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Design Spotlight: Michael Grossman

Absolute consultant Michael Grossman talks about why he's not a designer, what designers can learn from editors, and holistic thinking

- March 4, 2005

Michael Grossman has designed, edited or consulted for more than 40 magazines. He gave Entertainment Weekly its look; consulted on the launch of O, the Oprah Magazine, helped turn around Real Simple after its troublesome birth, and next week his latest collaborative creation—the ultraluxe city title Absolute—will be born into the world. His work has won more than 250 awards, but here's the thing: he hates it when you call him a "designer." The "Design Spotlight" series ends (for now) with Grossman tearing the word "Design" off the marquee and calling for editors who think like art directors and art directors who solve deeper problems than layouts.

Mediabistro: You finally agreed to this interview only after multiple assurances that we wouldn't label you as a designer, and that you would have the chance to end this interview series by critiquing part of its premise—that designers have fundamentally different jobs than editors. If you have a prepared statement, please read it now.

Michael Grossman: I love designers and some of my best friends are designers. But I do think that "design," as practiced in the magazine world, is inherently flawed, because you can't really design from the position of the designer. The sequential nature of magazines, which grew out of books really, is: create the product and then design the surface of it, which isn't just unsatisfying, but it's also not a good way to do right by your product, whatever it is.

I just realized over time that to do the most good for a client or a product or an employer, my aspiration is to be more than a designer for them. Another way of looking at it is that design is the act of conception in other disciplines and in the creation of other products. In architecture or fashion, it's not like you make a building and then call in an architect to design the surface or it. Or you create the clothing first and then the fashion designer comes in and sprinkles a little color on top of that. You design from the beginning. Design is invention. And there may be a client, there may be given, but it's never: "Here, we fully conceived it, now make it pretty." I think it's changing, and it's certainly different in start-ups, but it's not a great place to be starting from. I just try to do right by the product I'm working to work on, and I'm always pushing against that.

Mediabistro: Well, what was your role in the creation of Absolute? That's a startup situation where there was a narrowly defined target reader, a business plan, and an editorial director and editor already in place. How did you work within that team, and was it closer to the way you want to work?

Grossman: In any project, if I'm working with people that I haven't worked with before, there's sort of this... surprise at first if I want to be involved and make contributions in areas that don't really have anything to do with design. I have to establish myself in that way in working with them. But we do all end up thinking editorially, thinking from a marketing point of view, thinking from a production point of view, thinking about the bottom line—just trying to think holistically about what it is that we are doing.

On Absolute, [editorial director] Caroline [Miller] and I started on it before we hired [editor] Andrew [Essex] and subsequently the design director, Deanna Lowe, and the photo editor, Catherine Talese. It was all very collaborative and very good that way. When conceiving a magazine, my ruling metaphor is the geometric proof: every project is driven by givens, and figuring out what they are is, if not half the job, then a crucial part of it. And sometimes they're not what they appear to be and you have to push against the few givens and create new ones.

Mediabistro: What kind of things are you thinking of when you say "givens?"

Grossman: "This doesn't actually have to do with design, but I know your research indicates that this aspect of the magazine is the most popular with readers, but does it lure the younger newsstand audience that is your best shot of circulation expansion?" Or: "I know you think this is your trim size, but with the money we've saved on paper, could we upgrade something else?" Or: "I know this is the name that you've had for fifty years, but is this name going to serve you best over the next fifty years?" Maybe changing the name of the magazine is the right thing to do. So it that a given that it stays? All of these things would appear to be givens, but it's really an energizing thing for everybody working with it to stop and think: "Well, we haven't thought of that as something that we could change, but maybe it's the right thing to do."

Mediabistro: Well, who should be thinking this way, and who should have the power and the final say to start, lead, and end these types of conversations? Is that the role of the design director or some new, super-designer/consultant brought in above or beside the person producing pages every day?

Grossman: My feeling would be that everyone should think this way. Obviously, you can't think about it every second, but having the big picture in mind with everything you do is how you make a product better. All the time (or maybe not as often as they should be) people are thinking about "what is the world of the magazine?" and the world where a lot of the information we used to provide is available with immediacy on the Web. People's relationships with television have changed over the years, and the same is true for newspapers. I mean, what are the givens now?

I don't know if there should necessarily be an additional position, but I do think that the best editor and the best designers are people who think holistically, and that the distinction between them is vanishing. A little example I use a lot is that once upon a time, a designer had rubber cement, T-squares and type books, and there were also typewriters and style manuals around, and each of those tools was at a different end of the office. Now we've all got a monitor and a keyboard and mouse, and the same software. Sure, I can use a tool set to design a spread, but I can also write a headline, and I do. Even when I was more constrained in the designer role, I could be the one to stop say "should we bring this part to the top?" or "should we pull this out and make this a sidebar?" or "here's a good quote." But I couldn't do that with my Exacto knife and my T-square. And editors, god help us, can re-crop a picture. (Laughs)

No tool is going make somebody who doesn't have skills do something skilled. But just as I've managed to develop skills that are outside my normal, assumed, skill set, it would be great if everyone in magazines would aspire—just the way everybody in film aspires to be a director—to be the visual person, the conceiver, the creator of something. I admire, for instance, the fact that Susan Casey at Time Inc. has gone from being an art director to being an editor. I'd like to see it happen in the other direction. But more than crossing an aisle, it should be that you're morphing into one person who does all of these things. I hate people who use the word "both." It's just strange, but magazines have grown up this way. When you look around at other products, you don't separate the creation of them that way.

Mediabistro: You've built a reputation as "Michael Grossman, the renowned art director." At what point did you finally grow so frustrated with the limitations of that role that you no longer want to be labeled as designer? How did you start rectifying that, and what led to this realization?

