Reputations: Gail Bichler
Rodrigo De Benito Sanz
‘Our content is hard to come by. You are designing in real time about world events. The freedom we have in service of these articles is a special opportunity.’
Gail Bichler is design director of The New York Times Magazine, a Sunday supplement with an intense schedule that yields breathtaking results from its use of typography, photography and a dizzying stream of innovations. Despite her talent and achievements, she is a surprisingly self-effacing interview subject.
Bichler follows in the illustrious footsteps of Arem Duplessis, 2018 AIGA medallist, and Janet Froelich, creative director of magazine supplements at The New York Times for more than 22 years. But Bichler has carved a distinct name for herself, partly by developing concepts for the magazine’s arresting weekly covers, but also by recruiting and leading a remarkably talented in-house design department.
Her assured leadership style derives in part from a deep understanding of the Times organisation, its employees and its readers. ‘I really understand everyone’s job,’ says Bichler, who began working there in 2004 as a freelancer at the paper’s style magazine T. She moved to the Sunday magazine where she has been a freelance designer, staff designer, deputy art director and art director, before her appointment as design director in late 2014.
Bichler’s department, with the support of the teams behind photo editor Kathy Ryan and the magazine’s editor Jake Silverstein, includes art director Matt Willey, deputy art director Ben Grandgenett, digital art director Rodrigo De Benito Sanz, designers Claudia Rubín and Rachel Willey, special projects art director Deb Bishop and designer Najeebah Al-Ghadban. Together they produce publications that exemplify the best contemporary editorial design. Their ad-free special issue ‘Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart’, 11 August 2016, won the ‘Beazley Design of the Year’ award for graphics at London’s Design Museum. Other issues have won copious design prizes from the Art Directors Club, the SPD and D&AD, among others.
Other highlights include the vertical ‘High Life’ issue; the 12 February 2017 ‘RESIST’ cover; the comics issue ‘New York Stories’, and specials including ‘New York’, ‘Design’, ‘Music’ (a digital tour de force), ‘Food’, ‘The Lives They Lived’, ‘Great Performers’ and more.
Bichler’s genius for telling stories may derive from her idiosyncratic path to editorial design. At the University of Michigan she began in Fine Art and finished with a dual degree in psychology and art, focusing on graphic design and printmaking. After graduation, realising she ‘wasn’t cut out to live the life of an artist’, she joined a small studio that specialised in art books and developed a love for typography.
Her magazine team oversees, leads and launches many of the organisation’s most significant innovations, which extend far beyond the printed Sunday publication and its digital counterpart – from print initiatives and live events to virtual reality (VR). The VR test run ‘Walking New York’ showed the making of artist JR’s 150-foot-tall image of an Azerbaijani immigrant; the NYT VR app launched in November 2015 with ‘The Displaced’. Meanwhile, the new, print-only sections that appeared in summer 2017 demonstrate the paper’s commitment to reading on paper. With the creation of NYT Magazine Labs in April 2018, the reach of Bichler and her dedicated team may extend even further.
Sarah Snaith spoke to Gail Bichler at The New York Times Building in Manhattan earlier this year.
Editor Jake Silverstein (right) and design director Gail Bichler (second right, back to camera) at a magazine team meeting to discuss future issues, in The New York Times Magazine’s newly refurbished space in the Times Building on 242 West 41st Street. Eye commissioned New York Times staff photographer Damon Winter to make reportage pictures of Bichler and her colleagues for this issue.
Top: Portrait by Damon Winter.
Sarah Snaith: You moved from Chicago to New York in 2004 and joined The New York Times Magazine as a freelance designer soon after. What were you doing before NYC?
Gail Bichler: I studied Fine Art for most of my college education and came to design later. I was waiting tables to pay for school and began to realise that I wasn’t cut out to live the life of a fine artist. It was important to me to do something every day that I cared about, that was really visual and that I could invest in. So I started taking graphic design classes near the end of my time at the University of Michigan [in Ann Arbor], which was an academic college as well as a school of art. I got a dual degree in psychology and art which focused on graphic design and printmaking.
When I graduated, I got a job in a small studio in Chicago called Studio Blue, which specialised in making art books. I was trying to be close to fine art while also making a living doing graphic design … something I cared about. I thought I might go back to school and be a fine artist but I loved making these books – working with narratives and imagery.
