1 picture, 10,000 words: How “The New Yorker” is designed to lure you into longform reads

Chris Mueller and his team are the creative minds behind the look of The New Yorker. From commissioned illustrations to type treatments, Mueller strives to blend innovation with tradition week after week, honoring The New Yorker’s legacy while playing with fresh ideas.

From your days at Time Out to Esquire, Details, and Vanity Fair, you’ve worked at legacy magazines with an established readership. What challenges do face when trying to innovate at The New Yorker?

The New Yorker has been around for a long time and they have a very loyal readership. The smallest change can set off alarm bells, so we’re very thoughtful about what we do. We gradually introduce things, because people notice the smallest typographic change. For special issues, we often change the headlines, and people write in right away.

We don’t rush into any changes for the sake of change. There’s a real legacy there that we want to respect. We work things through very deliberately. That history is a bit of a challenge: it’s always present. But as David Remnick has said, [the magazine] is an organism, it’s a living thing, it’s not an artifact, so we try to change as often as we can. We’ve redesigned the Goings On listings and that’s been really successful. The website, our digital editions, and all the stuff beyond the printed edition needs to adapt more rapidly, and we’re able to do that.

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Is your job split evenly between print and digital?

Most of my job is assigning and directing art for the weekly, which then goes on to be on the website, all of the platforms. We spend a lot of time making our digital edition HTML-based, so the template for that is very thought-through. Our department is a well-oiled machine; they produce it without a hitch every week. It’s mostly the art that changes each week. That’s a challenge in itself due to space restrictions. We’re not like a normal magazine where we have several spreads of art and we don’t have secondary art. One image has to pull you in to read a 10,000-word piece. You have to get a very complicated idea across with that one image. If we have multiple people or multiple themes, that’s probably the hardest thing is using that one space to tell the story.

What’s the dialogue between the editorial and art departments for each feature?

It all depends on the writer and the editor. Sometimes we don’t have a piece until much later than we’d like. In a perfect world, we’d get a manuscript, we’d read it, we’d talk in the department, and brainstorm a bit. First we decide if it’s going to be a photograph or an illustration. And then if it’s an illustration, we decide who will do it, whether it’s conceptual, a portrait—there are so many ways to take it. Just tailoring the art to the piece can be a challenge. And the most fun. It’s interesting to be able to think about who’s going to be the best person.

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You have an amazing pool of talent to choose from: Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine...

Absolutely. [We work with] more and more new illustrators too—we really work hard to find new people.

How do you go about looking for new talent? Behance? Portfolios? Attending end-of-year shows?

Our designers see a lot of work, a lot of portfolios. I’ve found people on Behance. Looking around at other magazines, especially European magazines. Yeah, we’re looking at everything.

What’s a typical day like?

Every day is different. Every morning we have a meeting at 10 a.m. sharp with the art and photo department. We run through the issue we’re working on, and the next one. Also, whatever else is happening—any special projects, website, or social media. Anything that we need to produce that’s visual, we try and discuss.

How long is the turnaround for an issue?

[Working a few months in advance,] it’s a very loose line-up. Everything changes quickly. This morning I received a brand new piece for an issue that closes in a few days and I had to prepare. Things change constantly. It’s more like a newspaper than a magazine in some ways.

Issues are staggered. We typically start on a Wednesday. There’s front-of-the-book on Friday, then commentary closes late. I design the cover flap, which is shown on newsstands. That closes Thursday and I get the cover text to design on Wednesday night. I have Wednesday night to show the editor-in-chief three options on Thursday morning. They’re purely type-driven. They have to be graphic, just type, so it’s a challenge.

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Wednesday is a late night!

But it’s fun! I never know what it’s going to be. There’s always one main piece that they want to feature and I never know which one it’ll be until I see the text. I can’t even really prepare. It’s like a design test; you get a problem and you need to solve it really quickly.

Do you think it’s more difficult to design for a periodical that’s text-based?

In a way it is because it’s so minimal. You don’t get to do the cool opener with all of the great type that you would at some other magazines. You have one image and the type is really not a factor because it’s built into the template. You don’t have secondary art, so you really have to make the art you have work—you have to make somebody read that story.

I’m curious about the little images dispersed throughout the magazine...

The Spots? Those are called Spots.

They’re great! How are they commissioned? They relate thematically throughout the issue.

They’re assigned. For special issues, we assign them. We have a huge library of ones that had been assigned, but didn’t run. Every week we get to choose a few groupings to show the editor and he chooses. Yeah, they’re always different. Sometimes they are totally out there. People can build things, photograph things, constructions. They are really fun. We did some recently where the designer built little paper worlds and photographed them for the Journeys issue. They were really beautiful. I wish they could have been bigger.

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Talk me through how you create the art for the short stories in the Fiction section.

Part of the redesign that Wyatt worked on was to treat our fiction pieces as book covers. We’ve been doing that for just about two years now. Every week, instead of a photograph or illustration, we produce an actual book cover with type. And that’s probably the most rewarding thing I’ve done. It’s really fun.

We’ve used a lot of great book designers and done a lot ourselves. It’s a very collaborative project. We have photoshoots. Chris Curry from art and Siobhan Bonnacker from photography work on these, and our editor, Deborah Treisman, is great; she’s really receptive to ideas. I think everyone enjoys working on them. We get to do things we can never do anywhere else every week.