Impartiality is not an issue most designers have to contend with, even less so journalistic integrity. Those who practice their craft in ad land know coercion is king, the manipulative power of imagery a tool to be used with abandon. In fact much of commercial visual communication exists to sway an audience: buy this product, engage with this app, trust this service provider, vote for this candidate. With news, however, an impartial image can have disastrous consequences in a business where bias is met with disdain.
This is a daily concern for Gail Bichler, design director of The New York Times Magazine, whose creative team are bound by the same ethical codes as Times journalists, and a commitment to the “importance of checking facts, the exactness of quotations, the integrity of photographs, and [a] distaste for anonymous sourcing.”
“It does sound pretty grand right?” says Bichler. “But it is one of the privileges of the role. There is a real sense that you’re putting something out into the world that so many people are going to see and respond to, and there is a sense of responsibility in terms of being truthful, representing things fairly, and coming at it with level of maturity. Those are all things that are part of the approach, and there are a lot of checks and balances in terms of how things get approved here. It’s a pretty thoughtful process.”
In an election year, that level of responsibility is compounded. As a Times staffer, political leanings stay at home no matter your seniority, and a blanket ban is imposed on discussing political issues on social media until votes are in. When a presidential battle is as divisive as the one currently playing out, the day-to-day challenges become that much more complex.
“As far as the election year’s concerned,” says Bichler, “I feel like it’s been particularly tough because the country is so divided. There’s a lot of really strong emotion about what’s going on. We do seem to be doing a lot of political stories, and a lot of that is to do with the kind of mass coverage that Trump is getting in the media.
“We actually have a story on the GOP coming out on this week’s cover, so it’s covering some of the same territory. It’s challenging when another one of these stories comes up, even if you’ve done a particularly successful cover, you’ve always got to think about what you’re doing next. Also, in politics, there’s only so many symbols you can use that mean Republican or Democrat, so you have to really open your mind to come up with something surprising. It can be tough to walk that line all the time—you have to think constantly about how people might interpret it.”
Interpretation has landed the magazine’s design team in trouble at times. A 2014 cover of Hillary Clinton shown as a fleshy planet provoked an outpouring of contempt and derision among the Twitter commentariat, sparking a slew of (hilarious) memes that both reveled in and lambasted the unusual art direction. One of the main critical objections was that the depiction of Clinton was sexist, as no male politician would be caricatured in such a ridiculous way. Of course Bichler has numerous examples of covers upon which the Times has satirized prominent male politicians, but the facts of the matter failed to mitigate the uproar.
This level of public scrutiny must feel like a curse when, week in, week out, you risk provoking the nation’s ire, but Bichler is more than comfortable with the potential for controversy. “Covers are meant to generate excitement and buzz, and if people are talking about it then there’s interest in your magazine. While I don’t subscribe to the idea that all attention is good attention, it’s exciting that people are interested in talking about them so much, because if you put something out there and nobody’s interested in it then that’s not a good thing.”
When she graduated design school 20 years ago, this was not Bichler’s world. On leaving college she pursued a quieter field of creativity, designing art books and monographs for seven years at Chicago’s Studio Blue. From there she moved to Minneapolis and set up a company of her own, but quickly understood she missed the interaction that a studio affords.
“It was pretty tough for me because I realized that I needed other people around me. I ended up working out of my apartment and not really having much of a community. I’d always be making design by myself and thinking that if I had one more person to show it to, or bounce ideas off of, then the work would have been better.”
Eleven years ago she made the move to New York and began the search for a more collaborative workplace. She contacted The Times’ Janet Froelich, who offered her a three-week trial, which became a year-and-a-half freelance gig, and eventually a permanent role as art director. Since then Bichler has been a driving force behind the magazine’s world-class visual appeal, and was finally appointed design director in 2015.
What’s changed in that time is Bichler’s role in the team, and how much hands-on design she’s involved in. “I worked at the Sunday Magazine under Arem Duplessis for close to 10 years in the art director job—the kind of job where you’re both designing a lot of things and also doing a lot of management. That kind of middle manager role can be tough because you’re doing a lot of both.”
Now, as design director, most of Bichler’s time is spent managing her team of creative talent, helping them realize their work with the best possible results.
“Being a good manager requires a lot of thought and effort,” she says, “because it’s about building a great team, keeping them happy so they’ll stay and work with you, and making use of everyone’s strengths. It’s not about making a magazine that looks like something you would have made by yourself, but being open to others’ ideas, seeing what’s great about them and trying to push them further.”
It’s a whole different set of skills from those Bichler employed when designing books, but is a natural part of the process the more senior a designer you become. The more experience you have, the less practical work you get to make. Did Bichler struggle to transition into a more directorial role?
“I had to actively tell myself that I couldn’t get super involved in the details,” she says,“even though I was so hands on for such a long time, because when you’re down in the weeds it’s difficult to have a larger vision. I have such a talented team that what they’re making is really good to begin with, but we all recognize that what we make collaboratively is better than what any of us would make by ourselves.
“But there is a different kind of feeling as you get higher up; you take a different sense of accomplishment from things, and one of the things that I really enjoy is watching some of the younger designers on my team grow.”
Gail Bichler was interviewed after HERE 2016.
All images courtesy The New York Times Magazine
Editor, Jake Silverstein; design director, Gail Bichler; art director, Matt Willey; deputy art director, Jason Sfetko; designers, Ben Grandgenett, Frank Augugliaro, Chloe Scheffe; interactive designer, Linsey Fields; director of photography, Kathy Ryan; photo editors, Stacey Baker, Amy Kellner, Christine Walsh, Karen Hanley.