Changing Times

The New York Times Magazine is revered by art directors and readers alike. Janet Froelich, its creative director, has been the driving force behind its continued ascendance.

Here in Britain, newspaper colour magazines are not what they once were. While the rest of the Saturday or Sunday package has grown with more sections, more colour and sometimes a new shape and even an art director, the magazines have been rather less innovative, their legendary commissioning budgets cut and their potential in the online revolution unrealised. The D&AD award-winning days of The Sunday Times Magazine under art director Michael Rand are long gone.

Back in those days when the colour magazine was king, the Sunday Times’ only real rival for the crown as best newspaper magazine in the world was the Sunday New York Times Magazine. There the story has turned out rather differently: The New York Times Magazine is alive, award-winning and its magazine publishing expanding. “The New York Times is not just for New Yorkers,” says British-born art director Luke Hayman, now a partner in Pentagram’s New York office. “It’s the largest metropolitan newspaper in the United States and is often regarded as a national newspaper of record and an authoritative reference for current events. The Times lives large in the world of its audience. Many are life-long readers with a strong affection for the publication. The newspaper still remains an archaic and old fashioned design but the magazine is far more contemporary and graphically vibrant. The photography in particular is progressive and at the forefront of US editorial art direction.”

A key part of the magazine’s success is the role of Janet Froelich: creative director for the last three years, and art director of the magazine for about 15 years before that. She’s been at the Times for more than 20 years, coming to design after an early period as a fine artist and then becoming involved with a  group of women artists producing a publication. “I discovered I loved working with type and editors and photographers,” she says. “I think of myself as a journalist. I think editorial design is a different discipline: you’re not selling anything. It’s a more intimate relationship with the reader. Almost everything we do is about narrative and storytelling. And as with most good stories, the route is circuitous and accommodates complex ideas, off-beat solutions, layers of meaning.” Froelich is unfailing in her acknowledgement that a magazine is also a team effort, crediting her colleagues, including editor Gerald Marzorati, art director Arem Duplessis and photo editor Kathy Ryan, in our conversation. How do you produce such a good magazine? “If you hire good people it’s easy,” she says.

“I’ve worked quite collaboratively with my editors: I’ve been blessed to work with some of the most visually sophisticated editors on the planet. They have made me a much better art director and I am really grateful for that. Same goes for the photo team. With readers, it’s different. You don’t really know them, but in some peculiar way, you feel you know them, and you learn to respect them. It’s a little dance you do, giving them a bit of clarity in exchange for the chance to push the envelope here and there.”

With a near two million Sunday print-run, it still feels like a classic newspaper magazine, with its large page size and printed on that thin, shiny paper by the gravure process that makes the colour in the pictures look richer and deeper. Regular items are at the front and back with a run of features in the centre. What distinguishes the magazine is the quality of its elements: writing, photography, infographics and illustration. They are framed in simple, direct layouts that aren’t afraid of text, or feel that articles must be broken by a fact box every 250 words. There’s a family of typefaces, based around the Cheltenham and Stymie fonts that have been used by the main newspaper for decades.

“We’re the only non-formatted weekly,” says Froelich. “The others, like Time and Newsweek, need a rigid template for the type and the pictures to get the thing out every week… here we don’t do that. In a regular issue each article has, to a certain extent, to fight for itself. In a special issue you can have a rhythm and interaction between elements to tell a more complex story.”

Covers are equally varied. “We have the good fortune not to sell on the newsstand – the magazine just drops out of the paper. So the design is not driven by newsstand sales. That said, our competition is still the rest of the paper, and simple graphics always make the best cover. There is no formulaic cover solution because there are so many unique subjects. Though I wish we had more faces on our covers – and a few more women – as they are more engaging, I respect the fact that it is the editor’s decision about what makes a cover story: he has pretty clear ideas on that. He is, however, always open to conversation about what makes a strong cover image, and how to best convey the basic idea of the piece.”

Froelich’s biggest innovation at The Times is to have taken the range of “Part II” magazines on subjects like fashion, design and travel – that the Sunday paper also published – and transform them in 2004 into T: The New York Times Style Magazine. This new magazine, published 15 times a year under editor Stefano Tonchi with David Sebbah as senior art director and Chris Martinez as art director, is so popular with brands like Calvin Klein, Dolce & Gabbana and Kate Spade that it’s sometimes running at 300 perfect-bound pages.

“T is a luxury magazine that caters to the reader who is interested in visual culture,” says Froelich. “It accomplishes its mission by commissioning extraordinary photography and publishing content focused on the intersection of art and style. And while a huge part of the job at the weekly New York Times Magazine was to make inherently non-visual stories visual, the pleasure of designing the T Magazines is that the content is the visual. It’s almost a sinful pleasure to sink myself into these images, to tell stories in a purely visual fashion. Typographically, the spirit of T is lighter and more stylish and also a bit ironic. But the two magazines are related and we have kept a typographic family going, just landing differently in each of the magazines.”

From the black letter T of the daily paper’s titlepiece that became the magazine’s logo (and reappears in a different form from lace to chocolate cake in each issue as a section opener) to creating a magazine where the editorial stands apart from the world’s most image-conscious brands, T’s art direction is a mix of appropriateness, wit, sheer beauty and clever page planning.

“When I redesigned the T Magazines,” Froelich continues, “I looked to European publications for inspiration. Many American magazines had become over-designed, with too much decoration and too many competing elements on the page. I looked to French, Italian and Scandinavian publications for ideas on how to make a powerful modern page.”

As Froelich and I talk in the summer, The New York Times is in the process of moving a few blocks from its historic but utilitarian headquarters just off Times Square to a shining steel and glass tower designed by Renzo Piano: the move is symbolic of a new strategy too. The integration of print and online is the future for the organisation: The Times website (design directed by Khoi Vinh) is already one of the best produced by a newspaper.

But T Magazine is in the process of developing its own, unique web presence. “We’re all thinking about that now,” says Froelich. “This is a huge project with a dedicated team and the promise of developing something stylish and different. And although we began to work on it in-house, now we’re working with an outside company, Createthegroup. Designing for the web involves a unique set of skills. I don’t easily think in time and space, I think of something solid, located on a piece of paper, so online is a new and fluid experience and I’m really enjoying this challenge.”

The new site will officially launch in late November but, in the meantime, you can see T Magazine online in the newspaper’s format, where you can use interactive maps, see slideshows of fashion shoots or watch a short movie made by photographer Norbert Schoerner while on location on the Italian island of Lampedusa. It’s clear the next task is not just to be the best newspaper magazine in print, but the best online too.

Simon Esterson is an editorial designer with a big pile of old colour magazines at home.

 

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