“Read the story before you lay out the page” . . .
And other things I learned from Lou Silverstein

THE great Lou Silverstein died December 1. He was the designer who changed The New York Times into a readable, handsome, modern newspaper that was still very much the Times.

Lou was a wonderful guy, with the manners of the old New York about him. Short, slightly rounded, bald, always with a cigar, he looked like the son of the Brooklyn grocer that he was. If I’ve ever seen an eye that twinkled, it was Lou’s.

Searching Twitter the day the obit ran in Lou’s newspaper, I found a great number of respectful tweets from contemporaries, boomers and even many gen-exers. One was titled, “A sad day.” Lou retired nearly 30 years ago, so you can excuse the millennials if they’re not clear on who exactly Lou Silverstein was, but no excuse for one moron who, referring to the obit, wondered how a newspaper of all things could be made “modern.” (I immediately blocked him.) Ignorance of events before your time is one thing, but this remark is solipsistic; it indicates a belief I’ve been hearing since about 1995 that the history of human culture prior to one’s birth no longer applies.

Whether or not you read a printed newspaper, the principles that Lou brought to bear on the Times will apply to the news media for a long time. I was lucky enough to learn them directly from him. Since I got a (probably) premature start as a chief art director at age 23, he was one of only three designers I’ve ever reported to. But you could not ask for a better employer. And I have to say he is the only boss who pushed me hard enough to change my own willful direction. Lou had a big impact on my life.

When I worked for him, he led a staff of 60 from a smoky suite of offices on the ninth floor of the Times building on 43rd Street, guarded by Loretta, a friendly terrier of a private secretary. The idea of a whole floor of art directors was something the newsroom never quite comprehended, when they thought about it all. Lou was waging a long war to bring visual content into the paper as part of its regular offering. It’s hard to believe that now, with the Times providing great graphics and photojournalism as a matter of course. The attitude of the newsroom then, he thought, was uncivilized. His goal was to bring civilization to The New York Times.

For the editors, if they ever left the third-floor newsroom (where each reporter shared a desk with the night guy) to visit him, his department, 60-strong, was a clue Lou enjoyed the confidence of Punch Sulzberger, the publisher. There was an office with a big desk, windows looking north, and a comfortable seating area, where he conducted one-on-one meetings. It connected to a book-lined work room with a long counter piled with newspapers and a drafting board, always with a new layout pinned to it. Next door was a private conference room for art department meetings. Al three rooms had doors leading to bullpen for assistants, run by the loyal, stubborn and tireless Bob Peletier.

The place was smoky from his cigars. Of course, he never smoked one before lunch, but he made up for it in the afternoon. (This picture of Lou always with a cigar, shows how long ago it was.) When I moved into his office in 1984, the company replaced all the brown-stained ceiling tiles and cleaned the light fixtures with solvent. Within a few months, I was smoking cigars, too.

On the other side of floor was the art department proper, centered around the retouching artists and mapmakers, all members of the Newspaper Guild. Along the 43rd Steet side was a row of art director’s offices, each with a window. He treated them like he liked be treated, giving them the space to think, draw, and get the paper out. It was not a collegial atmosphere, but he didn’t lean over their shoulders much, either. When I later suggested that they put their current layouts on their doors, they bridled. Each art director had his or her own section (or sometimes two) to design, and the freedom to deal directly with the section editors without interference until they blew it, and then Lou would have something to say, personally.

Lou’s first effort at civilization was to surround map artists and retouchers with designers. As the old-timers reached retirement age, he replaced them with the likes of J.C. Suares and Ruth Ansel.

His power base was Punch, who had promoted him to Corporate Art Director from the promotion department where he had come up with the iconic “I got my job through The New York Times” campaign for the classifieds. You tend to forget that in the 60s, when this campaign started, the Times was not the only good newspaper in town. There was the World-Telegram, the Journal-American, the News, the Post. And the Herald Tribune still had a big classified section, particularly for executive jobs.

A subway poster,

A subway poster designed by Lou in 1967 (found here). Note the crisp News Gothic in the headline—presumably set at Photolettering or another phototype shop that was already into the tight (but-not-touching) style that became the rage. The subject, RitaSue Siegel, became the most successful headhunter in the graphic arts profession. She helped me get my job at Rolling Stone eight years later

Slowly and carefully Silverstein built a graphic and typographic identity for the Times. Starting with the logo and then the editorial page and the new Op Ed page, Punch began to get him involved in the newspaper.The first areas Lou designed were not controlled by the newsroom, but by the publisher.

The editorial page (with obituaries, opposite) in 1958.

The new editorial page with the Op Ed page.

The Times editorial page before and after Lou. It’s hard to believe the before example (1958) is not much more than 50 years old. It looks like the 19th century. Yet, the the after (1978) could have been printed yesterday. (From Newspaper Design for the Times, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1990. It’s out of print, but used copies can be found at Amazon. Ignore the spurious thumbnail of the cover.)

