Q+A | Deb Bishop and Geraldine Hessler

Q+A | Deb Bishop and Geraldine Hessler

Deb Bishop and Geraldine Hessler are two of the most successful and talented magazine designers working today. Deb worked at Martha Stewart Living for more than 10 years, winning accolades for her hugely popular and influential work for Martha Stewart Baby, Martha Stewart Kids, and Blueprint, nabbing an unprecedented three SPD Magazine of the Year Gold Medals. Geraldine Hessler began her career at Rolling Stone before stepping out on her own at Entertainment Weekly, first as Art Director and then as Design Director in 1999. Her work has been included in ASME's list of the 40 Most Influential Magazine covers of the Last 40 Years. Both Deb and Geraldine have full award shelves (from SPD, the AIGA, TDC, and ADC and now find themselves both at new gigs this summer: Deb as Creative Director for More and Geraldine as Creative Director of Glamour. I recently invited them to chat about their new roles and the fresh challenges they face.--Scott Dadich

Both of you are starting new jobs after hugely successful tenures at Entertainment Weekly and Martha Stewart. How have you both handled the transition?

GH: Day One: "Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into?" Day two: "Okay, let's get this thing done!" We only had six weeks to redesign the September issue and many of those FOB pages had already been circulating in the old format. We thought about taking a little more time and implementing the new look into the October Issue, but once we started, it was hard not to want the changes right away. When I showed Cindi Leive (the editor in chief) some new pages, we both looked at each other and said "September, it has to be for September". That day started our nonstop, zero-to-sixty design journey to September.
DB: It's only been about 4 weeks and that's so little time to get used to something after 12 years of MSLO [Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia]. Mostly, I think I'm just trying to dive in and get the job done. You learn more about a place and its characters going through the process of creating an issue than anything else. I'm trying to think about the positive and not the negative changes. Environment is one of the first things that sort of throws you... I miss the squeaky-clean environment of Martha Stewart; I never realized how much I detest carpeting.

I know you're both working on redesigns on tight timeframes. What are the particular challenges of not only assimilating yourselves into the culture and content of your new books, but all of the things that go along with that: new staff, new editors, new expectations? What surprised you most on arrival?

DB: Regarding Content: the celebrity thing is kind of new, but so far I'm enjoying the content change. The one thing about this magazine is that you have a nice mix of serious articles, fashion and celebrity. I enjoy the idea of elevating for this 40+ audience. Not that I'm over forty or anything!

Regarding staff challenges: It's always hard to work with people you don't know, and the staff is naturally nervous as well. Going through a first issue, and a redesign too, is painful and practically impossible! I think designers at More are excited but scared to death and so am I!

Regarding new editors: I'm still trying to understand their process. I think actually they don't have one or any deadlines for that matter. This is going to be tricky... very tricky.
Regarding new expectations: Maybe the tight timeframe of having to redesign a magazine in less than a month is a good thing. You have to dive in and get it done and there is no time for anybody to fuss.
GH: After 10 years at Entertainment Weekly, I had the entertainment side down, so I think the biggest transition was making the move to a women's title. But being a big fan of the magazine and part of the target audience definitely helped--I was already interested and familiar with the content. When I got here, I was really happy to discover that there was a great, solid team of designers who were excited about making some changes. I was also able to bring over my number two from EW, Theresa Griggs. Having someone who you know and work well with makes a huge difference in the creative process. This really helped accelerate the design.

Biggest surprise: Layouts were still circulated on boards and took days to return to the art department. It was strange for me because I had come from a weekly magazine where everything is practically paperless. We now have a big wall in the art department with all the layouts hanging up and eliminated the boards--so far so good.

What are your specific goals for Glamour and More in the coming year?

GH: Glamour has been around for 70 years and has a huge circulation, so the big question is how do you make changes to an extremely popular brand without alienating your readers. One of the biggest challenges in this equation is the covers. Glamour will always have a lot of cover sells, but how can you take all that information and make it look better? I'll let you know when I figure it out...
DB: I want to create an initial design quickly that's better than what's there, obviously... but with the hope that it can keep evolving and that we can really elevate this category of women's magazines. There is no reason that a magazine for smart, affluent, older women can't look beautiful, strong and appropriate. I want to create a magazine that I would want to get in the mail. Unfortunately, I'm a tough customer.

