ART DIRECTION, EDITORIAL DESIGN.
Debbie: When it comes to interesting careers in design, you can't do it any better than Gail Anderson. She's the former creative director of design at SpotCo, and before that she was senior art director at the visually innovative magazine, Rolling Stone. Steve Heller has praised her work for its eloquent, editorial and entertainment design, using bold typography, illustration, and photography, to engage audiences with a new standard of emotional and visual connection. Welcome to Design Matters, Gail.
Gail: Thank you, Debbie.
Debbie: So great to finally have you here. I have been waiting for years to ask you this question. I understand that when you were little, you used to make little Jackson Five and Partridge Family magazines.
Debbie: Your big stories were Donny versus Michael. Who do you luv? L-U-V.
Gail: L-U-V. Yes. Always.
Debbie: Peppered with the occasional David Cassidy expose. So, my first question is, who did you love more, Donny or Michael?
Gail: I loved Michael. Michael, all the way.
Gail: Oh yeah. Yep.
Debbie: So, tell us about the magazines. First of all, do you still have any of the copies?
Gail: I wish I did. I have so much other old stuff from the 60's and 70's that I've dug up. They had pull-out photos, big, big spreads. They were...
Debbie: I understand you designed kissable centerfolds.
Gail: How did you know this?
Debbie: I just have my ways, Gail.
Gail: Oh, they were so much fun, and they got better and better into the Partridge Family days as I got a little older.
Debbie: So, what did you love about those teen magazines? Why did you decide that you needed to make your own? There were so many wonderful ones.
Gail: Oh, they were so... And, I still have those.
Debbie: You do?
Gail: Oh yeah.
Debbie: So, you have all your Tiger Beats and-
Gail: SPEC and 16, more so than Tiger Beat.
Gail: Yeah, I loved the Letraset, the rubdown type on them. I loved the chart pack rules and the weird illustrations, the cut-out heads. The designs were loud, and fun, and there was just stuff everywhere and I just thought, "Wow, who does this? How do you get to do this? I want to do this when I grow up."
Debbie: So, was that when you first decided that you wanted to work in magazines?
Debbie: And so, that was always your goal.
Gail: Yep, work on a celebrity magazine.
Debbie: Wow. So, work on a celebrity magazine. Let's just go for the top, Rolling Stone. So, was it as clear as that then? That where you wanted to work was Rolling Stone?
Gail: No, because I didn't know what that was. But, if SPEC and 16 were still around I'd be working for one of them now, because that would make me so happy.
Debbie: So, what is it about celebrity culture that you like so much, or pop culture that you like so much?
Gail: I guess, it's just pop culture really and as a kid it was certainly the celebrity part. But, I'm just completely amused by that, still.
Debbie: It somehow feels, and I could just be thinking this because I'm older now, but it seems like the teen throb experience is different now than it was.
Gail: Oh my goodness. It seemed so innocent then.
Debbie: It does seem very innocent then. I mean, it's hard to even imagine somebody like Marcia Brady existing in a day like today.
Gail: No, no, no. I entered a contest. You designed a costume for Michael to wear at a concert and you sent your picture, and an essay, and your design, and I was so sure I was going to win and I was going to get to meet him. I never did. I never heard back.
Debbie: You never heard back at all? So, you didn't even get a letter saying thank you for it, but no thank you.
Debbie: So, did you know that-
Gail: I was heartbroken.
Debbie: I can imagine. That's actually a really sad movie in there somehow, Requiem for a Dream.
Gail: It shaped the rest of my life. Yep.
Debbie: So, when you had this desire to work at a magazine when you were younger, was it from an editorial perspective, or design perspective, or-
Gail: All of it.
Debbie: All of it.
Gail: Because I didn't know what the it was but I wondered who put them together, and how could I get in on that.
Debbie: So, when did you decide you wanted to be a designer formally? When did you decide, "I want to go to the School of Visual Arts. I want to become a designer."
Gail: There was a book in my high school art room that the teacher had, Chris Francis was her name. And, she had a book, a little black book called Careers in Commercial Art or something like that that was-
Debbie: [crosstalk 00:04:57].
Gail: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Debbie: Isn't this [inaudible 00:05:00].