Lou was developing the external visual brand for the Times, as well. The sharp Ed Benguiat redrawing of the logo (which has become the default blackletter style for traditional newspapers worldwide) was too horizontal some for other applications. Lou stacked it, aligning the glyphs—not making it flush left or right—and, then, surprisingly, tilted it for the news racks and the trucks.

A New York Times delivery truck, with the tilted logo.

The logo placed on delivery trucks by Lou. Photo by Trevor Little.

The corporate work was successful, and the Times began to shed its staid Gray Lady image. This made Punch happy. With the competition fading, Sulzberger wanted to reach New Yorkers who lived in the suburbs, and he decided to launch a regional section zoned for Long Island, Westchester, Connecticut and New Jersey. He suggested to Abe Rosenthal, managing editor, that he bring in Lou to do the design. Abe teamed him with his trusted sidekick Arthur Gelb. (As far as I know, only Abe called him “Artie.”)

At first the editors were leery of this alien intruder, sent by the owner, but the team bonded quickly. All were , all fundamental New Yorkers—Lou was a Pratt alumnus, the other two from City College. This threesome, with, Punch, transformed a great institution, the most important newspaper (now I guess you say news publication) in the English-speaking world. Abe became executive editor in 1977, and with Punch pushing and funding the efforts from the top, the great lady’s course was changed. In the 70s and 80s, new section after new section was introduced. The Sunday paper (under Gelb) came alive. Advertising revenue soared. This was the heyday of the Times.

“Put a caption under every picture.”

In 1983, after a year as art director of the Magazine, I became Senior Art Director at the Times, basically Lou’s assistant. One day he called me to come down to Abe’s office to help with something, and when I opened the door, I found Abe, Arthur and Lou all on the floor, sitting in a sea of Lou’s layouts, playing like kids. Others in the newsroom were terrified of them, and perhpas news executives in those days could get away with arbitrary, capricious and unpredictable behavior that today would be called abusive. But I loved them. (Well, maybe not Arthur who had a way of siting you down his nose.) And I’ve never worked with a smarter, funnier, wiser, more productive group.

If you can get a copy of Newspaper Design for the Times, you can see some of the results of this effort. There is a full history of key projects, like the Op Ed page, and new sections like Travel. (I still don’t understand why they abandoned his brilliant front page concept after 15 years.)  Sketches and hard-comp dummies are shown. Remarkably, the sketches, done on tracing paper printed with blue grid lines so they would drop out in the stat camera, are very tight. He could draw 96-point Bookman free-hand and get the character count right. Bob Peletier would just measure the size of the type indicated and set it up on a Harris terminal in the bullpen, carefully marking it with a box at the top, ART DEPARTMENT/FOR LAYOUT ONLY, or we couldn’t touch the proofs when they came out of the processor in the fourth-floor composing room

One day Bob was out, and I set the type for Lou and gave it to a freelancer who had come in to help. When she pasted up the page, I saw something was wrong and remonstrated with her. It wasn’t following the layout. I put Lou’s sketch on top of her paste-up and you could see where the spacing was off.

“What?!” she said. “These sketches are supposed to be taken literally?”

Yes. Lou was literal, and precise, and his fast sketch of Ludlow Bookman not only fit, it looked enough like Bookman that he didn’t have to spec the type. These iterative sketches and dummies incorporated the editors reactions and his own thinking. They all get better and better, more refined and more elegant. Watching him do it was a great education.

One of the best in the book is the Metro section (now gone). Here is an interim dummy:

Dummy for the Metro section.

A hard comp for the Metropolitan section in the New York edition, 1986. It’s a redesign of one of the original sections in the four-section daily. The headlines are real, but the text is dummy type.

The designs had enormous strength. And they’re all black-and-white. The layout is crisp and modular—no doglegs. But he did use bastard measures, like the three-over-four grid of the “Brooklyn Activist” story.The free-standing photo piece at the bottom, follows the shape of the pictures, not the columns. So it’s not on a strict grid. It’s not mid-century, but it’s the modern newspaper in its first, and most influential form. Because once you get The New York Times to do something, it’s like getting the U.S. Army to do something. It’s hard, slow work, but it has a lot of impact.

Lou’s typography started with a marvelous combination he selected from the fonts in the composing room: Ludlow Bookman, Cheltenham Bold Italic, and the archly thin Latin Elongated. The text was and is set in Intertype Imperial, which he specified at Punch’s behest, back in the 60s. To these he added Franklin Gothic, News Gothic and Lightline Gothic, the grand American serifs designed by Morris Fuller Benton at ATF. They had been the staple of his identity work. And at some point he decided he had to bring in Helvetica as an alternate to the Trade Gothic, and you can see it in the slogan on the truck.

Lou cropped photos down to the quick. All extraneous parts of an image were eliminated. Once, passing by my desk in his bullpen as I worked on a layout, he said, “I see you don’t know how to crop a photo.” Well, I thought that I did, and asked how I was supposed to do it.

“With our crappy printing, you have to crop ’em as tight as you can,” he said, holding his fingers over an 8 x 10 photo. “And then, crop another half inch off each side!”