How are these transitions different than when you first assumed your posts at EW and Martha?

GH: I had already been at EW for 2 years when I was promoted to Design Director, so I already knew the editor in chief really well and all the ins and outs of how to run the place. There was a solid design in place so it was just a matter of pushing the boundaries of something that was already successful.
DB: It's all about getting used to a totally different culture and just, in general, a "change". The Martha Stewart culture is so different than anywhere else it took a long time to assimilate into their world, and brand philosophy, and processes. Now, making the transition back into a more conventional magazine experience, it is difficult to get used to the less "perfection-driven" design environment. There is less control and I find myself having to teach, because this is anything but a design culture. The main thing to remember is that you always have a client. Some more difficult than others in different ways. The point is to make a beautiful, smart magazine and that is always the goal, and I am trying to focus on this.

What are your opinions about redesigns--how far do you think you should take the design moves and how quickly are you and your editors planning on implementing these changes?

GH: In a word: yesterday. It's usually better to have more time to redesign, but there is something exciting about doing it all so fast. But, maybe that's just my "10 years at a weekly magazine" side talking...
DB: Redesigns are always difficult, especially if there are a lot of people involved. It's impossible to make everyone happy. Luckily, both my editor-in-chief and I both want to elevate this magazine. It's a question of how far, how soon and not alienating the readers. This magazine has a large circ... so it requires strategic changes. We are working to have something different by the October issue but I hope to be able to keep evolving the design. It takes time to get to know the content of the readers, etc.

Are there design challenges that either of you have encountered that are specific to women's magazines?

DB: I think most women's magazines are rather junky and not very beautiful, at least from a typography point of view. There are only a handful that are designed well. I always wonder if women like to feel like their magazines are disposable? It seems like men are not alienated by good design... are women?? Do women's magazines look the way they do because people are afraid to step away from what they think sells? Do women only gravitate to what is familiar rather than something that is new? I have questions. The one big challenge I have right now is how to employ color (women like color) without decorating and looking out of date. I have been trying to persuade the editors that graphic design shouldn't have to work so hard, and that if we want a colorful magazine we must have colorful content as well as some color applied to the type.
GH: The main challenge is making sure the design remains strong and feminine at the same time. It has to be warm and inviting, but it can't look like a box of Tampons.

I remember when I came to WIRED, it was difficult to break out of the predictable design tricks I had developed at Texas Monthly. How do you plan on filtering your design voice? Will people see these redesigns and say to themselves, "Oh, that feature is so Deb!" or "I love it when Geraldine does ________, I saw that coming!" How do you see your visual sensibilities translating forward?

GH: It's hard to forget what you already know and I'm sure there will be some familiar tricks that pop up here and there, but ultimately, I think it's all about evolution. Our plan is to keep pushing this design and hopefully it will get to a place that feels new and fresh.
DB: Regarding design... I'm not afraid to riff on my other work, but I'm interested in creating a strong classic voice for this magazine and doing things I've never done before. "New-ness" comes from working with the subject matter and solving problems rather than relying on design tricks. In the beginning you need to start somewhere and it usually begins with a design language that you know on some level. The joy of magazine design is that the repetition allows the design to keep evolving and improving and the new design tricks happen out of necessity. But... to answer your question... I haven't succumbed to a quirky script yet, so I'm not sure it's recognizable as something I did. I may yet.

Are you getting any sleep? :)

DB: I was till I had to do this questionnaire for you, Scott. There goes my Sunday! I have to say, though, it has been therapeutic to go through these questions in the middle of More redesign madness!
GH: We've been working so many hours that I feel like we're on some kind of Bravo reality show--I just hope Heidi Klum doesn't come to my office and tell me I'm out!
  • Donna Reiss

    For those of us who subscribe to magazines for not only just the design, but for it's design directors, creative directors, AD's, etc..... I, myself being guilty of this. I wish you both tremendous success, and thank you for keeping us inspired with your brilliance in this crazy world of publishing!

  • Keema

    Interning in the art department at Glam was a wonderful, but crazy experience. I could only imagine how the current intern feels!! (At least you've gotten rid of the circulating boards...) Congrats GD, and I'm looking forward to seeing a new design.

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