Two Members of the Same Team

The relationship between editor and art director

By Kelly McMurray

“Magazine making is fundamentally a collaborative endeavor.” —Gail Bichler, art director, New York Times Magazine

If you have ever watched a New York Times Magazine Behind the Cover episode, you have had a window into the success behind the magazine—in particular, the partnership between Editor in Chief Jake Silverstein and Art Director Gail Bichler. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to see them both speak on the topic of collaboration at the MagCulture LIVE conference. It was clear watching them co-present that they share a sense of respect, trust, flexibility, and humor. These traits are not unique to the New York Times Magazine team; they are what make up any successful partnership.

I recently spoke with the editors and art directors from Kenyon Alumni Magazine, University of Richmond Magazine, and Oberlin Alumni Magazine. Via Zoom, these teams shared with me how, with those same traits, they are creating amazing magazines. I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between these conversations and the conference discussion on the ingredients of teamwork.

The Two C’s: Communication and Collaboration

“It really comes down to communication. Having good, honest, clear-headed communication, back and forth.” —Erin Mayes, creative partner, Em Dash

Conversations can begin when it is just the kernel of an idea that the editor has. Various art directors shared that this can be limiting, while the editors noted that just talking through a story idea helped them to clarify their own vision and sometimes changed the trajectory of a story based on the art director’s input.

“Part of what I think is useful about how we collaborate is that we will say what a story is about, and Gail will sketch, and we will be like ‘aha.’ It helps to clarify our idea,” notes Silverstein. From there the “editors go back and tinker to bring her idea out.”

Bichler adds, “The edit team waits to see the design and write to it and entertain all kinds of crazy asks.”

Taking the time to sketch or create a quick comp gives an editor something to respond to, but this can make the art director nervous. Most art directors don’t want to commit to an idea too early and typically prefer to have a complete draft.

“‘Hey, what about this? Could we try this?’”

—Ryan Sprowl, art director of Oberlin Alumni Magazine

“I’m not sure about this, but I trust you.”

—Jeff Hagan, editor of Oberlin Alumni Magazine

Ryan Sprowl, art director of Oberlin Alumni Magazine, shares, “Every day that we’re working on the magazine, I’m knocking on Jeff’s [the editor] door, showing him ideas that I’ve pulled for illustrators or photographers or just saying, ‘Hey, what about this? Could we try this?’ And he is always open to taking a risk. Sometimes he’ll say to me, ‘I’m not sure about this, but I trust you.’”

That collaboration extends to writers, illustrators, and photographers. Elizabeth Weinstein, editor of Kenyon Alumni Magazine, notes, “Sometimes I’ll invite writers or other people who have specific questions, requests, or needs to join us for meetings so that they can be a part of the process. I just try to be really inclusive in general.”

Matt Dewald of the University of Richmond extends collaboration on the magazine to the vice president and others. “The place where we hang up the magazine is 10 feet away from the vice president’s office and 15 feet from the people who do the digital weekly newsletter. Theoretically, anyone at the university can just walk in and take a look. I think it’s really important to show people what it is that we’re working on because A) it avoids duplication, and B) it puts the vice president’s mind at ease.”

The Perfect Marriage: Word and Image

“Display language is a design element in print.” —Jake Silverstein, editor, New York Times Magazine

“The underlying collaborative thing that I think works so well at [The] Times is that the designers are good at listening very, very closely to what it is that we editors are trying to express—in an inarticulate way—what this story, or package of stories, is trying to get across to a reader. Often I have a really bad [visual] idea … it’s just cliché,” shares Silverstein.

Bichler responds that Silverstein often comes up with different visual ideas, not all of which are cliché. Rather, what he provides is useful. He offers a “window into attitude, but never comes back and asks, ‘Where is the thing that I suggested?’ It is not something you are telling us, but giving us a sense of thoughts.”

“To be an editor in chief, you have to also think visually. You have to be able to have a relationship [with your art director],” notes Silverstein.

Bichler adds that working with people who are willing to take risks with the visuals is important. “Some people are willing to put out a challenging piece of writing, but maybe not as much with the visuals. That is one of the nice things about our relationship and how our departments work together.”

Jeff Hagan, editor of Oberlin Alumni Magazine, talks positively about his partnership with Sprowl. “Ryan jokes a lot about what art directors call text, tech, texture. And I know this is a running joke. In fact, he’s very literate. He has come up with headlines; he has also caught mistakes that we’ve made in the text. So he’s really thinking about the words a lot and the meaning behind them.

“I really like design, but I know that I don’t have the capacity for it. I have ideas, and I know things that I like. But Ryan has consistently come up with great ideas that often I’m reacting to, and it’s often just a matter of making a suggestion within it, or choosing from too many good options.”

