On Oct. 4, the New York Times Magazine sent a Donald Trump cover to the racks that made a splash online and in print. I caught up with Design Director Gail Bichler, asking her to share how her team found a unique twist on a such popular topic.
Alexandra Sieh: With Donald Trump’s rapid rise in the Republican race, it’s clear to see how this cover is appropriately timed. Can you tell us about how the idea came about?
GB: As you mention, the timing was crucial. Donald Trump has gotten an enormous amount of attention in the media over the past months. Mark Leibovich explains in his article that he had resisted writing about him because he thought the public’s fascination with him would fade. So one of the challenges with this cover was working with a very familiar face. With that in mind, we knew we wanted to do something with a point of view. It was really the only way to make a cover of Trump that people hadn’t yet seen. Very early on, in a discussion with our editors, the idea of the helium balloon came up. That seemed like an image with a lot of potential, but also one whose success or failure would rest in its execution.
AS: Tell us a little bit about the timeline for this project. What was the process like taking this cover from idea to reality? Who was involved in the process?
GB: The timeline was very tight. It all happened over the course of one week and was truly a team effort. We came up with the cover idea on a Thursday. Jason Sfetko, the magazine’s deputy art director, got illustrator Stanley Chow on board that same day. We really wanted to physically make the balloon rather than just creating the image in Photoshop, even though we knew it would be challenging within our time frame. Stylist Randi Brookman Harris helped photo editor Christine Walsh figure out the best way to get it manufactured quickly.
The hardest parts of the illustrative process were retaining Trump’s likeness while completely changing the shape of his face to fill the balloon and also adjusting for the distortion that occurs when you put an illustration on a curved surface. We had 25 balloons manufactured so that we could play around at the shoot with inflating them to varying degrees. A fully inflated rising balloon means something entirely different than a slightly deflated hovering or sinking one. Photographer Jamie Chung shot the balloon in a variety of different states of inflation and positions. The image we chose is a somewhat ambiguous by design.
AS: Needless to say, this is a minimalist approach to design, letting the art speak for itself. Why did you and your team choose to take that route?
GB: The idea to publish the cover without a headline came from our editor in chief, Jake Silverstein. Normally I’m all for less text and letting the art speak for itself. However, Jake mentioned this idea to me when we were still in the process of creating the balloon. I loved the thought of it, but I wanted to wait and see how closely the balloon resembled Trump. I worried that if the likeness weren’t an immediately read, the cover would fail. Once we got Jamie’s shots in layout, it was clear that the likeness was there, and the minimal route was the bolder and more memorable one.
AS: Setting your cover apart with what is (and will probably remain) a popular topic is always a balancing act for art directors and design editors, to find the line between extreme and too like everyone else. How did you / your team approach the challenge? Were there any other ideas in the running before landing on this?
GB: It doesn’t happen often, but the helium balloon was the first idea we had. Sometimes when something comes easily or quickly, there is a temptation to keep searching, but with the weekly schedule, there is no time for second-guessing. The thing I loved about the balloon idea was that the medium of the portrait would do a good amount of the work for us. Just portraying Trump as a balloon already said a lot. We discussed having the balloon floating over Trump Tower, but decided we didn’t need another layer. It was better as a pure idea with a simple execution.
AS: What is the visual philosophy behind the New York Times Magazine’s cover design each edition?
GB: The magazine comes out weekly, so we do 52 covers a year on a huge variety of topics. We try to do things that are appropriate and unique to each article and want the covers to be surprising and poster-like and to make a strong, often emotional connection with the reader. Simpler is usually better. This holds true now more than ever, when covers tend to make the rounds through social media before readers experience them in print.
AS: Have you received any feedback on the cover? What has the response been?
GB: The response has been mostly positive. People are responding to the humor of it.
AS: What is one piece of advice you can give those looking to tackle a popular figure or mainstream topic in a new way? Any tips on how to keep the design fresh?
GB: I find that these kinds of challenges can yield the most interesting results. There are times when you are forced to think differently, because not doing so means making something unremarkable. My advice would be to push yourself to take a stance or a risk. Fear of failure can be a powerful deterrent, but in my mind it’s better to make something bad than something predictable. And if the risk doesn’t pay off, there’s always the next one. That is one of the beauties of magazines.