Illustration by Tala Safié

There was a time, around 2013–2016, when the most experimental magazine in the world wasn’t some Berlin fashion zine that doused its models in crude oil but Bloomberg Businessweek, a once-dowdy battleship of American journalism. This was a time when you’d see a new BBW cover about an airline merger that showed one airplane humping another or one that looked like it had been assembled from PowerPoint clip art by some sales manager on a cocaine bender and think, “How the hell are they getting away with that?” And the answer happened to be some strange wrinkle in the universe that aligned certain people with one another, at just the right time, under rare circumstances. “Richard Turley, BBW’s creative director at the time, and I had done conventional work. We had our shot and we didn’t want to waste it,” says Josh Tyrangiel, who was hired as BBW’s editor-in-chief at just 37 years old.

Courtesy Bloomberg Businessweek

Part of the reason BusinessWeek was free to take so many risks was that so little seemed to be at stake. After losing $800,000 a week on the magazine, McGraw-Hill sold it to Bloomberg in 2009 for a paltry $5 million. Bloomberg’s corporate rationale was simple: Instead of buying up ads to sell more Bloomberg terminals to stock brokers, it could just buy a magazine and use that to market the entire Bloomberg brand. The objective was simply to make BusinessWeek matter again. “The company was actively saying, ‘Take more chances and be risky,’” Tyrangiel recalls.

He poached Turley from The Guardian in 2010, which at the time was adored in design circles. At first, Turley hired mostly publishing veterans who did the yeoman’s work of rebuilding the magazine’s dilapidated art department. But by 2012, as both Tyrangiel and Turley started to gain their footing, the mix started to shift. “Josh and I had never designed a magazine before,” says Turley. “What I learned was that the ideal team is half people who know what they’re doing, and half people with no idea, but who have skills. And then you eventually give the power to the people who had no idea.” To find those people, Turley reached beyond the cloistered network of New York publishing and found an assortment of wildly talented designers on the cool-kid fringe, most of whom happened to be women.

They included Emily Keegin, a photo editor, and Tracy Ma, a graphic designer, both fresh from art school; also Bráulio Amado, mostly known for making poster art before he came into the fold. Ma eventually lured Steph Davidson, an ad-agency refugee and net artist who was the mind behind the Tumblr account Rising Tensions, which was already an art world bible, thanks to its brilliantly strange collection of found imagery. Jennifer Daniel was the only one who’d had previous experience in New York publishing—and yet one of the first people to argue that no one had to be beholden to received wisdom about what was “good.” Turley wasn’t hiring for an aesthetic so much as a willingness, in Keegin’s words, to “fuck shit up.”

They achieved a rare level of organizational flow—the delirious, porous state of collaboration that you read about in origin stories of the Macintosh or the atomic bomb.

That hodgepodge of young talent shared a surreal sense of displacement. “It had to do with money,” says Ma. “I didn’t come from any great means, and I’d come to work at a place where everyone had graduated from some Ivy League school, and was reporting on and talking about money and the rich.” This wasn’t a well of resentment so much as creative tension, which sprang from the vast disconnect between the young design team—Brooklynites, art nerds, turbo hipsters, Canadians—and where they’d suddenly landed: atop the beating heart of a multibillion-dollar corporation. Sheltered by a pirate ethos instilled by Tyrangiel and Turley, they achieved a rare level of organizational flow—the delirious, porous state of collaboration that you read about in origin stories of the Macintosh or the atomic bomb. “I remember getting there and Josh and Richard saying they didn’t want it to look like a business magazine,” Keegin says. “When you create this structure of being the thing that’s the exact opposite of what you are, you create interesting problems to solve.”

Courtesy Bloomberg Businessweek

To take one example: Anyone who’s worked at a magazine knows the struggle of making stock photos look not stock-y—and the welter of bizarre imagery the stock houses contain, such as women crying while making salads or middle managers linking arms in an empty field. Those images are also a reflection of the Internet: literal mash-ups of search terms, meant to be easily discovered if you’re looking for something hyperspecific. Keegin wanted to lean into that strangeness, to mine a world of overlooked visual arcana.

To do something truly subversive, they had to crib aesthetics that were hidden in plain sight—simply because they had never been labeled aesthetics in the first place.

The staff shared her sensibility. Thanks to outlets such as Rising Tensions, low-brow visual vernacular was beginning to infiltrate high-brow art culture—a movement once perfectly labeled as the dirt web. Artists such as Cory Arcangel and Petra Cortright were resuscitating the look and feel of dated technology like GeoCities, GIFs, and LiveJournal. They were finding something sweet in a moment that no one had ever thought to be nostalgic for. In that milieu, the BBW staff figured that “tasteful” design was the most cowardly move of all, a denial of the real world’s beautiful messiness. To do something truly subversive, they had to crib aesthetics that were hidden in plain sight—simply because they had never been labeled aesthetics in the first place. It’s perhaps the most psychedelic idea of all: that the world is deliriously strange, if you take time to look.

Courtesy Bloomberg Businessweek

And so they looked to strange places for inspiration. One turning point was the magazine’s first how-to issue, whose design was inspired by a ULine catalogue of bulk industrial products that Keegin had found. Keegin, whom Ma describes as the group’s visionary, was also inspired by science photography from the 1980s and by DIS Magazine, the pioneering net art collective (which, incidentally, once launched its own trove of bizarro stock imagery). “I was trying to rip them off as much as possible,” she laughs.

Eventually, that early crew started to drift away, starting with Turley, in 2014, who left for a plum gig reimagining MTV’s brand. Afterward, under the creative lead of Rob Vargas, the team kept mining the vein they had struck. But soon enough, most everyone else started to leave as well, exhausted by the pace of producing a weekly magazine and knowing that their talents were in demand. Keegin became photo editor at The Fader. Daniel went on to become the creative director for emoji design at Google. Ma took a big job at the Times. But not everyone left. Steph Davidson remains, designing web features such as the famed “What Is Code?” piece by writer Paul Ford; so does Chris Nosenzo, who came of age at Bloomberg Businessweek and is now its creative director.

Today, you don’t much hear about Bloomberg Businessweek covers anymore. The weirdo sensibility that used to set Twitter ablaze seems to be gone. Except it isn’t. The magazine’s hard working, Swiss grid system is intact, though updated around the edges. There are still slyly clever covers and conceits, and the design team still makes some nutty spreads. But as Nosenzo explains, it’s not the design that’s changed so much as the moment itself.

He sees the Bloomberg Businessweek aesthetic as drawing from two buckets: One, the banal world of hyper-rational modern design; the other, a sensibility drawn from punk zines, net art, and Rei Kawakubo—a post-modern embrace of ugliness. “When we launched, we were in the middle of a financial crisis, covering things like credit default swaps. That abstraction needed to be matched with irreverence,” Nosenzo says. “Now the world has changed. There’s a populist rise. The irony needs to be recalibrated.” Keegin agrees that the Bloomberg Businessweek she worked at reflected a prelapsarian world, unaware of how ugly life was about to get, or how faith in democratic values could evaporate almost overnight.

“My last few years at Businessweek were a time when everything was cool, when irony was allowed because things really weren’t so bad,” Keegin says. “We thought the world of twenty-first-century capitalism was pretty funny. Now we’re like, ‘Oh shit, it’s not so funny.’”