SND Honors NYT’s Creative Director Tom Bodkin with Lifetime Achievement Award

EDITOR’S NOTE: On April 11, at the conclusion of the SNDDC Workshop, The New York Times’ Creative Director Tom Bodkin was presented the Lifetime Achievement Award, — the highest honor given by the Society for News Design.

The following is the text of a speech delivered by Times Columnist Charles Blow (pictured below, who was formerly The Times’ Graphics Director.) Bodkin also delivered remarks, which are included. Related: Additional quotes from industry leaders and a Q&A with Tom Bodkin.


 

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Think of a brand that is instantly identifiable by its design. Apple may come to mind. Or Google. Starbucks is easy to spot.

Design is so intertwined with the company and its products they are inseparable.  Yet they are relative newcomers.

Few brands in the world could take work from the 1910s and the 2000s, put them side-by-side and expect some semblance of continuity.

Yet if you were to put The New York Times pages from World War I and September 11, 2001 side-by-side, you would find them both unmistakably the same but also of their own time.

You can only achieve that lasting brilliance and accessibility if your identity comes from a shared journalistic vision and values. You can only achieve that shared look across any platform if you are infusing your entire organization with basic principles and applying them to your design.

Accuracy. Clarity. Balance. Restraint. Four tenants that can guide you from hot type to pixels.

Tonight, the Society for News Design gives its highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award to a man who has championed visual journalism for the past 35 years; for outstanding work in print and digital design; for building a foundation of typography, illustration, photography, graphics and innovation that will stand the test of time.

Tonight, we honor Tom Bodkin for his lasting legacy in the field of news design.

Bodkin is a native New Yorker. He was editor of his high school newspaper and fell in love with design because, “Writing’s hard. Laying out the paper is more fun.”

He attended Brown University and designed the school paper. The cold-type newsroom gave him valuable experience and he eventually moved back to New York.

His early jobs were at magazines then the in-house design group at CBS.  In 1980, another design legend and SND Lifetime Achievement award winner, Lou Silverstein, hired him as Art Director of the Times’ Home section.

The following years brought several section redesigns and special editions of the New York Times Magazine. In 1986 he was part of a Pulitzer Prize winning entry for the Times’ coverage of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars Missile Defense program. In 1987, Bodkin became Design Director.

LYNN STALEY (past president of SND), who nominated Tom for this award, said:

“The paper has harnessed successive waves of new technology to grow a range of presentation vehicles, becoming in the process indispensable across multiple platforms. We are all lucky he’s provided such a robust model to observe and learn from.”

The Times was always a frequent winner at SND’s annual Best of News Design competition and in 1994, the competition added a new category: World’s Best Designed Newspaper. The Times was one of 24 newspapers recognized. It remained on that list four of the first five years. The Times reappeared again in 2009, and it’s the last time a U.S. paper has been on the list.

MICHAEL WHITLEY (Assistant Managing Editor, Los Angeles Times) said:

“The Times doesn’t follow trends, they don’t try gimmicks, they have never had skyboxes. Tom knows the wardrobe and they wear the clothes that fit.”

While the rest of the industry was frantically redesigning, The Times took the long view. Any time Bodkin made changes it was national news, including the introduction of color photos on A1 in 1997. (Can you believe that was a crisis? How much people were freaking out over a color photo?)

JANET FROELICH (Former Art Director and Creative Director, The New York Times Magazine) said:

“Tom is the brains behind the most dramatic changes in this wonderful newspaper’s graphic history. Tom understands and encourages great news design better than anyone on the planet.”

Bodkin continued to climb the newsroom ranks and said those bigger titles would often help as he fought for his staff. He was appointed to the masthead in 1994 and named AME in 2000.

WAYNE KAMIDOI (Art Director/Sports, The New York Times) said:

“One of the first things Tom told me when I started at The Times was: ‘I don’t know much about sports. I’ll trust you.’ Tom, though, does have the ability to direct when to throw the bomb or swing for the fences to visually emphasize – not distort – news value.”

The body of work that most defines Tom’s career is the paper’s coverage of September 11th. Bodkin said, “The magnitude and significance of the event demanded all of the skills and tools we could assemble. It allowed us to fully exploit the scale and depth of our talent.”

The graphics work the Times did after 9/11 won a plethora of awards and SND judges unanimously awarded it Best in Show (the first time the award had been given for graphics coverage.) In fact, it was so good, it actually created a problem for the competition.

The weight and importance of the Times’ 9/11 work all but ended the concept of “Best in Show” for a decade. Each subsequent year the best work was measured, for good or ill, against the Times’ effort. And nothing could measure up. That journalism, done at the highest level under horrifying circumstances.

ROGER BLACK (Consultant; former Director, Editorial Art, at the Times) said:

“The careful work Tom has done in print and in the digital media to build the visual brand of The New York Times was based on its great history. And I hope it will last a long time after its current readers are gone. A lot of news designers dropped the ball during this challenging time. Tom picked it up and ran with it!”

