New York Times: The Walking Issue

New York Times: The Walking Issue

Here at FFF we’re big magazines fans, so when we recently had the opportunity to speak to the Design Director of no less than the acclaimed award-winning The New York Times Magazine, Gail Bichler, obviously we got stuck right in. Gail is genuinely one of the loveliest people working in the industry, not to mention talented, and like any good leader she has surrounded herself with exceptionally brilliant people to help her create one of the most exciting and jaw-dropping weekly magazines. You might recall her most recent international signing, Art Director Matt Willey, is an old friend of FFF and outrageously talented gent. The latest issue of the NYT Magazine is a ‘special issue’ that Matt took the lead in designing – so we focussed on that issue – while exploring some of the wider issues around leading such a renowned title…

FFF: Single-topic issues can be quite tricky, does the NYT magazine have a history of doing them? ‘Walking New York’ seems like a very rich vein to mine, and the JR cover is brilliant expansion of this, how does a collaboration like that come about and how tricky is it to pull off? 

GB: Yes, the magazine does about 14 single topic issues per year. As you say, they can be tricky to pull off, but we really enjoy working on them. In regular weeks, each feature article in the magazine is designed by a different member of our team in response to the content and visuals of that story. We pay attention to how the pieces fit together in terms of pacing and imagery to make sure there is visual variety and a good flow, and some common elements like typefaces and grid ensure that the pieces work together.  For our special issues, we work in an entirely different way. One lead designer heads up the issue, Matt Willey in the case of Walking New York, and comes up with a visual language to be used throughout the well that serves as the identity of the issue. It’s a more systematic, cohesive approach to the design of the magazine. We use new fonts, often alter the grid and commission special artwork for these issues, so they are great opportunities for our team.

The idea to do a Walking New York Issue came from our editor in chief’s, Jake Silverstein:

“We wanted to write a love letter to our hometown, and the thing we all love to do in N.Y.C. is walk. Everywhere. That’s a unique quality, at least among American cities. New York is the only American city with a dominant pedestrian culture, so we thought that telling walking stories would capture the city’s spirit.”

As to how JR got involved, our director of photography, Kathy Ryan, had been looking for a way to collaborate with him for some time and thought he could do something special for our New York Issue. Then JR came in for a brainstorming session with Jake, some of the editors involved in the issue and me on March 6.  The cover was shot on April 11, so there were about four weeks of preparation and planning. Kathy and Christine Walsh (one of our photo editors) did an incredible amount of legwork to figure out the logistics of making the cover, including scouting the pasting locations, finding possible cover subjects, securing the city permits, chartering a helicopter and figuring out the precise timing of when the lighting on plaza would be conducive to getting our cover shot.

The public art piece that accompanies the issue comprises larger-than-life photos of immigrants who have arrived in New York City within the past year. JR wanted to paste their photos around the five boroughs because while immigrants make up almost 40 percent of the city, they often go unnoticed. In keeping with the issue’s theme, we turned the artwork into a walk around the New York, to get readers out and interacting with the installations in different neighborhoods. We’ve asked readers to hashtag photos they post of the installations to social media using #WalkingNewYork.

FFF: Can you tell us a bit more about the look of this issue, and the content?

GB: For the design of this issue, we wanted to make something that felt more chaotic and populated than our normal weekly issues — something a bit more like New York itself. The bold headline font has an aggressive feel that we felt was appropriate to the spirit of the city. The secondary font, for the walk headlines and numbers, was drawn by Henrik Kubel and inspired by old subway signage.  
The issue is composed of six feature stories, connected by 17 smaller pieces about the writers’ memorable walks around the city. These walks are also collected in an online feature that allows readers to explore panoramic views of an important point in each walk. Readers are invited to submit their own stories of walking in New York. Editors at the magazine are curating a selection of these submissions to be posted as well. 
Some highlights of the feature well include a photo essay of recent street photography by Lee Friedlander; a story by Ryan Bradley on how New York’s animals get around the city; a photo essay by JR featuring recent immigrants on the city streets; a piece by Ben Schott on the secret language that you hear on walks through New York’s diamond district; and a photo essay by Christopher Griffith on shoe shiners’ hands.

FFF: Your print run is enormous (is it 4 million?) what production considerations does that sort of scale make possible/necessary? And how does that wide a circulation affect decisions about NYC-focussed content?

GB: Our readership is four million, but our print run is actually 1.35 million. (We have quite a large online readership, and also some readers are within the same household and share copies of the magazine.) Our large print run means that we are produced on a gravure web press rather than an offset press and does limit our ability to specify different papers and make use of some other production techniques, but otherwise doesn’t really affect what is possible or not possible. A larger factor in what we’re able to do is being a part of an institution like The New York Times. We have a wider reach than most publications because our magazine is distributed with the paper, and our online offerings are sometimes more widely seen because they are part of a highly trafficked news site and app. This platform, combined with the journalistic mission of The Times, allows us to draw in contributors who often don’t take on editorial commissions.  Our being part of The Times also gives us access to the newsroom’s digital resources and an amazing team of digital designers and journalists, led by Steve Duenes, who built the interactive presentation of the walks for our Walking New York Issue. They present our stories in ways that are particular to the medium on which they are viewed and add an entirely different experience to our content.

The magazine is definitely aimed at a national rather than regional audience. The Walking New York Issue is a bit of an outlier in the sense that it focuses on New York. Because we are based in New York it makes sense to do this kind of an issue every so often, but our aim is to present the content in a way that transports people here, gives them a sense of the city and at the same time tells human stories that, while they take place in New York, are experiences that a national audience can relate to and enjoy.

FFF: How much does the design change from issue to issue? With the recent redesign/relaunch beautiful bespoke typefaces were introduced – but this issue also introduces some classic Willey headers – which feel perfect for this issue. Will these be featuring in future issues?

GB: As I mentioned earlier, in a typical week the pieces are designed simultaneously by different designers in our group using the typefaces that we introduced in our relaunch. Those are still pretty new to us, and we are enjoying figuring out how to work best with them. However we also enjoy coming up with new looks for our special issues. This is a signal to readers that we’re doing something different and allows us to make a typographic language that feels particular to the theme. The Walking New York Issue featured Timmons NY, which Matt Willey redrew a bit for the issue, as well as another font commissioned by Matt and drawn by Henrik Kubel. We don’t have a plan to incorporate these fonts into our weekly arsenal, but we’d certainly consider reusing them in special cases if they related well to a story.

FFF: Illustration and Photography also plays an important role in this issue, and there’s some great pieces – can you tell us a bit about the commissioning process at the NTY?

Photography and illustration play an important role in all of our issues. In fact, the magazine was originally created as a vehicle for more visual stories with expansive photographic imagery. Our photo team works hard to get out ahead of the coming issues as much as possible. They sometimes commission stories as much as a couple of months in advance. They also commission photography for stories a few days before we close them, so it is incredibly varied. They are responsive to our editor’s schedule and the needs of each individual piece. Illustration turnarounds are usually pretty tight. As with our photography, it varies a bit, but a typical turnaround for us would be about five days from start to finish. Often the time frame is shorter.

Thanks Gail!
If you enjoyed this you might also like to check out the recent behind the scenes shoot with Gail by Jeremy Liebman for Its Nice That, this great interview from Gym Class Magazine, and last but not least Episode 8 of the Mag Heroes podcast.  Follow Gail on twitter to see regular peeks of all she’s up to, and Matt here.

JR photography credits:  Andrew T. Warman for The New York Times, David La Spina/The New York Times, Karen Hanley/The New York Times. Magazine shoot credits: FFF.

Luke Tonge