I actually ended up really enjoying typography, which was surprising to me. I enjoyed the craft of it and the beauty of letterforms.
Eventually, I moved to Minneapolis for my husband’s job and started my own business designing books for publishers and museums alongside teaching a publication design class at Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
When I moved to New York [in 2004], I was at a loss about what to do. From my experience in Minneapolis I realised I didn’t want to work for myself as it was kind of isolating. And I had too much experience to get hired at a book design studio.
I talked to a lot of different people while I was trying to determine where I would fit best and many of those people mentioned that Janet Froelich, who was at the time the creative director over both the Sunday magazine and T, might like my work.
SS: Can you tell me about those early days?
GB: As I had this interest in magazines but had no experience in doing them, I contacted Janet and gave her a portfolio of books. She asked me in for an interview and brought me in for a three-week freelance stint working on the style magazine T.
SS: What made Janet think, ‘This book designer can do magazines’?
GB: The books were highly designed … very typographic. They weren’t quiet backdrops to the art, as some art books are. I think they all had a certain personality to them. A lot of them were photography books, which showed I could tell a story through images.
I continued freelancing at T, and in my first nine months I was mostly absorbing everything about magazines. I worked on a lot of the front-of-book pages. Fashion was a new thing, but I also found it somewhat hard. A lot of good fashion design is driven by the imagery. Designers who do it well have this ability to respond to the visuals and make a layout that complements or amplifies them in some way. I found it harder in terms of the decision making process.
SS: How did you end up here, at the magazine?
GB: One time, when I had a break from T, I came over and worked with Rem [Arem Duplessis] on the Sunday magazine and found that I enjoyed the content – the variety of it all. He hired me as a freelancer, and eventually as a staff designer. Within six months of being full time, the magazine’s deputy art director left and I was made deputy art director. Janet left the Times about five years after that and Rem was promoted to design director. He then promoted me to the art director role. He and I worked together for about ten years before he left for Apple.
SS: What drove you to want to stay here? Did you have a sense that you wanted to build a career in this place?
GB: There’s a lot of pleasure in adding to something in an iconic institution like the Times and being able to make something that so many people get to see – things that are important. That was also one of the things that drew me to books, making something with some permanence, that people don’t just toss out.
Bichler and art director Matt Willey.
SS:Did the pace of editorial design appeal to you? With several issues on the go simultaneously, is there a balance between working quickly and perhaps, going a little bit slower?
GB: Yes, we have a lot of different moving parts. We have some rough drafts for stories that might be two or three weeks down the road or a couple of months down the road … a lot of different stories are in the works at all times. Sometimes, we’re able to get a hold of something with a good amount of lead time and make something special out of the design or the artwork. Sometimes it’s a really quick turnaround, a matter of days. Some of my best covers have often come out of being forced into a spot where I just had to make something.
I encourage the team to start planning for special issues as early as possible. We know the general themes, and there are a number of issues that we tend to do every year. At a minimum we need to start mapping them out a couple of weeks in advance, but when we’re able to think about the issue as a whole early on, we can be more ambitious with the design and sometimes play a role in shaping the content.
Beyond the template
SS: Do you feel as though working at every level of the magazine has helped you do your current job better?
GB: Yes, I understand everyone’s job. I also know the organisation as a whole, and the Times magazine – its position within the Times, how integrated it is within the company – is really different than other publications. I think that is one of the things that is nice about my partnership with Jake [Silverstein, editor]. When he first got here, there was a certain advantage to being new in the organisation – he’d attempt things that maybe you wouldn’t if you had more of a history with the company. We kind of push each other and balance each other out. We figured out a way of working together in our first year, and we’ve continued to take risks.
SS: What makes the magazine different from the rest of the newspaper?
GB: First of all, the content. The tone is different, a lot more first-person stories. The magazine is not always news, although it can be newsworthy. A lot of the stories are picked as much for their narrative qualities as their reporting. One thing that sets us apart from the rest of the paper is the design, and the format – we are so ‘design forward’ and visual. The magazine is the second most read section after the ‘A Book’,
the front section.
