Designing a Magazine Like it’s “The Last One on Earth”

“We treat every issue as if it’s the last magazine on earth,” says New York Times Magazine Design Director Gail Bichler. “I love that to describe what we do.”

According to Sara Dawood in Design Week, Bichler was speaking recently at Offset Dublin and gave the crowd her thoughts on how the magazine continues to take risks and maximize the benefits of the printed medium.

An iconic Sunday magazine supplement to The New York Times, the 120-something publication offers a chance to explore current topics in more visually interesting ways.

“While it holds some of the gravitas of its parent publication, having previously investigated topics such as workplace sexual harassment, US political party tensions and the refugee crisis, it also has more editorial and design freedom, exploring an array of subjects and formats,” Dawood notes.

“One of the pleasures of working at the magazine is the variety of subjects we cover,” she said to the conference audience. “We get to comment on events happening in the world in real time.”

And they get to do so in ways that break the traditional standard of the magazine. For example, their coverage of the Arab Spring, with its 40,000-word editorial story, become more “book” than “magazine.” And their issue called “High Life,” which celebrated the views from the city’s tallest perches called for literally turning their normally horizontal spread onto its side by going completely vertical throughout.

“We make 52 issues of the magazine per year, and we felt this was a risk worth taking,” said Bichler. “We’re not a magazine for designers – we’re a magazine for everyone. We only do these things when it adds to the content or experience.”

For Bichler, that’s the key – to find the intersection where the content and the design come together to tell the story in print in the best way possible. Oftentimes, that includes using emerging technology to provide even greater depth. 

“A VR and 360-degree video online platform called The Displaced launched in 2015 and followed the lives of three children in Lebanon, South Sudan and eastern Ukraine, who have experienced war and been displaced from their homes,” Dawood notes.

To facilitate the use of the technology, the company included free cardboard VR headsets with its printed newspaper – “ironically, Bichler says, using the archaic format of print and the newspaper’s ‘legacy’ to give more people access to a new and exciting form of storytelling.”

“VR is a really powerful format for storytelling in terms of generating empathy,” Bichler says. “When you’re watching a film, you have a certain distance. With VR, it feels like you’re there – standing in a swamp, or in the rubble, looking up at the sky through a hole in the ceiling.”

While tech it certainly adding to the experience, Bichler is well aware that the magazine’s legacy lies in print; rather than neglecting where they came from, she works hard to keep it alive “with interesting, unique formats, turning printed issues into keep-sakes.”

That, of course, often relies on the covers, and the magazine has often tackled difficult and controversial subjects in visually compelling ways that eschew technological “fixes” like Photoshop in favor of authentic artistic installations.

“One issue included a feature on immigration in New York, and looked to show how immigrants often go unnoticed in the city,” Dawood explains. “The team hired French artist JR to create a huge, large-scale installation on Flatiron Plaza in Manhattan. The installation – which was a huge photograph of an immigrant who had recently moved to New York, made up of 62 strips of paper – took 40 people to install over 24 hours. It was then photographed from a helicopter, showing pedestrians walking all over it, oblivious – a symbol of the ‘invisible’ immigrant.”

Yes, they could have done this all in Photoshop at significant time and cost savings, but shortcuts, Dawood notes, “go against the New York Times Magazine’s mantra – to celebrate and give value to the printed word through clever, thought-out imagery, while also embracing new ways of investigating and telling people’s stories.”

The magazine becomes a celebration of its medium, and continues to be a stellar example of not only what to do in print, but why.