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Design Spotlight: Roger Black

The legendary Roger Black talks about the impetus for redesigns, retaining design equity, the Bonnie Fuller-ization of celebrity tabloids, and video games

By Greg Lindsay - February 2, 2005
black.jpgIs there any publication—glossy, newsprint, or digital—that Roger Black hasn't redesigned? While he built his well-deserved reputation on his early, iconic designs for Rolling Stone, New York magazine, Newsweek, and Esquire, Black is better known these days as a consummate re-designer, a blue-chip name you call when it's time to send the message that a magazine is under new management. As the chairman of Danilo Black Inc., he's overseen recent designs and redesigns for the likes of Budget Living, Popular Mechanics, American Media's tabloids and Men's Fitness, MIT Technology Review, and a slew of newspapers, including the new Spanish-language chain Rumbo. Black originally offered us 10 minutes of his time to recap, once again, his career and thoughts on design. He ended up giving us close to two hours.

Mediabistro: At this point in your career, you're more of a troubleshooter—the expert called in to fix a design someone else has broken—than a designer who lives with a single, growing, organic publication. How do you approach that role? Do you go back to first principles? Do you walk into a magazine and strip off the design like a layer of paint? And how many magazines suffer from ill-conceived redesigns?

Roger Black: All of them. I think there are two things colliding here. One is the idea I call "design equity" in a magazine, and the other is that the publishers will run off the edge of the cliff, like in a cartoon, and realize that nothing is holding them up. I think it's maybe best to try to preserve the design equity of certain magazines, and for others it's really essential to strip away.

I don't know if you read National Geographic these days, but the typography is good, the color is unbelievable, and the printing has improved a lot in the last 10 years. And it's actually surprisingly different than the 1950s and 60s memory we have of National Geographic, and I think it was very important that they did that. They kept the basic feeling and they tried to bring it up to date and make it popular and fun. And I think they did it. I mean, I don't read it either, but I'm very impressed by it.

We did a big redesign of Reader's Digest in the '90s, and I don't think they went far enough. At least, they didn't tap into people as young as I am—the Baby Boomer crowd. They couldn't quite bring themselves to go that far. We consolidated some of the great designs from the '50s and brought them back in, so that was kind of a restoration project, but I don't think it got radical enough. The decline of the U.S. edition of Reader's Digest was not arrested, and they stripped all that off and kind of went over it with a small hammer.

Mediabistro: Would a total redesign have stopped the fall? How often do you come up against management that refuses or lacks the will to carry out the ideas they hired you to provide because they don't have a clue?

Black: They usually do have a clue. Quite a few of the clients I've worked with have a very good idea of what they should be doing, but they don't know necessarily how to do it. And there's a lot of other factors involved, including what the readers think, or what the other clients of the magazine think, the advertisers, etc.

My impression is that the implementation problem usually stems from the fact that the editors are distracted by daily life, or by the pounding of their publishers, or something else. There is never a time that a real redesign doesn't depend on a real state of crisis—somebody's chasing after the editor.

At Popular Mechanics, which we redesigned last year, the editor was actually right on the fulcrum of deciding whether he was going to retire or not. He was really quite a fine editor—great circulation, very loyal readers—but he was getting older. They weren't going to shove him out the door, but I believe that the redesign was a catalyst for him deciding "You know, let somebody else do this." He had done this stuff, he had a little bit of help, he didn't need it anymore. He has a nice place in Tucson or somewhere that he went home to and that was that.

So there is always some volatility at the time of a redesign. They don't call it a redesign because everything is going great.

"There is never a time that a real redesign doesn't depend on a state of crisis—somebody's chasing after the editor."

Mediabistro: So how do you see your own role in that situation? Are you a doctor diagnosing the larger problems of a magazine, or a shrink?

Black: That's a good analogy in the sense that you can't pull up in the redesign truck and say, "Hey, you look terrible today; come in for a few minutes and I'll fix you up." People don't go to the doctor unless they really need help. You can't force a redesign on somebody. Every time that I've worked as a general consultant for a large group and they told me to do a redesign for a client, these usually didn't do very much. It doesn't do any good to do a redesign if you don't really rethink the content and the direction. And sometimes people will think a redesign will help them when they really don't change anything else.