SS: The magazine must have an extensive set of templates, but there is a sense, especially with the opening spreads, that you are pushing beyond those templates to create work which feels different from week to week. How are you doing it?
GB: We customise almost everything within reason. We are often using our brand fonts, so that’s the starting point, but a lot of what we do is responding to the photography or the language. We’re trying to customise the thing that we make in order to convey the point of the story or to make a visual point with a design.
Also, we look at all the stories in the magazine and look at the pacing and the tempo and adjust them. We’re looking to break the template to make something intriguing, that will draw people in, that helps people interpret the content in a way that is specific to each story.
SS: How do you delegate portions of the magazine among your team? Can you explain how the team dynamic works for each issue?
GB: Everyone on the staff does some front-of-book pages, which they art direct because we have to make art for those pages. If we can, everyone does a feature. Sometimes there’s a person that’s pulled off designing the feature well who is working ahead on something, or maybe they have a feature story that they have to concept the art for. Everybody has those opportunities. I see what people have on their plates and if something new comes in and I know somebody has an interest in the topic, or I think their skills might be suited to it, I’ll give it to them.
I try to make things exciting for the designers in my department, to give them the opportunities I feel I was given. Everybody here is super smart and talented. Matt [Willey] and I work together in a nice way. We have a shared sensibility, but also different strengths. He is so smart and thoughtful about making magazines. Because he has started several
of his own, he comes at things with the idea that everything is possible, and he’s been the brains behind some amazing ideas for special issues.
We support each other’s ideas in a way that makes it easier to push for them convincingly.
I tend to do a lot of the covers, partly because concepting those covers is a strength of mine and partly because the turnaround is quite fast, which means there’s often a lot of pressure. I also want to keep hold of some design. I do give other people opportunities to do the covers as well. I try to keep in mind what a thrill it is for people to make the cover of the magazine.
The magazine has grown so much. We’re making all this different stuff. When I first began working here we were making eight special issues per year. Now it’s more like sixteen. They’ve become huge, and we do custom online designs for each of those. We have a small group within the magazine that makes special, highly designed one-off sections of the paper, and we have recently started making a monthly kids’ section. We’re doing events – my group often makes signage and invitations for those. Since April  we have made a weekly design-focused video that explains the process behind our covers. The job is so much bigger than it once was so I don’t have the time to sit and focus on designing like I used to. But I can handle making a cover because a lot of it is in the idea. And then the execution can be a little bit easier. The cover is also something that I can still complete while getting interrupted a bunch of times.
SS: Your team is very talented and skilled. But they clearly gain a lot of skills while they are with you. How do you keep them?
GB: Working for the Times is a unique opportunity. The kind of content that we have is hard to come by. The stories are interesting to read and to design for. You are designing in real time about world events. That’s exciting! And there’s a sense that you’re making something relevant and important. That’s what allows us to draw talent and keep it. The freedom we have in service of these articles is a special opportunity.
SS: Are you the only person who has complete overview of what’s happening?
GB: I try to have a full overview. There are so many things happening at once.
SS: Do people come to you or do you go to them?
GB: Most often they’re coming to me. There’s usually a queue but occasionally I’ll think about a story that I gave to somebody and think, ‘where are they with that?’, and go ask about it. At the moment we have some people on the staff who are relatively new, who weren’t magazine designers before, and I check in with them fairly often to just make sure they understand how to push something forward.
SS: Can you pick out some specific covers or articles that have happened quickly that you are proud of?
GB: Recently we did a story on sexual harassment in the workplace. The cover says, ‘he said’ and there’s an ‘S’ written over it and a period [full stop] so it’s altered to say, ‘She said’. I knew that the article was in the works and that they wanted to get a whole bunch of writers together to talk about different aspects of the fallout from the Weinstein scandal. We didn’t have any ideas for what the cover could be, or even a working headline. I was thinking about the idea of conversations between women and decided that it made sense for the cover to be a typographic solution. I made a sketch of that idea and showed it to Jake. He liked it. It just went from there. And the cover ended up looking remarkably like the sketch.
SS: The New York Times did a similar ad spot that read, ‘he said, he said, he said …’ overtaken by ‘she said, she said, etc.’.
GB: It’s a coincidence. It came out after that cover. I actually did a similar sketch to what turned out to be their ad, but I just went in a different direction.
