A founder of modern newspaper design: Louis Silverstein, 1919-2011

Louis Silverstein’s innovations at The New York Times brought about a sweeping change to how newspapers were read and organized across the country. His ascension to Assistant Managing Editor also signalled a new place for visual journalists in the newsroom, that of equal partners. The Times’ obit can be read here.

Silverstein was one of the faculty at the first Newspaper Design Seminar at the America Press Institute, held on July 16-20, 1978. Most of the founders of SND attended. The panel was a veritable who’s-who of modern news design. Beside Silverstein it included: Gus Hartoonian, Anton (Toni) Majeri, Edmund C. Arnold, Paul Back, Harold Evans, Rolf Rehe, Frank Peters, Ed Breen, Hayward Blake, George Delmerico and Peter Masters.

Silverstein was honored with SND’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. Design Journal issue 81 carried an account of the award presentation in Phoenix that year. His work was also featured in SND’s 25 Moment’s of News Design in 2004.

Silverstein joined the commentary for the 25th anniversary of SND in this video, produced for and presented at the SND San Jose Workshop and Exhibition in 2004:

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With the news of Silverstein’s passing, and upon review of his earlier writings about those early days at the Times, SND founder Phillip Ritzenberg adds:

Few designers would have had the magnetism required to win over the rigid, tradition-bound editorial executives of the Times in the late Sixties and Seventies.

Arthur Gelb, then Times managing editor, wrote in his marvelous book, City Room: “Abe (Rosenthal, executive editor) warned me to be wary of taking cues from ‘an ivory-tower artist like Silverstein.’ What did an artist know about making up a newspaper under deadline pressure?… Silverstein kept proposing ideas and Abe kept rejecting them…”

It wasn’t long before Gelb wrote: “After a while Abe and Silverstein began listening to and learning from one another. I also saw Silverstein in a new light, becoming gradually aware that his innovative designs had the touch of genius…”

Read more of Ritzenberg’s essay from a 2004 Design Journal article here.

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How people are remembering Silverstein around the industry

Richard Curtis, USA Today managing editor/visuals (ret.), and SND founder and past president: “Lou was always an inspiration, a kind and loving man, gentle, thoughtful and considerate of others. I will miss him. Oddly enough, I was thinking about him just yesterday and hoping to visit him in NYC.

I remember meeting Lou at API in 1978, at the birth of what would become SND. He was such an unassuming, approachable man despite being THE design “god”; I couldn’t believe I was in his presence. Among my most cherished possessions is a handwritten letter Lou wrote me in 2007, in which he recalled those early SND days and the occasions when our paths crossed. In his letter, he mentioned a project he was working on then, a compilation of all of (his) work, sketches, personal drawings, paintings, miscellaneous
projects as well as newspaper stuff in a sort of life story through graphics. I wonder if it was ever published?

The inscription he wrote in my copy of “Newspaper Design for the Times,” reads, in part: “It’s a high compliment to me that you have this book on your shelf. I admired your work many years ago at the American Press Institute, and I’ve been an admirer ever since.” That was just like Lou… to deflect attention from himself and, instead, make the recipient feel awfully good.

Lou once hosted me on a visit to The Times’ offices back in the late ’70s; we ate at Sardi’s restaurant IIRC. He was always the most gracious, generous and thoughtful man and always, always an inspiration. I will miss him terribly.

David Kordalski, Cleveland Plain Dealer AME/visuals and SND secretary/treasurer-elect: “RIP to a real man of vision. If not for Lou Silverstein, a major component of journalism — and the portion in which I’ve spent my career — would not have even existed.”

Neal Pattison, Everett Herald executive editor and former SND president: “By using his forceful character and well-grounded ideas about design, Louis Silverstein changed the New York Times — and with that accomplished, a post-war generation of editors was finally willing to think about visual communication.”

Satoshi Toyoshima, Assistant Graphics Editor at The Sankei Shimbun: “His book “Newspaper Design for the Times” has given me so many insights and ideas. RIP, Mr. Silverstein.”

Yuridia Peña (@yuridiapena): “Working with Mr. Lou was a gift from the journalism gods. I will truly miss him!”

Kyu Lee, Earth Institute, Columbia University: “I am completely distraught. I count myself among the many lucky people who knew Louis Silverstein. You will be missed.”

Steven Heller posted a tribute to Silverstein at Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers:

“Lou taught me more about journalism, dramatic presentation, cropping pictures, conceptual thinking and how to get ideas through a gauntlet of editors than any class in any school. Put a tracing pad in front of him and he went wild. Give him a litho crayon and he’d produce award-winning and newsworthy pages in minutes.”

Read the full tribute here: Louis Silverstein, Godfather of Modern Newspaper Design

We’re still gathering comments and tributes. Please add your memories and comments to this thread. More to come…

About Jonathon Berlin

is graphics editor of the Chicago Tribune and a past president of the Society For News Design.

7 comments

I am saddened by the passing of Louis Silverstein. I had the privilege to meet him twice, alas the third time will never happen. The first time was in Montreal during the mid-80s when I was Art Director at The Gazette. He gave a very inspirational presentation, and exhibition, in the magnificent Pavillon Sherbrooke. A few of us gathered around him afterwards, he was very amicable and talked about his work and grid system, influenced by artists such as Mondrian. I was inspired by his art, passion for the trade, and innovation at The New York Times. The year I was SND president, I proposed that he be given the Lifetime Achievement Award. It was accepted by the SND board of Directors. It was in 2001 that we honoured him during a reception in Phoenix Arizona. I had the pleasure to chat with him and his wife Helen afterwards, and she kindly invited me to visit his studio in their New York residence. I am so sorry that I never seized the opportunity. His legacy and vision will continue to inspire future generations.

I learned about what Louis Silverstein did when we put together the 25 influential moments in news design a few years ago.

What never stops amazing me is that in little more than a generation, leaders like Lou Silverstein — and the founders of SND — transformed news design from was essentially a factory to a key element in journalism, in helping people understand the news.

Look at what our friends at The New York Times can do today. That is in no small part because of the foundations built by Silverstein.

Today we have a new set of challenges: protecting Lou’s journalistic legacy, and our impact, livelihoods and future in a very challenging moment for journalism.

It’s good to know more and more about where we came from to help us aim forward.

When you think about what Lou made happen — for New York and the rest of the world — you cannot underestimate his ability to sell people on the craft, the inching in of things that might invite people into the experience of newspapering.

Lou helped see beyond news as traditionally defined and helped all of us see that news is all around us, in the way we live at home, or the sports we follow, or the simple experience of being human in a way that’s reflected in the culture we like (or loathe) and that it’s the newspaper, now the news site or any other amalgamation, that helps guide us to experience. Trust. That’s something. Isn’t it?

Lou packaged. That was his gift — and his legacy. I am happy we shared it with our industry.

Lou Silverstein was my mentor. He taught me almost everything I know about newspaper design and a lot about life, too. He noticed everything: the landscape, the way people interact, signage, colors, hotel china patterns. Lou used all of those things to give each New York Times paper that he designed a special voice – many with a southern accent. He knew that good design should reflect the environment around it – just like a good newspaper – and perform an elegant dance of form and function. Remembering Lou: http://www.americanpressinstitute.org/Blog/tabid/91/EntryId/67/Remembering-Lou.aspx

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