The New York Times Magazine Special Issues

By Creative Review

Best in Book – editorial

Entrant: The New York Times

The New York Times Magazine devotes around a third of its issues each year to a specific theme, allowing for in-depth reporting and stunning photography commissions. It also enables the design team to bring together some of the most memorable stand-alone editions of the year. Mark Sinclair talks to Design Director Gail Bichler about how they make them

From Music, Food and Health, to a single story edition dedicated to the state of the Arab world since the invasion of Iraq, The New York Times Magazine’s themed issues are an opportunity to tackle a subject in depth. The results, merging journalism with design, typography and photography, continue to show the breadth of possibilities within a weekly magazine format.

The design of these issues can often depend upon coming up with “an idea that could carry an issue,” as Design Director Gail Bichler told CR last year. A case in point is the much-lauded, New York-themed ‘High Life – the city above 800ft’ issue, for which the entire format of the magazine was turned on its side (advertising and all) in order to reflect the high rise content. The project represented a special synchronicity between the design and photography departments – and even feature headlines were dictated by the layout change.

Less complicated themes still retain an impressive array of approaches, however, as evident in 2016’s Music issue (‘25 songs that tell us where music is going’) and its combinations of bold typography and imagery; while the Food edition, with its big apple photo illustration cover by Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari, incorporated a range of George Steinmetz’s large-scale photographs to reflect the super-sized nature of America’s industrialised food system.

For special issues, my feeling is that as long as our readers have pulled the magazine out of the paper and the logo is on the front cover, they know where they are. Everything else is up for grabs.

In addition to regularly showcasing the Magazine’s design, type and photography strengths, its themed issues are also fun to make, as Bichler tells us in our interview with her, below. Week-in, week-out, the team on the sixth floor of The New York Times building just continues to impress.

CR: What do you think a ‘themed’ issue of the Magazine should do? And how does the design approach help to achieve these aims?

Gail Bichler: We publish 52 issues per year. Every week, we design a magazine that has a ‘front of book’ and four feature stories. Special issues are the exception. They give us an opportunity to blow that up completely. We’re not thinking about how we can design features that relate to one another visually; we’re seeing the magazine as a container for a much more varied story that isn’t confined to a standard structure. We look to keep the hallmarks of our magazine but tailor them to specific subject matter. It can be a lot of fun!

CR: Where do the subjects for the themed issues come from? Is there a balance between commercial and editorial influence at all?

GB: Our Editor in Chief, Jake Silverstein, decides on the topics. Some topics are clearly more attractive to advertisers than others, but the variety of our coverage is a defining feature of the magazine. As a supplement to the paper, advertising revenue is only one of the ways that our financial success is evaluated. The magazine is one of the most-read offerings in the Sunday ‘bundle’, so what we bring to the readers’ experience of the paper helps to drive subscriptions and adds financial value in that way as well. This allows us more leeway to cover topics that can be tough for attracting advertisers but are an important part of the larger journalistic mission of The Times.

CR: Also, which themes do you have as regulars each year (e.g. Voyages, New York, Music, etc.)? What themes in particular have proven the most challenging to pull off design-wise?

GB: We make 15 to 17 special issues per year, and most of them are published annually. Certain issues like Culture and Great Performers naturally lend themselves to beautiful imagery and expressive type. There are others where it’s hard to avoid clichés, or where you have to be really creative to avoidb having the visuals feel dry. The Money and
Health issues come to mind. It’s a challenge to approach them differently every year, but when we come up with a strong sub-theme, they can vary quite a bit and sometimes lend themselves more easily to creative design. We always feel especially proud when we make a strong visual issue on one of those subjects.

CR: When designing a themed issue, how much of the ‘regular’ issue remains in place in terms of structure, body text and treatment?

GB: For special issues, my feeling is that as long as our readers have pulled the magazine out of the paper and the logo is on the front cover, they know where they are. Everything else is up for grabs. That’s not to say that we do things on a whim or for the sake of novelty, but I think that anything that visually furthers the theme of the issue is fair game. That includes changing the body copy, changing the grid and even changing the orientation of the pages.

CR: With the type treatments that you bring into the themed issues – how would you describe their job or function within the magazine in this case? The type often really pushes things, visually – is there ever resistance to this and how far can you take it?

GB: The magazine is pretty stripped down in terms of its design. We don’t use a lot of extra elements, so type is our main tool and is hugely important in establishing the look and feel for the special issues. We’re lucky that our editor is up for taking risks, so we have a lot of freedom. For example, in last year’s New York Issue [see right], the super tall type is serving more as a design element than a headline. In fact, the type was so tall that we needed really short headlines, so we actually had to continually ask our editors to rewrite the headlines to fit with our layouts. It was really a collaboration more than a negotiation.

The New York Times Magazine is online at Gail Bichler tweets
images of new issues via @GailBichler


Entrant: The New York Times. Design Director: Gail Bichler. Art Director: Matt Willey. Deputy Art Director: Jason Sfetko. Designers: Frank Augugliaro, Ben Grandgenett, Chloe Scheffe, Jessica Svendsen, Chelsea Cardinal. Digital Designer: Linsey Fields. Director of Photography: Kathy Ryan. Photo Editors: Stacey Baker, Amy Kellner, Christine Walsh, Karen Hanley, Jessica Tang, Maureen Towey, David Carthas, Debra Samuelson, Natasha Lunn. Editor-in-Chief: Jake Silverstein.

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