Sep 15, 2014

Redesigning The New Yorker: An Interview with Creative Director Wyatt Mitchell

A version of this interview appears in issue #11 of Gym Class magazine, edited by Steven Gregor. Illustration by Alexander Wells.

I first met Wyatt Mitchell in 1997, when I was the design director at Details. He was hired to be the magazine’s production manager. He’d previously worked with our production director, Marc Einsele, who convinced me to hire him by saying, “He’s a great jazz piano player.” At the time, the magazine’s  visuals were heavily influenced by the style of Reid Miles and his legendary Blue Note album art, so adding someone to the staff who had a jazz sensibility was a big plus.

Later, when I moved over to Vibe magazine, Wyatt came to work for us as art production director. We had a murderer’s row of talent there: photo editors George Pitts and Leslie dela Vega, art directors Alice Alves and Brandon Kavulla (the current creative director of Fortune who was interviewed in the last issue of Gym Class). Wyatt was my true collaborative partner at Vibe. We spent (very long) hours working on page layouts, playing music (Alice Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Vince Guaraldi), and talking about “the science” of editorial design.

It quickly became apparent that Wyatt had a talent not only for art production and art direction, but also as a leader and spokesperson for the staff. Wyatt immediately assumed the role of de-facto staff psychologist (he had a sign on his wall that read “The Doctor”), offering advice on matters both personal and professional. Needless to say, at Vibe there was a lot of counseling! He also had a keen eye for talent and the ways that people could work most effectively at their jobs and still have fun and be creatively fulfilled.

Wyatt quickly moved on to grab some of the most prestigious jobs in magazine design: art director at Vibe and O, The Oprah Magazine, and design director at Wired, winning awards and accolades along the way. His design chops were prodigious (as well as his work ethic), and he eventually landed at the Conde Nast Editorial Development Group as design director. From there he was hired in November 2011 as the first-ever creative director at The New Yorker. At a magazine steeped in tradition and with a culture that is oftentimes slow to change, Wyatt has made a series of significant changes, including a major upgrade of imagery and page layouts, and a complete redesign of the front-of-book Goings on About Town section.

I talked with Wyatt about working at The New Yorker, how he moved from production manager to art director, and much more…

* * *

Robert Newman: How did you end up working in magazines?

Wyatt Mitchell: When I got out of college, I worked as a quantitative analyst in Washington D.C. for three years. Along with statistics work, I made graphs and charts for reports. One day, the company was looking for a space to put a new Macintosh computer and I offered my office, as I liked the idea of having multiple monitors/work stations. After a few months on the Mac, I really got a taste for page layout.

Robert Newman: You got into art directing through working in art production departments. As someone who followed a similar path (I was a printer, typesetter, and production manager before I became an art director), I know it’s not a usual career trajectory. How did you make the transition from art production guy to art director?

Wyatt Mitchell: I had the good fortune of working in the production departments of some really well-designed magazines in the beginning. I wanted to be a designer, but without the formal training I was able to learn a lot from watching how designers put their pages together, how their designs evolved. It was an on-the-job education.

Robert Newman: You’ve worked with some amazing creative directors: Florian Bachleda at Vibe and Scott Dadich at Wired, just to name two. What lessons did you learn from them, and how were you able to apply that to your work?

Wyatt Mitchell: Very simple: They were the two hardest-working people I’ve ever worked with. I learned a lot from them. Most importantly, I learned that exceptional work comes not only from talent, but from working harder than everyone else. While it’s a different type of design at The New Yorker, I’d like to think that I’m continuing that ethic and passing it on.

Robert Newman: Your earlier work was at magazines known for their splashy design and often-edgy photography and graphics (Vibe, Details, Wired). How was it going to The New Yorker and working in a much more understated design and format?

Wyatt Mitchell: In terms of design, I see working at The New Yorker as a process of synthesizing those experiences at other magazines into their smartest, most essential forms and applying that to a magazine that has a more understated aesthetic.

Robert Newman: You’re been redesigning The New Yorker slowly, starting with the front-of-the-book Goings On About Town section. What’s your strategy for the overall redesign?

