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Design Spotlight: Emily Crawford

Travel + Leisure's design director talks about the advantages of working in a start-up, New York magazine culture and meritocracy in the industry

By Greg Lindsay - February 1, 2005
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Emily Crawford would like you to know that she never went to art school, never wanted to be a designer, and that, truth be told, typography isn't exactly her strength. Not that any of those things stopped her from ascending to the design director's post at Travel + Leisure last year after Luke Hayman decamped to revamp the Adam Moss-ified New York magazine. Crawford, 35, received her design education in the Boston trenches of Fast Company's art department during the magazine's early days, when she, her boss and mentor Patrick Mitchell, and a handful of other staff scrambled to paint the excitement and idealism of the late '90s boom even as issues kept swelling in size. After her trial by fire (and after she and her colleagues won a National Magazine Award), Crawford moved to New York, serving a stint at The New York Times Magazine before landing at Travel + Leisure, where the devotion to visuals and commitment to striking photography has played to her strengths as a designer.

Mediabistro: You're only 35, you never had formal training, you haven't been at the magazine for very long, and yet you're already at the top of the masthead, and at the top of your profession. Why do designers have more mobility up the masthead than editors, and more latitude to jump from one magazine—or magazine genre? Do designers simply care less about politics than editors do?

Crawford: I think it's ultimately more of a meritocracy. There seem to be more people who have become very successful as art directors or designers who don't have formal training for it. If they happen to be talented and visually astute, it doesn't matter if they went to law school.

If anything, having that diversity in their background is a bit of an asset. The higher up you get in a magazine as a designer, the more involved you really are in the creation of the editorial. You're not just looking at making things pretty and solving visual problems—you're contributing to the ideas behind the stories. The people who are most successful in the field are able to straddle those things. I'm kind of jealous of people who went to arts school and knew early on what they wanted to do, because I fantasized early on in my career about working on these utopian projects without limitations and really having fun. At the same time, I've heard that art school can actually be quite limiting because you don't get as solid an education as you would at a liberal arts school.

It's also weird because of the musical chairs aspect of it. I never really understood that before I moved to New York. The only real magazine I ever worked at was Fast Company, and I was there for six years. Maybe it was just the special circumstances of Fast Company—it was a start-up, well-timed, massively successful, and it was a good group of people. It was really fun to be part of a movement, and I didn't get how a creative director would be at one magazine for a year and a half, and then suddenly everything would shift and everyone would jump to other places. Now I get that more because I think it's very easy, actually, to fall into a visual rut. You can only bring so much to the subject matter in a magazine and you can only do so much with the editor you're working with. There's a shelf-life, or a half-life. It gets tired after a while, and simply by virtue of a new set of eyes looking at the content, a magazine can be pushed forward. So, that makes more sense to me now.

Mediabistro: Travel + Leisure has a strong visual identity—it hasn't gone through a lot of redesigns. How much of a personal stamp have you put on it? How much more would you like to put on it? And how much longer is it until that look starts to go bad?

Crawford: Actually, Luke Hayman did a major redesign when he started. Pamela Berry was the creative director before him, and she did amazing things with the photography—she's the one who really elevated T+L to the reputation of a this very sophisticated, almost fine art photography publication. You could tell that was her focus, and when he came in, his goal was to continue that, maybe update and modernize it and make it energetic, but also focus on all of the useful information contained in the magazine, the guidebook aspect. We just finished a tweak of the front of the book, but I'm basically sticking with the redesign that Luke did. At the same time, I do have a slightly different aesthetic, and I'm trying to bring us back to emphasizing the photography and just making it as beautiful as possible. I think it's evolving. I don't know whether I'd say that I've put my stamp on it.

Mediabistro: What about your personal shelf-life at the magazine? Are you mentally already en route somewhere? Or are you personally and intellectually engaged by the magazine's contents?

Crawford: I feel very lucky because I've always loved travel as a subject, and I'm very drawn to photography in general and always loved looking at T+L when Pamela Barry was there. I feel pretty spoiled in being able to work in a place where every story is like opening a Christmas present when you open the photos. I find it really stimulating just to work with such good photographers and figuring out a way of really showcasing them. I've also only been in this position for six months or so, and I'm still learning and getting used to it. And now I have the ability to make changes and fully evaluate how we can keep making the magazine better and better. I think that right now, we're beginning to build momentum on what we're doing, we've put out some pretty strong issues, and we're trying to set higher standards for ourselves

Mediabistro: What's it like being a first-time design director? What went through your mind when you realized you were calling the shots from now on? And how did that affect your management style?

