NYT Magazine ‘Lives They Lived’
There’s just time for one last post in 2022, ahead of next week’s review of the year. And what better subject than the New York Times Magazine?
The scale of ambition set, and subsequent quality of achievement constantly reached, by creative director Gail Bichler and her team continued across 2022. We could easily have featured their work on the weekly magazine once a month or more; in an attempt to not always do so, we have perhaps not given them enough attention. This post is an attempt to rectify that.
A highlight of the magCulture year was our New York Live conference, where Gail and her creative partner, editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein spoke together about their ongoing collaboration. A busy afternoon of talks by indie mag publishers was opened by Gail and Jake, and closed by Richard Turley and Mel Ottenberg from Interview. The two pairs of speakers could hardly have been more different; the Interview team revealed a chaotic regime that reflected a desire for spontaneity that exhibits itself in the raw urgency of its art direction and design—a perfect formula for their magazine and key to it’s success.
The New York Times Magazine pair revealed a very different approach in their discussion of collaboration, a far more analytical and considered one that is as key to the success of their project as the opposite is to Interview. Their latest edition demonstrates this perfectly.
The annual ‘The Lives They Lived’ edition has in recent years straddled the desire to note the loss of both the famous and the less famous. In one way or another the lives remembered included headline losses alongside lesser known figures. The unifying aim is to celebrate the lives.
The 2022 edition does exactly that but for a very different, self-defining group of people. As Jake Silverstein says in his opening note to the issue, ‘In the year 2020, during a pandemic that extinguished the lives of millions of people around the globe, a different sort of epidemic became the leading cause of death for American children…’ Gun violence had overtaken car accidents as the most likely cause of death among Americans under 18 years.
The result is a quiet, sombre piece of publishing that celebrates the lives of 12 children killed by guns this year. Rightly known for its typographic playfulness and bold photographic choices, the New York Times Magazine team know when to temper their visual approach.
As Gail explained to me recently, ‘The magazine covers a huge range of topics, so designing for things that are vastly different in tone from week to week or even within the same issue is pretty standard. We get accustomed to juggling. That said, some stories are particularly affecting, and that was definitely the case with this year’s ‘Lives’ issue.’
‘Because we planned on making the issue something very different this year, we started discussing and shaping it back in July, so we worked on it for six months during which time we made many, many other magazines.’ Working on a weekly with very different content each week meant the team had some respite from the subject matter of the ‘Lives’ issue, ‘There were moments as we worked where we were hit with the overwhelming tragedy of it. In those times, while it could be jarring, it was sometimes a helpful break to be pulled into another project and force your mind to go to a different place.’
Usually the ‘Lives’ issue will use archive imagery alongside commissioned photography. This time, the art and photo teams wanted to work only with the images that the families and kids had taken on their phones.
‘The photos and videos really felt like caught moments,’ Gail explained, ‘We saw them with their families and friends, at important moments in their lives and in videos they made for social media. You could really get a sense of who they were. It was incredibly moving. That realization guided a lot of our design choices.’
The result is extraordinarily powerful; the pages are stripped of artifice and we see right into the day-to-day lives of the children. Those featured are 12 of the 1500 children killed by gun violence in 2022. Times reporters travelled to their hometowns, met their families and friends, visited the places they hung out.
LaVonte’e Williams, born 2017
In the printed issue, the story of each child is told across a spread (above), sharing anecdotes and celebrating their personalities alongside images showing life at home, with their families and at school events and social gatherings. The tone is upbeat and celebratory, the texts are about their life, not their death. A brief sentence at the end of each biography notes the date and nature of their death.
Angellyh Yambo, born 2006
While the individual pages of the issue are quiet and calm, much effort has gone into pacing the run of pages. Each biographical spread is followed by a double page image of the child, taken on a phone (above). These images show happy, normal kids.
The run of biographies is split by a series of stark, black pages. The first, an introduction from Jake Silverstein (above), opens the issue. Another four focus on specific facts—the magazine team collaborated with the newsroom’s graphics department to prepare figures and design infographics (below) that dig deeper into the background of the shocking story.
The issue ends with an epilogue (above) in which writer Mitchell S. Jackson tells his own story of entanglement with gun violence as a young person growing up in Portland, Oregan.
This print issue of the New York Times Magazine is incredibly moving, a testament to how quiet, calm design can be as powerful in its own way as graphic fireworks. The ability to switch tone in this way is very special (get a sense of a different tone with the magazine’s recent ‘Great Performers’ issue. It’s also worth checking the digital version of the ‘Lives’ issue, featuring the phone video sources of the stills in the magazine (best viewed on phone rather than desktop).
As Gail puts it, ‘Whatever emotions we may feel about any story, decisions still need to be made about how to do justice to the content and tell the story in an impactful way.’
Editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein
Creative director Gail Bichler
Photo director Kathy Ryan
Print designers Matt Curtis, Ben Grandgenett, Rachel Willey, Annie Jen
Digital designers Matt Curtis, Kate LaRue, Jacky Myint
Photo editor Kristen Geisler
Data team Simone Landon, Robert Gebeloff, Danielle Ivory, Bill Marsh, Allison McCann, Albert Sun