Wyatt Mitchell: The New Yorker has one of the most devoted and loyal audiences. Part of that loyalty and devotion is to the look of the magazine. So I want to be incredibly careful with the redesign. I want to evolve the magazine without damaging the DNA of what make it special.

Robert Newman: The redesign of the front of The New Yorker draws on some of the typographic and design elements of earlier eras of the magazine. You’ve obviously been studying The New Yorker archives. Is there any era that you’re particularly drawn to?

Wyatt Mitchell: The first 20 years of the magazine are particularly interesting. They were experimenting with the design and finding what ultimately works best. It’s fascinating to look at that time of the magazine and see how elements and designs that we take for granted were developed and fine-tuned. For instance, there was a greater scale shift with the design in the first decade. There was also a more whimsical use of typography during that period.

Robert Newman: What has been the hardest part?

Wyatt Mitchell: Not being sure what design changes will damage the DNA of the magazine. We’ve designed many variations on the magazine, some we felt weren’t quite right, some we weren’t ready for.

Robert Newman: One of the first things you did at The New Yorker was bring in a new staff photographer, Pari Dukovic.

Wyatt Mitchell: Pari is a rare talent, who’s destined to be one of the greats. He was a perfect match for this new era at the magazine, bringing a fresh look to the pages. As our editor-in-chief said to me once, “this magazine is not a museum, it is a living thing.” I think Pari exemplifies new life here at The New Yorker.

Robert Newman: When we worked together at Details and Vibe, we often talked about “the science,” of editorial design—an organized, methodical, and logical method for creating the overall design, which involved a precise approach to templates, grids, and layouts. How do you apply this to The New Yorker?

Wyatt Mitchell: The New Yorker is a weekly magazine; it runs like a machine. Things happen quickly here and on many platforms. There isn’t room for sloppiness or inconsiderate work. I learned from you to “love the science,” and I learned that “loving the science” is part of being a good designer. One is not a good designer without it. As you might imagine, with nearly 90 years of practice, this magazine runs very efficiently. Each day has its production requirements and that’s just how things work. It’s truly an ecosystem.

Robert Newman: Wired used to publish a list of the music the staff listened to while making the magazine. What’s the typical musical soundtrack for you at The New Yorker?

Wyatt Mitchell: This is very busy place, which means I inevitably start and stop the same music throughout the day. I have literally played everything from Gorecki to Fats Waller to Parliament to Sora here. Just in short bursts.

Robert Newman: Your job at The New Yorker is not just to art direct the magazine, but also to be the creative director for the publishing brand. What kind of work does this involve?

Wyatt Mitchell: Beyond the magazine, it is being the brand steward for the digital editions (tablet and phone), the website, The New Yorker Festival, the desk diary, the calendars, the E-zines, the beach towels, the coffee mugs…

Robert Newman: And speaking of the above, what are your thoughts on the current state of magazine iPad apps? A lot of people are disappointed in the direction that apps have been taking lately, especially those that are basically just replicas of the print editions.

Wyatt Mitchell: I think we’re learning as the technology changes, and it’s changing all the time. The immutable thing that magazines bring is story-telling, and success will come from our skill to use the technology to better tell stories.

Robert Newman: Describe your design style.

Wyatt Mitchell: I have no idea how to answer that. Duke Ellington meets Don Quixote?

Robert Newman: What type of people manager are you?

Wyatt Mitchell: Bandleader. I want people to understand what the mission and philosophy is behind what we’re doing…then improvise.

Robert Newman: Other than The New Yorker, which magazines do you enjoy and regularly read?

Wyatt Mitchell: For reasons of subject matter and design, I read Wired, GQ, New York magazine, Fast Company, The New York Times Magazine, Zeit Magazin, Bon Appetit. I love what David Moretti does at Wired Italia.

Robert Newman: What is the biggest challenge facing the magazine publishing industry today?

Wyatt Mitchell: It’s existential. It’s a real moment of defining what magazine making is and how can it be done on different platforms, with different tools. That’s a question that the industry hasn’t had to face while I’ve been in the business.

Robert Newman: How will The New Yorker look 10 years from now?

Wyatt Mitchell: I can’t imagine, but I’m sure The New Yorker will still be around. It is a mirror and chronicler of our lives. It will always be needed.