There is a certain kind of magazine that really owes it to itself to have some kind of continuity, and people forget that. I have said this a hundred times, it's not sinking in: The real owners of a magazine are its readers. If you are a subscriber to, say, Newsweek for 20 years, you really think of it as 'my Newsweek' and changes to the magazine are sometimes not very welcome. If only they would consult you—sometimes you've been there longer that any of the staff.

Newsweek is a good example. I did a redesign of Newsweek in 1985, and I did two or three others after that. In 1985, we tried to build on some core memory on what Newsweek should look like, which was a little rougher. I thought of it as a little tabloid, although I never said that to them. It should be more popular, more liberal, more fun, more unpredictable, you know… rougher. I think it came out very well, and, in any case, it coincided with the big shift between Newsweek and Time. So [then-editor] Maynard Parker had me redesign it again, in a serious way, and then he had problems with the art director, and I came back in and art directed the magazine as a consultant for a short time. When Maynard died, I didn't really have the heart to work on it anymore, it was too upsetting. Then my successor changed it dramatically and threw out the typeface that I originally put in, even though it had been there for years.

It's like when the Times of London threw out the typeface Times Roman. Now, maybe it was becoming generic—I mean, every printer in the world had their typeface on it—but, my God! It's called Times Roman for a reason! Make it work for you!

They could have taken their design and kept that equity. They've changed it since then, too. Why didn't they go back to Times Roman? It's the same thing if you're talking about American newspapers. The Boston Globe had a beautiful typeface called Madison that was originally their staple typeface, that [famed typographer] Matthew Carter had redrawn for them. Nobody else in the Unites States—or maybe in the world—used it. It was distinctive, very Boston for some reason, very apropos to the history of the Globe, to the whole thing. And then, for some reason, a new editor came in and cleared that out and put in Miller, which is a very fine typeface that Matthew Carter did, but sadly, it's used by everyone in the world. It's all over the place, particularly under the name Georgia. They took something out that was their own. I had the same problem with The New York Times throwing out Bookman and Trade Gothic.

"It's like when the Times of London threw out the typeface Times Roman. Now, maybe it was becoming generic...but, my God! It's called Times Roman for a reason! Make it work for you! They could have taken their design and kept that equity."

Mediabistro: The metaphorical owners might be the readers, but the real owners seem to commission redesigns when they've lost touch with what the readers are thinking, and hope that a redesign will magically boost sales. I'm specifically thinking of David Pecker and American Media, which hired Danilo Black to remake Men's Fitness, then decided to throw that design out and copy Men's Health instead, because Men's Health sells a half-million copies on the newsstand. How do you get it through the skull of a client that they're blowing up a perfectly good design?

Black: The strategy we tried to put into place for covers was doing well on the stands, but they would override it every other issue, and those issues did badly, so they thought that the whole thing was doing badly, and it wasn't. And it turns out that the hideous thing that they did, did well. (Laughs.) What the hell.

There is this general feeling that particularly the business folks have that there is some kind of magic formula that I might know, or that some other old-time art director might know, about how to do covers. I think they're all looking at the wrong thing.

Bonnie Fuller gave a talk at the American Magazine Conference in Boca Raton last fall, which four years ago would have been kind of electrifying, because, whatever you want to say about Bonnie Fuller, she makes things look interesting. You feel vaguely guilty that you're interested in them, but you're still interested in them and you pick them up. And yet her influence is so pervasive and so codifiable that Us Weekly is continuing to channel her without her being there, and they're doing better than Star, which I find comical. The momentum of what Bonnie did can beat her at her own game.

But the fact is, once everybody has the same celebrities, and they have those little circles, and there's the same language, and little tips about certain things... It's a great way to do a cover, but then you get into this problem that they all start to look like that. And then they don't always deliver on these promises on the cover, and the opening begins to sag. If you go to the newsstand, it's unbelievable. If you go the typical grocery store, at the check-out racks, they are all blowing out at you with bright colors and white T's and suggestions that are pretty much the same from magazine to magazine.

