This really wasn’t the plan.
Back in college, Josef Reyes thought his path to success lay in architecture. “It seemed to be the only professional route,” he tells us. It was only when his academic advisor signed him up to a graphic design course that he saw another world and, evidently, a new direction. Now, Reyes is one of the most accomplished and sought-after art directors in the publishing industry. Having worked on titles such as The New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, and most recently, Wired, he finds himself in what seems to be his most challenging title yet—the global finance monthly Bloomberg Markets Magazine, which he admits is “a world that doesn’t easily lend itself to the most compelling imagery.” But Reyes knows a thing or two about venturing into new worlds, as can be gleaned from his exchange with Rogue Editor-in-Chief Jonty Cruz over a series of emails. Here, he talks about the current state of design, the battle between print and digital, and his pick for the best magazine today.
Did you always want to be in design?
Growing up, I was very interested in visuals—drawings, comics, movies, etc.—but I wasn’t interested in becoming an artist. I started off studying architecture because it seemed to be the only professional route that catered to the visually inclined, yet practical-minded. Going into my second year, my academic advisor signed me up for a graphic design elective course and I ended up becoming much more absorbed by it than I was with architecture. I didn’t set out to become a designer so much as I stumbled my way into it.
How did your education at the School of Visual Arts mold you?
What I most appreciated about SVA’s Graphic Design program was its lack of dogma. Teachers were encouraged to pursue their own approaches rather than adhere to an overarching doctrine as some design schools do. This meant that in a single school day, you might attend a class taught by a modernist, another by a classicist, and another who is neither. This allowed students to compare approaches and figure out what they felt worked, what didn’t work, and, after going through all that, formulate their own methodologies.
How did your personal zines and poster designs help you in your career?
I lived in Jersey City while I was at SVA. I was intrigued by the city and wanted to understand it better, but it seemed to get very little coverage; next-door New York City got the lion’s share of attention, of course. Nonetheless, I did know of other folks who were much more intrigued and vocal about Jersey City than I was. Around the same time, I was also becoming interested in the notion of designers moonlighting as publishers. It made a lot of sense—because designers are skilled at using mass communication to benefit a paying clientele, they are already empowered with the best means to circulate their own ideas. I already had some experience with designing and printing publications, so I felt I had what was needed to become a publisher myself. I reached out to the writers, bloggers, and artists who were already talking up Jersey City and proposed joining forces to spread the gospel via our own little magazine. We first called it Take—because it was free—for two issues, then we renamed it to Conveyer, referencing the city’s industrial past, which lasted for another two issues.
I learned a lot while working on that project, which was good because my school work suffered from the diverted attention! I learned that if you bring people together for a collective effort, you need to be crystal clear about the goals and absolutely sure that everyone is in agreement on it. I failed on that count and, regrettably, certain relationships crumbled as a result. On the other hand, I also discovered the power of magazines to attract like minds. Sending out into the world something concrete that forcefully expresses a point of view will draw in people with sympathetic interests. One of them was Arem Duplessis, at that time the art director of The New York Times Magazine, who met with me and ultimately led me to my first job: freelancing at his magazine. Looking back, the work I’ve been doing for the past 12 years in magazines traces a direct line to that Jersey City project.
This all brings to mind the value of having personal projects separate from client-driven work. A designer’s most important asset is a distinct way of seeing, and it’s through linking our deep interests to our design work that we’re able to arrive at a sensibility, an approach, and a motive that’s most unique to ourselves.
You’ve also done work in advertising. What are some of the similarities and differences between ads and print, and how did your time there help in your print career?
They’re similar in the broad sense that both deal with visually expressing messages aimed at a particular audience. The difference is that the commercial and profit motives are front and center in advertising, so there’s far more attention paid to the audience. What most impressed me in that world, however, is the amount of effort directed toward client service—how to best navigate the client’s political make-up and how to effectively manage their expectations. From my time in advertisin,g I learned that half the battle is won by handling people the right way.
How did you get into New York Magazine?
I was referred by an old boss at The New York Times Magazine, where I had previously freelanced, to Chris Dixon, New York’s Design Director at the time. The magazine industry in New York City is a very small world.
What were some of your most memorable projects during your time there?
On the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, New York published a special issue looking back on that day and the decade that followed. I developed a design for this issue that gathered essays, photographs, infographics, and marginalia in an encyclopedia format. Working on this issue felt very special as we were the hometown magazine reflecting on the most consequential event for our hometown readers. The issue won awards for editing and design at the American Society of Magazine Editors and the Society of Publication Designers.
Another memorable experience for many of us in the staff was our work on the Hurricane Sandy issue in 2012. That hurricane hit on a Monday and by Tuesday, the city was in disarray. We then had the remaining three days of that week to create an issue about the storm and its aftermath. The magazine’s building in Lower Manhattan had no power, so we relocated to a Midtown office where the entire staff had to crowd around a conference table, sitting elbow to elbow. That situation was such an ordeal but, because the workflow was so concentrated and the subject matter so immediate, it felt like magazine-making at its purest.