“The desire to do something great, push boundaries, stay true to the mission, and understand that this is a community—a collaboration—and we are all working together.”

—Erin Hayes, creative partner, Em Dash

“Somebody who sees and understands the vision that you have and helps you make it better”

—Elizabeth Weinstein, editor of Kenyon Alumni Magazine

So what are the qualities of an editor and art director that make for a strong partnership? The Kenyon team sums it up perfectly: An editor should have “the desire to do something great, push boundaries, stay true to the mission, and understand that this is a community—a collaboration—and we are all working together.” And the art director is “somebody who sees and understands the vision that you have and helps you make it better. Take it, run with it, and challenge you in good ways and with kindness, and help you elevate the ideas in ways that you hadn’t really thought of before.”

And that requires trust.

Essential Elements: Trust and Respect

“I’m throwing out an image idea that might be rejected for whatever reason, and that’s perfectly fine. That is totally 100,000 percent OK with me because I know that that’s not where my expertise lies.” —Matthew Dewald, editor, University of Richmond Magazine

Trust in each other’s skills and decision making is essential in the relationship between editor and art director. But trust doesn’t happen overnight. When Matt Dewald accepted the position as editor of University of Richmond Magazine, it was with the expectation that he would lead a redesign of the publication. This required him and his art director to work closely together very early in their relationship. He shares, “Because we hadn’t built that trust between us yet, I think it’s fair to say there was a lot of tension. We went through that process, but we’ve managed to smooth that out.”

He continues, “I just trust her visual instincts more than I trust my visual instincts. So, I mean, if it’s an editorial issue that’s pushing toward one thing or another, that’s sort of a different question. But if it’s a question of what works better as a visual, I’ll trust her judgment.”

Samantha Tannich, senior director of creative services, responds, “We took a while, but we worked it out. I think what ended up in the end is that Matt and I are incredibly similar people—the way we think and our weird sense of humor. And we both share immense mutual respect for the craft.”

“Because we hadn’t built that trust between us yet, I think it’s fair to say there was a lot of tension.”

—Matthew Dewald, editor, University of Richmond Magazine

“We took a while, but we worked it out…We both share immense mutual respect for the craft.”

—Samantha Tannich, senior director of creative services, Oberlin Alumni Magazine

Trust goes hand-in-hand with respect. As boundaries between the editor and art director blur, with editors searching for visuals and art directors writing headlines, a deep respect for each other’s skills helps define the boundaries.

Art directors are often the recipients of gut reactions, because the visuals are what people see first. But, at the end of the day, it is the editor who takes the heat for the magazine; this is something that a true partner recognizes. As Tannich notes, “There is definitely a shared understanding that it’s Matt’s head on the block. We appreciate that, and we acknowledge that. If Matt were to say, ‘Oh, yikes, I don’t think we should do this,’ we wouldn’t do it. That’s because of the respect and trust that has been built.”

The Secret Sauce: Conflict and Humor

“We have a similar sense of humor. I think that is just a key to our relationship. That’s the special sauce. I think that it’s hard to find, and we got lucky.” —Ryan Sprowl, art director, Oberlin Alumni Magazine

There will always be moments of tension and conflict. With more than one team referring to the magazine as “their baby,” it isn’t a surprise to find differing opinions on how best to care for it.

Case in point: time. While editors work through ideas, time slips aways, and designers are left with less time for their own creative process. Editors understand that this creates problems for the art director. Hagan notes, “When I have put them in bad positions, I do my best to stay out of their way, even more so than usual—to let them do what they need to do and make the decisions that they need to make when time is short.”

In situations such as these, humor helps teams work through conflict. Jeff and Ryan from Oberlin banter back and forth like a comedic duo. Matt and Sam from Richmond share a sense of humor that got them through tense times—humor and an understanding of each other’s roles. These partners don’t always agree, but they really don’t want to let each other down.

“Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don’t. Trying to preserve that relationship has been really important, and I think [it] has actually improved the design process,” says Sprowl.

[In] the End: Teamwork Matters

No two people, no two institutions, and no two teams are ever the same. But the need for teamwork remains unchanged. Editor or art director, we share a desire to create great work—a consistently solid publication that represents the best of our institutions and of ourselves. Yes, there will be disagreements. Yes, there will be outside influences. But as long as there is communication, collaboration, trust, respect, and a dash of humor, there will always be a path toward our goals.

Kelly McMurray is the editorial and creative director of The Issue. She is also the founder and creative director of 2communiqué, a design firm focused on narrative experiences for community-driven clients.