Design Spotlight: Robert Newman
Fortune‘s design director talks about sublimating his ego, hop-scotching the print landscape, and the interchangability of art directors and editors.
[Originally published by Mediabistro.com, February 3, 2005]
There is no such thing as a “Robert Newman Look.” Unlike other designers—or, to be more specific, unlike Roger Black—Newman hasn’t carried with him any stylistic flourishes or quirks (like Black’s love of serif fonts and Oxford rules) when he’s hop-scotched from magazine to magazine. Newman’s method is more along the lines of total immersion. Whether it was the elegant minimalism of Real Simple, the Rat Pack-throwback look of mid-’90s Details, or the just-the-facts spareness of his current gig at Fortune, Newman was determined to mind-meld with the editorial vision rather than subvert it with his personal tastes. It didn’t matter if that was the vision of Inside, Vibe, New York magazine, Entertainment Weekly, the Village Voice, and even the grunge heyday of Seattle’s alt-weekly The Rocket. So is it really his fault that all of the editors with whom he’s worked got fired?
Mediabistro: You’ve managed to studiously avoid developing a signature look over the course of your career, which may have something to do with all of the genres you’ve worked in—the men’s magazine, the hip-hop magazine, women’s service, business, the alt-weekly, etc. What was the mental process you underwent when you moved from Real Simple to Fortune? How do you sublimate your ego the way you seem to do?
Robert Newman: Each magazine is a challenge, and I don’t see them in terms of the style but in terms of their content. Having worked at Vibe and Details, Real Simple seems like a total left-field move, but for me it was the challenge of perfecting the information architecture. It was about mastering the presentation effect.
For a lot of art directors, their first and foremost job is to marshal and present information to the reader, and to take the editor’s vision and voice and create a visual presentation of that. When I look at it that way, it’s always a challenge. Can I do a women’s magazine? Yeah. Can I do a business magazine? Yeah. Can I do a hip magazine like Details? Yeah.
Rather than approaching each magazine with a particular style—although I think I have more of a style than you give me credit for—I try to get a sense of what the editors’ vision is and how they want to direct it. Then I often just tweak the style they have to make it more efficient and more effective.
That’s not always the case. At Details, we totally threw it out and started all over again. But at Fortune, and Real Simple, and Entertainment Weekly, and the Voice, those were more the development of a look than a total overhaul of a look. They were starting with basic visual DNA which was essentially sound; I was giving it more of a voice and articulating it. It might be very quiet, like at Inside or Real Simple, or it might be really brash and hip, like at Details or the Voice, but they all have a visual presence. It’s really relentless when it works, when the look goes from the front to the back of a magazine, and on every page there is a heightened awareness of the importance of the visuals, the roles it’s supposed to play, how it’s supposed to advance the magazine.
You try, but the editors don’t always let you, or it doesn’t always work. But when you can pull that off, it’s great—the visuals aren’t just a complement, they’re actually adding content and value to what people are getting from the magazine.
Mediabistro: So, you see the job as primarily puzzle-solving or translation, then?
Newman: Yes, it’s puzzle solving. You have to really study the magazine, study the competition and the feel. When I went to Real Simple, I just absorbed all the women’s service magazines. I read them all, I studied them, it was like a puzzle: How could I get into this, something I didn’t know a lot about, and figure out a way to give it a true voice?
Mediabistro: And what lessons did you take away from them? Did you actively set out to re-engineer the look of women’s service?
Newman: I think a lot of visual art, both decoration and design, is seen as a way to decorate the content of the magazine. But at Real Simple, all of the design had value. Everything was so stripped down. What was so interesting at Real Simple was: how can you strip the design to its bare essentials and make every element so functional that every single thing had a reason for being on the page? There was absolutely no decoration of any kind, either visually or in terms of pictures or type or colors. If the picture was in there, it had to impart value and content that wasn’t imparted anywhere else. You didn’t just run a picture because you needed a picture on the page to decorate it.
Mediabistro: What you’re really doing is information architecture, then. But how did that work at Details, which was all flash and glitz when you were there?
Newman: What I try to do is find the essence of the magazine. At Real Simple it was information architecture and presentation. At Details it was style and attitude. The most important thing there, as far as I was concerned, was to be hip and cool. At Real Simple, the most important thing was information architecture and visual content.
Mediabistro: How do you arrive at an understanding of what that essence is? Do you conduct elaborate interviews with the editor and absorb what they’re saying? How do you immerse yourself beyond reading other magazines?
Newman: The first thing I would do is go back and really read the magazine and look at its past. When I went to Details, I read every single Details published back to the first issue, and it was the same with Entertainment Weekly and same with Vibe. I read, or at least look through, every issue, and usually I end up grilling people about what they’ve done in the past, how it went over, etc.
At Real Simple, at Time Inc. magazines, you have the benefit of all of these reader surveys. So part of what you’re doing is discerning who the readers are so you know exactly what stories work, what the readers want, and, of course, it’s very humbling.
Then usually what I try to do is come up with a visual idea, as I just said, for each magazine. We start with this germ of an idea. At Details, the idea initially was “Let’s make it feel like old Blue Note jazz record covers,” and that was the germ that expanded. At New York magazine, the idea was “Let’s strip it down and give it a very cool, arch-urban kind of feel.” We wanted to be the graphic-design equivalent of an Armani black suit, or a woman’s black cocktail dress. And at Entertainment Weekly the idea was, “Let’s make it the equivalent of entertainment graphics, like the 2-D version of TV, movies, and stuff.” The design was going to be entertaining in a flashy kind of way.
We come up with an idea, and it gets into the staff and everybody just takes it from there. A lot of it has to do with me finding people at the magazines and in the art department that I’m inspired by and compatible with. Most of the looks have developed through collaboration with them. You find somebody there who’s got some great ideas and you take it from there.
