“Wired’s” creative director Billy Sorrentino leads Condé Nast’s West Coast wild child

Mavericks in the Wild West used to be called cowboys. These days they’re called punk rockers. This, at least, is how the world of Wired is depicted by Billy Sorrentino, the magazine’s creative director.

In 2013, editor-in-chief Scott Dadich asked Sorrentino—then design director at Condé Nast’s editorial development group—to consider the same title at Wired. He got a firm no; Sorrentino wasn’t sold on San Francisco. Then he flew out for a visit.

“I saw the culture here,” says Sorrentino from his office overlooking South Beach Harbor, “and it’s beautiful. But more importantly I saw the team, and they’re just more real. It’s like a music magazine—there’s a punk-rocky mentality even though it’s a large magazine.” Before he returned to New York to work out his contract, he asked Dadich, “How quickly can we make this happen?”

wired-inhouse-design-billy-sorrentino-620

Sorrentino’s first move was consolidating the editorial arm: web designers, video team, and events, some of whom had been working in an entirely different section of the building. “We have to have full visual control over the brand, an equal amount of Wired-ness,” he says. Within four months he was given the title creative director and the team—with its bearded former skateboarder at the helm—became “the editorial brain trust of the group.”

“I feel freer being in San Francisco,” says Sorrentino in a perfect West Coast drawl. “Coming here was eye-opening because it’s completely not the Condé structure—there are still corporate meetings with mom and dad in New York, but being 3,000 miles away lets us not worry so much about what everyone else is doing.” It also maintains that punk-rock mentality. “And that’s good, because in the ’90s the Wired mandate was this punk-rock-tech pirate ship. That was its lifeblood.”

wired-inhouse-design-snowden-300   wired-inhouse-design-coal-300

Raised on fanzines in Virginia, Sorrentino is the latest creative director in a lineage that values design as much as editorial. “Art has as large a footing here as edit, and that rarely happens in this industry.” He calls WiredRolling Stone for the tech set,” and month on month the covers pretty much tell that story. Last year began with an NSA cover featuring an @ symbol morphing into a skull, followed by a euphoric Questlove, then a lump of coal, into Edward Snowden embracing the American flag. “And we don’t have to hire [Rolling Stone photographer] Mark Seliger to get there.”

To achieve that smart, headline-snagging design, Sorrentino imposes what he calls “wrong theory,” the practice of putting a seemingly perfect layout slightly out of whack to create a seductive tension. “We’re at our weakest, design-wise, when we’re safe.” For the magazine’s first sex-themed issue, he placed a tiny “okay sign” emoji with a finger pointing through it on a neon yellow ground. “You’d expect a million different sexy images before that one. Everything about it was wrong. We actually did 52 covers before it, starting with a traditional look and then chipping away at it.”

The workday begins in Sorrentino’s office, where he meets for an hour with his deputy, former Wired Italy art director David Moretti and Wired.com design director Dylan Boelte. That segues into an art meeting with the entire visual staff to discuss what will happen in the course of the day, week, and month across both print and digital.

“Then we divide and conquer,” says Sorrentino. Each designer gets a task, but nobody owns any particular page. “We share everything.”

By 5 p.m. the team has reconvened to present the day’s work to Dadich and his editors—Minority Report-style. “We have a bank of touchscreens with custom software from Adobe that allows us to drop in our layouts, so we can solicit feedback and understand our next steps based on that.” When an editor is traveling, he presents with a PDF or via Pinterest. “We have a ton of secret Pinterest boards,” says Sorrentino, “where we share everything from inspiration to new photographers and spitball ideas.”

The no.1 challenge to the team’s health is burnout. The traditional four-week magazine cycle has long been padded with web news, video content, merchandizing, and events. “There isn’t downtime any more,” says Sorrentino. “It feels much more like a weekly—that’s our pace and not everyone can hang with that.” It’ll get worse before it gets better. “We’d love to do two or three videos a day rather than a week. The opportunity to scale is here.”

It sounds less like aspiration and more like inevitability. “On the team there’s not a single person who’s lazy,” says Sorrentino. “Those folks seem to weed themselves out.”