SS: Your cover stands out because it seemed important that it didn’t portray just one woman’s face ... someone like Rose McGowan as a poster girl. It’s not about her. It’s about everybody.
GB: We worked with Jessica Walsh to execute it. She did a huge number of options for the letters and it was really important to feel the hand, in the stroke, to feel some agency by whoever put it there. I wanted it to feel a little bit angry.
A chronological array of 50 covers – from 14 May 2017 to 6 May 2018 – that shows the immense variety of subject matter tackled by Bichler and her team week to week.
SS: Given that they are not competing on the newsstand, what do your covers need to achieve? What do you gain by releasing them before the print issue, online?
GB: The covers have to communicate directly, and they have to get people’s attention. They serve almost as a kind of ad, if not for specific stories, for the magazine in general. And they get us out there in the digital world, and, oftentimes, they’re a prompt for people who aren’t necessarily going to get the print magazine. Like you mentioned, it’s hard to get in Europe. It gets people interested in those stories and gets them to seek it out either in print or online.
SS: You have 2.5 million digital subscribers. Is the magazine cover for them, too?
GB: It’s interesting because the cover has to function separately from the magazine. Beyond being a teaser for the story that we’re publishing, the ones that seem to resonate and get passed around online have their own messages that readers are reacting to.
You were asking about differences between the magazine and the paper, and one of those differences comes in with the covers, because a lot of the purpose of a magazine cover is different than what they’re trying to do with the paper.
The Times has a ‘standards editor’, who’s in charge of upholding the paper’s journalistic ethics. We consult with him if we’re publishing material that’s controversial. In a recent cover that we worked on, he was questioning whether the image we were using sensationalised the story. That was an interesting question because, in a lot of ways, that is often the job of a magazine cover, to be provocative. You have to be true to the content, but many times the goal of it is to be grabby or to make a pointed comment, which is different from what the paper is looking to do in terms of evenhandedly portraying news. As a magazine attached to a newspaper, we’re walking a line between those things.
SS: When designing book jackets and album covers, for example, graphic designers must consider the strength of the cover’s communication at thumbnail size in preparation for Amazon, Spotify or other similar platforms. Are you also thinking about how your covers communicate small as well as at their printed size?
GB: Yes. That’s funny. Matt and I joke that I make decisions based on what looks good on Twitter, but I don’t. My own sensibility is towards something that is very stripped down, which tends to read better small.
So we do sometimes think about it, but it doesn’t stop us from publishing something with a super small cover line that people can’t see [on social media]. In the end, it will end up a physical thing on the magazine, which trumps those considerations.
Oftentimes it affects the way that we frame it [on social media] so that people can read something as they look at the cover.
SS: Can you tell me about the new print-only supplements and how you’re infiltrating the paper?
GB: I think the leadership of the Times has been smart about thinking about the future of what print is, because there is so much emphasis on the digital aspect of reading news on your phone. They’ve been thinking about how the paper will adapt, both in terms of its content and design.
Jake was part of an internal committee that generated some ideas about the future of print. A lot of it was about getting a certain amount of value for the paper that readers receive or purchase. They came up with this idea to do special print-only sections because it’s kind of counter-intuitive: most of the new special stuff we’re doing is digital.
We wanted to give something to subscribers that get the print paper and to make it a rich experience. We wanted it to push the boundaries of what you can do with newsprint, so my department started to make these special sections. The kids’ section was the fourth special section we made.
SS: There are so many robust studies about the importance of getting children off screens, so a print-only section for kids makes a lot of sense.
GB: The idea of making a kids’ section had been tossed around for a while at the paper, and I think editors in different departments had different ideas about how it could be done or what should be in it. Then we launched this new initiative to create special print-only sections. Jake thought a magazine sensibility should inform the sections, so he brought in Caitlin Roper to head them up from the editorial side and
I brought in Deb Bishop [formerly the creative director of Martha Stewart Kids] to be the art director.
One of the first ideas Caitlin proposed was a kids’ section. That’s the only one of these new sections we’ve created that’s become a regular monthly product.
We’ve also done a couple of fiction sections. Every December we do a big puzzle spectacular. We did a section on the Constitution that had a historical essay and also talked about how the Constitution was being interpreted or would be affected under the new administration. The whole Constitution was printed on one side, and heavily annotated by historians and legal scholars, and it could be opened several times and hung on the wall.
