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Design Spotlight: Edward Leida

mediabistro's Greg Lindsay talks to Fairchild's group design director about redesigning W, developing Cookie, and the difference between a type guy and a type geek

By Greg Lindsay - January 31, 2005

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EDWARD LEIDA has been responsible for the look and feel of Fairchild Publications' portfolio of glossies and trade publications for more than decade. As the company's group design director, Leida has set the tone and templates for the company's flagships, Women's Wear Daily and W, the current reincarnation of Details, and an endless stream of marketing material, prototypes, and top secret projects like Cookie, an upscale parenting magazine currently in the works. It wasn't Leida's idea to have Bruce Weber and other brand-name fashion designers shoot elephants wearing Chanel for W—that was his collaborator, Fairchild's creative director, Dennis Freedman. And it wasn't Leida who collected back-to-back National Magazine Awards for the design of Details—that would be the magazine's design director, Rockwell Harwood. But Leida is the one who meshes Freedman's envelope-pushing visual ideas with W's typography, and he's also the one who laid the groundwork for Detail's pair of Ellies. He's the invisible man of magazine design, even though he's one of its best practitioners.

Mediabistro: What's on your desk right this second?

Edward Leida: Something close and dear to me. I'm doing sort of a soft redesign of W. There was no mandate or request for it from [Fairchild chairman] Patrick [McCarthy] or anyone else. It was something I sort of initiated myself. It wasn't a selfish thing—the magazine just sort of looked like it needed a boost or a little bit of a freshening. So I commissioned a new slab serif font to replace ours. I saw so much of it being used by the half-dozen magazines knocking us off, that I thought it was time to have something that was a little more personal for ourselves. It's sort of a preemptive thing. I'm not one to wait around for someone to say "God this looks tired" or maybe sales start lagging or whatever it is that often contributes to the mandate to change the magazine. The alterations sort of happen while I'm working on the [feature] well with Dennis [Freedman] simultaneously. Whatever downtime there is I use to reshape it…so in between I'm fitting it in with a little work at home.

"I'm doing sort of a soft redesign of W. There was no mandate or request for it from [Fairchild chairman] Patrick [McCarthy] or anyone else.... It's sort of a preemptive thing. I'm not one to wait around for someone to say "God this looks tired" or maybe sales start lagging or whatever it is that often contributes to the mandate to change the magazine."

Mediabistro: How does your relationship with Dennis work, exactly? The two of you have an unusually close relationship as far as design directors and creative directors go. And how do the two of you work with Patrick McCarthy?

Edward Leida: Patrick knows that our decision-making has never been flippant or selfish in any way. I think we are strategic-thinking people, Dennis and myself, and we are of two minds: business and creativity. We lean towards the creative side, but we genuinely believe that creativity is an integral part of a successful business—especially in our industry.

Dennis and I have worked together for 20 years. For any work relationship, first you must establish a mutual respect. You build on that foundation. Dennis is brilliant in choosing talent to photograph for W. And he recognizes what I am able to do with those images. Together we share in the experience. There are edits that Dennis does that I am ecstatic about, and some I am not crazy about. I voice my opinions and he voices his about design. We spend a lot of time together laying out stories and bouncing ideas off each other, so it's a very open exchange. We sit down with [photographer] Mario Sorrenti and edit a story with him—it's not like he just sends a messenger to drop it off. He literally sits here and we work on it. It's very organic and very much about mutual respect. It really is sort of this "garage" mentality. The business side really is secondary, but the images we want to run that allow us to be "artistic" is built into the DNA of the magazine. So when you establish that, it just feeds on itself, and it's easy.

Mediabistro: When you're that personally involved with a magazine, how do you avoid stepping on the toes of the magazine's design staff? And how do you propagate your ideas across Fairchild's magazines while taking your designers' thoughts and ideas into consideration at the same time?

Edward Leida: They are aware of anything I'm involved with that is going to affect them. We work in an open environment, and all of the pages I'm working on are being printed out in our own art department, so they see them. I debrief them, basically, and tell them 'I think it's time to make some changes and I want you to meet the typographers.' I just show them pages and text and galleys.

