Chances are a Bloomberg Businessweek cover has stopped you in your tracks at some point: Maybe it was the brilliant cat hurricane GIF, or aeroplanes humping mid-air, or the most anti-Apple typography ever slapped over Tim Cook’s face. But behind the provocative graphic design is a smart strategy that’s changing the way publications are made, both online and off.
It didn’t always used to be this way. Since the publication’s relaunch in 2010, the creative team has been busy reshaping a stodgy magazine you’d only touch in your dentist’s waiting room into a dynamic, entertaining, and visually driven must-read. And they’re killing it.
Editor Josh Tyrangiel sets the tone and the bar high and also contributes creative ideas himself, says Vargas. These “Obama Crashed” and “Let’s Get It On” aeroplane merger covers seen here were both ideas that originated with him, executed by former creative director Richard Turley
Today’s success is largely thanks to creative director Robert Vargas and deputy creative director Tracy Ma, with a hefty nod to Richard Turley, the creative director who oversaw the relaunch and established the new visual language (he departed earlier this year for MTV). But the creatives also heap lots of the credit upon Bloomberg Businessweek’s editor Josh Tyrangiel. “When he rebooted the mag he created this environment where the visual people and the words people have equal footing and work side-by-side,” says Ma. “That’s not the case anywhere else, I think, and it’s a model that’s worked pretty well for us, and something we keep pushing for.”
The internet moves fast, but the pace of creating a weekly printed magazine is blistering. The designers only have a handful of days to build a thick publication with often visually challenging content. “The primary job for every designer here is to be a problem solver, and we get excited when we feel like we’ve nailed visualising a story by approaching it from a completely fresh angle,” says Vargas.
As designers finish their layouts, they’re posted on a wall and the staff is invited to a walk-through of the ideas daily, so the designers get input from everyone, not just other creatives. “Generally, if people laugh, the idea works; if there’s a lot of silence and confused faces, it’s the kiss of death, and we go back to the drawing board,” says Vargas. The issues ship each Wednesday and often the designers don’t know the final design until that day.
Businessweek interactive designer Toph Tucker was recruited to pose as “Tech Bro” for a cover story defending Silicon Valley. So it made perfect sense to have Tucker do the interview with Vargas about the cover — in character.
There’s also an entire other level of engagement, a glimpse at the creative process that Bloomberg Businessweek gives readers each week. There’s a “How We Made It” feature about the cover art in every issue, and the creative team produces videos to talk about the designs as well.
“The good ones are probably where we acknowledge that we struggled with something, or were unsure of an idea, and had many terrible iterations before we arrived at the final,” says Vargas. But it also gives readers a peek at the magazine’s personality, says Ma. “I think it’s a great way to let our readers in on the dialogue and to show that we actually have a lot of fun making the magazine every week.”
I asked Vargas and Ma to walk me through some of the more attention-getting (and controversial) covers and illustrations in recent months.
There’s one pretty smart way you’re bridging the print/digital divide: You turn the covers into GIFs for your online audience. When you’re brainstorming are you thinking about how the art will translate into a GIF eventually?
Vargas: Usually we’re not thinking about how covers will translate into a GIF in the early stages of brainstorming, because were so wrapped up in developing what the idea will be in the first place.
Our online art director Steph Davidson generally looks at covers as soon as their done and sees if there’s something fun she can do with it.
This was the case with Obama “Too Cool for Crisis Management” — she told me the idea she had, and about an hour later she showed it to me and I thought it was great.
When did the practice of animating the covers start?
Ma: I started animating the covers with the Snapchat disappearing cover GIF. The image of the fading pixels felt totally uncomfortable as a static thing and was just begging to be animated. Obama “Too Cool,” though, was an idea that worked very well as a clean static image, so the GIF was just a very hilarious extra. Right now we normally don’t really think about how it will translate into a GIF, but maybe that process will change eventually.
I also want to point out that you did make one of the most amazing GIFs in recent memory — of a cat-hurricane.
The cat-egory 5 superstorm created for a story about the Weather Channel swept the internet.
Ma: Claire Suddath’s story about the Weather Channel’s bizzare new business model had many different parts to it and it was a bit of a struggle trying to distill into something sharp. You start a project like this knowing that the visual execution has to be something quick and snappy and scrappy but getting there sometimes, like it did in this case, takes a lot of effort. So this was a nice exercise in ‘how dumb and excellent can you make something?’
