Working at Time magazine
A memoir written for Eye magazine, December 2011
It was good luck, really; Time’s art director, Walter Bernard, was looking for someone to do the magazine’s charts and diagrams when I walked into his New York office in September 1977, during a job-finding visit to the US. I freelanced for Walter for a while, and in December he offered me a full-time job.
For a very specific reason, it was an easy transition from England to America: Walter’s redesign of Time used essentially the same fonts—Franklin and News Gothic, plus a Times-like text face—that I had been working with in England, for David Driver at the Radio Times. Funny how type can help you feel at home.
At first, there was resistance from editors to my illustrative charts that accompanied their hallowed words. But Walter was breaking down the old ways at the magazine, and he became a terrific champion and mentor. When plenty of readers’ letters showed that they liked the stuff I was doing, editors became enthusiastic, too. The freedom I was given led to a few illustrative excesses on my part, but I knew that the general reader of Time was busy, and needed to be enticed to read stories, especially business stories, that might have been thought to be boring, and possibly overlooked.
Some readers did object; they thought I should stop doing charts and become a cartoonist. And there were academic critics. Edward Tufte, especially, hated what I was doing. The work gave him easy targets for his cleverly marketed career railing against what he called chartjunk.
It was the practice at Time for charts and diagrams to be drawn at twice the reproduction size. That made for some large (and heavy) artwork, with as many as 16 separate amberlith or rubylith overlays mounted on top of one sheet of mylar that had the key drawing on it. The whole thing was mounted on a thick cardboard base, ready to be couriered to the main printer in Chicago. The many overlays represented different colors, or tones of colors. There had to be three versions of each piece: one for the domestic edition (usually printed in full colour), and two for the international editions (printed in two colours in Europe, and black and white elsewhere in the world). I used Rotring pens and had a huge collection of plastic templates—ovals, circles and French curves—which meant that no line was ever drawn truly freehand. This was all pre-computer; Macs arrived at Time around 1985. Ironically, the drawing program I used when we did convert to computers was Freehand, and I still use it today (with difficulty, since Adobe won’t support it any more!) The mechanical way that I drew things pre-Mac was good preparation for drawing with a mouse.
There were several things that made working at Time wonderful. The first was that I had a great research staff dedicated entirely to the graphics. The second was that I had easy access to the writers and editors. I knew very little about how things worked in America, in either business or politics, and I used that lack of knowledge to initiate many discussions about the subjects I was charting. I found that some writers themselves had a hard time explaining the financial and business concepts they used, but in our conversations they often spoke in metaphors, and that led to simple visual ideas that explained what they were talking about.
A third factor was Walter’s new design for Time, in summer 1977. I wrote a sort of fan letter to him from England, and was surprised to see the letter on his desk when we met later that year in America. His format seemed so right for a newsweekly in that era, and I loved being alternately bound by the rules around the page, or literally breaking through them. In that, I was immeasurably helped by the art department’s page designers, who made the pieces crash elegantly through columns of type to really integrate them into the page.
We had very late nights—editors wouldn’t make up their minds until the last minute (nothing changes!)—but a shopping cart filled with bottles would wheel along the corridors every Thursday and Friday night, and we all had our fill of free wine, beer, whiskey, vodka—you name it—to go with the catered three-course meal that the magazine served up. It’s amazing that any work was ever done.
Oh, and I met my beautiful wife, Erin, there in 1985.