The Art Director: Gail Bichler

April 17, 2013

Gail Bichler. Art Director. The New York Times Magazine. That’s really all that needs to be said. But not really. There’s so much more: a kid who followed her calling as an artist, the 411 on the NYC dessert trucks, the most disgusting NYC moment, the challenge of a mom searching for work-life balance, the illusive Coolsky the bird (who I am determined to meet), and finally, the career changing cold call…


where are you from?
I grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio which is a suburb of Cleveland and I currently live in Brooklyn, New York.

how did you express yourself creatively as a kid?
As a child I was fascinated with photo realistic drawing. I would spend hours drawing pictures from magazines, replicating every tiny detail. I also drew cartoons for friends in grade school. One character that I used to draw a lot was a bird named Coolsky. I won’t draw him for you here.

how did you get into art directing? 
At the beginning of college I intended to be a fine artist. I started out studying painting and printmaking. I also took some graphic design classes figuring I could support myself working as a graphic designer while I tried to further my art career. I didn’t foresee that I’d end up loving design. There was something about working with typography, creating strong visuals and designing things in meaningful conceptual ways that I found really challenging and engaging. My first job as a graphic designer was working for one of my professors at the university art museum during my senior year. I designed invitations to shows and brochures for museum programs. After I graduated my professor/boss revealed to me that she never thought I would complete the design program. Unlike most of the graphic design students who were super put together and organized she remembers me arriving to class in a cloud of charcoal dust and not owning any clothes that weren’t stained with oil paint.

After leaving school I decided to work for a design studio in Chicago that specialized in designing art books for museums to remain involved in both the design and fine art worlds. I developed a real affinity for publications and the way a visual narrative can unfold over time in an almost cinematic way as one pages through a book. After practicing design for about 10 years, I moved to Minneapolis and taught a publication design class for the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I assigned a book design project to my students and the head of the program suggested I also assign a magazine project. While working on that project with my students I became really interested in magazines, so when I moved to New York I cold called the creative director of The Times magazine. She agreed to meet with me and hired me for a three week freelance stint. Six years later I’m still there.

what’s it like working for The New York Times?
It’s amazing to be part of an organization that has such a long-standing tradition of great journalism, photojournalism, and design. There’s a lot of pride taken in what we do. A few months ago the Times welcomed back four journalists that were captured in Libya with a ceremony in the newsroom, and more recently two freelance photographers who worked for the Times lost their lives in Libya. These things are reminders that people in our organization put their lives on the line daily to report the news, which makes it all that much more difficult to see the challenges journalism faces with the development of new technologies in recent years.

what is the most challenging thing about your job?
Coming up with conceptual imagery for the stories that don’t have obvious visuals. The magazine runs a lot of news stories which are most often accompanied by documentary photography, but we also run stories that are pretty esoteric in terms of visuals. The art and photo departments collaborate to come up with art for these pieces. It can be quite challenging. Over the years I’ve concepted images for stories on the evolution of god, declining birth rates in Europe, the disappearance of braille texts, and the effects of the environment on the mind to name a few. While this is challenging, it’s also one of the most creative and rewarding things that I do. It’s like solving a puzzle.

how much does your environment influence your creative process? could you live in a small town and do what you do?
New York is a great creative community. My friends are art directors, editors, photo editors, fashion designers, stylists, artists, type designers, and photographers. I’m surrounded by people making interesting things and I’m definitely influenced by what they do. Also, culture is very accessible in New York. New museum shows are constantly opening. A movie theater that’s a short subway ride from my apartment shows great art and independent films and the International Center of Photography and the gallery district are located close to my office. The city itself is also a great source of inspiration. I love to people watch. Just riding on the subway I see such a diverse group of people and so many different fashion senses. Could I live in a small town and do what I do? I definitely could not work for The New York Times living in a small town. I could still be an art director, but I think what I’d do would look very different because my inspirations would be different.

typically, when do you get your best ideas?
When I least expect it. On the subway, waiting in line to pay for my lunch, pushing my son on the swings at the playground.

where in nyc do you find great food under $10?
Food trucks have taken over the under $10 scene in New York. I pay particular attention to the dessert trucks because I have a sweet tooth. I love the Van Leeuwen ice cream truck that’s often parked a couple blocks from my apartment. You can get the old stand-byes like chocolate and vanilla, but you can also get flavors like ginger and red currant. I also love the Wafle and Dingestruck that’s parked outside The Times on Thursday afternoons. I usually get the Mini Wafelini with Nutella, bananas, and whipped cream.

how would you spend a dream weekend?
Lying on a beach reading a great book. I think that’s the tired mommy in me talking. I have a very energetic two and half year old.

what is your most disgusting new york moment?
One day I was waiting in line at a newstand to buy a magazine. The man in front of me was taking a long time to pay, so I looked up and realized he wasn’t paying. He was passionately kissing a picture of Tyra Banks on the cover of one of the magazines… I left before they got more serious.

what do you do really well?
That’s a tough question to answer. How about if I tell you what I hope I do really well?  At home I try to be a good mom and to maintain some semblance of a work life balance. At work I try to improve as a manager. At the beginning of my career all of my professional efforts were aimed at acquiring the skills that I needed to excel at my craft. As I’ve progressed from designer to art director my job is increasingly about how I manage others and bring out their talents. It’s an entirely different set of skills…ones that aren’t that easy to master. With my friends I try to stay in touch. We all have busy lives. It’s easy to let months go by without checking in.

what are your favorite nyc shops?
For clothes I love Bird (a boutique a few blocks from my house in Park Slope), and A.P.C., and for jewelry, Ted Meuhling. Matter also has great jewelry and design objects. BDDW is my favorite furniture shop. For books I like Zakka, Kinokuniya, and The Strand.

what do you collect?
I collect Art books, both because I’m interested in their content and because they are beautiful objects. One of my favorites is a copy of Visionaire 39 (technically considered a magazine) that is a wooden slip case containing 16 flip books designed by artists, designers and photographers like Mario Testino, and Karl Lagerfeld. I also have an affinity for Dutch design and have a number of books on Dutch typographers, annuals on Dutch book design, and books on posters from the Dutch Opera and PTT. I own an out of print first edition of Dutch designer Karel Martins’ “Printed Matter” that I bought with my husband on a trip to the Netherlands many years ago and an out of print copy of  “Wim Crouwell – Mode en module,” also bought on the same trip.

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Artwork credits:
work 1: Photograph by Horatio Salinas
work 2: Illustration by Mickey Duzyj
work 3: Photographs by James Welling
work 4: Font by Chester Jenkins
work 5: Illustration by James Victore
work 6: Illustration by Carin Goldberg
work 7: Illustration by James Victore
work 8: Photograph by Michel Spingler
work 9: Photograph by Solve Sundsbo
work 10: Photograph by Sebastião Salgado

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