Rob Covey receives SND’s Lifetime Achievement award

Rob Covey

Rob Covey was presented with SND’s highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 37th Annual workshop in San Francisco. Here are the remarks of presenter David Kordalski.

Way back in the mid-80s, I was a budding designer with no training, no art director and little inspiration. I set about to understand the craft through some well-thumbed copies of early SND annuals and Design Magazines.

One paper consistently caught my attention: The Seattle Times. It caught the judges’ attention, too, as the Times was one of the most highly awarded papers of that era.

It was clear that the Times had developed the structure and mechanism to put visual journalists right in the middle of the newsroom mix. The result was a paper that guided readers through every page with clarity and concision.

I found a mentor in those annuals and articles, yet I’d never met him: Rob Covey.

Long before his work wove a spell on me and countless others, Rob had already cast his shadow on our industry as one of SND’s founders.

Leader. Coach. Talent scout. Innovator. Advocate.

And more than 30 years later, he’s still designing top-flight magazine and digital products.

So today, I am thrilled to announce that the Society for News Design is awarding Rob its highest honor — the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Rob’s professional career features an impressive list of publications and websites:

  • The Arizona Daily Star
  • The Seattle Times
  • U. S. News & World Report
  • The Discovery Channel
  • National Geographic
  • Science

Covey’s SND resume is equally impressive. He was at the 1978 API conference that led to SND’s founding, and has served as secretary, treasurer, vice president and president. He’s run the competition — twice — and in fact he played an integral role in its inception as a key member of the very first competition committee.

Rob’s news roots — and his embrace of new platforms — run deep. In fact, you could say it’s in his DNA. His father worked in radio news and sports in Iowa, jumping to the then-new platform of television in the early 50s in Rob’s birthplace of Des Moines.

When the family moved to Phoenix in 1959, the elder Covey helped put together a local NBC TV news operation there too.

Rob entered Occidental College as a fine arts major but soon switched to political science, eventually leaving to study architecture at Arizona State.

While at ASU, he began to do political cartoons for the Arizona State Press newspaper on campus and then became the political cartoonist for the launch of The New Times.

He spent some time as an art director at a PBS station in Phoenix, but the print bug had bit him. Soon after, he “wangled” — his word —his way into the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson as an illustrator and graphics guy.

Working in Tucson helped light the fuse of his philosophy of teamwork and inclusion.

Soon after, he moved to Seattle. And the design world took notice.

SND past president Lynn Staley said, “Rob was a leader in the fight and a treasured ally as we all set to work redrafting the meaning of journalism to include presentation in all its forms.”

Former Washington Post art director Michael Keegan adds, “It was a goal of many a young designer to work for Rob Covey.”

In 1979, not a single page of the Times was done in the art department. Within a year, all of the fronts and projects were.

Covey wrote a stylebook, institutionalizing standards for structure, image play and typography. The paper re-sectioned, re-imagined and re-invigorated its design. His groundbreaking work helped fuel the design revolution.

But the fact that the Seattle Times gave a full voice to artists, designers and photographers as equals to reporters is Rob’s greatest legacy.

Covey changed the Times culture and shared his methods through SND seminars, articles and plain old conversations. And his formula worked well.

Chris Johns, then a picture editor and special projects photographer at the Times recalls, “My first day at the paper I met Rob Covey and immediately knew I’d love working with him.  He was everything I value as a colleague: talented, energetic, full of ideas, bold, positive, driven by excellence and a wonderful team player and collaborator.”

Rob simply says, “My contribution has been to assemble the right cast and find ways to support them and allow them to do their best work.”

While in Seattle, Covey gave his time and ideas generously to SND. He hosted the SND competition, not once, but twice.

SND two-time president Phillip Ritzenberg recalls Covey bravely volunteering to host the second edition. “He put together a really nice competition —without an executive director, student slaves or an army of volunteers. Five judges (yes, five). And hardly any money.”

“If you have the annual you can see Rob’s generous intro and the marvelous panel of judges we managed to assemble, especially as an organization that nobody ever heard of.”