We tried to run it on the print cover, but it was just another one of those ideas that was conceived in my head as a moving image so in the end it existed most comfortably as that.
How did you decide to go so refreshingly-opposite-of-Ive’s-Apple for the Tim Cook cover design?
Vargas: This came about was pretty naturally, and started with the photo. We knew we didn’t want to execute the photo in the style of traditional CEO portraiture, where we basically turn Tim into a heroic statue. We wanted to humanize him, show him as real person with a certain degree of warmth.
Once we made a photo select we started experimenting with type. When Tracy showed us what she came up with, with the curly, colourful type, we gravitated towards it because we thought the friendliness of it made sense with the tone we were going for. We honestly had no discussions about it beyond that.
Ma: Our goal was to portray Tim Cook as a warm and different kind of CEO using whatever tools we had at our disposal. We sent it to the printer because we were confident that we’d achieved that. I’m still completely dumbfounded by the kind of reaction it got. It certainly made us laugh a lot.
The behind-the-cover conversation with Vargas and Tyrangiel discusses why Tim Cook needed such shiny happy design.
Designers really seemed to be freaking out about this.
Vargas: When we saw the reaction online, we were taken completely by surprise. Tracy and I sit next to each other, so the morning it went live we kept looking at comments online and turning to each other and cracking up. Someone mocked up a fake Bloomberg Businessweek Jony Ive cover that I thought was genius.
Ma: Most of all I’m really glad that we managed to make a bunch of ‘typographic-excellence olds’ really angry without even trying. It’s proof that we’re onto something new and exciting.
And speaking of that larger conversation, I think a lot of people thought the cover of Steve Ballmer was Photoshopped. You got him to pose!
Vargas: Steve deserves all the credit for being such a great model. He gave the photographer a lot of different options, and I spotted one that looked like an action shot. I added some blur lines and the headline on top and it was done. I was glad to have a week where the process was so easy.
Ma: I watched some beads-of-sweat After Effects tutorials and gave him some.
The sweat was just something you can get away with in the GIF version and would be too heavy-handed if we drew them in in the print cover.
With your Coke cover, I was so happy to see this extremely brazen attack on soda. But how did the advertising people react to this? Aren’t they worried you’re going to scare off brands forever?
Vargas: What makes the magazine really interesting to me is that were not just going around congratulating corporations and businessmen on how successful they are. Were always looking critically at the subject matter were exploring. Coke was a good example of this. The story itself was not really negative, but it did go into the image problem they have acknowledged they’re facing in a culture where sugar is so vilified. So to me the cover made complete sense and wasn’t just a jab for the sake of being controversial. I’m not sure what the repercussions were in the advertising department, but I think they probably expect this from us by now.
The “Coke Has a Fat Problem” creative process was documented in the publication itself. In the end, a bloated bottle took the cover, while overweight Santa was moved inside the magazine.
Ma: I worked briefly on a Diet Coke ad segment at Leo Burnett a couple of years ago and it was such an awful, hallow experience. I’m really fortunate to be working in editorial where you’re not using your skills to bullshit all the time. I think our main goal is to be an honest, trustworthy news magazine, so if we’re censoring ourselves in fear of scaring off advertisers then we’re not really successful at what we want to be. I think our advertising team understands that.
What’s the most underappreciated cover and why should we have paid more attention to it?
Vargas: I have a special place in my heart for the Tech Bro cover. We had so much fun nailing all the details, and I think our tech editor suggested including a Frenchie with GoPro strapped to it’s head. Weirdly, they actually make a GoPro dog strap now, so I think we at least deserve credit for that.
Ma: I do like my glowing corn phallus cover…
What’s on deck for this week?
The cover from this week’s issue and a spread that opens the back section of the magazine
Vargas: It’s our annual ‘Year Ahead’ issue, which covers what’s ahead in 2015 over a range of topics and industries. In terms of the design, we’ve taken another risk by liberally illustrating just about every page of the magazine ourselves in a flat pastel-coloured vector style.
An energy map summarizing the energy landscape in the U.S. for the ‘Year Ahead’ issue
I’d like to reiterate here that we’re not really professional illustrators by trade. As always, I can’t predict what kind of reaction it will get, if any. But I can confidently say we’ve never done an issue that looks like this before, and you won’t find another magazine out there that looks like it, so I’m excited for people to have a look.
Update: Due to an editing error, the role of former creative director Richard Turley, who led the magazine’s relaunch, and can be credited with several covers including “The Hedge Fund Myth” at the top, was omitted. It has been added above.