The tragedy of 9/11 showcased the Times commitment to investing in a graphics department while many newsrooms retrenched. How valuable was that investment? In the days after 9/11 government agencies used copies of The Times to learn which buildings and streets had power or water. The Times’ not only told the story, they provided an essential service when New York needed it most.

STEVE DUENES (Assistant Editor and Graphics Director, The New York Times) said:

‪ “The design standards that Tom Bodkin has established and maintained … sit comfortably alongside the most outstanding design achievements anywhere over the last 50 years. Tom never delivered a stylebook or list of rules to my desk. It was his work, his day-to-day judgments and the quality of his ideas that established the height of the bar.”

The biggest change for the Times came in 1996 with the launch of nytimes.com. Like most newsrooms, the digital component was originally separate, with a different staff in a different building. Eventually digital design director Khoi Vinh did report to Bodkin. And the print and digital operations began to merge.

KHOI VINH (former Design Director, The New York Times Online) said:

“The prevailing wisdom during my tenure at The Times was that the print side of the business had so much to learn from digital newcomers. However, I learned far, far more from Tom Bodkin —about being a designer, being a journalist, and being a person— than I could ever hope to teach him or anyone else.”

And, in 2003, when the company embarked on a typographical facelift, they made news again. As usual, the national scrutiny was high but the visual execution was spot on.

MATTHEW CARTER (type designer) said:

“I’m proud to have worked with Tom for a long time. We have the ideal relationship for a type designer with a client: I expect him to tell me clearly what he wants, and he expects me to do it. This mutual confidence, which sounds straightforward but is a lot rarer than you might think, has gotten us happily through the Cheltenhams (19 at last count, each with its own particular function in the headline dress)”

Over the past decade, The Times has experienced an era of unbridled digital expansion with new products, apps and social media branding. Revamped digital and print experiences were launched all the time. Snow Fall happened somewhere in there, followed by countless knockoffs and handwringing. And Bodkin, who was elevated to deputy managing editor, guided this remarkable period.

STEVEN HELLER (former Art Director, NYT) said:

“Tom Bodkin is a news design giant. He devotes his life to both radically altering and subtly refining everything from the typeface to the interface. He is arguably the quintessential news designer.”

In 2015, Executive Editor Dean Baquet named him Creative Director. He’s also the company’s first Chief Creative Officer, reporting directly to the CEO.

DEAN BAQUET (Executive Editor, The New York Times) said:

“Tom is a historic figure in American journalism. He taught us all that design is journalism.”

ARTHUR SULZBERGER JR. (Chairman of The New York Times Company and Publisher of The New York Times) said:

“As someone who has had the privilege of working with Tom Bodkin for 35 years — not to mention motorcycling with throughout the Catskills with him — I can tell you that Tom has been continually improving The New York Times since 1980. Tom is THE master of his craft whose deft handiwork is visible on every page of The Times, and across every platform.”

It is my pleasure to present Tom Bodkin with the Lifetime Achievement Award.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Some of Bodkin’s early biographical information and quotes came from an interview he did for the book Designing for the Editorial Experience: A Primer for Print, Web and Mobile by Sue Apfelbaum and Juliette Cezzar (both were speakers at SNDDC.) We thank the authors for permission to use it. 

TOM BODKIN’S REMARKS

Tom Bodkin remarks

“Thank you. I’m so very honored.

This achievement keeps evoking a Woody Allen declaration: “80 percent of success is showing up.” I’ve been showing up as design director of The New York Times for the nearly 3 decades.

I figure the other 20% is having curiosity and joy in what you do.

Here are some things I’m particularly interested in:

  • The fusion of form and function.
  • The intersection of art and science.
  • Why things happen and how they work.
  • How people consume and interact with information.
  • And these are some things I like to do:
  • Make things that are helpful, meaningful, and engaging.
  • Help people realize their potential.
  • Learn.
  • Be surrounded by smart, curious, stimulating people.

I feel very fortunate to have found a practice that so totally complements those interests.

And I’m grateful that after 2 decades of focusing on print, just at a time when I was getting a bit complacent, along comes this digital thing, giving me a whole new set of challenges.

My primary thanks goes to the members of The NYT art department who have unfailingly made me look good, and particularly to those who have helped me understand a new world of digital media, many of whom are here tonight.

I also want to acknowledge my four earliest bosses who instilled in me the deep and abiding sense of excellence that has always been my north star:

  • Ralph Ginzburg, who hired a college dropout and never stopped throwing responsibilities at him.
  • Herb Lubalin, who didn’t talk much, but created incredibly, articulate design.
  • Lou Dorfsman, who settled for nothing but the highest quality.
  • And Lou Silverstein, who showed that a good publication designer had to be a good editor.

A short guy like me could never have gotten very far without standing on the shoulders of these giants.

Thank you. I’m very honored.”