Richard Turley

The creative director of Bloomberg Businessweek talks about stealing, using things you don’t like in your work, and rebelling against modernism

Turley radically changed the look of the US title when he joined the team in April 2010, three weeks after its new editor Josh Tyrangiel had started at the magazine. The designer had previously been at The Guardian in London, where he was art director of its daily G2 section for four years. Writing on the blog of the Society of Publication Designers, six months after the BBW redesign, US creative director Robert Newman reflected on Turley’s first couple of issues.

Back then the covers “were solid but not remarkable,” Newman wrote, “the insides were crisply formatted but a bit overstuffed, and the imagery had yet to find its full voice.” Yet by the time of his post in November, Newman believed that BBW had now “grown and matured into a remarkable visual package” with a look that had the “formatting brilliance of New York and the smart visual approach of the New York Times Magazine.”

That said, the redesigned BBW didn’t really look like anything else out there, and when the magazine began to find its own voice, it was one that quickly acquired multiple personalities. Covers started to get more memorable, indelible almost as they coursed through Twitter and Tumblr, while the insides maintained a rigorous treatment of infographics with odd illustrative details dropped in to catch the reader’s eye. From the blunt ‘It’s Global Warming, Stupid’ coverline above an image of Hurricane Sandy flooding, to a picture of two planes having aero sex in mid-air (‘Let’s Get It On’), BBW covers have become “events” in themselves, as the designer suggested in his London talk.

“The covers are usually by Josh and me in the first instance,” Turley says now back in New York. “A meeting, an email exchange, a quick chat – he’ll send an idea, or I will and we’ll knock it back and forth. Quite often we get the idea quickly – a lot if it is, in Josh’s phrase, ‘first take cinema’. Neither of us likes thinking about anything for very long. I’ve got some sort of attention deficit disorder; if the problem’s not solved fast I get twitchy.” Once an idea comes, Turley will either work it up himself, commission an illustrator or photographer, or pass the job over to his assistant, Tracy Ma, or BBW’s art director, Rob Vargas. “We get strong reactions occasionally,” he says of the resulting work.

“Most recently, the Obama cover with the spinning beach ball of death seemed to capture the imagination, which really surprised me. Tracy and I thought it was really cheesy. When we were doing it we were unsure, but it was about the best idea we had.”

Illustration has also enabled a wider palette of cover treatments to emerge, helping to solve what Turley refers to as the “old white men problem” of producing a business magazine with an interesting face. From David Foldvari’s visceral depiction of Gaddafi to Bigshot Toyworks’ drawings of the Twitter bird trying to kill itself with cartoonish ineptitude, the sheer difference of look from week to week is remarkable. Sometimes the answer lies in big type (‘How to Pay No Taxes’ or ‘How To Sell Drugs’), while occasionally the overall approach is more conceptual, as in the ‘Selling Obama’ issue which mimicked a tacky merchandising page for the Presidential race in 2012 (all the merch was real).

The BBW masthead, locked down in Commercial Type’s reworked Haas Grotesk, stabilises the whole party, ensuring – as it no doubt has to do in some cases – that readers don’t think they are looking at the cover of a different magazine entirely.

Deciding to work with a version of Helvetica was an early indication of Turley’s attitude towards the magazine’s redesign. “I used it because it felt like the wrong thing to do,” he says. “I knew Christian [Schwartz] and Paul [Barnes at Commercial Type] had this cut of Helvetica kicking around unfinished. I was coming out of a very successful redesign at the Guardian that used a bespoke font system, all custom-cut and unique, which was certainly the vogue at the time – and I wanted to do something more default.” This was, he says, after Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica film was released. “The font had been talked about so much, everyone was sick of it, even more sick than they are usually sick of it. Mark Porter had got rid of it at the Guardian – [and] when ideas are lying dead in ditches, passed over for the latest thing, it’s usually a good time to start thinking about using them, if that makes sense.”

In this year’s Creative Review Annual, the BBW in-house design team was chosen as our Design Studio of the Year in recognition of their work and, in particular, for the production of their US ‘Election’ special issue in October 2012. In October the previous year, BBW had also produced a tribute issue to Steve Jobs that Turley and company turned around in just ten hours, scrapping an entire edition that was just about to go to print. The resulting 68-page publication seemed to judge the mood perfectly and stood as one of the definitive posthumous reactions to the death of the Apple founder. Turley later revealed that some Apple Stores were even using pages from the special issue to form makeshift shrines.

As the headline speaker at The Modern Magazine, Turley whizzed through several of his team’s best covers and layouts and was unashamedly open about how ideas take shape. They spring from the issue’s main theme or lead story, but are often shaped by influences from the wider magazine world and beyond.

Turley explained how the designer and artist Scott King’s work at Sleazenation, the UK magazine which ran from 1996 to 2003, has been the touchpoint for a couple of BBW’s striking, type-based covers; while the irreverence and lo-fi speech bubbles of Private Eye sum up a visual attitude that he has also taken across the Atlantic.

“With Scott, I love the clarity of his thinking,” Turley says. “The reductionist approach to ideas, and his humour. More broadly, the sense of biting the hand that feeds: never trusting anything long enough to be co-opted by it.” Earlier this year, Turley recalls, he had been talking about King’s work in a lecture. A friend of the artist’s was in the audience and passed on the mention, the two got in touch and King has since produced work for BBW.

In the recent talk, Turley mentioned that Tibor Kalman and David Carson were among designers whose approach to magazine-making changed his own outlook. “Carson was the last person whose work (for a magazine) moved beyond magazines and shifted wider contemporary design – when I was at art school, his approach was quite pervasive,” he says. Carson’s methods are perhaps in the background of Turley’s decision to continue to play with and “push some meaning into the type, [to] cut it up, mess with it, pull it apart. Helvetica’s forms are so robust and familiar, you can do just about anything to it and still keep it close to you.”

The changes Turley and Tyrangiel have brought to BBW are so striking in part because of the context in which they’re operating, but perhaps more so because of the dominant contemporary magazine aesthetic they exist alongside. For Turley, much of the work he presented at The Modern Magazine indicated how he has become more interested in ‘breaking’ modernism or, at the very least, disrupting the idea of what editorial design thinks it should be at this moment in time.

“It’s getting boring,” he says. “Maybe ‘modernism’ is the wrong word – I’m [really] just talking about modern design, which I see as the politeness and elegance of white space, of apologetic type, well-spaced and worthy, a tweak here or there as an acknowledgment of craft. It all seems to smoosh down into this very bloodless, knowing form that we regard as being ‘modern’. But to me it’s generic. It’s like we’re frightened to say anything, so we say nothing.”

This “elegant conformity” where “the end result just looks bland, or worse twee” is certainly at odds with BBW’s current direction, though Turley admits that he has consciously turned down the volume of late. Saying something with one’s design may not have been fashionable in magazines for a while, but as Turley and his team bring more voice and verve to BBW its becoming clear that, while the magazine is still about the story and the pictures, perhaps more so it is about the way these elements work together on the page, the way that they are worked-up by human hands.

“Maybe that’s also why I like Scott, Carson and Kalman,” he says. “They put themselves in their work. They’re about the fight. Magazines over here take themselves very seriously; there’s this unfortunate yet pervading sense that ‘God’s work’ is been done on some level,” he says. “We’re not like that. I hope.”

More on Bloomberg Businessweek magazine at Turley blogs at and tweets from @Mr_Turley.

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