At work with: Gail Bichler, New York Times Magazine

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The bad news? Yes, you’re back in the office, starting a new year of work. The good news? You can share the pain with us. Over the holidays we posted a series of audio reviews of 2014 magazines by various friends of magCulture and as the most frequently mentioned magazine was the New York Times Magazine, we start 2015 looking ahead at the week with its design director Gail Bichler.

Gail moved to New York from Chicago in 2004, freelancing for various studios and magazine before joining the New York Times Magazine as art director. She was appointed design director in late 2014 just as the New York Times company committed to invest in a major relaunch of the weekly magazine, and she has just added British designer Matt Willey to her design team.

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Where are you today?
I’m in my office on the 6th floor of The New York Times building in mid-town Manhattan. The Times is in a beautiful Renzo Piano designed building with floor-to-ceiling windows. There’s great light in the office and some amazing views from various parts of the building.

What can you see from the window?
Did I say there were great views from parts of the building? Unfortunately, the magazine’s art department is not one of them. Most of what I can see is the office building next door. If I leave my office, go to the northeastern-most corner of the art department’s space and look down I can see people heading to work down 41st street. Again, somewhat disappointing. I’ll have to wait for lunch to get a better view. The Times’ cafeteria is on a higher floor and has a double height ceiling and a fantastic view of the city facing eastward.

Are you a morning or evening person?
Both! (Otherwise known as someone who gets little sleep.) I used to be an evening person but I’ve had to adjust my views on that because I have a six year old boy who gets up before the sun rises and likes company. If I had my way though, I’d definitely stay up late and sleep in. I’m most productive at night.

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What’s your favourite magazine this morning?

That’s a tough question on this morning in particular when I’ve spent the weekend sorting through all the year-end magazine coverage. Lots of great stuff out there! I’ve been admiring the U.S. version of Wired lately. I think they’ve had some great covers this year and I loved the recent Christopher Nolan edited edition of the magazine. That seemed like a bit of a departure for them design-wise. I like how they’re mixing it up. I’m also excited about California Sunday Magazine.. It’s interesting that it grew out of a live performance pop-up magazine, and they’ve hired a very talented former colleague of mine, Leo Jung, as the design director. I’m excited to see where he’ll take things visually. Also, I’m a fan of Conor Purcell’s new magazine We Are Dublin. He stopped by The Times when he was in New York this fall and gave me a copy of it. I love his concept of a kind of anti-travel magazine that gives an authentic look at the city where he lives, and I like that he is producing most of the photography for it on his iPhone.

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The weekly news magazine has reestablished its status as design ‘event’ in the last few years; every week we see front cover designs shared online. Why do you think this is?
Over the last decade or so, as magazine publishing has moved more and more into the digital space, covers didn’t seem to have a home outside of print. Putting the cover of a magazine on the publication’s home page wasn’t a good idea because that tied you even more to the print edition and having a static image as the main visual instead of changing imagery gave the impression that your content was also static. That’s the opposite of what you want on a news site or any type of site that gets repeat traffic in a short time span. But more recently, with the increased popularity of social media and particularly with instagram, Facebook and twitter, it feels as if magazine covers have found a new home. There seems to be a much bigger appetite for all things visual. People are consuming content in small bites on their phones throughout the day in between whatever else they’re doing and the covers are a quick visual hit that people can react to and share. But I don’t think patterns of media consumption entirely explain why these covers are having a resurgence. It’s also a testament to some of the great work that has been done over the past few years. Certainly the tough conditions in publishing have weeded out a lot of struggling weeklies, but the ones that remain like New York (which went biweekly this year) and Bloomberg Businessweek have been consistently producing outstanding work.

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The weekly flow of NYTMag cover designs appears effortless, but I’m sure the weekly process can sometimes be far from smooth. Do you create multiple covers and test them? Does the editor reject many ideas? How far ahead of publication do you produce them?
Ha! I’m glad that it appears effortless. On rare occasions when we quickly hit on an idea or a visual that works, it is. More often we create multiple covers for a story, and sometimes even multiple covers for more than one story. Fortunately, at the Times we don’t have any kind of consumer testing as part of our process. Because we’re a non-newsstand-magazine, we have the luxury of publishing whatever imagery best conveys our content in a compelling way instead of what a focus group decides is cover-worthy.

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The cover artwork and photography vary greatly in terms of how much time we have to produce them. It can be anywhere from three weeks to three days. We start to design our covers approximately 12 days before the magazine appears in the paper. Our editor in chief, Jake Silverstein, sometimes rejects ideas, but he’s very visual and often comes back with a different idea. Most often the back and forth happens at the beginning of the process when we’re brainstorming. After we settle on a concept Jake’s input is less about accepting or rejecting what we show and more about helping to shape it. Since we are on a weekly deadline we often show things that are in progress to make sure there are no surprises at the end. Despite all our best efforts occasionally things go wrong, and in rare instances we’ve decided to re-commission a cover a couple of days before we go to print in the hopes of getting something more on target. We definitely try to avoid nail-biters if we can, though. I don’t think our process is any more tumultuous than that of most weekly magazines. It’s just the nature of the beast.

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The recent announcement that the New York Times is to invest significantly in a relaunch of the magazine promises an exciting 2015. Can you reveal any of your plans and/or hopes for the relaunch?
Yes, lots of exciting changes ahead. As you mention we are re-launching the brand, which includes doing a multi platform redesign. We will introduce a number of new contributors and columns, some of which will primarily live online or which will produce more content than what is published in print. We will have a more cohesive digital identity that maximizes our photography, and our contributors will be looking to interact more with our readers online. As far as the print magazine goes, we’re getting a heavier paper stock, and an entirely new set of custom typefaces. We’ll be aiming to take a page from more bespoke magazines in terms of making a pleasurable reading experience and a collectible product, but we’ll still be delivering the high quality journalistic content that the magazine is known for. I hope that our redesign will feel like a fresh, smart new chapter of a magazine with a long and celebrated history.

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At the end of 2014 Matt Willey joined the magazine as our art director. He and I will work closely with the rest of our staff to develop and experiment with the new visual language that will be unveiled in our redesign. I’m so excited to have him as part of our team!

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What are you most looking forward to this week?
I love to get the first run copies of the magazine. They come in on Tuesday mornings the week before they’re published. I always check for them when I arrive at the office. This week we have a typographic cover that I’m excited about (below). We worked with Sawdust on it. It’s the first time we’ve collaborated with them. I’m looking forward to seeing how it printed.

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What are you least looking forward to this week?
Trying to get up to speed on everything that happened while I was out of the office. I keep hoping that one day we’ll just publish a ‘special double issue’ right before the holiday and then shut down for the week. I fear it’s not in the cards, though.

What will you be doing after this chat?
Getting a large cup of coffee before plowing through a bunch of unanswered email. Lots to catch up on!

nytimes.com/pages/magazine

Hear our audio reviews of 2014.

Portrait by Kathy Ryan

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