“Ask yourself, ‘Where is the news on this page,’ before taking it down to the newsroom.”

The obituaries all mentioned the Op Ed page, and the use of allegorical illustrations rather than political cartoons, which the Times has never run. Those are wonderful designs, and widely imitated around the world, but the contribution I admire the most was in the area of information graphics. In the 1980, Time magazine adapted the London Sunday Times style of illustrated graphics by Nigel Holmes, and brought Nigel to the United States. USA Today, launched in 1982 copied the style, notably the front-page “Snapshot.”

Lou didn’t have the time to get massive drawings done on deadline, so he developed a collage style that he called, “Sides of beef.” They were a combination of photos, charts, and diagrams, explaining a big news story. He was always pushing for the narrative, for the story-telling that couldn’t be done in plain text.

The day Indira Ghandi was assassinated, I heard him asking, “What is it like in India nowadays? Most of us have conception of the country that is probably out-of-date.” So he ordered up a side of beef—not just to the art department, but to the pressroom. Lou had his own page budget, so that he could get visual content into the paper without it coming out the “news hole” which was always jealously protected by the desk editors who thought the highest form of journalism could be expressed in 120-inch “take-out.”

We rushed around getting the components together. Lou did one of his tight sketches. And by the first edition, the paper had a one-page visual backgrounder on India. It really helped add visual interest to a big breaking-news story.

Background page on India.

Lou’s graphic specials look great in the awards books, but they were all part of larger reports, with regular news page layouts.

* * *

Lou hired me in 1982 to art direct The New York Times Magazine. While that section has had reached visual heights since then, in the 80s the editorial part was still largely a monochrome affair, and the gravure printing was so coarse that there were no hairlines, including in the type. The previous art director, Ruth Ansell, had made great strides, but they were mostly confined to a 20-page feature well, and the fashion section, which was edited within in an inch of its life by the legendary Carrie Donovan. Nevertheless the magazine was fat with ads in those days, many for high fashion and luxury goods, and the impression was that of a lush color complement to the black-and-white newspaper.

The New York Times Magazine cover, 1983.

One of the covers I did while working on the Magazine.

The next year he asked me to come up to the art department to work as his assistant. I was happy to do that, since I enjoyed designing the layout logic of publications more than art directing in the trenches. And at the magazine I was trapped in a war between the editor and Abe, and I was ready to get out. Plus, getting a tour of duty in the newsroom sounded like an exciting challenge.

I thought it would be fun to work with Lou, and it was. And he had assembled a great group on the ninth floor, among them Tom Bodkin, Gary Cosimini, Bob Eisner, Steve Heller, Jerelle Kraus, Diana Laguardia, Margaret O’Connor and Richard Weigand.

It was a loyal group, like a family in a 1940s movie. The Times was an extended family in those days, at least for some of us, with some real personal connections despite all the stress and competition. This in part was because the Times was a family-owned company, and still is. (When I first got there, I mentioned on a personnel form that mother had worked at the paper in the 20s. Soon after my arrival one of the Ochs ladies, a cousin of Punch, came to see me with a copy of a staff photo of the business department in around 1923. My mother was in the picture, at the age 18. That kind of thing makes you like your employer.)

And it can be stronger than that. When Lou’s son was seriously hurt in a car accident, the Times was generally supportive. That makes a bond with an employe. And Lou passed his sense of loyalty on to his staff. When I got in trouble with alcohol and drugs, Lou could have fired me, but the Times got me to a rehab. That was 29 years ago, and I am grateful every day.

[This section amended after comments from Helen Silverstein.]

I didn’t understand when he moved me to the ninth floor that he was grooming me as a replacement. He had so much energy, the fact that he was 64 had no significance to me. But the Times had a mandatory retirement age, and very quickly I found myself installed as his replacement.

Lou had trained me well, and I had a good relationship with Abe, which was essential. Of course, I didn’t have the title. I wasn’t on the masthead, and I wasn’t the corporate art director. I didn’t have the friends in the newsroom or the friends at the top that Lou had. I had to earn all of that.  But pretty soon, I realized I wouldn’t have Abe Rosenthal either. He was hurrying toward his own mandatory retirement, and I began to realize that his replacement would be Max Frankel, a buddy of Punch’s, a longtime correspondent, and a powerful Washington a bureau chief, but not an editor and certainly not a visual editor. It would be long time before the Times art director had the camaraderie with the executive editor that Lou and Abe had, and I knew I woud have to start at the beginning again. And it took Lou 25 years.

Before then, I got an offer from Newsweek, and decided to take it. I was at the Times for nearly four years, three of them with Lou. And they were three of the best years of my life. I regret that I abandoned his trust in me to continue what he had started, but I was just not the right guy for the long haul. Tom Bodkin ultimately stepped in to do that, and the legacy was saved. And it’s been another 25 years.

Lou Silverstein was the greatest news designer in history. By moving the direction of The New York Times, he changed the role of design in the news. I was privileged to be there for some of it, and watch him do it.

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