you wanted to maintain that, and that sometimes the writer himself or herself doesn’t always maintain it. Every article needs editing.

I don’t want to put you on the spot in terms of naming favorite writers, but what would you say were the top three pieces, the things you were most proud or most anxious or most happy to have in the magazine?

They generally had more to do with subject matter. Basically, I’m proudest of the theme issues, and I would say the one issue that I am proudest of, and the content in it, is the issue we did in the ‘70s, Graphic Design In The Human Environment. We had a whole issue of design as it appears where people live, and how design is used. I remember the thing that I sort of got a kick out of was that someone in the issue made the point that New York was behind a lot of cities, particularly Chicago, which somehow always seemed to be in the forefront of such issues. So I would say that this issue — and the articles in that issue — is probably the issue that I am proudest of.

Your agenda centers on “issues” but by implication did you disparage the portfolios? Until you introduced those, what I thought were, dreadful mini-portfolios, artists and designers who got the major portfolios had to have shown a major body of work over time. You couldn’t get in the magazine if you were a newcomer.

Well, that’s an interesting point. The portfolios to me were always the least interesting aspects of the magazine. Not in terms of the work. I was always happy when somebody would come up with a great portfolio. But to me, the stories were never very different, or in and of themselves that interesting, unless somehow the designer had been to jail or something. Essentially they kind of fell into the same pattern. Maybe I was overly stubborn. That whole 15-year period when PRINT grew at a slow pace, and slowly added color and slowly did this-and-that, I never wanted any issue to have more than two portfolios, maybe three if they were very different.

Let’s talk about some of the original features you instituted. I feel like PRINT was the first to take design history seriously, before Phil Meggs and I started writing for you. How did that interest in design history come about?

The first article in PRINT during the Rudge years was about the Gutenberg Press. PRINT has always been interested, and this is long before me. In fact, some people thought PRINT was too academic.

Was there pressure on you not to follow a more intellectual path and be more trade journal?

It wasn’t any big, strong pressure. But I think that Bob Cadell and more his son Howard [who became publisher after his father died in 1980] were concerned that PRINT would be perceived as a kind of academic publication, which would give the magazine a musty odor. He’d say we should show new, young designers, and who cares about 19th century cartoons and typographer. But I welcomed those historical pieces and I thought that the best were entertaining as well.

Let’s talk about another first, as far as I’m concerned, which is design criticism. PRINT introduced it before anybody else. Yet before design criticism, you were doing issue-related pieces, but there wasn’t that critical component. I mean, it was more reportage than criticism per se.

We were often criticized by “serious” people, who claimed PRINT could never be taken seriously as a design publication unless it embraced a more critical attitude. In fact, I suggested we start a magazine called Design Criticism that would simply deal with critical issues, but it never worked out. The Cadells were never that interested in doing it. Eventually, Design Issues appeared a few years later.

But ultimately, you did introduce criticism in "The Cold Eye" column.

That was the first obvious signal that we were interested in dealing with design issues. Yes, that’s true. I guess I could have done it earlier, but essentially I did it when it became clear that it needed to be done.

Let’s talk about some of the theme issues. You said you’re most proud of those, and the one you mentioned is important. But over the years, there was always a different annual theme Issue. How did they come into being?

The annual theme Issue generally is always the November-December issue. The advertising people always complained that the November-December was always their weakest issue advertising-wise, and that somehow we had to make it more sexy for advertisers. So the idea of doing a theme seemed to make sense. But then they started complaining about it, because it seemed too stratified. In other words, it almost had the opposite effect. Why do I want to go into an issue on a theme? Who’s interested in this theme?

Among the themes you did, which included issues on different countries, toys and games, and design history, you did three parody issues (one of which I co-edited with Paula Scher), which self-parodied PRINT and the field at large.

After Graphic Design In The Human Environment, I think the Parody issues are the ones that I’m fondest of, for the obvious reasons. I mean, other than the Sex issue, which generated really a lot of mail, in the days when mail was sent by post, if an issue generated ten letters, it would be a lot. But the Parody issue generated a good bit more—and hostile!

Why do you think they were so hostile?

The readers who generally like what you’re doing don’t write you a letter about it, except infrequently. But the ones who don’t like something will send it right away. Of course, now they send everything on an email. These readers thought it was a waste of time. I mean, basically these were CA readers, and they just want to know who’s doing the good work that I can emulate, that I can put in my swipe file? Who needs other stuff you’re doing? These were really angry letters.

How do you feel towards your readers? Did you edit the magazine to suit yourself or to suit the readers? Did you have any understanding or any appreciation of who those readers were?

I know who the reader is. Even when something like the "Sex" issue came out, and I was surprised at the degree of hostility. I mean I was ashamed for graphic designers that any graphic designer would assume this mantle of indignation. Not that I thought we’d made a mistake; I thought it was a great thing we did. But basically, I think I have a good sense of who the reader is, and I also have a good sense of what I think I should give the reader. I realize that, obviously, you have to have a varied menu, but that basically there are things that I think the reader should get and have. Whether it helps him raise his profits 2% or 5% is beside the point.

You’ve taken some risks, but was there anything that you would say, “No, we shouldn’t run this; we might offend too many people in the bargain.”

I don’t think so. As appalled as I was by the response to the Sex issue and the Parody issues, I thought that was great. They’re living out there! They’re responding.

I loved every negative letter. You feel superior to any person who would say such a thing. “What is wrong with this person? What field is he in?” And of course, you really can predict the demographics.

And in defense of the Sex issue, there were also a lot of letters pro—the negative letters generated a lot of positive letters.

That was really exciting. Basically, I credit Joyce [Rutter Kaye, the current editor]. I had wanted to do a sex issue for several years before we did it, but somehow I never quite got to it. Incidentally, for this issue we were nominated for National Magazine Award.