Mediabistro: Considering each of those magazines are selling a million copies a week on those newsstand, is there a way to improve on them, or is commodification a fact their publishers can live with?

Black: We did a job for Redbook last year for quite a few months, so we could see if it was working. It did. I mean, it worked moderately. It's like any kind of quality control problem—if you adjust every single knob in the machine and not just the one at the end, you'll get better results. You need to make sure that every single step of the process is working. Have good headlines, have a great picture, have great printing, have good display, and then there's the whole distribution side of it.

Guess what, however? If you don't have a good magazine inside, it ultimately doesn't sell. But if you have a good magazine going forward, and say that people really like Us Weekly, they'll pick it up even if they don't really care to hear more about the current divorce or whatever.

Mediabisto: That sounds less like design and more like quality assurance. Are you a designer or a business consultant? Are you being paid to create hits, or just keep things from getting worse?

Black: I'm sure the reason I was a successful art director as a staff guy was that I knew how to run budgets. And it was not so much that I kept within the budget, because they never really reward you for keeping within the budget. It was that I was able to get more money the next year, and build up the art department. It's sort of a dynasty creation thing, where you are trying to get more staff, get more resources, get bigger budgets. And that's a management thing and very few art directors pay enough attention to that stuff.

But there are no new magazines. There hasn't been a big, blockbuster home run in years. When Rolling Stone came out in '67, it had an enormous impact. Every college student editor in the country copied it. But the thing is, there may not be any really good ideas, and people are not taking risks, and the magazine business is not going the same direction as it used to—it's not getting bigger and bigger.

"I'm sure the reason I was a successful art director as a staff guy was that I knew how to run budgets. And it was not so much that I kept within the budget, because they never really reward you for keeping within the budget. It was that I was able to get more money the next year, and build up the art department."

Mediabistro: And if it's a mature industry, it's not one beginning a long period of decline, does that mean the best design minds in the world are heading elsewhere?

Black: When it comes to art students today, everybody is doing video games. They don't want to do magazines. Although, I have two guys I've been working with lately who claim that they wanted to be magazine art directors ever since they were 12 or 16.

Mediabistro: I'm sure they got it from reading SPY.

Black: (Laughs) I'll ask them, but I don't think you're totally right about maturity and decline. I think we've topped out with the big-time, general interest, mass-circulation magazine. But there are more titles, and the flip side of a world where it's all just tweaking a knob is that anything goes.

In the '70s and '80s, there were these giant movements that swept through design. You had people like Neville Brody and David Carson, and the funny thing is that all their stuff still lives. Even my old designs from the '70s—all that stuff still lives. There was a comedy troupe that brought out big posters at the bus stops in New York City that looked like Rolling Stone in the 70s. It even used the Rolling Stone typeface. Clearly, somebody knew that's what they were copying. And it looked fine, it looked perfectly up-to-date.

Anything goes now, so there is no trend. The trend is: no trend. However, if you look at the video-on-demand side of media culture, what's happening is that they're vertical in a way that magazines built from other brands could be quite successful. And so people like Hearst are going to strain harder and harder to get million-circulation magazines. But they have to do it with Oprah. All the big wins over the last several years have been Oprah and Martha, where you can latch on to some giant celebrity thing. And you have to remember that Martha Stewart did a really beautiful job at putting out a magazine.

Mediabistro: But those aren't original designs, either. They're just an optimized, celebrified take on women's service themes. Does it really pay to just keep recycling?

Black: Some of the best designers, people like [Pentagram partner] Paula Scher, are just recycling bigger ideas from a long time ago—like Russian Constructivism—so people don't remember them, as opposed to last month's Esquire.

I've never looked at my own work much after it was done, or looked at anybody else's work. But when I got to The New York Times Magazine in 1982, they had a drawer full of other people's layouts that they would build on top of. It was shocking. I saw a page that looked strangely like Rolling Stone, and it was an old Rolling Stone thing from like five years before that they had kept in this drawer and then hauled out so they didn't have to rethink the layout.

Mediabisto: They were borrowing entire grid systems basically?

Black: Yeah, sampling.

Mediabistro: What are you working on now?

Black: Right now we're doing Nintendo Power.

Mediabistro: Nintendo's still printing that? I remember buying the first issue back in 1987.