Grossman: It's funny. I was an editor at my school magazine, and I took a summer job at a magazine and ended up taking a little time off from school and staying there, and then ended up being the art director of this little magazine in California called the Berkeley Monthly. I was a head art director at, like, 19, and I never had a design mentor—which was a good thing and a bad thing, because I never really learned what my place was. I had to learn a lot of stuff by trial and error, and I didn't work under anyone who showed me how I was supposed to work. I ended up learning what I know from editors and publishers and marketing directors. And I sort of stumbled upward from one number one job to another number one job at bigger magazines. So all along, I was trying to get at the essence of what it took to make a magazine the best it could be. It was like the system resisted that, and I was really aware of it. Certainly the people I was working with—and I'm really grateful for this—tended to be for the most part welcoming of that participation.

I drew a little bit more of a line with you when you approached me than I had felt compelled to draw on a day-to-day basis, but it's been something that's been going on for a long time. There have been a couple of forks in the road for me where I actually had a chance to be an executive editor, or had an editorial job where I could have been at some place long enough to sort of establish my editorial credentials. I could have made that move to 'the other side of the aisle' and didn't. But in thorough meetings with the client, I'm trying to make it clear that they're getting to the essence of the business.

Mediabistro: Is the natural inclination of your clients to think of you as the person who makes things pretty? Are you having to fight that perception and make is clear at the outset that you want the latitude and the charter to work more broadly than that?

Grossman: Well, I think they naturally think of the designer as somebody who is going to make things pretty. Sometimes the problem is not what the client defines as the problem, and sometimes someone brings me in, and would bring anyone in, and they think, "well, change all the typefaces and make it more modern."

While working on Real Simple—which was kind of my first charge when I went to Time Inc.—the thought was that there needed to be a redesign. But really, the typefaces and the things that one would normally think of as what would be redesigned weren't the problem, and those weren't the things we changed. It was more that the architecture and labeling of the components of this magazine needed to be clearer. It was a magazine about organization and simplicity, and it was beautiful, but it wasn't clearly organized and it wasn't that simple. Those changes were, in a way, more about the editorial than the design. So a lot of times you are looking at a problem, looking at what someone thinks is the problem and seeing something slightly different. I've been in many situations where I talked somebody out of redesigning something they thought needed redesigning. It's not the best thing for me sometimes.

Mediabistro: Will you remain being a one-person consultancy? Would you like to start a larger firm that will put these principles into practice? And how much of a personal role do you want to play in changing this state of affairs?

Grossman: I've made a conscious decision to not be Roger Black. I admire Roger Black, he is great at doing what he does, but I'm trying to strike a balance where I do enough work to keep me comfortable, and at the same time I let clients know that when they hire me, they get me. I might hire somebody to help me with the execution of something, but I never want to stop being at meetings. I just think that being face-to-face, talking people out of their assumptions, is really the meat of what I do.

There are clients that I have, and have had, where my primary function has been a brainstorming one, and I really love those jobs. They are never going to win awards, or put my name in the paper, but hearing someone say, "I've never looked at it that way," or "That's something I thought we couldn't do," is more gratifying to me than winning an award. And that lowers my profile; my name doesn't go on anything for doing that. So, as far as my aspiration, it's to do as much good, and to have as much impact on the product and the people I'm working with as I can, whether or not that involves making the surface flashier.

Mediabistro: How can designers and art directors empower themselves to get out from under the perception of just being the design guy or the design girl?

Grossman: For both editors and designers: talk about it, and try to educate yourself. There are obviously protecting your turf issues here. But I think it's true at Martha Stewart's publications, for example, where you have "projects." I don't know exactly what they call them, but the senior editor/project manager/art director person for a particular discipline is fully conceiving stories and producing them. The idea of producers and directors of projects within magazines, rather than who might be an 'art person' or 'editorial person' is a better way to be thinking from scratch. "How do we present this kind of information? Maybe this entire story should be a timeline?" You know, there are different ways to do things, and if you are not starting from the notion that, well, this is the sequence of things: the writer is going to write, and then the photographer is going to photograph, and the editor is going to tell some stuff to the art director, and the art director is going to put it on the page and make it pretty. If you can break of that in whatever way, you are going to make better magazines.

Mediabistro: And how many people in the business right now are able to do that? Or have the inclination to do that, rather than just succumb to institutional inertia? Do you have to start teaching this to people at the outset of their careers, or can you retrain people to work this way?

Grossman: Yeah, I think it's true that there are people who are going to specialize, and that's fine. In movies, there are cinematographers who don't want to direct. And I think there will always be a place for somebody who is really good at something. Just like there are editors who are very good at one kind of editing—they're really good with story editing, but they're not going to be the editor of the magazine, they don't have that kind of overview—there is a place for that. I just think that looking at places to reach past the conventional constraints is really helpful.

[Nylon art director] Andrea Fella and [Nylon editor] Marvin [Scott Jarrett] are shooting [photographs for their magazine], and that's great. I just think that whatever random thing outside the traditional purview of your job title you can do is healthy.

I was talking to somebody about the idea of "church and state," which I think is a hugely important issue in magazines. For all the line-blurring I'm a proponent of, I think that with what's happening on television and in movies and on the Web—the inability of the consumer to tell the difference between content and advertising—one of the strengths of magazines is really having a voice, a critical voice. I'm always pushing: "can you say it with more judgment? Let's not be relentlessly upbeat, let's say something critical right here to let you know that we are judging."

But in editorial, the line there is more like the line between political parties. We've made it so that there are the art people and the editorial people, red and blue. We'd make better legislation if there weren't political parties—if everyone was collaborating and blurring those lines completely. You'd just inherently be able to do better stuff.



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