Living with the 'enemy'

Image enhancement by John Rooney, Group Art Editor

The appointment of Ronnie Whelan as editor of Hello! may have raised a few eyebrows among her new peers. This is no discredit whatsoever to the talents of Ms Whelan. It is simply that she is an art director. And for some magazine journalists her promotion is rather like Cheetah suddenly getting top billing over Tarzan and Jane.

Because editors spend a vast amount of their lives dealing with (or perhaps more correctly “handling”) art directors. And their relationship is one of the most critical, yet fraught, on any magazine.

At a management seminar for newly appointed editors, the participants – who came from every sector, from women’s monthlies to trade titles – were each asked to choose a scenario for a conflict-resolution workshop. Every single editor chose dealing with the art department.

One editor told me she ended up in A&E during Christmas pull-up because her art director “ran her department like a communist collective and wouldn’t go any faster no matter what I did. We were getting further and further behind. I just felt so powerless.” The stress knotted her guts so badly she spent hours on a hospital trolley rolling in agony.

So why is the art director-editor relationship so traumatic? The main reason is how crucial great design is for the success of any title. The editor knows it and the art director, boy, does he or she know it! Bad design is like spraying your pages with reader repellent. Just one tired font can date a title; a clever new look can be publishing Viagra. The very best magazines have an exhilarating synergy of content and design which makes them fly off the shelf – The Face in the Eighties or Glamour today – and this is the product of a dynamic, fluid relationship between the ed and her arty amigo.

“When you find an art director who understands you, it’s unbelievable,” says one former editor. “They just get what you want but they do it better than you ever imagined. It’s like being so close to someone that you finish each other’s sentences.” Alas this kind of yin-yang partnership is quite rare. The trouble is that editors, who by and large are former writers, care about words. They also care about getting grief from their publisher when a particular cover doesn’t sell because no one standing a foot from the news-stand in WH Smith can read a goddamn word.

Art directors care more about colours and shapes. Obscure retro fonts get them very excited. A new version of Photoshop can keep them happy for weeks. Words? Well, they’re OK, but they do get in the way. Magazines would be much better without them. Note: I once employed an art director who couldn’t spell “doctor”.

So sometimes an editor can feel like Tom Cruise dealing with Dustin Hoffman in Rainman. They just don’t think like us. You don’t even share a vocabulary. How many editors trying to convey what they want have stood flapping a torn-out page, spluttering with inarticulate frustration watched by a designer wearing the world’s most withering look?

No one argues like an art director. No one sulks like one either. No one thinks they are so right so often and so absolutely that they can stand up to an editor until he or she finally has to cry, like an exhausted parent, “BECAUSE I SAY SO, OK?”

With many art directors, their bodies may be in Kings Reach Tower but their hearts are forever in Hoxton. “The trouble is,” says one former glossy editor, “all designers want to work at ID magazine. So if they have ended up working on a mid-market title they feel they are compromising their edginess by doing something commercial.

“So while you want to appeal to readers, they just want to work with a certain ‘hot’ photographer who’s just done Italian Vogue and produces dark, ugly pictures of anorexic girls shot out of focus.”

Another editor sighs: “Art college was the highlight of their lives. Only then was their art pure. The problem arises when a designer works for a title he thinks he is too cool to read. Then they just end up trying to get through layouts they want to put in their portfolio.

“We ran a feature on beaches recently and I had to send a memo to the art department saying that the layout must include the sun shining, people smiling and a beach.

“Because art departments are full of people who want to be Martin Parr and otherwise you’d get lots of grim, grainy verité shots of second-hand shoes on a street market.”

Walking into the art department sometimes feels like crossing enemy lines. It is a land where the radio plays discordant music or everyone is plugged into a personal stereo. Since designers rarely have to engage with the outside world, dress-down Friday is all week long. Unusual configurations of facial hair are common, worn with offensive T-shirts screen-printed by their purer, artier mates.

An editor’s presence can appear to disturb a delicate ecosystem. One editor was actually prevented from entering her art department: “The art director would stand up and physically block my way which was quite an achievement in an open-plan office.” Another had an art director with a distinct regional accent: “The whole department spoke a strange dialect they’d just made up. It was like walking into a remote Cornish village.”

Many art directors have perfected the sharp intake of breath used by garage mechanics when they try to blind editors with design terms or techno-bollocks. “The problem is the floating co-processor isn’t installed,” they’ll say. Or: “You can’t do that, it’s going to interfere with the H&Js.”

What they really hate is an editor who sits at their desk, picks up the mouse and dares to move things around. A little Quark XPress can be a dangerous thing.

There are two universal conversations between art directors and editors.

No 1.

Editor (inspecting layout): “Nice. But there’s 800 words of overmatter.”

Art director: “The subs can fix that.”

Ed: “Can’t you just make that picture smaller and why is there no copy on the first page?”

Art (in condescending voice): “That is Creative White Space.”

No 2.

Editor: (frowning at pale blue text on mauve background): “But will you be able to read it?”

Art (putting layout under 1000 watt art desk lamp and handing editor a loop): “Yeah, sure. Here, look.” Ed (doubtfully): “Hmm…”

Art: “Honest, relax, it looks great, it’ll be fine.” One month later. The editor has just had an earful from the publisher about five pages of illegible copy.

Ed to Art: “But you said it would read.”

Art: “It was fine. It’s the bloody useless printers.”

I wonder if Ronnie Whelan has the same arguments with her own art director now she has crossed over to the other side.

Janice Turner is a freelance journalist and former editor of That’s Life! and Real. She’ll be back in four weeks

Next week: Alison Hastings

by Janice Turner

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