Gail: Yep, and so, I borrowed it again and again, and read about the school and different jobs and I thought, "Well, that's it. That's what I'll be, a commercial artist." And, I think, I've told this before there, we had the poster, the Paul Davis to be good is not enough, poster in the room, by the-
Debbie: When you dream of being great.
Gail: I can still see that poster, and that's where I'm going to go to school, go to school there. And, I remember telling Paul that years later, and he just looked at me like, "What?"
Debbie: Great influence.
Gail: Yeah, no, really, really. I'm being dead serious Paul and like, "Really?" I said, "Yeah, really."
Debbie: That's amazing. It's amazing to be able to tell somebody that they had a big influence on you.
Gail: I know.
Debbie: It's incredible.
Gail: Yep, yeah.
Debbie: He must have felt like he had a real purpose in his life.
Gail: Like get away from me, stalker.
Debbie: Stalker alert.
Debbie: So, when you were studying at School of Visual Arts, Paula Scher was your teacher.
Gail: She was. She was my [inaudible 00:05:54].
Debbie: So, tell us all about that? What was it like to be taught by Paula Scher?
Gail: It was only her second year teaching there, and a good friend, [Rowan Treary 00:06:02], had her the year before and just raved about her and was then, I think, interning or working for her at Koppel & Scher then. And, I took her class and after every class, Tuesday night I would call [Rowan 00:06:16] go through step-by-step what had happened in the class, and what Paula said, and what did this mean, and that was a great time. She had two classes, a larger one and a smaller one, and I was in the smaller group. So, I probably had a little more one-on-one time, and I was intimidated by her.
Gail: Because you're a kid and you're just like, wow.
Debbie: No, I'm still intimidated, and I'm not a kid.
Gail: Yes, that too. But, I was and in awe. I'm still in awe, probably more in awe now and I wanted to do the best job possible for her because she was just so cool to me, you know?
Debbie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Gail: Yeah. She still smoked then.
Debbie: Did she smoke in the classroom?
Gail: She smoked in the classroom so you could still smoke in the rooms here, and everybody wondered if the ash would fall onto their work or something, but-
Debbie: Did it ever?
Gail: I think it did. Yes, and just brush it off. I was living at the dorm at Sloane house on 34th, and we'd sometimes share a cab and I drop her off and go all the way over to the West side. That little five minutes in the car together was just the highlight of the week for me. That was just so cool.
Debbie: What would you say was the most important thing that you learned from her?
Gail: To appreciate history, but also not to take all of this too seriously, that she had a great sense of humor about the work and herself, and she just made it fun, smart and fun.
Debbie: How did she influence your work?
Gail: We all did everything so that it looked just like something she would've done, which I'm sure was very frustrating to her. But, we just tried to mimic everything she did at the time. So, we were doing big wood type and all this constructivist stuff and she completely influenced everyone.
Debbie: When would you say that the visual influence of Paula in your work turned more into what your style of work ended up becoming?
Gail: When my first job at Vintage I was pretty green but by the time I was at The Globe, a year or so later, and now got to work on a magazine for the first time with very tight deadlines and limitations, I suppose it was around then that I started to develop a voice of my own a little bit.
Debbie: And, Paula helped you get the job at Vintage.
Gail: Paula helped me get the job at Vintage, Paula helped me get the job at The Globe, Paula called Fred when I was being hired at Rolling Stone and put in a good word. Paula has been there straight through, so I owe her a lot.
Debbie: So, what was it like working at Vintage straight out of school? It must've been incredibly intimidating, again.
Gail: That was... I couldn't do a good mechanical...
Debbie: Why? I can't imagine that. You seem to have great hand skills.
Gail: I didn't then. I didn't... So, I had to get up to speed on that. I met [Louis Feeley 00:00:09:10] who was at Pantheon then, and Sarah Eisenman [Sarah Eisenman 00:09:13] who was [inaudible 00:09:14] and all these wonderful art directors. I was only there a year, and it feels like so much longer in a way but I learned a lot. I learned what it was like to work in an office, learning to be a grown up in that way. I was very sloppy, and the art director I worked for [Judy Loeser 00:00:09:32] was like, "Could you tidy up a little bit?"
Debbie: Did you do any book covers while you were there?
Gail: I did. I did five or seven book covers, I think.
