When Luke Hayman was 13 and at school in Norfolk, he saw a copy of Creative Review. “I devoured it and I asked my father to buy me a subscription for Christmas.”
And that, he says, is why he became a designer.
Twenty-nine years later, Hayman is a partner at Pentagram New York, which is just about the most high-powered graphic design position on the planet right now. See, that’s what you get for reading Creative Review….
After St Martins and short spells at publisher Wordsearch and Esterson Lackersteen, Hayman left London for New York in 1992. “I grew up travelling: my parents lived abroad and I loved the ex-pat life,” he says. “It was the best thing I ever did.” After arriving without a job, he managed a six week stint at Eric Baker Design (the same studio that gave Sam Potts (CR Dec) a break) and, after a fortuitous meeting at a party, followed that with nine months at identity specialists Lippincott & Margulies and then two years at ID magazine as associate art director.
That mixture of generalist graphic design work interspersed with specialist bouts of magazine art direction has characterised Hayman’s career ever since: “I loved books and magazines but I always wanted to do different kinds of work – to do the logo on an aeroplane’s tail is still a big ambition.”
ID was followed by two years with J Abbott Miller and Ellen Lupton at Design Writing Research, then two more years at id. Six months at Ogilvy’s Brand Integration Group provided insight into the corporate branding world before Steve Brill asked him to art direct Brill’s Content and oversee his burgeoning media empire as creative director. After the dotcom bust prompted a rethink on Brill’s part, Travel & Leisure gave Hayman more on-staff magazine experience before he took up the post that really brought him to the attention of the graphic design world – design director of the weekly New York magazine.
There, with editor Adam Moss, Hayman and his design team produced a vibrant, stylish, sophisticated title that perfectly evoked the city that is its subject matter. Numerous awards followed. And the Pentagram courtship began.
Those who are asked to join Pentagram as a partner must first undergo a selection procedure that is not unlike some sort of medieval quest. They must travel to distant lands and, there, seek the unanimous blessing of all existing partners – if just one doesn’t like the look of you, the game is up. Hayman admits that “it was very intimidating” particularly as he had always somewhat idolised the group. “I’ve always been an old fogey. At college I loved the older generation of designers: their work had a timelessness that felt good, whereas you’d see work that was five years old and it all looked very dated to me. So I was always attracted to the people who had been part of Pentagram.”
Since working for Abbott Miller, who became a Pentagram partner in 1999, the two had kept in touch: “We’d have dinner once every three months, and Pentagram was always a topic of conversation: who would they get for the next partner. We joked around with it, so I knew they were always looking, I think Abbott was very upfront and asked me to come and talk there. A few of the people who are asked to do that are seen as possible future partners: then the sleepless nights start.”
The unique nature of the Pentagram set-up, where each partner operates what amounts to their own business within a group structure, does not suit everyone. Such high-profile recruits as Fernando Gutiérrez and April Greiman struggled to adapt to a system that demands both a high standard of work and high earnings.
“I’ve been through that ‘I’m a fraud’ thing with every job I’ve taken,” says Hayman. “Then, after six months, you think ‘ok I’m not screwing up too badly’, but here it is really challenging. You really are left alone to run your own business.”
Technically at least Hayman now carries equal billing with such heavyweights as Michael Bierut and Paula Scher but, he says, “the reality is that some people have been here much, much longer and it would be ridiculous to think of myself as their equal.” And yet, under the Pentagram system, Hayman receives the same share of the profits as his more illustrious, higher-earning, colleagues, which brings its own pressures. “They are ok with it because they were in same position ten or 15 years ago,” Hayman says. Nevertheless it has been a cause of concern: “In the first four months I was drowning. John McConnell [ex-Pentagram London partner] was over here and he told me how he used to come home to his wife ashen-faced, feeling he wasn’t up to it. He said they’d all been through it.”
Two years on, Hayman seems to have hit his stride with a string of high-profile commissions, mostly drawing on his editorial expertise. Although he had hoped that joining Pentagram would allow him to take on more diverse work, somewhat inevitably magazines still form the bulk of his clients – 60% in the past year he estimates. During his time at Pentagram, Hayman has redesigned, or worked with another Pentagram partner on redesigning, magazines including Radar, Time, Vibe and the Gulf newspaper, the Khaleej Times. He has become probably the most admired and most sought-after magazine designer in the US, if not the world.
When he is asked to redesign an existing title, does he prefer to start from a clean slate or draw on the magazine’s heritage? “When I was a young designer, my passionate desire was to throw everything out, but the older I get, the more I appreciate the heritage of a brand. You can see it in fashion so much – my grandmother used to wear Burberry coats, now Kate Moss is wearing one. You can take something that seems fusty and make it modern whereas if you pull something out of the sky you’re trying to find attributes that it might not naturally have. If you were to design New York magazine from scratch now you’d never put that ridiculous logo on there, but it has become a feature, an asset. So I think it’s best to try to find what’s ownable and make the most of it, although it’s not always possible.”
