Q&A with NYT’s Tom Bodkin — SND Lifetime Achievement Award winner

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, SND’s highest honor.

The following is a Q&A conducted with Bodkin before the ceremony. Related: Additional quotes from industry leaders and a recap of the of the presentation

What’s your design philosophy? Has it evolved in your career at the New York Times? If so, what’s the biggest change?

For most of my career I’ve been a publication designer. My goals have been to use design to communicate and engage. My philosophy is very basic: make stuff that is functional, informative and appealing. Fortunately, those three attributes reinforce each other. And are so fundamental that they can be applied to everything we do, regardless of medium or technology.

As designs of other major publications have changed over the past 35 years, often radically and not for the better, how has the Times visual identity has been able to stay so consistent?

I’ve always believed that the visual identity of The Times is founded in the basic principles of our journalism – accuracy, clarity, balance, restraint. The appearance of our products should always reflect those enduring values. There’s a shared vision of purpose and tone, a sensibility that cuts across everything we do that assures a consistent look and feel. We are constantly adjusting to new technologies and changes in user behavior and expectations. But our visual identity is always informed by the fundamental goal of making our content accessible and engaging.

It’s amazing that you can look at NYT Page Ones from World War I and 9/11 side-by-side and they are unmistakably the same, yet each of its time. How do you art direct that?

See above. It’s all about infusing the organization with those basic principles and applying them to design. I spend a lot of time explaining how my design decisions reflect larger values in an effort to help others apply similar logic in addressing their specific choices.

Is there a piece of work you’ve been a part of that you would like to define your career?

Our coverage of the 9/11 attacks and its aftermath.

The Times’ 9/11 coverage really resonated with readers and the journalism community alike. It was the last unanimous Best in Show in SND’s Best of News Design competition (in all honesty, it actually ruined Best in Show for a long time because everything was held up to its weight and importance.) Why do you think it made such an impact? How has that influenced your big news coverage since then?

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, and our ability to assimilate those resources into a story of tremendous emotion and consequence. Through that sustained effort we learned a great deal about how to combine multiple assets — words, photos, video, sound, graphics — into coherent and compelling narrative.

The Times made a commitment to investing in a graphics department and that has paid real dividends for readers and journalism. How did the Times continue to add visual journalists to its newsroom when most of the industry was going in the opposite direction?

We have always been committed to using all available techniques to tell stories. Use of graphics dates back to our earliest days in the form of large, detailed maps depicting battles throughout the Civil War. As we developed more varied techniques of data visualization and illustrative explanation, we showed through compelling work, how effectively these forms could be used to tell stories. It became clear that if we were to perform our mission of providing news and information in the most effective and engaging forms, we needed to invest in people with those skills.

What is the photo-design relationship at the Times? Do designers take active roles in photo editing projects? Daily pages? Has that changed in your tenure?

Photography is central to visual storytelling and often a primary element of a design. Because of the scale of The New York Times and its daily output, responsibility for specific disciplines is distributed. And the level of excellence we demand sometimes requires people whose practice is narrowly focused. We are fortunate to have dedicated, and highly skilled photo editors who have primary responsibility for all of the photography used in our products. Optimally, photo editors, designers, and editors are all collaborating on the creative decisions central to good storytelling. One of the first changes I made when I became design director in 1987 was to bring editors, photo editors, and designers physically together on each news desk to facilitate that collaboration for daily news production.

What issues would you fall on the sword for? Is there a specific design, graphic, illustration or photo that you had to fight for that other editor’s didn’t “get” at the time?

There are fundamental qualities of excellence that I will never abandon, but what we do is so broad and complex that I find it impossible to narrow that to specific issues. Designers are often arguing for their point of view. That debate is central to a collaborative, creative process. An essential part of a designer’s role is to inject their conceptual and visual acuity into a larger process. There’s always give and take. It is sometimes a challenge for more literal, linear thinking colleagues to accept solutions that are more subtle or abstract. That’s where power of persuasion, trust, and a big title come into play.

The Times is the last U.S. paper to be named World’s Best Designed (2009) and has received that honor five separate times in the history of SND’s competition. What’s the secret behind the Times’ consistent run of being honored as the World’s Best Designed?

Always adhering to the principle of design in the service of communication. And a large, talented art department.

Web design in newsrooms didn’t operate under any/many rules in the early years. What was the biggest challenge for you in keeping the Times’ visual identity in platforms beyond the newspaper?

When we first began publishing on the Internet, our digital operations were run largely outside the newsroom. That structural divide, along with the technical limitations of early browser technology (e.g.: limited typographic control), made it particularly hard to create distinctive designs and maintain consistency. Integration of our newsroom and advances in technology has made it much easier to apply common standards across all platforms.

When you look at print and digital design around the world right now, how would you access the state of news design? Has there been a Golden Age in the past? Is it happening now?

Each era has its strengths. I’d have to say that the range of techniques and tools that digital publishing now provides makes this period incredibly rich and exciting for news design.

Who or what were particular influences on your work past or present?

Early in my career I was fortunate to have some incredibly talented bosses. Ralph Ginzburg, publisher of Eros and Avant Garde magazines was brilliant at identifying and exploiting the cultural memes of his day. Herb Lubalin, Ginzburg’s long-standing design collaborator, was one of the foremost designers of, and with, type. Lou Dorfsman, Vice President for design at CBS, was the archetypal, “Big Idea” art director. And Lou Silverstein, who hired me at The New York Times, was one of the pioneers who brought sophisticated graphic design to newspapers. In their own way, each of these men provided models that I used to form my own vision of creativity and excellence.

What was your biggest challenge in your tenure? Was color on A1 a big hurdle?

The prospect of color was a psychological challenge for our staff and readers rather than a design challenge. I knew that as long as it was applied following good graphic design practice – used to convey information rather than decorate – it would enhance the paper.

The biggest challenge is the ongoing disruption of our industry. From a focus on a single, long evolved product — the daily print newspaper — and an audience with well-established habits, we have moved into a world of continual advance in the technologies for storytelling and distribution, and the resulting shifts in user behavior. It’s our greatest challenge and opportunity.

So the next Tom Bodkin is reading this interview and looking for help as he or she is entering into journalism. What is your advice would you give that person?

Identify talented role models. Distinguish their strengths and weaknesses. Learn all you can by scrutinizing both.