Black: You outgrew them, but in fact, they have a wider audience now. Nintendo was always for kids, but now gamers keep playing games forever, and the new DS—the Nintendo portable—is selling incredibly well, and it isn't all 12-year-olds buying them. What we're trying to do is make the magazine more reflective of the readership, which is, you know, the usual job.

It's fun; I'm not exactly the prototypical teenage gamer, but trying to figure it out and make something that works across this age span—the gamers in their late 20s and pre-adolescent kids. You can't put big, babe-alicious, head-smashing stuff in there. You have to figure out something that doesn't look either too juvenile or too grown up. It's interesting.

Mediabistro: What else?

Black: There is something else I can't talk about, an enormous project that I'm working on. I'm also doing a lot of newspaper work. I just did a Spanish-language daily that started in Texas and is going to be a national daily. It's called Rumbo. It's probably the best thing I've done lately. It's one of those things that was just executed better.

And, hilariously I'm consulting for Quark, Inc.

Mediabistro: So you are a craftsman who blames his tools, or at least tries to improve them.

Black: I've been working with Adobe for many years, and I also worked with Quark in the '80s. I did a hilarious demo of Quark—I think it was version 2.0—at the Aspen Design Conferences in 1988 or 1989, and saw Milton Glaser standing behind me, watching me trying to do a layout in Quark. Milton said, "But Roger, you don't do this yourself, do you?"

"I did a hilarious demo of Quark—I think it was version 2.0—at the Aspen Design Conferences in 1988 or 1989, and saw Milton Glaser standing behind me, watching me trying to do a layout in Quark. Milton said, 'But Roger, you don't do this yourself, do you?'"

Mediabistro: It never occurred to the old guard to use computer then, did it?

Black: I don't think they ever did anything other than draw a little tiny picture and hand it to somebody. See, that's the difference, that was our generation break—back then you had the big master sitting in the big room, drawing those sketches for other people.

Anyway, Quark—through a series of coincidences—invited me to see if I could find ways of opening up the dialogue between them and designers. Because there's a new CEO there and there have been some big changes. And now they have competition.

Mediabistro: Adobe's InDesign is beginning to eat their lunch.

Black: Well, it's not eating their lunch, but it's nibbling at them. The fact is, they're really two different products, and I'm trying to engage both of them. I would love it if they would both do better. Competition is fantastic for us designers. Quark is very good for a template thing with style sheets, like a magazine. InDesign is better suited for a cover or poster—it's a graphic program as opposed to a word program.

Mediabistro: Do you feel designers are still limited by their tools at this point, or has that bottleneck finally been removed?

Black: Personally, I feel more inhibited by the operating systems than I do the tools.

I think that Windows and the Macintosh have the ability to have object-based application development, so Adobe, for example, could re-use the same typographical code, the same pixel editors, etc., so that every time that you wanted to edit the picture, the tools would just devolve. You wouldn't go into [Adobe] Photoshop, then into InDesign, then back again. The tool would be more object-oriented. You can sort of do it now in the Mac OS, but nobody has really developed it yet.

The most constraining thing is the software for optimizing output and figuring out how the color works together. Getting designs out the door is strangely underdeveloped.

I wrote a book in the early '90s called Desktop Design Power that sold a lot of copies, and by some miracle, I said it was all about Quark, [Adobe] Illustrator and Photoshop.

Mediabistro: You can brag that you called that one correctly.

Black: At the time it seemed obvious. But in '89, it wasn't obvious at all. Nobody knew what was going to happen. The fact that it's so stable and relatively predictable and calm is great, but I think we are long way away from the perfect set of tools.

The other thing is how to mix print with the internet, going back and forth between them. Right now the best thing we have is XML [the Extensible Markup Language], with which you can output content and bring it into another world. I'm very interested to see what comes up in this next era of internet stuff. I think it's going to speed up in the next five years. The media world would experience a sort of Diaspora, and everything will be always-on.

By the time I'm going to be ready to retire, these titles will be things of the past and people will be putting together their own media. Sometimes they'll just want to sit down and watch TV, or read a magazine, but there's going to be a lot more out there.

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

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