Debbie: Any that you would consider to be memorable?
Gail: Probably the first one, a book called Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, seven Poe's-
Gail: P-O-E [crosstalk 00:00:09:50].
Debbie: Oh, as in Edgar Allan?
Gail: Poe times seven with Anita [Coons 00:00:09:55].
Debbie: Oh wow. Nice job.
Gail: Yep. And, I still have mine because that was so cool. To see something that you've done, see your name on a book and work with a great illustrator. That was fantastic.
Debbie: And, I still have the flyers that I was working on, back then your book covers.
Gail: I found drawings that I did when I was 12, that I've shown before so I've got some old stuff.
Debbie: All right, let's talk about your next job. You then moved out to Boston, to work on the Sunday magazine at The Boston Globe, and that's what you said you learned how to design.
Gail: Amazing. Amazing. Great, great time. Again, feels like, oh, it feels like it was so much longer but it was just two years. There were few of us up there from SVA, and we got to be very close and spend a lot of time together. [Arena Sokolow 00:00:10:45], [Richard Baker 00:10:45] and myself and those were just great couple of years working, and we would just work all night if we could. We were there all the time, and just such fun.
Debbie: Now I read that you learned how to work quickly and I was wondering, how do you learn something like that?
Gail: There was just no time to do the head of a pin kind of stuff. And, I loved just doing it, put out another shoot, put out another shoot. You didn't fuss and you couldn't make mistakes because then it was gone.
Debbie: Now, is it true that [Ron Kapischy 00:11:16] said that the paper was like fish wrap?
Gail: Yes, absolutely.
Debbie: So, what is that about?
Gail: I thought what a great quote. I'd get off the tee and I'd walk to the building, and I would see old magazines or paper on the street and it's like, "He's absolutely right. It is fish wrap."
Debbie: That's what I feel about packaging. When I see packaging that I've worked on lying in a little crumpled heap on the ground or in a garbage bin I think, okay.
Gail: Yeah, because I didn't see that with the book covers and then I saw that immediately with the magazine and it was... But, that's really liberating.
Debbie: Now, when you worked at The Globe, you worked for Lynn Staley and-
Gail: I did. I love Lynn.
Debbie: ... Lucy Bartholomay, and you said that it was possibly the best experience, both personally and professionally, a young designer could ever imagine having.
Gail: Yep. Absolutely.
Debbie: How so?
Gail: Lynn was my hero, you know? She was smart and clever and a good designer and great art director and just a really wonderful person. I was hungry to have mentors in my life like that, and she was just wonderful. I learned so much, and we're still dear friends to this day.
Debbie: So, what made you decide to leave The Globe and go to Rolling Stone. Was it something that you were recruited into doing?
Gail: No. Nope. Nope. I-
Debbie: Got a call from Paula?
Gail: I heard about Fred through [Andy Zelman 00:00:12:34] who was the editor of the magazine. They'd worked together at a magazine in Texas, and she'd always say, "You should meet Fred. You guys are so much alike and you'd like each other." I was looking at Texas Monthly because of that, and then he went on to Regardie's in Washington, so I was subscribing to that. And then all of a sudden, I was getting Rolling Stone when I was living in Somerville, and it's like, "That's that guy. That's Fred Woodward, and now he's doing Rolling Stone, huh?"
I'd been at The Globe about a year and a half or two years then, which seems like forever when you're in your twenties, and I thought, "I wonder if he would give me some feedback on my work." And so, I contacted him and he was new enough to have answered the telephone himself.
Gail: Yeah. I'd called him one evening and he picked up, and it was like-
Debbie: That's brave of you to do that.
Gail: But, I mean, again, you're a kid so you're like, "I'll get him, I'll call him." And, he answered and he was like, "Oh, okay, sure. You can send me some stuff and I'll take a look. I'm really busy right now, but..."
And then, he called when he got the package and asked if I would come down to meet him after work one day. And so, I flew down and we met, and I thought, "What a nice guy, what a great guy." He didn't hire me then because he needed somebody with more experience, but said that, we'd see what happened. Maybe he'd be back in touch. I was like, okay. And, mental note, if he ever contacts me again, I really like him and it just feels right and I would love to work with him.