Crawford: Well, I've always been pretty bossy, so it hasn't really changed much in terms of leadership except that people have to listen to me. (Laughs) Once you're in the number-one position, it's a major shift. You are much less hands-on in terms of the design. You're working on the cover and maybe one or two features if you're lucky. The rest is overseeing and directing everyone else and being in a lot of meetings, doing a lot of administrative and corporate stuff. Frankly, it's draining. It's a lot to juggle. I'm running around, troubleshooting and helping out the other designers and sitting in meetings pretty much all day, and it isn't until 7:30 p.m. that I sit down and can actually focus on maybe designing something.

Mediabistro: You entered the field through an old-fashioned apprenticeship, coupled with working in a start-up. Looking back on that now, would you recommend that path to other young designers, or do you wish you'd had a more gradual acclimation process?

Crawford: Now, more than ever, I realize how lucky I was to have fallen in with Pat Mitchell and how much he did for me, taking on this kid who didn't have much experience but was very eager. I think that was one of the best ways to learn the craft.

When you're working at a magazine, there's all these different elements at play. You have to really collaborate with the writer, and there's the business side, and there are all these compromises you have to make. There are limitations and constraints you must work within, and you really are problem solving, while at the same time, you want to do the strongest work you can. You're not going to learn that in school; you have to experience it in order to get the hang of it.

The corporate thing was really pretty strange at first. Fast Company was not run like a normal magazine, and we were in Boston, so we felt kind of very far away from the New York publishing world, and I still feel sometimes like I'm in the thick of it here and it is an adjustment.

Mediabistro: Speaking from the view of a bona fide outsider, what else doesn't make sense about New York's magazine world?

Crawford: Let me see. Well, one thing that I think editors at a lot of more traditional publications—and I'm not talking about T+L—is that a lot of editors don't give the creative directors the space to do as good a job as they could. At Fast Company, the editors were smart enough to realize that Pat really understood what they were trying to do, and that he was the expert at the visual things, while they didn't really know what they were doing on that front. So instead of trying to kind of control what he was doing they gave him space. We've had much more freedom than I've experienced at a magazine in New York. And as a result we were able to do much stronger work. I don't know whether this is because there's so much money involved. When you're deciding on a cover, you've got a publisher and much more corporate involvement, as opposed to the art director and the editor deciding on what makes the strongest visual and editorial message.

Mediabistro: Do you think designers over-rely on a particular component of the typography + photography + illustration equation?

Crawford: The good ones don't, and there are a lot of good ones out there. But it has to be a combination.

Mediabistro: Which do you feel most comfortable with?

Crawford: I think my typography is at the bottom. I feel very insecure about it. I think it's something that you work your whole life at getting better at, and maybe I'd feel more comfortable if I'd gone to art school.

Mediabistro: How much of what you do is art vs. science then, and is that part of the art?

Crawford: Yes, without a doubt. It's funny, I'd like to think I'm pretty good at conceptualizing visual treatments for stories. If there's a tricky, more idea-driven piece, I enjoy the challenge of figuring out a way of illustrating that. At the same time, I love photography, which can be a lot more straightforward. I feel very lucky, because Fast Company was definitely more idea-driven stuff, and here at T+L the majority of it is just creating really beautiful, compelling layouts with these great photographs.

Mediabistro: Do you need to be personally interested in the subject matter of your magazine? Could you master every different magazine format—women's service, celebrity weeklies, a laddie book—if you put your mind to it?

Crawford: For me, it's really important, and I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing. I have to have some sort of personal stake in the editorial content. I don't think that I could, although there are a lot of magazines…

Mediabistro: Would you go back to a start-up at this point?

Crawford: That's a really good question. Because when I started working at a start-up I didn't have much to lose…

Mediabistro: And now you're a known quantity. You're a design director.

Crawford: Exactly. And I'd love to work at another start-up—I love the excitement, and the energy, and the kind of collaborative workplace that is part of a start-up, but it would have to be something that I was really, really, excited about to take that risk.

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

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