During her college years at the Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan, Gail Bichler was as fascinated by fine art as she was by graphic design.
At a time when the curriculum was driven by discipline specific majors, Bichler’s transdisciplinary interests were ahead of their time. This dexterity serves her well though, as she integrates image, typography, and story seamlessly into the features and cover art for The New York Times Magazine. As design director for the magazine, Bichler leads a team of designers and typographers, while collaborating with some of the world’s best creatives.
The New York Times Magazine covers retain a freshness and urgency that seems inexhaustible. What can you share about your approach to leadership that retains this sense of creative vitality week after week, over the long haul?
There are so many variables that factor into the way the magazine’s covers come together. A main one is the incredible variety of content we publish. One week the cover story is a celebrity profile, the next it’s a story on a humanitarian crisis and then a week later it’s an essay about something happening in our culture. The way my team visualizes these stories is a direct response to the content. Sometimes that means making a conceptual image; other times that means using documentary photography, a portrait or a typographic approach. We don’t have a formula. And that goes a long way toward keeping things fresh. In addition, we’re able to work with an incredibly diverse pool of contributors — some of the best artists in the business. Each brings his or her own skills and vision to the work that we make.
As far as making something that feels urgent, I’m always asking myself what I want people to take away from the cover. What aspect of the story will draw people in? How can we make a visual that is an immediate read and makes some kind of emotional connection with the viewer? Sometimes an image that is representative of the story in a nuts-and-bolts kind of way doesn’t make a compelling cover. I push myself and the designers on my team to take risks and think of how to be more provocative or approach the content in an unexpected way while still remaining true to the main message of the piece. And I’m constantly assessing what we’re doing. If I don’t think it’s working, we’ll sometimes pursue another direction in tandem to see if we can make something better. Or we'll just start over.
Legend has it that you “cold called” Janet Froelich, your predecessor at The New York Times Magazine, after relocating to New York from Minneapolis, where you were a book designer. What can you share about how you built and sustained that mentor relationship over the course of your career?
Janet hired me as a freelancer to work on T, The New York Times Style Magazine. I was unbelievably lucky to spend nine months with her there. It was a crash course in magazine design. During a break in production on T, I was hired at the Sunday Magazine (again as a freelancer) by Arem Duplessis, who was the art director at the time. That led to a full-time position at the magazine as the deputy art director under him. While Janet gave me my start at The Times, Arem was my long-term mentor. My connection with him was built by working closely together for 10 years.
We often think of mentors as people who teach us, support us and advise us. But I think sustaining a mentoring relationship over time means establishing a give-and-take. Arem taught me so much. He believed in me, gave me a ton of opportunities and championed my ideas. I did my best to take advantage of those opportunities and make great work for the magazine. But in addition to my design work, a large part of my job as a manager in his department was to solve problems and make things run more smoothly. I tried to take things off his plate and make his job easier in any way that I could. We relied on each other and developed a mutual friendship and trust. We’re still in touch and try to see each other whenever we’re in the same city.
What advice do you have for people considering a career as a design director?
Be open. You might start your career thinking you want to do one thing and end up liking another. Don’t be afraid to change tracks and pursue the thing that you love. Finding something that you care about and designing for it makes all the difference in terms of having a meaningful career.
What gets you out of bed in the morning and keeps you motivated?
Quite literally, my family gets me out of bed. I have an 11-year-old son, and I wake up early to take him to school on the subway. Sometimes we stop at a coffee shop and have breakfast. With the demands of work, I find it hard to have balance. I try to take advantage of things like the commute to spend time together. As far as staying motivated, I have a real sense of purpose with my job. I have been given an extraordinary opportunity to contribute to one of the most important journalistic organizations in the world. I get to lead a group of phenomenally talented designers and tell visual stories about things that are happening in our world and in the culture in real time. Things that are important and meaningful. I really want to do that well.
Photo by David La Spina.