Frequently Pentagram is asked to come in to execute a redesign and then hand the magazine back to its permanent art director, a situation which can be tricky to manage. “I’ve done so many that I’m less possessive [about the work]. If the current art director is going to stay, then it becomes really important to play nice with them, get their buy-in, ask them for ideas, pretend you’re using them – whatever it takes,” Hayman says, tongue in cheek. “Sometimes we’re invited by the art director themselves because they want our support – they can be feeling really beat down. Arthur Hochstein at Time [which Hayman redesigned with Paula Scher] had been there for years. Most of the changes we made he already knew had to be made – it was obvious – but he just needed us to speak to his editor and confirm it was the right thing to do. The management don’t listen to their internal folks, for political or whatever reasons, but with Pentagram, because they are paying us a lot of money, they feel they have to listen to us.”
Frustration can come when, after setting up the new design, the internal team do not implement the changes in the agreed manner. “On some projects you provide the tools and they don’t get used in the way you’d imagined – it’s just disappointing, and it’s definitely a problem. On a relatively recent project I saw it happening from issue one and the redesign is 30% of what it could be.” But, says Hayman, sometimes art directors improve on Pentagram’s initial ideas: “The best case of that was on Radar [now defunct]. We got to hire our own art director – Kate Elazegui. We knew each other, we’d worked together: she made it better than we could.”
What are the cardinal errors that people commit in magazine design? “The biggest error is when people say ‘we want our magazine to have a bit of New York, a bit of Vanity Fair and a bit of gq’ when they don’t have the money and resources and ideas that those magazines have. They ignore their lack of budget and editorial depth, so you see these magazines that are obviously second-rate copies. Instead you need to ask what can you do to stand out? You can do a better magazine with less money: some of the most wonderful mags are done with no budget, two staff, and just love.”
One of the problems, says Hayman, is that resource-rich magazines such as Vogue are now so widely available that they and their standards are seen as the norm. “Magazines are so cheap here [in the US] and so mass – Vogue, with its tens of thousands of dollars per page budget, is in everyone’s living room, it’s not exclusive anymore. So if you’re talking about fashion photography, Vogue creates an expectation and as soon as you see fashion photography that’s B-level, it reeks, it just stinks, you don’t know why but there’s something off. Fashion photography is one of those black arts – that’s why the people like Fabien Baron and Doug Lloyd are paid all the money.”
What does he think of Baron’s recent redesign of Interview? “I’m one of his biggest fans – in terms of fashion art direction he’s the best – but typographically I wasn’t surprised by it. His French Vogue took my breath away but Interview feels like something I’d seen in a Dutch magazine years ago. It must be strategic – like when Brody brought out Arena [using much simpler typography than in his earlier, influential designs for The Face]. I think he got sick of being copied so he threw a decoy out there. Interview doesn’t have the flair you’d expect from Baron. But the truth is, with fashion magazines it’s all about the photography and Baron is the king of commissioning – he can make images sing and dance,” Hayman says.
Are there other magazines that he is particularly impressed with at the moment? “The Drawbridge [a quirky, quarterly broadsheet] is one of my favourite finds. I know [art director] Stephen Coates a little bit, but I found it by accident. It’s the one thing that makes me smile, I really love it.”
Hayman clearly still loves magazines as much as he did as a teenager but with all the doom and gloom around print at the moment he may be putting his efforts into a declining medium: “I don’t think magazines can ever be as culturally important as they once were,” he admits. “When New York came out in 1968 and then through the 70s, it was one of those magazines that would be part of the conversation you would have at a party or wherever. It’s hard to believe a magazine can have that again beyond the occasional article because there are so many other choices of media.”
“Magazines are the only thing that I am known for,” Hayman says, modestly if truthfully, but he is now picking up more of the briefs for identities and other projects that come into the Pentagram office in New York’s Flatiron district. “I usually get them if Michael Bierut is too busy or someone just calls the company.”
Pentagram New York is such a powerhouse on the design scene, surely it must arouse some jealousy if not resentment in the city? “The cool, boutique-y firms can knock us for being ‘the establishment’ and it might seem unfair that we get to do so much cultural work, but I don’t think people spend a lot of time bitching about Pentagram,” Hayman says. “Most decent graphic designers in New York over the past ten years have been busy enough that they don’t have to bitch.” A situation which, of course, may well change.
Hayman thinks that the lack of spite may also be because the US is “such an immature market in terms of design. If you go into a bank or into Boots on the high street in London and look at the level of design and compare that to, say, Duane Reed here or almost all the banks, it’s just atrocious.” London, he thinks, has a much more competitive graphic design industry because the general standard of work is much higher – in the US, there are still plenty of opportunities to work for brands that need a designer’s help, seems to be his thinking.
And Hayman very much wants to help them, not least so that he can feel that he is making the expected contribution to Pentagram’s fortunes: “No-one wants to be at the bottom of the ladder for too long,” he admits. His ambitions? “I still want to do a logo that’s on a 747, even though the branding world makes my head hurt. Having both, working on some small craft magazine and a big identity, is ideal.” Pentagram, of course, can deliver both.