Caitlin and Deb now oversee a small team that is constantly working on those sections. We call their group NYT Magazine Labs; it’s like a small creative shop that is connected to the magazine and shares our sensibility and resources, but can be dedicated to all sorts of other cool projects. It was intended to delight print readers, but it turned out to be a smart way to get kids interested in the news and newspapers. The challenge of using the broadsheet format for kids is a nice one; we often try to do something that makes use of the scale of the middle spread. The last one had a big, complicated maze where two kids can compete against each other to see who can get through the fastest.
SS: It also seems as though the design dictates the sections’s use. There’s a real physicality, you’re playing on top of it. I can imagine putting it on the floor. What a great way to use a newspaper!
GB: We have a lot of interactive stuff in it as well. Christoph Niemann did this piece for us in the first kids’ section where he showed some examples of how you could draw on photos and gave kids an opportunity to do the thing that he does. There are a lot of ways to actually interact with the paper.
SS: Can you tell me about your new creative studio, NYT Magazine Labs? Is it just giving a name to something that your team was already doing?
GB: Basically, it’s a group within the magazine. Initially, they were going to make the special one-off print-only sections of the paper that the magazine has been putting out. But actually, with the new distinction of Labs, the idea is to apply magazine thinking to a lot of different things at the paper. People could come to us with projects and have us work on those.
SS: Do you also oversee the digital side of the magazine?
GB: Yes, our digital art director is Rodrigo De Benito Sanz.
SS: What is the relationship between digital and print?
GB: We have templates for a lot of our regular features. Initially [in 2015], we were aiming to distinguish our articles from the paper online. We wanted people to look at them, see our fonts, and understand that they come from the magazine.
But we don’t always replicate what we did in print because in the digital space, there’s limitless room. There have been photo essays that were really rich online that we just couldn’t get the space for on paper. We will often publish the online features of a special issue linked together so that people understand that they are part of a special issue. We strategise about how to get promotion on the homepage … once something is on the Times homepage it gets a lot of attention.
A low-tech route to virtual reality
SS: Why did you launch a virtual reality (VR) app?
GB: We wanted to bring all the power of the journalism and some serious stories to VR. Also, we had this low-tech way of giving everybody this new, high-tech form of journalism; we sent out 1.1 million Google Cardboard viewers to everyone who had a subscription (in November 2015). I was also involved in overseeing the design of the virtual reality app, and I oversaw the design of all of the marketing. For example, I commissioned Christoph [Niemann] to do a small animation that explained to readers, ‘you’re going to be getting this Cardboard, and this is what you can use it for’, in a charming way.
SS: Your VR seems well ahead of other news outlets …
GB: We had actually done one experiment previously for the ‘Walking New York’ cover [April 2015], with French artist JR. We did a VR film where you could go to JR’s studio … and ride to the landing pad where he flew in the helicopter and shot the imagery. It was a dry run.
It’s a different format for storytelling, if you think about it. Film-makers are used to framing things and having a narrative and in VR a lot of that is out of their control. Viewers don’t have to look where you want them to look. You can be trying to draw attention to one thing, and they can just be looking over in a corner at something else!
SS: Your design team must work closely with the photo editors, and videographers. What is it like to work with photo editor Kathy Ryan (see Eye 73)?
GB: Kathy is amazing. I don’t even think I need to say it but she’s a visionary. No other photo editor has had the longevity and the influence on editorial photography that she has. She brings a huge level of ambition to every project.
We work very collaboratively with Kathy and her team. After the designers have read the stories, they meet with the photo editors to get information about what images are relevant and what they like. Then they try to piece together what the art should be for each story and how the story can unfold.
Later, we come back to the photo team and show them what we’re thinking and have conversations about it. All this happens before we show anything to Jake. For photo essays, we sometimes put the layouts on the ground in one of the corridors and cut up images and get down on the floor together and start moving things around.
People [artists, photographers] often come to Kathy with projects that they’re working on, so that’s a great source for the magazine. We have a weekly photo meeting where we look at the art that has come in. If it’s a cover story we talk about whether there’s an image that jumps out as a possible cover.