And then, I sort of set it aside and went back to my life and a few months later he called and he's like, "Well things have changed." And, I was like, "Huh?"
Debbie: It's like a fairy tale.
Gail: It kind of was. And, when I looked up to tell the art director, who was then Lucy Bartholomay, she said, "You got your call," I was like, "Wait, what? How do you know this?" He had called the editor, who was his friend, [Anady 00:14:24] to make sure it was okay with her before-
Gail: ... they asked me if I wanted to come down. So, they all knew and I didn't, and they were all supportive and happy for me and I moved back home.
Debbie: So, that was 1987.
Debbie: And so, then you started at Rolling Stone.
Debbie: So, it must've been a dream job.
Gail: There was no space for me, and so I sat in the office with Fred for the first, I think, two weeks or something. I'd kind of look over and, "Hey, how are you doing?" And it's like, "I really like him."
Debbie: So, how did you collaborate together? I mean, you did so much work together. You were there for 15 years. So, how did you do all that work together?
Gail: It was a really nice back and forth because we were similar personalities in a way, so it was easy. It was mind reading. He would get very excited sometimes about what he was working on or what we were working on and that was contagious, or he'd be very quiet and we just sit and work and chat a little bit. Sometimes he'd just tell me, stop chatting, because I just wanted to ask questions, and he loved to put on music.
Debbie: Did you listen to the music of the people that you would-
Gail: Sometimes when we were working on a cover-
Debbie: Not exclusively?
Gail: Yeah, I, those 14, 15 years learned so much about music and built such a collection.
Debbie: Did you get a lot of free CDs or albums.
Gail: Not as many as you think, but yes. Well now, nothing.
Debbie: Albums not into CDs, right?
Gail: Yep, now you got nothing but yeah, I helped him listen to CDs. Absolutely right.
Debbie: After 15 years you decided to leave, and I read that when you did you said that you wanted to try something totally new, that felt challenging and scary in a good way, and that you needed that level of fear to motivate you to change while you were still naive enough to believe that you could. Why naive?
Gail: Because if I knew how hard the transition from magazines to doing the theater stuff, how long it would take me to find my rhythm in that, I would have just gone to another magazine, so...
Debbie: I just never even imagined that you had to even spend any time getting your sea legs. It seemed like it was just a natural transition.
Gail: It took, atleast, the first year or two to figure out how to do it and to work on a different schedule. I think the biggest thing was having to come up with a lot of ideas for everything with the magazine. We did one or two or... Because of the deadline, you were in and out pretty quickly, and with the key art for the shows, I very soon realized that you were showing a client, multiple versions of ideas from scratch, not just variations on an idea. That was new to me. It's like, "Well, what's the matter with this one?" That was a good thing for me to have to go back and think really hard about something and see that occasionally your sixth or seventh idea is actually better than the one at the beginning, so...
Debbie: So, would you have to come up with all six or seven ideas on your own, or would you be leading a team that would also contribute to...
Gail: A team, absolutely, and certainly for larger shows, a few people worked on something. It was I felt like I couldn't put something on one person's shoulders. That's just too much stress, and when you're being asked to think of up to a dozen directions for something-
Debbie: A dozen?
Gail: Yearly sometimes. Sometimes less but sometimes more so you just run out of steam after a while so you need to be able to go back and forth with people and collaborate. I think I enjoyed the collaborative process so much working with Fred, that I wanted to continue that working with other people. Then the years its by, it was never about my thing or her thing or his thing, it was always ours.
Debbie: So, would you have, in the 12 ideas that you might come up with for a particular show, would you then have to have a strategic point of view about each one that would be something that you'd have to sell into the executive producers?
Gail: Ideally. Yeah, and that was a great learning experience for me too. To learn how to defend what you're doing and to do it for a reason and not just because it looks good.
Debbie: Was it difficult to be told by the executive producers or by Drew that something wasn't working or they didn't like something that you loved?
Debbie: I mean, it seems like it's an awfully subjective science here in deciding what is going to be the big look for a show.
Gail: Absolutely. Easier over time, but certainly at the beginnings, well wait, but I'm the art director, you're supposed to... That's what I'm saying, but no, so...
Debbie: What was the first show that you worked on after coming to SpotCo?