Mediabistro: What are you trying to do at Fortune? Now you’re at a magazine that’s almost entirely comprised of subscribers, so you have little or no pressure to sell on the newsstand. How are you serving the reader?
Newman: I think people really see the covers in two ways now. The newsstand is still important even if you don’t sell a lot of copies there. Most of the Time Inc. magazines, like EW or Time, don’t sell a lot on the newsstand except maybe their special issues. But they use the covers A) to build heat and buzz, and B) as a branding thing. You want a dynamic cover out there on the newsstand because it’s an ad for you.
But also I think of the coffee table as a newsstand. We are very concerned that the readers actually read the magazines, not just get them in the mail. I think a lot of magazines are satisfied with just getting into people’s houses, and all they want are those numbers so they can tell advertisers, “Yeah, we have a million readers.”
But at Real Simple or Fortune, it’s imperative that the readers actually read as many of the stories as possible. The cover has to work to get them to open up the magazine. And we actually have to deliver value to the readers in those stories because they pay a lot of money to subscribe.
I was just looking at the Fortune reader’s demographics, and the average subscriber pays $40 a year. They really want their money’s worth. I just renewed my subscription to Esquire, and it cost $8 a year. If you spend $40 and you don’t like the mag, we get these letters: “I didn’t get my money’s worth out of that issue!” At first I was appalled to read these, and then I realized that they are paying enough money to want some value. If you don’t get your money’s worth out of Esquire or GQ, you don’t care. It’s so cheap you won’t even stop renewing it. It’s ridiculous.
Mediabistro: Earlier in your career, at The Rocket in Seattle, you were an editor. Why did you switch over to the art side of newspapers and magazines, and how much of your approach now stems from your experience as an editor? Should all designers, or at least creative and design directors, put in time as editors?
Newman: I’ve always thought that smart magazine people would figure out a system where designers could work as editors and editors could work as designers in some way. Having been an editor, I think the biggest thing is that it gives you a much better sense of the imperative of storytelling and the logical presentation of material, so that it all makes sense to the reader.
When I’ve worked on things, we never do things just because they’re cool. They always have to make sense. That is the first thing an editor asks when you present something. If I can’t answer that, they’ll say “Well you know, this is good, but it doesn’t relate to the story, or it doesn’t make sense.”
It’s also really good for art directors to be able to read and write, and to deconstruct stories to discover their essence. It certainly helps when you’re given manuscripts at an early stage.
Mediabistro: Do you actually have the luxury of having time to read them?
Newman: No. (Laughs.) I’ve had many careers in my past, and editing was one of them, and I was a designer before I was an editor. Art direction was more fun for me, and it was easier to move around more. I really like to move around, and I think most art directors would agree that it’s pretty easy. You’re like a hired gun in a lot of ways. It’s also a lot easier for an art director to move up to the top right away, as opposed to editors, I think. The guy who was my predecessor at Fortune was here for seven years before he became art director. That never would happen with an editor.
Mediabistro: Is that because people perceive editing as being harder? Or that it takes longer to master the voice and the tone of a publication?
Newman: It’s probably the same reason there are more women art directors than women editors—it was never considered the prime place to have a career. Why are there so many women photo editors and women art directors? Because they can get jobs there. Why are there so many more women art directors than women editors? Is it because women are more creative? No, it’s because they can get jobs. All the men want to be editors because that’s where they perceive the power to be. I think until recently, the position wasn’t seen as so powerful.
And it’s definitely easier to move around. I feel I could be a candidate for any art director job that opened up, whereas there are very few editors who could be considered candidates for any editorship. I mean, I can be the art director of Real Simple or Fortune, but neither the editor of Fortune nor Real Simple could be the editor of the other magazine, right?
Mediabistro: Why is that? Why are you not pigeonholed?
Newman: I think a lot of designers are; it’s actually a common complaint by art directors. I’ve done business magazines, but every time I apply for a women’s magazine job they say I don’t have the experience. To me it makes total sense. If you’ve done a business magazine, you can do a women’s magazine because they’re both about service and information architecture. But people don’t see it that way.
Editors don’t want to admit that it’s much easier to master the material than they let on. It’s not that hard. If you are an editor for Money magazine, you could go to Real Simple in a second as far as I’m concerned. And some have gone. But editors can’t believe that it can be that simple. All you have to do is study and read, and look at what the magazine does and pick up on it. It’s not that hard. Most art directors feel they can work in any medium as long as they’re interested in it. It’s the editors who try to say, “No, this is a great mystery, you can’t do this because you’re coming from a hip-hop magazine; how could you possibly do a women’s magazine?”
Mediabistro: So how did you end up at Fortune? Were you internally poached, or did you investigate moving over, since it’s one big, happy corporate family there.
Newman: Well, my editor at Real Simple was fired…. Actually, what happened was that the guys at Fortune were looking to make a change, and they called me to talk about it. It was sort of the same way Dick Cheney became vice president. They called me to get ideas, and after a while they said, “Why don’t you just do it?”
One thing I was thinking last night is that I’ve had a lot of editors fired. (Laughs).
Mediabistro: What did you do to them?
Newman: Check this out. When I was at New York, Kurt Andersen was fired. Then I went to Details, and Michael Caruso was fired. Then I went to Vibe and the editor, Danyel Smith—fortunately I got along really well with her successor. Then I went to Inside and… you know what happened there. Then I went to Real Simple and she was fired. (Laughs.) I told the editor of Fortune when I took this job, “No one has survived me yet!”
Greg Lindsay, a freelance writer in Brooklyn, has covered media for Inside.com and Women’s Wear Daily.