Ron Gabriel: The (almost) Graduate

Ron Gabriel: The (almost) Graduate

Ron worked as a magazine art director until August 2009, when he left Hearst Magazines to pursue a MFA in Design from the School of Visual Arts. He worked for titles including Seventeen, New Woman, The New York Times Upfront, and CosmoGirl, as well as the international editions of Cosmopolitan, Harper's Bazaar and Esquire. We first hooked up with Ron when he was just beginning his two-year stint as a graduate student in SVA's Designer as Author program, so we wanted to check in again as he prepares to graduate.

What sort of changes have you personally experienced as the result of returning to the classroom as a grad student?

I've become much more aware of the design process, and where in the process I tend to fall short. Milton Glaser identified steps where people get stuck -- either in the search for the idea, the development, or in judging when to stop. It made a big impression on me. I came from magazines and was rewarded for working very quickly. But over time it made me shirk the development stage, because going down 'wrong' pathways was potentially a time waster. I'm getting better at going down pathways that have no clear payoff. Stefan Sagmeister stressed this and it helped me to see fear and uncertainty as positive states that lead to growth and inspiration. Now fear is a signal something is temporarily unfamiliar, but can be learned.

Other big changes include new awareness of stakeholders, "design thinking" as practiced by industrial designers, and recognizing how a given project can nod to past graphic design movements. It helps snap me out of a generic place.

You've been removed from all of the magazine industry craziness for almost two years now. What's your take, since you have a little distance on it?

It is remarkable to watch the intense pressure on the magazine industry. Advertising is back, but looks like ice on a frozen lake that could crack without notice. I freelanced over the summer at Cosmopolitan designing for the U.S. print edition and initial iPad prototyping and was struck by the intensity. Staffs are already lean, and transitioning to an iPad work flow on top of rigorous print deadlines is wildly difficult.

Since I entered school it seems like whole professions are in flux. Editors face a marketplace that gives away words like never before. Publication designers face a workplace where keeping up with deadlines and 'art requirements' for iPad enhancements can keep them from innovating or having a formative voice in the planning process. And programmers face a reality where digital tools are easier to use and widely accessible. It seems everyone must acquire more technical skills to be able to communicate credibly.

Regarding iPad direction, up to now print publishers have defined 'interactive' as DVD extras, while digital publishers define it as the ability of the user to rapidly customize their experience. The very different definitions present an exciting challenge to magazines as the tablet revolution moves forward.

Can you tell us about the SVA thesis process, as you begin to wrap up your project?

It starts with identification of a problem that needs fixing. From there, research must back up your proposal of a design solution. The proposal must define factors such as audience, competition, visual strategy, uniqueness and viability. Projects in the class range from actual physical products to ad campaigns to apps to web sites. Mine is a campaign to help New Yorkers transition to a shared streets culture after decades of bad habits and car domination that now clash with the widespread introduction of bike lanes. It started as a video-based project, but grew into an advertising campaign with a website home base.

And what's next after you walk down the aisle in cap and gown?

I'm grateful for the transformative recharge of the last 21 months. Now I would like to use new skills and new thinking. I envision magazine art departments with staff positions for their own tablet programmers and After Effects directors. Maybe they're already in's a new era. At least now I have a more informed sense of how much I don't know.

Ron-CarnivalPunk.jpgCarnivalPunk: 3D project for a politically-themed carnival exposition curated by Kevin O'Callaghan.

Ron-MairaKalman.jpgNewspaper spread designed for a Maira Kalman project. Ron had to follow strangers and document his observations.

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