CR’s Designer of the Year: Matt Willey

CR’s Designer of the Year honour is an integral part of our Annual issue and is usually awarded to a studio. But for 2014 we are giving it to an individual: Matt Willey. Here, we look back at some of his recent work and talk to him about his fantastic year in editorial design

CR’s Designer of the Year honour is an integral part of our Annual issue and is usually awarded to a studio. But for 2014 we are giving it to an individual: Matt Willey. Here, we look back at some of his recent work and talk to him about his fantastic year in editorial design…

The CR blog can be a bit of a bearpit when it comes to commenting on new projects. But one piece of work this year received almost universal praise from our community: the beautifully crafted redesign of The Independent newspaper carried out by Willey and the paper’s in-house team. The paper was also one of two projects the designer worked on selected for this year’s Annual (below).

In February 2012, Willey and Zoë Bather announced the closure of Studio8, the design firm they had set up six years earlier. And since then, Willey has operated alone, carving out a reputation as perhaps the leading editorial designer in the UK.

Alongside The Independent, this year has seen him produce outstanding work for the RIBA Journal and YCN’s YouCanNow magazine as well as the Tom Dixon book, Dixonary, published by Violette Editions – his other project to feature in the CR Annual (below).

And of course, Willey also continues to be part of the team behind the ever-stylish Port magazine, as well as lending his talents to various other titles.

So in making Willey CR Annual Designer of the Year, we like to think we’re paying tribute to someone who is keeping print alive as a vibrant, beautiful medium with a great future.

We caught up with him just before he caught a flight to Auckland where he is set to give a talk at Semi-Permanent on May 2, and he told us a bit more about his busy year and some of his stand-out projects.

Covers for Port issues 12 and 11, photographed by Gareth McConnell and Nadav Kander

Cover of the redesigned YCN

CR: Last year you continued with your work for Port, redesigned YCN and the RIBA J, and then worked on the relaunch of The Independent. It was the first newspaper you’d worked on – how did the experience compare to working on a magazine?

Matt Willey: In some ways I think it was perhaps a benefit not to be ingrained in the newspaper world, and it was a fairly full-on three months or so – I didn’t have much time to wonder (or worry) if I was out of my depth.

Two front pages from The Independent redesign. More on this here

It felt like a big complicated editorial project. I had to learn a lot, but the logic and thought processes felt familiar to me. The main focus was to creating something, a set of parts, that could be built under huge time pressures by an understaffed team, most of whom aren’t designers.

That was new to me – and everything revolved around that working. It was a big messy political thing; bigger and more messy and more political than any magazines I’ve been involved in.

Spreads from The Independent redesign

 

CR: You’re now a little over two years on from Studio8 and from working within a studio environment with a group of other designers. Can you give me a sense of how your working life has changed since that time? Has working on your own changed how you work?

MW: Last year happened very accidentally. I was trying to spend some time figuring out what to do next, which included the possibility of doing something completely different (I was looking at woodworking courses). I was very fortunate that a string of very exciting projects came my way and it ended up being the most enjoyable year I’ve had as a designer.

Spreads from Dixonary

I don’t think it’s changed the way in which I work. All the projects – Wired, Dixonary, the One cookbook … they have all involved working closely with other people, collaborating with photographers, other designers, editors and so on.

But I did have to say “no” to work. Without a studio behind me there was a limit to what I could take on, and in a funny way, I think that has been very good for me.

For ten months (up until the end of February this year) I was working out of Simon Esterson’s studio, which was wonderful – a lovely studio and a lovely bunch of people. So although I was working on my own I was still working in a studio environment.

Cover and spread from first redesigned issue of RIBA J

Also, the RIBA J job and the Independent were long-ish stints working in-house with them – so I have been, fairly consistently, surrounded by people. Wired was done remotely but it was still collaborative, emailing ideas back and forth with Claudia.

Actually, the Port covers have been the most isolated things I’ve done, everything else has felt very much the results of collective efforts.

 

CR: What is it about print – be it magazines or books – which keeps you coming back to the medium, as both a designer and a reader?

MW: I feel like an accidental (and occasionally reluctant) designer. Working on magazines allows me access to things I know I like; art, literature, poetry, photography, food, wine, humour … a lot of things. Being part of a good magazine with good people is a wonderful thing.

Spread from YCN

I’ve been lucky to be fairly hands-on and involved with the content on a lot of the magazines I’ve worked with. Those collaborations I mentioned before, with editors, designers, photographers and so on, can be exhilarating things to be involved in.

Sitting around a table discussing editorial ideas is still my favourite part of Port. It’s the great luxury we have with the magazine.

Covers for Port issues 8 and 7, photographed by Tim Barber and Platon

 

CR: And, finally, can you tell me about a project that’s keeping you busy at the moment?

MW: Next projects? It’s been a fairly odd start to the year. I’m gearing up to start as design director at Condé Nast Traveler in New York but the visa that will allow me to come and go has been a long haul. It’s been a strange state of limbo after the relentlessness of last year. But I’m really excited about it – I’ll be over there for a week or so each month.

I’m also launching a new magazine with some friends here in London. Very exited about that too, but can’t say much about it at the moment.

See more of Matt Willey’s work at mattwilley.co.uk

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