What was it like working at Wired and learning from its creative team? How did your design sense grow from New York to Wired?
New York and Wired have very contrasting design approaches—New York leans more toward the classical, while Wired is heavily stylized. None of the work I’d done till that point looked like anything that Wired did, and this made me question whether I was even qualified to be there. That fact, however, was also why I wanted the job in the first place. It’s very important for us designers to continually challenge our own tendencies and try methods you might not pursue on your own. I still prefer a more classical approach, but it’s now very much modulated by non-classical techniques I picked up at Wired.
What were some of the biggest challenges and lessons you learned in your first few years?
The first important thing a magazine designer will learn is how to “see”—everything from how the spaces between letters and words improve or deteriorate the reading experience to how the selection and sequencing of photographs enhances or detracts from the story. You learn to see from the micro, macro, and every scale in between. Beyond the visual aspects, you also learn how to work with people: editors, writers, illustrators, photographers. A magazine is the end result of negotiations, compromises, arguments, and agreements. You won’t be able to simply ram your personal agenda through that gauntlet—you have to rally others to your cause, fight for your ideas when necessary, and, most importantly, know when to back off. You learn that you not only design the magazine, but also design the process of collaborating with others on the magazine.
What’s it like working at Bloomberg Markets?
I’m currently art directing a magazine about global finance, and I knew little about global finance when I joined the company. I believe this to be an advantage, though, as it gives me an outsider perspective, having no preconceived notions about how this world is traditionally visualized. It’s a bit of a challenge because we’re trying to create images of a world that doesn’t easily lend itself to the most compelling imagery, but that’s what makes this job interesting.
How has print design changed over the last few years, given the rise of digital publications?
The growing importance of digital media now requires the creation of assets that can function across multiple platforms. The artwork not only has to work on a page, but also on a phone screen, on video, and on social media. Assets can no longer be strictly bespoke, but rather, “one size fits all.” I don’t think this is always a good thing, but a great thing that has come out of these developments is that, in an effort to differentiate from digital, more attention is paid to the satisfying material aspects of print. The printed magazine is more of a luxury object now than it ever was.
What do you think magazines or the print industry can do to stay relevant and keep afloat?
What the best magazines all share has little to do with the medium: it’s a compelling point of view that their readers buy into. This is a precious asset in a rapidly segmenting world. People need to feel like they’re part of a tribe and also have the means to signal these affiliations. I believe magazines can satisfy this demand and therefore stay relevant by ensuring that their point of view remains compelling and is expressed consistently through products—print or otherwise—that are distinctive and memorable.
What are some of the biggest innovations you’ve seen in print design over the years?
Designers have been pouring much effort into amplifying the tactile qualities of print. I think the best example right now is Rubbish magazine from Singapore, whose issues have come in the form of flower presses and Chinese takeout boxes. The more media is digitizing, the more printed magazines have become materially interesting.
There’s a current design trend now toward more subdued, minimalist magazines, as seen in titles like Fantastic Man, The Gentlewoman, and Kinfolk. What, in your opinion, are this trend’s biggest successes or faults?
In the right hands, minimalist design can convey discipline, sophistication, and clarity, but in the wrong hands, it will feel dull and unconsidered. I do find the ubiquity of this style to be exhausting, but it’s not actually the style that I find troublesome. If a magazine uses minimalist design because it’s the sharpest expression of their editorial approach and it tries to create surprising things with the design, as both Fantastic Man and The Gentlewoman do, then it doesn’t matter that it looks similar to plenty of other magazines. The problem is when a magazine’s minimalism is purely arbitrary. So it’s not the overuse of the style per se that I think is problematic, but how the style is used.
What are some of your favorite magazines today, and what do you like most about them?
The California Sunday Magazine has to be the best American magazine right now. There’s a cinematic quality to the reading experience that’s achieved through visual storytelling developed across numerous pages. I also love Zweikommasieben, a Swiss magazine on electronic music and club culture. Its design is firmly rooted in the International Typographic Style, which emerged from Switzerland in the 1950s and established the dominance of Helvetica, but in a manner that constantly flouts those rules. Zweikommasieben is faithful to its Swiss context, but is also trying to transform it. In a similar vein, I really admire what Chris Dixon has achieved at Vanity Fair over the past six years that he’s been there. That magazine has such a strong visual identity that can never be altered. Nonetheless, Chris has managed to evolve, refine, and make his own mark within such heavy constraints. It’s much easier to “think outside the box” than it is to work within it and still create something surprising.
What’s it like designing for print and digital? What are some of their biggest differences and similarities?
We consider something to be well-designed when it’s tailored to address very specific conditions, and this is where the difference between print and digital emerges. In print, you deal with a single fixed value—the trim size of the magazine—which allows you to create assets such as photographs, illustrations, etc. that are specially molded for it. Digital media, meanwhile, requires assets that can work well across a multitude of sizes, orientations, and devices. Print is absolute, while digital should be responsive. In both instances, the end goal is to create reading experiences that are coherent, cohesive, and distinctive.