IN CONVERSATION WITH: Ben Grandgenett
Ben Grandgenett is deputy art director at The New York Times Magazine, where he’s worked since graduating from The School of Visual Arts. Born and raised in Nebraska, now living in Brooklyn, he recently released his first purely artistic collection of graphic prints with Hen’s Teeth. Rosie Gogan-Keogh caught up with him to chat about his day-to-day work bringing to life features on topics as wide ranging as “The Future of Driving” to Osama Bin Laden, what design lessons he imparts on his students and how he’s explored the process of creating prints for people’s walls.
HT: From an outsider's perspective, it seems like you've had a very clear career path from the start. Has it always seemed that way to you or did you always have a vision of what you wanted?
Ben: I found out about the New York Times Magazine through a college assignment. I didn't grow up with it so it wasn't familiar until then. I was really inspired by not only the design and the way that type was used in the magazine, but also the art direction, the incredible photography, and of course the journalism. I did a range of internships during college working on book jacket design at a large publisher, identity and packaging design at a small studio and a few others. At the time I was open to all different industries for design and was most interested in being able to work with ideas. When I found the magazine it sort of set a path in my mind of where I wanted to be.
I was fortunate to get an internship and I've been working there since. In many ways, it was a very linear, fortunate path that I've had, which is probably rare in this industry. It's been six years now and I still love it. The pace and the ability to create and collaborate from week to week with such a talented team at a company committed to doing interesting and challenging work has been such a pleasure.
HT: When you were you were growing up, what your first experience or your first understanding of what good design was?
Ben: I’m not entirely sure. It was probably album covers and movie posters. I loved discovering how great art or illustration could create a package and make you feel something about the thing you're looking at. One that I vividly remember is Kanye West's Graduation album with the Takashi Murakami illustration. I'm sure I saw many before that left an impression, but that for some reason that's the one that sticks out I think because it was one of the first where I got some understanding into the collaboration behind it. It came with a little poster too.
HT: Going to art school in New York, is a dream that many people would have. Can you tell me a bit more about that experience?
Ben: The adjust professors at SVA are some of the most well-respected practicing designers in the field. That provided such a great opportunity and privilege to learn directly from them.
As a result, even as a student, I felt more connected to the community of design.
At SVA, there was also a lot of talent among the students in my class. Everybody's trying to make something interesting and that drive also pushed me. And I think we are all pushing each other to do better.
HT: Now working at The New York Times Magazine, the subject matter that you work on day-to-day varies greatly. It could be a feature on "The Future of Driving" or it could be the hunt for Osama bin Laden. How as a designer do you approach each topic and make sure you represent it accurately?
Ben: To me the range of content we work on is one of my favourite aspects of working at The New York Times. We deal with incredibly important stories from all over the world, which often requires the design to step back and have more reverence for the subject. Which is an interesting challenge to have.
But then also you can work on something like a profile on a musician where you can be more playful and adopt a different tone of voice. At the same time it's still operating within the voice of the magazine itself. The words for me are always the thing that the guiding line of which voice and which type of tone to inhabit. It is always important for me to look at and work closely with the content or subject matter I am designing for.
HT: We live in an era when like journalism and journalists are increasingly under attack in various ways, how do you sort of respond to that to the work that you do?
Ben: I think by trying to give the best presentation and experience I can to the reader.
HT: Another part of your job as an art director is commissioning lots of illustrators. I have seen you work with Bráulio Amado who we held an exhibition with last year. How do you discover new talent to keep your batch of illustrators fresh?
Ben: I'm constantly on the search for new talented people. How I find contributors has changed throughout the years. In the past, it was through looking at all the design blogs and various publications, but lately it's also been connecting through Instagram. By finding one person, it will suggest other people. Ultimately, I'm always on the lookout and taking note of great work I see. I have a massive Pinterest board of illustrators and artists that I refer back. Being able to collaborate with some of the best visual artists in the world is a thrill and is such a privilege. It’s a lot of fun.
HT: How else has your role evolved over the past six years?
Ben: Quite a lot. I started as an intern and then was offered a job as a junior designer where I was designing front of book pages and working on various charts or sidebars as needed, as well as doing some administrative work for the department. Eventually, I started to take on feature designs. A couple of months in, I got promoted to an open designer role. One of the great things about the way the art department works at The New York Times Magazine is that each designer within the department can take a good amount of ownership over a project. So often they can be doing the same work that an art director role might be doing in terms of designing feature stories and creating the look and feel for special issues. That provided me with a lot of opportunities to be hands-on in the process and develop my voice and craft. In 2017, I was promoted to deputy art director of the magazine. That role brought a bit more responsibility such as overseeing the front of book illustrations that our designers are commissioning each week. Since January I’ve been working in the art director position of the magazine so the evolution of my time and role here continues. Ultimately all of this work is overseen by our incredible design director, Gail Bichler who is so great to work with and has been instrumental in my growth through the years.
HT: Do you have a favourite cover that you've designed or a favourite feature that really sticks out?
Ben: That's a tough one! I think it's probably the New York issue that I worked on this last year. The theme was performance in the city and I responded by looking at old flyers as a reference, as well as concert posters or marquees, those things. The font is actually one that I had designed based on subway signage from before the M.T.A. developed a more standardized identity system. I had made the font a couple of years before for a magazine feature, so it was great to finally be able to use it in a larger way throughout an entire issue.
HT: Now that you teach too, is there a first lesson or nugget of wisdom that you like to give your students on day one?
Ben: I co-teach with the designer and illustrator Pablo Delcan. The thing we're always trying to teach is experimentation and not having a preconceived idea of what the final thing is going to be, because I think that can be very creatively limiting. If you don't have that initial assumption, then it allows you to go to unexpected places.
HT: Creating individual artworks differs to your day to day job in magazine design and layout. And how have you approached this series of prints that you're releasing with Hen’s Teeth?
Ben: It's something I've been thinking about a lot, because I work with a brief for design all the time and it was really a challenge to figure out what I want to say. I ended up working with what I know, which is being a graphic designer trying to make something graphic and playful.
There's the challenge of having to think about what personal work I would want to put out was something I had been sort of contemplated a bit, and still continue to do. I’m grateful to have this brief to get that creative thought process going. I really wanted something that would be accessible. For me, I wanted to make sure whatever I make I'd hang it on my own wall.
Shop Ben Grandgenett’s collection of prints here