So they are involved, but they are also busy putting the book out. But a lot of the design decisions are really made by me. I generate them on my own, and I really believe often they need to come from one mind. I also play devil's advocate where I'll show people things and I have them look and I'll ask them what they think. So there's an open exchange that way, but the initial process is just maintaining focus and cohesiveness in a singular experience and mindset. The way I have to do that, given the nature of the way we work here and it being so noisy, is to just strap on my headphones and sort of tune out.

Mediabistro: How do you juggle all of the projects that comes your way? Besides W, you're working on internal projects, marketing materials, prototypes, etc. What have you done for Cookie, just to choose one. Did you take the lead in deciding what a luxury parenting magazine should look like?

Edward Leida: Well, I was involved in developing some marketing materials for Cookie. In that case—and this stems from the general philosophy of this company—we don't want it to look or feel like any of the other parenting magazines. Fairchild has always been seen as doing something clearly different in its approach, with an underpinning of quality—a little less commercial. Not that we aren't commercial, but we don't try and take every product and wrap it in the consumer clichés that everyone is used to. The Fairchild philosophy has been to create "really good stuff" and make it appeal to a very select audience—which I think is the same thing that was done at Vitals.

"...we don't want [Cookie] to look or feel like any of the other parenting magazines. Fairchild has always been seen as doing something clearly different in its approach, with an underpinning of quality—a little less commercial."

It makes me think of when James Truman wanted to start his art magazine. He wanted to start it outside of the Condé Nast offices, and I think he wanted to do that because it creates this "garage" mentality where it isn't all about the sales, the marketing, and all the infrastructure behind it to promote it and blow it out. It's really about getting down to what you want to say, and making it the best thing it can possibly be. And if you love it, and it's a magazine you can genuinely love, then the success will come. That's where great things happen. Patrick is a great editor and allows that to happen, but he's not crazy and isn't going to shoot himself in the foot.

Mediabistro: Where do you start when approaching a new project? I know you're a type guy—I've seen you identify fonts at a single glance.

Edward Leida: I am a type guy. I'm not a type geek. Typically, what I begin with is text. I'm not even sure right away what I am going to use, but I always just plunk down a galley of text. I have a blank page and I just put a column of text down it. I was having a conversation with a friend, trying to explain what type was, and I asked, 'Do you know DeKooning, the painter? He always had this blank canvas and he would draw one line. After that, the rest would come.' It's sort of the same with me. I take a piece of body copy, and I put it on a blank piece of paper, and I look at it. I don't really know what the process is, but it evolves into something.

I tend to be one that questions most of the things I do, and rethink them maybe too much. But I keep doing a series of experiments. You'll find around my desk reams and reams of printouts of sometimes just body copy, or body copy with a headline, and that's how I do it.

Mediabistro: What can you possibly see in a single block of text?

Edward Leida: I'm looking to get excited. This sounds clichéd, but I'm always looking for some weird contrast—when all the elements merge and the lights come on. There will be something about the text and the headline that immediately creates this little flicker or weird contrast where I say "Oh, that's the way to go." I may find that it's the wrong direction, but I'll start by pursuing that.

Mediabistro: Because Fairchild magazines aren't generally expected to sell a lot of copies on the newsstand, you have the luxury of concentrating on typography and a sort of quiet elegance. Could you do a celebrity weekly if you had to? Where would you start? Or do you think that formula—neon fonts and ugly paparazzi photographs—is going to burn itself out?

Edward Leida: I think a lot of that approach comes from the need to be the loudest screaming magazine vehicle out there, and everybody is competing to be it. Who initially started this—and which art director said, "Let's use day-glo green here because it will scream like hell"—I don't know. But I'm saddened by the fact that it happened. It's a blessing and a curse. The very freedom that allowed it to emerge was new and great, but it screwed things up for the rest of us. It's just one of many things that is on the cliché list of what a consumer magazine is supposed to be. You're supposed to have raunchy cover lines, day-glo colors, and everything is sans serif, and on and on. It's this weird language that I'm completely familiar with, and it wouldn't take a whole lot for me to know how to execute it. If we were going to do it, I think I'd find some subversive way of using it and still make it elegant.