Kathy will have a pitch from an artist and we’ll put that up on screen and ask Jake, ‘Can you see us publishing this? Is there a peg for it?’ Usually there has to be a newsworthy aspect to it, but not always. We published a great piece on a pencil factory that didn’t have a peg.
SS: The opener for the article [‘Inside One of America’s Last Pencil Factories’, 12 Jan 2018] was very social media-friendly …
GB: We had some different discussions about whether or not that should be the opening image but we in the design department prevailed saying it was the most graphic image and it needed to be there.
Kathy is often thinking about the longevity of pictures. She has this saying, ‘One for the ages’.She thinks about what’s going to work for the story now but also what is the photograph that you’re going to take away from this and remember. Or, what is the photograph you’re going to look back on and think that was a classic.
When we were covering the 2017 Women’s March, and it had been covered everywhere including our own paper, we were trying to find a way to make an image of it that felt new or fresh. She had the instinct to use Matthew Pillsbury, who makes images blurred by motion using super long shutter settings to try to get that motion. It made this great image that is pretty iconic of that march, where you just see these swirls of pink coming from the pussy hats.
Most of the pieces ship by Thursday...
SS: I can feel your art team looming beyond the glass. So, maybe it’s a good time to get a sense of your week and at what point in the design process they are. How often are you in conversation with Jake?
GB: There are a lot of moving parts, things that are working in various degrees of done-ness. Generally, what we do is we get our heads and decks, hopefully on Monday but sometimes that slips to Tuesday.
What we tend to do first in the art department is look over the photography edit and select our imagery. Sometimes designers are simultaneously experimenting with the design because they want to have a sense of how they might work with an image they’re using for an opener. By Tuesday afternoon, the designers have chosen all our imagery and had them signed off, except for the cover story, which is one day later.
We have this weekly art direction meeting that I’m going to at 3 o’clock [Tuesday] where art and photo talk to Jake about upcoming stories, though we mostly try to reserve that time to talk about cover stories. I often try to get Jake to come up with a working language for a story, or boil the main point of it down to one sentence so that I can understand what his angle is, and also the kind of attitude that he wants the cover to convey.
By Wednesday afternoon, most of the designers need to have their feature designs ready to show. They don’t have to be finished but you have to have an opener and a general idea of what it’s going to look like. Jake comes by at a set time and either approves or asks for changes. Most of the pieces ship by Thursday. Again, the cover story’s one day behind.
The photo meeting I already mentioned used to be on Friday mornings and now it kind of floats. Everything has shipped by Friday evening [to publish the following Sunday] – all the front-of-book pages are shipping at the front of the week and as you go there’s stuff shipping Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday as well.
The cover’s actually on its own schedule. It’s not as set. The cover will often undergo many more rounds of design than other pieces, so I sometimes show it at points when Jake has come to the art department to look at other things or I just email him and ask him to come over at lunch.
SS: The cover and the issue’s cover feature are the last to go?
GB: And the index. Covers can be gruelling to get a sign off on. We have a process of signing off on these things where everybody okays it and looks at it to make sure it’s accurate. And once you’re done with that one it’s on to the next. It’s quite a rigorous publishing schedule.
SS: Relentless …
GB: It is totally relentless. I can say that. We publish 52 issues per year; there’s no real pause.
SS: How is the magazine future-proofing itself?
GB: I think the future of newspapers is going to be more magazine-like, because people are reading so much news digitally. We’re just trying to find ways to tell stories in a lot of different mediums, and in that way, we’re creating a path forward.
SS: Is it also about taking risks?
GB: We take a lot of risks with our covers … with special issues. Changing the orientation of the whole magazine [‘High Life’] was risky, as was removing the ads for one issue [‘Fractured Lands’]. We are trying to do things to enhance the experience … to surprise and delight people. There are ways you can go about things where you know it’s going to be safe and probably pretty good, but I find that the best things are where I’m kind of panicked about how it is going to turn out! We try to push ourselves to do things we haven’t done before. When you’re trying to make something new you don’t always know how it’s going to turn out. I think we would rather make something ugly than boring.
Sarah Snaith, design writer, editor and tutor, RCA, London
First published in Eye no. 96 vol. 24, 2018
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