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Editors vs. Art Directors

They make a great team—but the editor is always right.


Mark Newman By Mark Newman
02/27/2008 -14:51 PM






I have been either lucky or blessed when it comes to art directors because none of mine have been what you would call a “diva.”

Freak, yes. Diva, no.

Let me first say that editors and their magazines would be nothing—nothing!—without their art directors. Every time my art director Catherine delivers me a new layout for Southern Breeze, it feels like unwrapping a gift on Christmas morning. And the same is true for my past art directors: Ellie, Tony, Jonathan, Myra, John, Bob, Carrie et al. All of them artistic geniuses, all of them lifesavers, and all of them know one truth to be self-evident: the editor is always right.

Some describe the editor-A.D. relationship like a partnership. I agree, but the editor is the SENIOR partner. Others describe it as a marriage. That, too, is accurate … and the art director is always the wife! (Yeah, I went there.)

If you didn’t know better you’d think that I had nothing but disdain for art directors. Nothing could be further from the truth. But the editor has final say. Period. The editor knows the audience or the industry the magazine caters to. And while the A.D. may want to create a counterbalanced, flowing, multi-spread amalgamation for the article on crescent wrenches, it just ain’t gonna work. Stephen Sondheim once wrote that “work we do for others; art we do for ourselves.” Make it pretty, art directors, but make it realistic.

Granted, there are difficult editors who might ask for 12 designs of the same sidebar or make a font cursive. Editors can be unreasonable, demanding, and it’s not unusual to find an editor who simply has terrible taste. One editor-type I know loved graphics on the covers of his b-to-b, but not good graphics. We’re talking flow charts! Yuk! And the poor art director had to comply even though he knew it looked lousy. (And it did; I saw it!)

But like any good relationship, the one editors have with art directors should make life easier, not a daily battle of wills. If your art director is causing your hair to fall out or keeping you up at night, you can easily remedy the situation by showing him the door. Nobody is that artistically gifted.

On the other hand, you show me an art director with too much power and I’ll show you a weak, ineffectual editor who has no business being at the top of the masthead. Powerful art directors are intrinsically responsible for redesign after elaborate redesign that typically signals the last throes of a magazine’s existence.

However, like any marriage, the art director/editor union needs constant work. I find that one of equal respect—of talent as well as boundaries—has worked best for me. But then again, never underestimate the power of busting chops.

Tony, the art director I’ve worked with the longest, would always consider my ideas on, say, cover line font colors to complement a cover image. But I would always defer to him when it came time to pick appropriate art, mapping out the magazine, and pretty much everything else. We also had a mutually antagonizing working relationship—while I insisted on imitating him with a Marlon Brando impression, he would find the most flowery verbiage in one of my pieces, print it out in 40-point type, and hang it up in the art department as if it were a warning for me to not get too carried away.

It was a nice serving of humble pie, which is something all editors need now and then.

My next post will feature feedback from some art director types. This oughta be interesting ...

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