November 20, 2011
My first ever visit to the previous offices of the New York Times on 43rd street began with a pigeon emptying its bowels on my head.
I was early for a portfolio review with Brian Rea, the then art director of the Op/Ed page, and rather than bum rush him first thing in the morning, I elected to hang out and wait until the time of our scheduled meeting had arrived just as a regular person might. I stood across the street flipping through the paper, filing away the minutes, when several gumball-sized globs of what looked like tainted vanilla yogurt dropped unceremoniously onto the newspaper I was reading and shortly thereafter, on to my head. It wasn’t yogurt. It was terribly upsetting.
Whether it’s interpreted as a sign of good fortune or not, a bird crapping on anyone’s head is inevitably going to give way to some fruitless ‘why me?’ fashioned navel gazing. I recall that portentous episode with the bird a fair amount whenever I try to pinpoint the precise moments when I began taking active steps towards doing the kind of design and illustration work that I’m fortunate to be doing now. I thought about it when I saw my first ever op/ed image printed in the Sunday paper. I think about it whenever I find myself burning the wick after hours on a book project. I definitely thought about it this past September when the current Sunday Review AD Aviva Michaelov called me not for another assignment, but to offer me the opportunity to become the newest art director of the Times’ Op/Ed page. And to be sure, that looming pigeon was on my mind when I accepted.
I’m only a few weeks into the gig as of this writing and there is still much to absorb. As is the terminal case with Op/Ed, my pace at the job started at a decent sprint and has since accelerated. As a consequence, a handful of similar sounding questions have popped up repeatedly without having a moment or three to give halfway decent answers. Below are all the questions and answers that I’ve done a lousy job of fielding in the past few weeks:
Q: Is Aviva leaving?
A: No. She’s doing the opposite. Going forward, Aviva’s art directing focus is the Sunday Review. My focus is the Op/Ed page with periodic dips into the Sunday Review. The talented Alexandra Zsigmond is the assistant art director for both sections. We all sit in a row divided by shallow walls and trade notes throughout the day. It’s like Three Amigos except at a newspaper.
Q: Can I email you my portfolio?
A: For heaven’s sake, yes. Please do. Anyone who’s interested and enthusiastic about contributing to the page shouldn’t keep it to themselves. Email can be directed here: Matthew.Dorfman@nytimes.com. I may not be able to send out a timely response, but I’m never not looking at work. Be persistent and reach out.
Q: Can I come by the office show you my portfolio in person?
A: Again, yes please. The days are crazy, but let’s set up a time. Email me & we’ll lock something down.
Q: Will you still be taking on freelance projects?
A: Yep, albeit selectively. As long as it’s not for a competing publication and/or requiring a concept-to-final execution in 48 hours or less.
Q: What did you do immediately after that pigeon crapped on your head?
A: I was, um, lucky. I used whatever stray napkins I had in my bag as well as the newspaper itself to scrape as much of the detritus out of my hair as possible. Afterwards, I rushed into the building and quietly begged a security guard to point me to the closest men’s room to clean off. He took substantial pity on me and never once snickered.
In doing a casual 360 around my desk every day and getting to know my editors throughout my initiation, I can safely claim that the tales I’d been told for years about the job’s intensity, fast turnaround, quick thinking and swift pace are wholly intact. Events happen, stories shift and messages get tweaked throughout the day and regardless of the news’ inherent chaos, there needs to be art on the page at the end of every day that remains thoughtful and compelling and coherent no matter what. Fortunately for me, in the short time that I’ve been on the flip side of the desk, I’ve already been the beneficiary of some fairly stunning pieces of art that people have generously accepted to do in the Times’ notoriously short window of time. Here’s a quick sampling below.
Having zero expectations on my first day, I was handed piece about consumer spending versus private investment. I called Tim Goodman on a hope and a prayer that he’d be available. He was and subsequently, he nailed it:
Later that week, I was given a piece by Richard Thompson Ford about how the current application of civil rights law is actually undermining equality. First-time op/ed contributor Joe Spix turned in a beautifully succinct piece of art:
The following week, we were running a perspective on the Ukraine by surrealist author Andrey Kurkov. I’m still not sure how it happened, but Carson Ellis was actually available and she delivered beautifully:
Fulfilling a long standing order for us both, Oliver Munday provided art to accompany a call to end bonuses attached to banks which had been bailed out, as well as a perfect opportunity to attack the page layout to truly drive the idea home:
Another excellent designer new to the page, Alex Merto turned in this illustration about the racial tensions simmering amidst the riots of Occupy Oakland:
Below, Mark Pernice turned in this beauty of a piece accompanying a written warning that Silvio Berlusconi’s vestige will linger in Italian politics long after he’s resigned and gone.
Another first timer to the page, John J. Custer gave us his take on campaign finance reform and to what degree the fate of the presidency is up for sale.
Up until a few weeks ago, getting a call to work on a Times Op/Ed illustration was simultaneously the most exciting and harrowing invitation I could receive in the course of a given week. It’s a jarring thing to receive a call from an art director asking you to drop whatever you’re doing in order to deliver a finished piece of art (which you haven’t yet begun) to a major newspaper before the end of the day. I’m mindful of this every time I’ve called someone on the phone in the past four weeks. Arriving at solutions with the speed required for op/ed contributors is a fundamentally challenging thing. However, the experience and practice that it yields is invaluable for any kind of visual storyteller. By embracing the boundaries of the assignment, you can likely surprise yourself by thinking, refining and executing ideas with more focus, liveliness and venom which can sometimes escape when working with a more generous lead time.
Speaking for myself, working on these assignments over the years has had a substantial hand in informing my own process of generating, editing and executing ideas. Of particular significance, I notice that when I’m approached for a project these days, my heart no longer explodes into a full-tilt sprint whenever I answer the phone, which is good. For any interested students, recent grads or working artists interested in contributing to the page who haven’t yet done so, I would encourage you to get in touch. The Op/Ed page traffics in of-the-moment ideas and opinions daily, and if as an illustrator, designer or visual storyteller of any kind, you have a compulsion to create work which contributes dialogue and relevance to the here and the now, we should probably talk.