In fact, under your editorship the magazine won two National Magazine Awards and were nominated for many others. Joyce has had a few nominations too. But now’s the time to get things off your chest: What was the worst decision you made, that you would do over?

The worst thing I ever did was get rid of the old PRINT logo, which I think we should have kept. That was our brand. That was our identity. The New Yorker has kept its masthead type forever since it’s been around. I let Steve Brower (who I really like and respect), because he was the new art director [replacing Andy Kner when he retired] and I wanted to give him his free rein, so I allowed him to change the logo.

I disagree with you. I felt that it was a good signal. A lot of necessary new things happened in that redesign. The size of the magazine itself changed, the style of the logo as well as the size of the logo changed to become bigger. But why do you feel you lost something out of that?

Because every magazine that’s been around a long time should not be all that willing to throw out what’s old, even if it’s something as obvious as a logo. And I always thought that initial PRINT logo, which to this day, nobody knows who the author is …

I thought that was Bayer’s logo.

No. But it was a terrific logo, and I certainly don’t think anything we’ve had since can come near it.

How did you feel about the other issues related to the magazine’s design? That first redesign [it was subsequently redesigned again later] seemed to open up the magazine more.

After that design I lost a sense of what PRINT's mission was. I think Steve Brower’s redesign was a huge event. He did more exciting things, but I kept wondering, “What is PRINT's mission?” PRINT still does the same things that it did, that PRINT initiated. But other publications were doing them, too.

Speaking of magazines, you also started Scenario, a magazine of screenplays, for RC Publications. That obviously comes from your love of playwriting and film. How did it come about?

I’ve always enjoyed reading film scripts. Here’s how it came about. Howard said, “We have to have another source of revenue, we have to have another magazine.” With my usual kind of cynicism, I said, “Oh, Howard, not another design magazine.” Because he wanted some kind of design magazine. He had done E-Design, which really didn’t make it. I said, “Like another tired thing, using the same material,” dah-da-dah. He said, “Well, you think of something.” So I thought that what made Scenario viable was the fact that you will ask an illustrator to take a film script and interpret it, and do 3 or 4 drawings that interpreted the film, and... Oh, boy, this absolutely was... They loved it! Even though we didn’t pay them that much. Originally we paid them I think 1000 bucks for that. But they loved it, just being able to do this. The illustrators who used the drawings they did for Scenario in competitions and had this stuff picked...it was great. The subtitle of Scenario is The Magazine Of Screenwriting Art. There’s kind of a double meaning there, obviously. We’re trying to relaunch Scenario, not through F&W, but separately. The beauty of Scenario is that it was a valid expression of graphic art.

By this point, PRINT was involved the motion arts, computer arts, not just print. In fact the title PRINT is a kind of anachronistic.

This was another area that was difficult for me, but realizing that it had to be done—getting into motion graphics, getting into film. PRINT at one point had a special film section that was only marginally about graphic design; it was really about film design. I don’t mean animation. I mean regular film design. The justification for doing it was that a lot of graphic designers were going into film. So it was like following our leader into these new areas. Actually, that’s what led to Scenario, really, the fact that clearly this was a whole new market. In fact, what attracted Howard to it was that the first mailing went out to PRINT readers. I had to write a mailing that was directed to them. And it did quite well, actually. So I think this is what kind of enabled Howard to come up with the scenario, because he thought he’d have a certain market that was already there. But actually, it wasn’t there. In other words, it wasn’t there to that extent, and I think that’s what scared Howard off it. In the final analysis, Scenario was dropped; it really is criminal. Because the magazine was growing, it was building an audience, it was even getting advertising, and he just abandoned it, because he wasn’t willing to put in the effort to get new lists, really to do what had to be done. So we’re hoping to be able to re-launch it.

You’ve always wanted to be a playwright. You’ve written plays and you’ve had them performed. Was PRINT the platform that served you and your creative needs over this time?

Let me put it this way: This is something that somebody who really almost desperately wanted to be a playwright should not be doing. I’ve always felt that I’m in the wrong profession. But at the same time, I’ve generally enjoyed what I’ve been doing. I’ve always been proud of the fact that I resuscitated the magazine, that I gave it a mission, and that I’ve been able to do whatever I wanted. Literally whatever I wanted to do. Obviously, I’m a professional, and I understand that I can’t bankrupt the company. I thought that I set PRINT on the right course, and I think it’s done very well. It’s been around since 1940.

I probably would not have been writing as seriously about design, and many things that I probably wouldn’t have done in this field without your encouragement, your enthusiasm, not just for me, but you’ve brought other people into this place who have gone on to do other, some bigger things.

Let me pick up on that. I think my major strength as an editor is that I’ve always been an outsider in the graphic design world. Just to go back to what I said originally, I came to this field absolutely not knowing what the hell it was, having to discover what this field was, having to discover that designers themselves didn’t fully comprehend the importance of what they were doing, and that really, the role of the magazine would be to make them aware of their effect on the life around them in every conceivable aspect. So the fact that I was an outsider, and still feel like somebody on the outside looking in, and with enough ego to say that if you’re too much in it you don’t see it, and you have to be on the outside to see it more, and bringing to that, to the degree which I can, my dramatic impulses. I think that’s been helpful. But it’s true. I’ve always thought that essentially the field that I wanted so much to be in, it just didn’t work out that way. I guess it’s only because I felt that maybe I wasn’t a good enough dramatist, and what I didn’t want to be, in the worst way, was to be a playwright who winds up doing shitty TV plays. If I couldn’t be a dramatist, and an important dramatist, then I kind of backed off from it.

I get the last word: I speak for many when I say I’m glad you’ve been in the editor’s chair for all these years. Thank you.