Mediabistro: So where are you looking for inspiration at this point? Are there any magazines out there which genuinely excite you these days?

Edward Leida: I am such a classicist and traditionalist, but I've been having this struggle recently since I am also a modernist. Sometimes I feel like I'm being split in two. Honestly, I haven't been looking at a lot of magazines. I've gone to the newsstand, and nothing is really turning me on. Either you have a whole barrage of vehicles trying to be modern, which I call the "flatliner" magazine, in which everything is sans serif and nothing makes your heart race. You're in sort of a mild coma, and that's "cool." The other is sort of the traditional and classic look. And then you have some of the hipster magazines with a convergence of the two. They are using traditional fonts—and I don't know if this is by default because they aren't commissioning their own font—but I respect the art directors that are using them. But overall I can't say that there is any one magazine that is doing anything for me.

I've become interested in homogenization. It's interesting how globalization is creating homogenization and how it's affecting design. I was recently at an architecture symposium at the architect's league. People were talking about globalization. I found myself sketching a globe. The way I visualize homogenization is by picturing anything from the radius corners on an iPod to the Frank Gehry [Guggenheim Bilbao] Museum to the way serif typefaces have become a little bulkier and a little less super thick or thin. The same thing is happening in architecture and industrial design. The edges have been ground down—they've literally become rounded. That is something that interests me a lot more, rather than literally looking at magazines.

"The way I visualize homogenization is by picturing anything from the radius corners on an iPod to the Frank Gehry [Guggenheim Bilbao] Museum to the way serif typefaces have become a little bulkier and a little less super thick or thin. The same thing is happening in architecture and industrial design."

Mediabistro: So what are you on the lookout for when scouting for new talent? Someone who thinks in terms of sharp edges, I would imagine.

Edward Leida: They are of two schools. They might be staunch type freaks I can immediately recognize. And at the other extreme is the younger and more naïve recent graduate who, yes, is a possible future type geek.

But I'm very attracted to someone who has some fine art tendencies. Someone who draws and is maybe a little messy. Someone who is clearly a little different than I am when it comes to designs, but who is more like I was when I was in school—interested in both the fine arts and the graphic arts. They may not have tremendous typographic skills, but something interesting is going on with their drawing skills. I call those types of people "dangerous," because when they finally master the typographic skills and are able to merge them with a fine art talent, they will be very dangerous. They can reach into their bag of tricks and pull something out that maybe I couldn't.

Mediabistro: And then the pupil becomes the master? What's the skillset and career path that's led you to what is quite possible the most powerful job in magazine design?

Edward Leida: I originally studied industrial design. I took one semester of that, saw guys running around with calculators and slide rules attached to their hips, and I was out of there in a heartbeat. I graduated and I starting doing work for a small boutique-ish ad agency, but I was always interested in architecture and I always wanted to work for this design firm in Manhattan called Whitehouse & Katz. I got that job and got involved in some very interested corporate identity work.

Then, in 1985 this job at Fairchild came up. W was a newspaper at the time and they were looking to redesign it. My experience in really focusing on type prompted the design director to try to hire me. He moved quickly, but I put it off initially. I was scared of going into the magazine business since I knew nothing about it. I came from a design office that was pristine with immaculate cubicles. Then I went to Fairchild—where they still had rotary phones and it was an open environment with people yelling across the room to each other.

I don't think there is a distinct "Eddie Leida look" today. I really try to do what suits the editor, and what suits the magazine best. And I owe that to my education at Whitehouse & Katz. It was developing corporate identities that led me to create specialized identities for each magazine.

I think people take themselves much too seriously in a lot of these businesses and I don't. I really believe in craft and I am really focused when I am here. But we do laugh and we do have fun.

Greg Lindsay, a freelance writer in Brooklyn, has covered media for Inside.com and Women's Wear Daily.



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