Gail: I worked on two shows. Ironically, one, I think, Paul had worked on a version of Call Home Song, a show up at the Apollo, and the next was Man of La Mancha.
Debbie: Man of La Mancha. That was a gorgeous, gorgeous identity. That was so inventive and so unusual.
Gail: I still like that.
Debbie: I have the tshirt, that's how much I loved it.
Gail: They had a baseball jacket, I remember. I was like, "I want a Man of La Mancha baseball jacket." When I started doing network and saw things that we did on merchandise, I was like, "That's so cool."
Debbie: Well, that logo, the way that you created that logo into the horse in [inaudible 00:19:20], it was just absolutely magnificent. And my shirt, I got the red one and the white type is all kind of half peeled off at this point and very faded. But that show was so magnificent, I started crying halfway through the show and never stopped for like another two days after the show had been over. That show just killed me. It was such a great production.
Gail: I know. I'd certainly been to the theater. Growing up my first show was Fiddler On The Roof that we came in one Sunday to see, but I probably wasn't going enough, and certainly wasn't going regularly. And those, almost nine years there, I saw so many wonderful shows, something I just, I wouldn't have gotten to otherwise and now want to continue to do. That was good for me. I'd say the whole thing was a really good experience because I had to learn to open my mouth and speak up, and-
Debbie: Why was that hard for you?
Gail: Because I worked with such a quiet and gentle art director before, and I went into an environment of these really sort of fun, loud people who really fuss and bossy. I was like, wait, they talk... They're really like... I better take it up a notch and so, yeah. Yeah. It was a huge life change to learn to get in on the conversation, and not get run over.
Debbie: And then, you recently left.
Gail: Yeah. Now that's not an issue, so...
Debbie: Well, you reached these big milestones in your life. You worked 15 years at Rolling Stone, and nearly 10 at SpotCo, right?
Gail: Yeah, no, I'm nothing if not loyal, so...
Debbie: And a collaborator so what is your next big collaboration going to be?
Gail: Well, I need to spend a little bit of time designing by myself because I may have lost some of my confidence.
Gail: Well, because-
Debbie: You just won the AIGA medal. It's the highest medal in the design profession, and you're worried about losing your confidence?
Gail: Because I feel like, because I haven't been hands-on as much in the last few years, that I want to be able to do some things myself again, and not have to ask and suggest and show. I just like a little time to make it myself, just to get those skills back up to speed because I feel like those aren't there anymore. I'm talking about just in design and Photoshop and Illustrator kind of stuff.
Debbie: So, these technical skills.
Gail: Yeah. There's some of that's... When I sit down to do something myself like, oh my goodness, really? I'd like, have to think about how to do it way too hard now. So, that's been sort of fun, but more importantly, I feel like I want to be part of coming up with what the thing is and not just designing the thing. So, it's sort of, I'm becoming a student of designers out there.
Gail: Sort of feels that way because I'm like, I want to do that too now. They're coming up with all these great projects and... So, I don't know. I don't know what I'm going to do but it's... Have a milestone birthday not too far off so it felt this is the time to try it.
Debbie: Well, the whole design world will be waiting and watching Gail with bated breath, everything that you've done has been just-
Gail: They should take a breath then. If they have any suggestions, I welcome them because this is either the best time or the worst time to talk to me because I have no answer to what on earth I'm going to do. But, I'd like to write more, and I really enjoy that.
Debbie: Another book with Steven maybe?
Gail: We're working on something now.
Debbie: Can you tell us the title?
Gail: This one is the last of the series of new vintage type and new ornamental. This is new modern so I'm working on that now but, I mean, I'd like to work on a children's book, I'd like to... I don't know. I got to try something else.
Debbie: Well, we look forward to seeing what you find. Thanks for joining me on Design Matters, Gail.
Gail: Thank you for having me.
Debbie: Gail Anderson's latest book, co-written with Steve Heller is called New Modern Type. I'd like to thank you for listening and remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.
Speaker 1: Design Matters with Debbie Millman is recorded at the Masters in Branding studio at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. It is produced by Curtis Fox Productions with technical assistance, by [Rainy O'Teeka 00:23:40] and research by [Jen Simon 00:23:42]. The show is published exclusively by designobserver.com. You can subscribe to this free podcast in the iTunes store.