For the seventh edition, Covey innovated with a documentary-style film of the judging, opening up the process to the SND rank and file and ushering in a level of transparency not found in most journalism competitions. That notion of transparency is still a key operating principle for SND’s competition.

In 1989, Covey took a job as art director for the design-challenged U.S. News & World Report.

Ultimately, the opportunity to leave a positive mark on another underperforming design appealed to Rob. “I’m a “fixer-upper kind of guy,” he says.

And how does a fixer-upper go about doing that? Covey explains it this way: “My own design process is straight from architecture: problem definition, Information gathering, analysis, brainstorming, prototyping, testing and finally implementation. And then circling back to evaluate again.”

Others, like Michael Keegan, attribute it to Covey’s nurturing leadership style.

“One of Rob’s great strengths has always been his ability to create an environment that allows innovative design to take place.”

Still others, like Temple University professor and former CNNPolitics.com editor Bryan Monroe, are more succinct: “I can safely say I would not be where I am today without Rob Covey!”

Jeff Glick, then the U.S. News graphics director, says, “We created some wonderful explanatory graphics, and it was all because Rob was fantastic at getting us pumped up, setting us in the right direction and then letting us go.”

Mike Ruby, executive editor of U.S. News, says, “Rob made miracles on a weekly basis. He is, quite simply, one of the best.”

In 2000, Rob moved to the online world with ever-increasing levels of responsibility at the Discovery Channel’s iMedia division.

Designer Greg Harris puts it this way: “He is a creative genius in every aspect. He implements exquisite designs and conjures up user experiences that are timely and timeless.”

From Discovery, he was off to National Geographic, taking charge of the creative vision of the online magazine. Quickly, he assumed a wider role as Senior VP of Content and Design for all of Nat Geo’s Digital Media.

Chris Johns, now Chief Content Officer at National Geographic, recalls, “Thankfully, I talked Rob into coming to National Geographic. Rob got us on track by hiring superbly talented people and moving forward quickly in smart innovative ways.”

At every point in his career, Covey and his teams have collected scores of accolades and acclaim from a number of organizations, including landing two papers on SND’s World’s Best list in the same year.

But he gets the biggest kick that his team at National Geographic were finalists for the American Society of Magazine Editors National Magazine Awards — the Ellies — nine times, and took top honors three times.

Rob speaks proudly, too, about serving as the launch point of Geographic’s wildly successful Your Shot online audience. It now is one of the most important assets for both its audiences and images, accounting for over 700,000 members and 6 million user-supplied pictures.

He briefly served as publisher for Daily Interactive Networks before moving to his current job as Chief Digital Media Officer for The American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A testament to a good leader is often demonstrated by a colleague’s willingness to work with and for him again and again — and again.

Tim Appenzeller is such a colleague, working with Covey at U.S. News and Geographic before joining him as the News Editor at Science.

Tim says, “Rob does so many things so brilliantly that it might be easier to say what he doesn’t excel at. He brings elegance and taste to print, invention and excitement to online. He loves a great story as much as he loves great design.”

Still the innovator and advocate for audience engagement, Rob has just launched a new short-form video competition for Science called “Data Stories.” It, of course, looks fabulous.

In the digital space, Covey hasn’t strayed from his core principles of using smart design, images and typography and then getting out of the way of the content.

Rob explains his simple formula for success: “Great reporting, photography, typography, graphics — all working together to engage and hold our readers. Not much different than today except for the tactics to get all that done.”

Through it all, Rob’s friends and colleagues admire him for his ability to balance a remarkable career with life beyond the job.

Fellow Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Richard Curtis explains that appeal. “Rob has a terrific sense of humor. He’s an avid bicyclist. He stills paints. He is married to the wonderful Karla Brandt, and they have two children, Alexis and Charles.”

U.S. News alum Jerry Sealy speaks for so many who have been lucky enough to have Rob touch their lives:

“What a smart, eloquent, generous, graceful, creative, man. He made me a better designer. He taught me to think like an editor. He’s the boss.

And no one wears a bow tie better than Rob Covey.”

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s with great pleasure that I present SND’s Lifetime Achievement Award to Rob Covey.