Q&A with Deb Bishop of the 1619 Project

This past August marked the 400th anniversary of the beginning of slavery in the United States. To observe this moment in American history, The New York Times Magazine created the 1619 Project, a whole issue, as well as a special broadsheet section, that takes a look at the history of slavery in the U.S.

While many talented writers, photographers and designers worked on this project, Deb Bishop, art director of the New York Times Magazine Labs, helped spearhead the cover of the special broadsheet section.

With past roles at Rolling Stone, Martha Stewart and More, Deb is no stranger to creating impactful work in the magazine world. But she says working on the 1619 Project has been one of her favorite moments of her career thus far.

We sat down to chat with Deb about what it was like to work as a designer on such an impactful project.

How did you first become involved with the 1619 Project?

Well, Caitlin Roper (Editorial Director at The New York Times Magazine Labs) approached me and said, “We’re going to create something in tandem with the magazine for the first time.” We hadn’t really done that. Our content, other than kids, is usually driven by the magazine editors, Caitlin and Jake Silverstein (Editor-in-Chief of The New York Times Magazine). This was the first time we did something in tandem with the magazine, and that’s how I started. Gail Bichler (Design Director at The New York Times Magazine) and Ben Grandgenett (Deputy Art Director at The New York Times Magazine) created the actual design hook, meaning the typefaces we were going to use and just the general look. And, so, it was my job to sort of reengineer it a bit for the section and then create a separate cover.

With a project as big and as important as this, how do you even begin to tackle how you want to do visuals?

There had to be a clear delineation between what the magazine was doing and what the newspaper section was going to do. The section was all about the history of slavery, very much in tandem with the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. So, given that we were about the history, it was really important to show historical documents, but everything had to be very accurate. The visuals were tough in that we had to use archival, which isn’t always the best. We also couldn’t photograph whatever we wanted –– we could only photograph what they had in storage because we couldn’t get into the museum cases. So the curator came up with several items that we could photograph at the storage facility. We went there and had a photoshoot. It was really very moving and very emotional because of the subject matter and just seeing everything. We weren’t allowed to handle anything, but just seeing the physical objects and the size of them, in particular the child shackles, was really hard. It was very emotional.

The cover was a whole other ballgame. It was really difficult and such a sensitive topic that we had to be careful. I spent a lot of time coming up with things, and I searched around for a document that was particularly moving. In this case, it was this slavery poster advertising people for sale, which was really sad. I added a quote that Caitlin (Roper) had supplied me as a possible cover line, and just super imposing it on the cover in hopes that it would sort of modernize it –– but also make you stop and think, “Wow.”

What was your favorite part of helping to create this project?

I think that I would have to say that this is the first time I’ve been involved in something so meaningful. I mean, I worked for More Magazine, so I did tackle a lot of women’s issues, which are important to me personally. I just felt like I wanted to do something really powerful that would make people read it and look at it. I was really humbled. I felt like I really learned something. I felt like everybody in the United States and the world should go to that museum. I wanted to do something powerful that people would stop and actually read. Because the problem is, you know, this topic is the kind of thing people really don’t want to go there or acknowledge. It’s hard. It’s very hard. I wanted to make something that would make people see and make people want to read and be enlightened.

This project has garnered a lot of attention. How has it felt to have worked on something for so long and see your hard work pay off?

It was exhausting. I’m not going to lie. It was emotionally exhausting –– the subject matter, the time frame, everything about it. How do I feel? I feel good about it. I feel good that my graphic design abilities were put to a good use, you know? Oftentimes, people think that graphic designers just decorate the page, but I think that design is a very powerful tool. Design is very important to me, obviously, and so is the subject matter, but I think I was able to use those skills to really make something powerful.

SND has edited statements for clarity.

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